Some rambling thoughts on knitting, feminism, & class

This is something a bit different from usual, but it’s stuff I’ve been thinking about more and more as I investigate the world of knitting and food blogging, and try to determine what it means to be a feminist who wants to blog about cooking and knitting.1

The Perceived Problem: Knitting is considered to women’s work, thus the current resurgence of knitting as a popular pastime needs to be subjected to a feminist analysis.

I have no problems with people wanting a feminist analysis of knitting. I want one. But I do think there are other assumptions that need to addressed as well as gender.

1. Viewing knitting as women’s work is a relatively new and definitely a classist assumption.

Working class men would often knit while doing work which required long periods of waiting around like fishing or shepherding, just as working class women often did labour intensive work, which later became regarded as men’s work. In medieval Europe there were knitters guilds, which originally only accepted men as members.2

In Knitting with Balls3, Michael del Vecchio starts off pretty well in his attempt to get men to see knitting as something they can do:

Before I launch into the contributions that men have made to the world of knitting, it should be noted that the roots and development of the craft are vague and diverse… People knit because they were poor (and cold), and the politics of gender had little to do with it.

So far so good. I’m pretty much in total agreement here. People knit because they needed things to wear, because it’s easier to make needles than it is to build a loom, and because it’s something you can do while watching the herds/pot/children etc. Knitting can also be done with minimal light, once one is sufficiently adept, so it could be done while tending a fire in the evening, for example. Tasks, which like knitting, tend to be associated with grandmothers.

2. Assumption: Knitting is merely a pastime, i.e. something done primarily for pleasure, which has the added bonus of producing something useful.

Okay, this is pretty much the case now, but it needs to examined in order to see how this state came about, and to do that we need to look at the industrial revolution, and how that changed the way we approach textiles and clothing.

Just as the loom meant that instead of people doing piecework, whole factories were dedicated to producing large pieces of fabric which could be cut up and sewn in all sorts of ways, the introduction of knitting machines meant that knitted fabrics could be produced en masse. Knitting machines can produce tricky time consuming stitch patterns quickly and evenly, they can also, if programmed to do so, knit pieces in the right shapes for, e.g. a sleeve. Now, with overlocking sewing machines, it is easy to cut and sew knitted fabric together without fear that it will ladder and unravel.

Now, not all of these technical developments happened at once, and they also happened alongside of social and economic changes. In short, it’s the move from a largely rural, agrarian based society to a largely urban, industrial (and post-industrial) society. As I’ve mentioned, in the past knitting was something that could be done while doing other tasks which took time, but which left the hands free. During the industrial revolution, working people (men and women) were more likely to go to a place of employment, do labour intensive work, and use their pay to buy affordable ready made items. The work most people do these days might not require so much physical labour, or as many hours in the workplace, but it still requires us to pay attention and be productive, which doesn’t allow for hands on activities like knitting.

All this meant that knitting, just like weaving, was no longer something that one did out of sheer necessity, but rather something that can be done for it’s own sake. There’s a choice between buying a pair of socks, and knitting them yourself. Although the ability to make that choice depends on income and leisure time.

Of course, if perhaps ones income didn’t stretch to clothing the whole family, then knitting with cheap yarns might provide a fall back option, but it tended to be in rural communities where the main industries were farming and fishing that people continued to knit for necessity.

3. Assumption: Knitting belongs to the domestic sphere, and is women’s work.

Back to Vecchio, who gives some pretty neat examples of times when men knit

During the two World Wars men knit both at war and while recovering in hospital. Male surgeons began knitting in the 20th Century because the handiwork helped keep their fingers from getting stiff. and out west – even today – it’s not uncommon to find men knitting socks while tending their cattle.

Now, Vecchio has an agenda which is to get more men knitting. Which is fine by me, but that’s not my agenda.3 I want to propose a hypothesis about why knitting is regarded as womens work, when there are all these good examples of men knitting through the ages. They are also good examples of knitting taking place outside the domestic sphere.

So far, I’ve looked at why people knit out of necessary, and why that necessity no longer exists for most of us.4 In doing so, I’ve focused on working class men and women, who tend to have had similar working conditions, even if some of that employment had gendered roles. But I’ve neglected to look at the middle and upper classes, which is where knitting as a gendered activity really seems to come into play, because it’s these classes who can traditionally afford to have family members who don’t need to work to earn their keep, and it’s here that the split between men/public/work and women/private/home really comes into play.

I hope that this is familiar enough territory that I don’t have to break it done into detail. Let me just say that if social status is conferred by ones ability to support ones family, then those who are supported cannot be seen to be doing anything which counts as work. Now, in the mid 1800s, say, if you had the means to support your family such that no women or children had to work, then it was quite likely that you also had the means to hire servants to take care of the more menial and physical domestic tasks like cleaning.

