Knitting is cool these days. It’s not just knitting grandmas any more. Lots of celebrities do it. Here are a few: Sarah Jessica Parker, Krysten Ritter, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. And it’s not just the women! Ryan Gosling has had a go. Russell Crowe, David Arquette and George Lucas are into it too. Wait a minute: some of them are grandparents too.
According to everything you read these days, knitting was the sole domain of grandmas who only knit doilies, dishcloths or other unusable items. But knitting has now broken through the realms of high fashion. Being a grandma doesn’t cut it any more in the knitting world – it’s all so ‘Not Your Grandma’s knitting’.
Meryl Streep is a knitting grandma. But does she fall into the stereotype of a fuddy-duddy knitter of doilies who unadventurously sits at home?
(P.S. That’s a photo of a doily if you didn’t know.)
Knitting circles and knitting groups are intrinsically quiet, soothing places, but there’s been an upsurge in noise about knitting. Are the Grandmas finally getting their stitches in a row? Is it just Covid that’s got people knitting? What’s up with knitting?
The Devalued Image Of Knitting Grandmas
The Icelandic experimental knitwear designer Ýr Jóhannsdóttir talked to the BBC about the devalued ‘grandma’ image that knitting has been saddled with for too many years. She said:
“I find the stereotype has been labelled negative because people assume older women are traditional or unadventurous. But I’m sure this subtle behaviour can easily be tracked to the patriarchal society they were brought up in, a society that pushed them to act in certain ways and follow patterns.”
She points out that our assumption that only older ladies knit, and that therefore it’s an uncool and uninteresting pursuit, is rooted in more insidious biases, like ageism and sexism. Has that been your experience? It’s certainly been mine.
Knitting Before It was Stitched Up
Penelope Hemingway, not only a Yorkshire knitter but also a knitting genealogist who has written about the history of knitting, agrees that both ageism and sexism have stitched up the craft of knitting to devalue it. It started as a craft that both sexes could do professionally, including older, less physically able people. Penelope says it has been devalued and trivialised: many blame the 19th century British with their Victorian attitudes to women. But relegating knitting to slaves and prisoners of either sex also helped to lower its value.
Despite the boosts of the role of knitting in both 20th century world wars, it steadily became ‘women’s work’. As middle-class women (who were prevented from working by their role as their husband’s status symbol) took up knitting, it was devalued even further. Thus, just like the women, knitting was regarded as of less and less value. (Anyone who has knitted a Fair Isle sweater knows just how skilled you have to be.) The denigration of knitting continued.
Fighting for Equality
Knitting circles and groups became the domain of women in the twentieth century, and as more women went out to work, their members became ever older. That’s why you see stereotypes of grandmothers sitting in an armchair, knitting.
These days, their members are a far cry from your timid, housebound grandma of the stereotype.
Knitting groups formed part of the feminist fight against the devaluing of activities seen as essentially female. Grandma was pointing the way with her knitting needles.
When men started to join knitting groups or set up their own groups, they were scoffed at as being ‘sissies’ for indulging in an activity regarded as feminine. It didn’t help the image of knitting. But the groups continued to grow and knitting is acquiring a cooler image. Take a look at these examples.
The Men Diving Into Knitting
Over the last couple of decades there has been a quiet revolution as more and more men have taken up knitting. And they’re not all Hollywood celebrities.
Tom Daley took up knitting to calm his nerves, as he hung around the diving pools where he competed. He calmed them sufficiently to win a gold medal and a bronze medal for diving at the Tokyo Olympics. A photo of Tom knitting there has gone viral.
He says that he’s obsessed with knitting and does it every spare minute, knitting continually. He’s become so productive that he’s now raffling off his creations (including the team GB jumper he knitted at the Olympics) for the benefit of the Brain Tumour Charity. (His dad died from a brain tumour aged 40.)
Josh Bennett and Alan Cumming
Josh Bennett learnt to knit when he was 8. Guess what – his grandma taught him. He stopped knitting because it wasn’t the thing for boys to do. But when he moved to New York, he worked in a yarn shop. He started helping customers with making their own knitting patterns, saw there was a dearth of trendy men’s knitting patterns and did a stint at fashion college. Here’s his website, joshbennettnyc, for you to drool over the fab knitwear. (I’ve got my eye on his Kindling Cardigan pattern.)
If you’re in New York, you can go for a knitting lesson from Josh. Every Tuesday, Josh hosts The KNIT@NITE Show, at actor and knitter Alan Cumming’s cabaret hotspot in the East Village, Club Cumming. Now that is really COOL.
These are just three examples of how knitting is becoming ever cooler. But let’s take a look at the fight to get there.
