I grew up in a political household. Not political in the sense that I belong to a political dynasty like the Benns or the Foots, but political in the sense that we listened to the Today program at breakfast and watched the Six O’Clock News after tea, read The Observer on Sundays and talked Issues betweentimes. General Elections were treated as a sort of feast day in our home, with normal bedtimes rescinded for the evening, and shopping trips involved hunting around for the right kind of apple. One of the commonplaces of our family discourse was the statement, “everything is political”.
I and my sister were raised in the belief that every opinion held and action taken manifests a political statement – even if the statement is of apathy or ignorance, no-one can evade their relationship to political debate. You may object to the system, but you cannot remove yourself from it. Mamacate’s latest post has set me thinking, though, and I have started to wonder whether I’ve allowed the doctrine of “everything is political” to stand in the place of actual politics. I still read a lot of political journalism in the form of daily papers and fortnightly reviews, but, like Mamacate, I leave the Serious Stuff alone when I blog.
For me, knitting is tinged with politics. Among my reasons for originally wanting to knit was an urge to learn more about the things I use and have more control over the production process (brilliantly, I hadn’t even thought about the production of the yarn, but I’ll get there eventually, especially with Caroline to lead me). However, for most people, knitting is associated not with consumer politics but with gender politics. When my grandmother was at school, the girls had compulsory knitting and sewing classes while the boys learned woodwork: her education was intended to turn out a competent, hardworking housewife (it succeeded, too) while my grandfather was trained to be a good workman, and knitting stills bears the stigma of this streaming to stereotype.
It’s a more various craft than that, of course: think of the gutter girls in their beautiful ganseys memorialized by Elizabeth Lovick in the Winter ’06 issue of IK, or Ysolda Teague’s grandfather, who learned to knit while recovering from injuries sustained as a WWII fighter pilot. A friend of mine was in the merchant navy with an old seaman who produced extraordinary cabled jumpers. Nevertheless, as Laura Hopwood’s article on “The History Knitting” in the first issue of Yarn Forward shows, the default perception of knitting is as a feminine, domestic pastime. The text of the article includes just one reference to men knitting, and that is couched in disbelief and facetiousness: “Apparently, men were the first to knit for a living – I don’t know how many do so today!”
As a teenager, I resented textiles class. I had no intention of being domestic. I was interested in ideas, in debate, and I was ambitious too; competing in the girls-only arena of fibre crafts had no appeal when I could be trouncing everyone in arguments about Lord of the Flies. My avoidance of what I saw as traditional female activities was a political position informed by a form of feminism which emphasized likeness between men and women, and wanted to break with an oppressive past.
But breaking with the past means losing our understanding of the people of the past, to some extent: scorning women’s endeavors skims dangerously close to scorning women. Better, I think, is the feminism practised by Barbara Walker, whose interest in knitting formed part of a wide ranging-interest in women’s culture. Nevertheless, this approach runs the risk of perpetrating the exact same error committed by my grandmother’s (not-at-all feminist) schooling, and tying women to a limited role in the world.
I haven’t read Walker’s work so I don’t have an opinion as to whether that is a problem in her thinking, but it did occur to me apropos an exchange in the comments of a recent post. Lilknitter wondered if knitting in public might be similar to the “baby bump phenomenon”, in the way that it seems to override the usual barriers to social interaction with strangers: it’s a lovely and apposite idea, and one that is intelligently extended by Honeybee33 after her. But it’s an association with troubling potential, as Gillian Beer points out (Beer is writing about feminist literary critics making use of the same imagery linking artistic production and procreation):
Childbearing distinguishes women from men but need not define woman. The metaphors of womb and milk that Kristeva and Cixous employ , though full of comfort and recognition, risk being read as biological determinism. They may function to fix the idea of woman writing [or by extension, creating anything] as essentially reproductive. So, while respecting difference, we should be wary of the imprimatur of our generative organs as a sufficient description of creativity.Gillian Beer, George Eliot (Key Women Writers Series)
For me, Beer’s comment captures exactly the balance that should be strived for: as women, we should be respectful of our physiology, but wary of allowing it supremacy.
My knitting has become, in part, a way of showing respect to the women who didn’t have the same choices as I do, because their physiology was deemed supreme. Through my knitting, I have learned sympathy and admiration for the hard work my grandmother had to put into caring for her family. Knitting is a leisure activity for me, not a necessity. Choosing to spend my free time knitting is a tacit statement that I look on her life as one of worthwhile enterprise, and not as the dissipation of potential which my teenage self considered domesticity to be. And seeing knitting as a feminist activity does not, of course, make it a necessarily feminine activity: I’m teaching my son to knit, and hope that over time he will acquire some of the same understanding with it.
So in this way, I consider my knitting to be a political gesture. But it has to be admitted, it’s not a gesture easily interpretable to the external observer. There are knitters who turn their craft to direct political ends, but I don’t think my production of shapely cardigans makes any comparable statement. Just acting on good principles is not enough. I should be able, at least occasionally, to say what those principles are and hold them up to scrutiny.