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"It's Not a Hobby, It's a Post-apocalyptic Skill": Space, Feminism, Queer, and Sticks and String

Although knitting has a tame reputation, it can be political. Yarnbombing gives political activists another medium through which to express themselves.

by Emma Sheppard

Yarnbombing, also known as yarnstorming or knit graffiti, has a fairly simple premise—knitters and crocheters, working anonymously or under pseudonyms, create pieces of “knitted graffiti” that are then placed in the public urban landscape, “tagging” the space in the same fashion as more traditional spray-can graffiti. Yarnbombing is often seen as a combination of art performance, activism and craft—leading to the term coined by Betsey Greer, craftivism—but the message conveyed can vary wildly from act to act.

Some yarnbombing acts can be state-sanctioned, as in 2006’s “Lion Warming” by Stitch London, in which knitted squares were combined into a scarf, which was then draped around one of the lions in Trafalgar Square in London fundraising for Cancer Research UK.Other acts of craftivism involving yarnbombing are not state-sanctioned, but performed by artists, such as the covering of the Wall Street Bull in New York by the artist Olek at the end of 2010 with a crochet “cosy”.

Whether or not the yarnbombing is officially sanctioned, most everyday yarnbombing tends to take two forms—one is the placing of knitted clothing in public space, intended as both an aesthetic statement, and as a way of donating clothing to those who need it. The other is just as striking, but simpler in form – the covering of everyday objects in the urban landscapes, such as lampposts, bollards, handles on public transport and so on, with knitted “cosies” and other decoration. This is again an aesthetic comment—the cosies are usually brightly-coloured and decorative—as well as an act of reclamation in the same way that “tagging” by graffiti artists is an act of claiming a part of a landscape.

Knitting as a feminist act?
“Largely utilitarian in nature, the domestic arts of girls and women have long been disparaged as ‘handicrafts’, products of manual household chores that allegedly do not require much intellect, reflection, or creativity to produce, and thus do not hold the same cultural status as the nonutilitarian artistic objects created by wealthy [and/or male] individuals” (Mary Celeste Kearny, 2006, Girls Make Media, p.25)

Women and men have been using assorted combinations of sticks and string to make clothing for many thousands of years (see “History 101” from the online magazine Knitty, for a more thorough summary discussion of the history of knitting), but most agree that knitting as we know it today was only seen in Europe from the 14th century AD; it was only with the industrial revolution that hand knitting began to be seen as the domain of women—and therefore knitting, along with embroidery, became “seen not as art, but entirely as the expression of femininity… crucially, it is categorised as craft. The division of art forms into a hierarchical classification of arts and crafts is usually ascribed to factors of class within the economic and social system, separating artist from artisan…. However, there is an important connection between the hierarchy of the arts and the sexual categories male/female. The development of an ideology of femininity coincided historically with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft” (Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, 2nd ed., p.5). Knitting was a domestic handicraft rather than an art, practiced to create needed items of clothing and blankets, to be sold or used – and, if practiced by middle and upper class women, as a sign of femininity and chastity.

Although men have knitted over the centuries, the enduring association of knitting is with women; the male knitters are a distinct minority—and as such knitting can be viewed as a highly gendered activity. Knitting became less and less of a necessity as cheap mass-production of clothing grew, and became more and more of a hobby, rather than a skilled creative process requiring dedicated teaching, further devaluing knitting and knitters—and pushing it further into the realm of women and the private domestic sphere.

Knitting as a hobby has, however, undergone a recent boost in popularity; The Craft Yarn Council of America saw, in a 2004 survey, a massive increase in the number of women in their 20s and 30s taking up knitting and/or crocheting – but they only sought to survey the attitudes of women towards knitting, effectively ignoring the minority of male knitters altogether.

Among some craftivist communities, particularly those led by women in their twenties, there appears to be a tendency to see 1970s feminists as having entirely rejected knitting (along with other “domestic crafts”)—resulting from a view that feminine values and behaviour were “a major cause of women’s oppression… second-wave feminism, and the identity ‘feminist’, was predicated on a rejection of femininity” (Joanne Hollows, 2000, Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture, p.2).

This rejection of the feminine was related to the ideas put forward by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, that the ideals of femininity in 1950s America was problematic; the repetitive and dull nature of housework led to depression and mental breakdown. However, Friedan and her contemporaries have been critiqued as privileging masculinity over femininity, and of not acknowledging the multiplicity of feminine identities – and that “the sense of despair that the feminine mystique was meant to have produced… may mainly have been experienced by women isolated in white middle-class suburbia” (ibid.).

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (a relatively influential knitter and writer) sees knitting as a feminist reward, rather than privilege—a reward for the efforts of second-wave feminists in breaking down traditional gender roles and opening up the middle-class workplace to women. This assumption is strongly linked to the privileges of race and class; the rewards of 1970s feminism are most strongly experienced by white middle-class women – those who have been able to afford a university education, or to make the choice to not work while they raise children—the women who are in a position to explore their options with a lesser degree of risk than those whose options are limited to begin with.