Thus, those things that women do in the home must then be regarded as useful, but ultimately trivial tasks to pass the time. Add to this restrictions on the behaviours appropriate to women of this class, AKA “ladies”, and the tasks which are deemed suitable will become even more refined and decorative. Such as embroidery, tatting, and, of course, knitting.5

In these ways, women could add to the household without been seen to have to work for their keep. For if you can quite easily buy lace or stockings, then to make them yourself becomes perceived as act of patience and love, rather than of need.

Hypothesis: Yes, knitting can be analysed such that it falls historically into the category of women’s work, but only if you neglect to consider the different reasons why people knit, and how that relates to their economic & social class.

Now, thanks in part to that industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, there’s been a tendency to blur some of the boundaries between classes, such that it seems that almost everyone is middle class these days. This isn’t exactly accurate, but there does tend to be the assumption that when we talk of “ordinary people” we are talking about the middles classes.

For instance, when we talk about women entering the workplace in the 20th Century, we are largely talking about middle class women, working class women were by and large already there.

So what does all this have to do with the current popularity of knitting and whether or not it’s a feminist activity?

Crudely, a combination of economic and social forces, including second wave feminism, meant that many middle class women joined the workforce in the 70s, while at the same time rejecting the association of women with the domestic sphere. Of course, there are some domestic tasks which still need doing, such as providing food and avoiding wallowing in filth cleaning, and if you can’t afford to have someone do it for you, then you do it yourself. But other tasks previously considered part of the whole domestic package, such as providing warm things to wear can be take care of by spending money. All of this meant that a large section of a generation or two of western middle class women stopped knitting, sewing, crocheting, and etc.

So why do people knit now?

For lots of reasons. Probably the most common being that it’s pleasurable to take some yarn and turn it into fabric, lace, or even an entire garment. There’s something satisfying about producing a beautiful object with your own hands (and heart and mind).

Asking why people knit is a bit like asking why people play music, paint, sculpt, or write. The answer will be different for everyone, but there will generally be some sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, at least some of the time.

Knitting and Fashion
Knitting is fashionable, and knitting is an industry. No doubt about it.

However, the main industry around hand knitting is that of producing yarns and designing patterns, not of producing finished objects. Which means that while there is big business involved, there’s also a lot of cottage industry and local level stuff going on. Buying yarn and patterns can be a way for knitters to support local and new spinners and designers. Knitters can make ethical decisions about what yarn and materials they use: organic, local, fair trade, vegan, etc.

There are advantages to making ones own clothes. Knitters can make garments for themselves which are in fashion now, or which are in a style they love, which hasn’t been in fashion for years. And knitters can make garments which actually fit them, in colours they choose, rather than making do with with clothing which are designed for certain body types and not others. There’s also a matter of price, while I may not be able to afford $100-$300 on designer cardigans, I can spend 10-40% of that price on yarn and make something very similar.

Tentative Conclusion Claiming that knitting is women’s work not only ignores the men who have knit throughout history, but also the changes in the history and fashions of knitting. These changes have various causal factors, and gender roles are one factor among many.

In sum: It’s always more complicated.

Appendix: because it doesn’t really fit anywhere else

My stepmother, who did not teach me to knit, but who encouraged me when I started at the age of 28, teaches at a fairly exclusive boys school. She teaches the teenage boys in her classes to knit squares which get turned into blankets for the poor. It’s part of the whole attitude of privilege and responsibility that those boys get indoctrinated in, but still, it’s getting a bunch of privileged white boys to knit for others, and I think that’s kinda cool.

1. Originally posted to my livejournal, with some slight editing for different context. This ramble started off as a comment in Catherynne M. Valente’s livejournal.
2. See this page for a quick time line of knitting through history. It also looks at how hand knitting goes in and out of fashion in the 20th C.
3. I know!
4. I think he overstates his case at times and seems to argue that knitting should be back in the rightful hands of men. I’m sure that wasn’t his intention, but maybe he was all enthused after attending a men’s group with tribal drumming and sweat lodge etc..
4. “Us” being post-industrial western types who can get cheap clothes made in sweatshops (and some of us can even afford to pay more and avoid the products of sweatshops).
5. And this knitting would more likely be a lace shawl or a pair of gloves than an hefty Aran jumper, because of the delicate, ladylike, and decorative stuff. Also because Arans were knit on the Aran isles, west of Ireland, and became popular in the rest of the British Isles in WWII when people could buy them with their clothing rations.



Filed under knitting, miscellany

2 responses to “Some rambling thoughts on knitting, feminism, & class

  1. Lots of interesting ideas. I think the popularity of knitting fits neatly into why people are growing their own vegetables, making their own preserves and doing things like scrapbooking or quilting – because it’s part of reclaiming the act of making things for ourselves. More and more people are tired of feeling like everything can be bought and nothing can be made.

  2. Thanks Bells.

    I think some of my dislike of contemporary scrapbooking compared to other crafts is it seems to have a lot of things to buy, and not much actual creative input.

    One of the comments where I posted it earlier said that we often don’t get to make or even follow something from start to finish in the workplace, and so we need things outside work to give us that sense of accomplishment.

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