It’s been reclaimed by the youth and they are taking it in completely new directions. And what better time to start than in the winter, when you can make lots of warm things to wear and even Christmas gifts?!
Not much is known for sure about the origins of knitting. It is thought to have started in Egypt around the first century CE, and then to have been brought by the Arabs to Spain in the eighth century. From there it made its way to the rest of Europe and arrived in America along with European colonisation. It has made appearances in artwork from as early as the fourteenth century, for example in Our Lady Knitting (circa 1325-75), a painting in which Mary is depicted as a regular knitting expert by Italian artist Tommaso da Modena. Other cultural references to knitting include Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, in which the skilful Anna Makarovna knits two socks at the same time.
In the pre-Industrial age, knitting was more than just a hobby – it was an essential undertaking for producing clothes, and also served as a means of income, as people were able to sell their knitted goods. It became a patriotic duty during the two world wars, which saw an industrious home front produce essential pieces of kit for its boys at war. During the 1950s and 60s it enjoyed the limelight in haute couture, as exciting new colours and textures of yarn were produced. However, as is often the case, its popularity saw something of a decline with the arrival of technology. Improvements in knitting machines meant that handknitting was no longer a worthwhile activity – it was faster and cheaper to buy machine-made knitwear. Yarn sales slumped as knitting started to acquire its reputation as ‘old-fashioned’. It was around this time that knitting stopped being taught in schools and became all but lost to at least a couple of generations.
The turn of the century, however, saw something of a revival in knitting, with sales of yarn and patterns increasing astronomically. Suddenly, everyone was rushing to pick up their needles including big celebrities like Madonna, Russell Crowe and Scarlett Johansson, and knitting was cool again. But what had led to this dramatic change? In a 2004 survey conducted for the Craft Yarn Council of America (CYCA), the number of knitters aged under 35 had increased by 150% from 2002, and those under 18 by 100%. While older generations were continuing to knit as they had in previous decades, new knitters were joining the scene and they were young. What could have spurred them on?
In the technological age, perhaps it’s nostalgia for simpler times. Machines do everything for us and when they break, we’re at a loss as to what to do. Knitting allows us to reclaim a skill, one that is basic – to be able to clothe ourselves – so we can feel a little less useless. Modern life is all about speed – fast travel, fast information, fast food. Well, when it all gets too much, people are turning back to pre-technological pursuits like knitting, which is the exact opposite of fast.
The Slow Movement, for example, recognises how hectic life becomes the faster we make it, and seeks to tackle the disorientation this causes by going back to the basics, such as growing your own food and buying locally.
Knitting, which has been described as the “new yoga”, is ideal for calming the over stimulated mind. It’s also a very appealing idea for people who are attempting a more ethical lifestyle that rejects mass production on a global scale. Knitting, which produces unique, one-off items, is the perfect antidote to this. People are moving away from the uniformity of mass-produced goods and knitting works well as a statement of individuality and of one’s ethical stance.
Richard Brown, chairman of the CYCA cites the “social aspect” of knitting as a major factor behind the knitting renaissance. You may be tempted to picture the knitter as a lone, elderly, female figure, whiling away her evenings knitting a blanket in a rocking chair in front of the TV, but nothing could be further from the reality. Today’s knitting takes place in large groups commonly referred to as a ‘stitch ‘n’ bitch’, or SnB, and features a range of ages. Knitting can be more enjoyable to do with company. SnBs also act as great source of inspiration, where participants can swap their ideas and information. They are places where people can pass on and pick up the skill, leading to its growth.
The knitting community extends online, despite its retro reputation. There is even a purpose-built crafting social network site called Ravelry (ravelry.com), which is a knitter’s paradise. There, among the many options available, they can post pictures of their projects, search for patterns and post their queries and comments on its forums. There are also many other virtual resources for knitting, such as knittinghelp.com, a site that teaches knitting using videos; podcasts and blogs; retailers’ websites selling yarn, equipment and patterns; and a wealth of free patterns from other sources; not to mention sites like etsy.com, which allow you to sell the fruits of your labour. All this has made knitting much more accessible, creating new knitters and progressing the older ones. The old school resources have also improved, allowing knitting to flourish once more. Many new books have been published to teach knitting, with editor-in-chief of feminist magazine BUST Debbie Stoller’s series of knitting books among the most popular.
The non-knitter may suspect a self-satisfied look of smugness on the face of the knitter, shamelessly crafting on the bus in full view – and they are right. Us knitters know what’s good for us. Knitting has been credited for overcoming addictions such as smoking, overeating, and in the case of lead guitarist from rock band The Breeders, Kelley Deal, heroin addiction. The simplicity and repetitiveness of knitting is irresistible, an addiction in itself, but one that won’t do any harm. In the case of overeating and smoking, knitting keeps your hands and mind off the food or cigarettes. It helps with fidgeting too. Instead of impatiently tapping your pen in the lecture hall or doodling, try knitting so that your mind can focus on listening. Stressing out about wasting time in a long queue or on your daily commute? With knitting you have something to show for your time. In the case of Deal, she published a book of all the designs she knitted while on the tour bus or waiting around in recording studios entitled Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road With Kelley Deal. We also know that all the patterning, problem solving, and motor skills involved in knitting trains the brain, reducing memory loss and stress.
So knitting’s come back but it’s just the same old thing, isn’t it? You’d be wrong to think that. For one thing, there’s a whole wealth of new materials to use. Exotic yarns made from materials such as milk, bamboo and soybean are all available to knit with. In fact you can knit with anything that can be made string-like. Crocheted jewellery from metal is very common. Vinyl yarn, fibreglass, recycled saris, and a whole range of organic yarns are also used for knitting.
It’s not just scarves and cardigans anymore either. In her book Knitorama, Rachael Matthews, a major figure on the UK knitting scene, has put together “25 great and glam things to knit” that include cakes, lingerie and turkey frills. Coral Charles-Dunne, a pensioner from the UK, knits breasts to help teach mothers how to breastfeed. And for the scientific knitter, there are many other anatomical knitting patterns available including vaginas, brains and dissected frogs.
But an activity that beautifully marries a traditionally youthful activity with knitting has to be ‘yarn bombing’. Put simply, ‘Yarn bombing’ is knitted graffiti. In our built-up concrete cities, urban artists are compelled to prettify their surroundings with artwork, using walls for their canvasses. The same principle is at play in yarn bombing, but instead of paint, they use yarn and needles or hooks. You might spot a knitted graf tag, a door handle with a cosy on it, or maybe an entire tree wearing a jumper. Some of the most prominent yarn bombers – though not all accept this term for their work – are Olek whose work includes a striking tribute to another urban artist, Banksy and his Balloon Girl, as well as a crocheted charging bull; Magda Sayeg of the group Knitta Please; and the Knit the City collective.
As you can see, this is not the knitting of yesteryear. It’s an exciting opportunity for creativity, socialising and a healthier lifestyle. It can be crazy, fun or political – it can be anything you want it to be. And it’s no longer just nana’s, it’s yours now too.