The position of Greer, and also of Debbie Stoller—founder of BUST magazine and the writer of the Stitch and Bitch series of knitting books, widely credited with the resurgence of knitting among young women—comes from one of privilege; privileging production over consumption in much the same way that folk feminism does—as a form of populist nostalgia, an idyll where “things were better” somehow, and life was simpler, in turn linked to a sense of identity and a value of “worth” that handmade is somehow better than going to the supermarket, high street or shopping mall and buying a jumper, or a jar of jam, or whatever item is in question. This value is highly class-laden; in most western countries, it is now quicker, and cheaper, to go to the high-street and buy a new jumper than it is to spend large amounts of both time and money on a handmade one – and this necessitates those engaging in knitting to have both the disposable income and free time to knit; middle-class women are much more likely to have a greater access to those requirements.

Stoller’s position, in particular, has its roots in Riot Grrrl and nineties feminism. Riot Grrrl sought to increase the confidence of young women, to provide a supportive grrrl-centred space and community, to be counter-hegemonic as well as counter-capitalist, and to reject patriarchal constructions and stereotypes of femininity – while placing grrrlhood, womanhood and femininity on the terms of those performing it, to place representation firmly in the hands of the self – to undo the “girls’ traditional feminine socialization [that] has included learning how not to be men, that is, to take up less space, to be ‘seen and not heard’” (Kearny, 2006, p.8).

Later Riot Grrrl saw a rise of a “new femininity”, of idealised girlhood and pre-adolescent innocence—almost a fetishizing of the 1950s suburban idyll that their foremothers so strongly rejected. Some zines from this time privileged the handcrafted aesthetic, investing the innocence of girlhood and the handmade aesthetic “as a site of new forms of feminist identity and agency” (ibid. p.173). In combining 1950s ideals of femininity with the well-established DIY culture of earlier Riot Grrrl, embracing domestic crafts—such as knitting—once again became an act of empowerment; this discursive position has much in common with some of the positions of Queer Theory. Knitting could be seen as much a gender performance as choosing a dress and lipstick over jeans and boots; in separating gender into performances, traditional stereotypes of femininity are a possible and valid choice in gender performativity.

Knitting can also be queered in the how and where it is performed—and who it is performed by; masculine cis-man knitting is as transgressive as a drag king; knitting in public queers that public space by introducing a private hobby into it. Yarnbombing becomes queer in taking the domestic into the public; using a traditionally feminine craft to queer previously masculine space, and reclaim it as the space of the feminine and a space of feminine gender performance.

Although Rosika Parker is discussing embroidery, her words and observations can also be turned to knitting and crochet; she describes the link between embroidery (and hence other feminine domestic crafts) and femininity as something to be embraced in the fight for equality;

“Nineteen-seventies feminists categorically did not wish to exchange the fry pan of the feminine stereotype for the fire of the masculine stereotype. Embroidering the personal as political was, above all, intended to challenge the subordination and oppression of women… Second wave feminists wanted an end to the inhibition and shame that limited women’s lives—exemplified by the bowed head of the embroiderer. [They] wanted women to be free to express a broad spectrum of affects and ways of being without the fear of being shamed… Nineteen-seventies feminists wanted women artists and women’s traditional media to receive the recognition they richly deserved” (pp.xiv-xv).

The collectivity and/or anonymity practiced by yarnbombers is also reminiscent of second wave feminist action; there is no single leader, the anonymity allows them an ability to speak for all – but particularly for women. The spirit of anarchy, counter-hegemony and counter-authority in yarnbombing is both feminist and queer; it subverts both hegemonic spaces and authority that regulates the appearance of space and what is approved to appear in that space—by filling space with colour, difference, and “domestic” work.

Yarnbombing, through blurring the personal/political and public/private, is reminiscent of Folk feminism—where “‘authentic’ feminine cultural forms and practices are privileged over commercially produced popular culture and an attempt is made to unearth a women’s cultural tradition which has been hidden, marginalised or trivialised by a masculine cultural tradition and/or an inauthentic women’s culture” (Hollows, 2000, p.29). While some yarnbombing collectives involve men, the majority of yarnbombers are women—yarnbombing does not attempt to alter the association of knitting with women, to de-gender knitting; it is not queer in that respect—the men involved tend to make a big deal of their masculinity, this implies that knitting (and hence yarnbombing) is still associated, in the minds of yarnbombers themselves, as a feminine and female activity.

Emma Sheppardis pursuing an MSc in Gender, Sexuality & Society at Birkbeck, University of London.

"ThankYouTree" courtesy of Wikipedia. "Knit-Prrl" © Tamara Watkins 2012