Knitting Grandmas Unravel the Thread of ‘-Isms’
Those knitting groups were the origin of knitting cool. They have been quietly disruptive and subversive. They started on the side of feminism and gradually welcomed the the victims of ‘isms’, whether racism, sexism, ageism or any other ism.
It’s no coincidence that knitting groups have ended up with names like ‘Stitch ’n Bitch’. There have even been legal cases about the use of that term.
These close-knit groups (pun intended – bet that had you in stitches) provide support and social connection for people who have felt excluded in many ways. Groups of LGBTs, straight men (sexism) and black women (racism and sexism) as well as knitting grandmas and grandpas are spinning yarns that result in beautiful creations.
Talking to each other, connecting socially and emotionally and producing useful, beautiful items that help other people, gives you a sense of purpose. Social connection and purpose are key ingredients for a longer, happier life.
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Sitting in their groups, fellow knitters, whether grandmas or gays, men or women, young or old, all learn the calm and resilience that gives them strength and confidence to break down the stereotypes and stand up for themselves.
(Ok, all you needleworkers of the world. I hear you. Yes, knitting is my bag, but the ideas apply to tapestry, embroidery, weaving, lace making, tatting, quilting, crochet, sewing and any other needlework I’ve missed. The isms affect just as many users of single needles as it does the users of two knitting needles. Anyway, I prefer knitting in the round and that’s only one item even if it does have two points!)
Political Correctness Turned Inside Out
For all the wonderful benefits of knitting (that’s the next article by the way), the transformation of knitting to the new cool has not been exempt from the rages of political correctness fanatics.
The owners of the knitting treasure trove, Ravelry.com, unwittingly became embroiled in horrendous battles. The owners, those saviours of knitting, have had their lives made a misery by accusations of every ism in the book. They have had to ban political discussion – and they’re a knitting website. All they want to do is to help anyone who wants to take up knitting or other needlework.
So maybe politically correct knitting has gone too far. But there is one area where parts of the knitting community remain in flagrant breach.
Hello Ageism My Old Friend
Despite their claims to defend the victims of the isms, those same enlightened supporters of political correctness continue to make digs against knitting grandmas. Take a look at the number of articles on Google that have a headline of ‘Not Your Grandma’s Knitting’.
There are lots of articles about cool, ‘inclusive’, high fashion knitting that get in real ageist digs. One quick example: explaining that people took up knitting during lockdown
‘because everyone was living the grandma life’.
Another dig – ‘you can even ask your grandma to teach you her ways–if she can figure out how to work Zoom, that is.’
Isn’t it strange that those knitting grandmas have all along known how to download knitting patterns from the amazingly dedicated Ravelry site as well as actually knowing how to follow the most complex of patterns? Yet they are still labelled as incompetent.
Would those Grandmas blame or denigrate their children and grandchildren because they can’t knit? Or do they just lovingly slave away knitting the jumpers and hats that make their grandkids look cool?
Make Knitting Cool Because Grandmas are Cool (And Grandpas)
Grandmas are cool. They get up to all sorts of adventures and are turning into roaring fighters against ageism. One way of expressing their fight is by producing amazing pieces of knitting art. It’s not just the young ones who can make fabulous knitwear.
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Another way Grandma is bashing down the derogatory stereotype is because she’s the one running a thriving business producing home-made knitted jumpers. Or she’s working at knitting in the gig economy. Why should hand knitting be less cool than wearing lycra and delivering food on a bicycle? (And it’s ironic that those cool ‘young’ knitwear) businesses are turning to knitting grandmas as their workers.)
When those youngsters get older, they’ll be glad not to have to fight the battles of ageism their grandparents faced.
While knitting Grandma forms the stereotype, let’s not forget our knitting Grandpas! Just remember that grandfather George Lucas, that icon of Star Wars, supposedly used to do his knitting in Starbucks every day. (Not sure about that one, but it comes up a lot in google searches so it must be true – right?)
Cool it for Your Knitting Grandmas and Grandpas
Your average grandma is not a celebrity, but she is as cool as a celebrity. Please don’t be sexist and ageist in the way you talk about her.
Don’t label her as only producing old fashioned doilies. She’s far more likely to be producing cutting edge, fashionable and cool stuff. Because she’s the one that knows how to do that. Tell your friends and ask them to fight the stereotype.
Let’s all support our knitting grandmas and grandpas. Admire their skills and learn from them. Yup, turn into a crusader against racism and sexism, just like your knitting grandma. And fight harder against ageism too. Let your knitting grandmas know how cool you think they are.
A few hugs and they just might knit you that oh so expensive hand knit sweater that you’ve been eyeing up. And then it will be you that’s cool and not just your knitting grandma.
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