Pink Pussy Hats, Knitting for Good: or How Knitting Helps me cope

Cincinnati NoondayDiane Engber122 Comments

Noonday Paper, January 2018

By Diane Engber

Anyone who has ever worked with yarn, knitting, embroidering, whatever kind of needlework, has encountered tangles.  When the yarn comes off the cone, out of the ball, wrong, and is bunched up in a knot. When I tackle tangles, which happen no matter how careful I am, I like to imagine the world is made up of two kinds of people:  those who find untangling a mass of yarn a challenge to be painstakingly worked through and those who are hopelessly defeated by it and throw the mess away.

 

In the early 1950’s, my parents were among the last Jewish kids in America to have a sort of “arranged marriage.”  Their mothers played bridge together. I’ve never been very clear on how that worked as his mother, Margie, lived in Englewood, and her mother, Helen (nee Hortense), lived in Queens.  However the story goes Margie sent Jay (my dad) over to my mom Bettie’s house to pick up some bridge chairs. Helen made sure that Bettie answered the door. When they were courting, Margie gave Bettie a test:  my mother told me that her future mother-in-law gave her a gold chain, one that was tangled up, and asked her if she could straighten the chain out. She didn’t recognize the request as a test at first, but after working at it, and getting the chain untangled, then seeing the look of approval on Margie’s face, she knew her patience was being examined, and she had passed.

 

I am not daunted by tangles.  I recognize that it’s best to wait for the right moment to tackle one:  when I’m not in a hurry. Also to find the right place, where the light is good.  I appreciate the satisfaction of figuring out how to unsnarl yarn; I like to think I’m pretty good at it.  Without belaboring the metaphor, let’s say that I have developed some strategies, but that mostly sorting out a bad tangle is mostly a question of staying with it, not giving up, being sure efforts you make to sort it out do not result in a worse mess, and trying to keep the end result in sight.

 

The Election—or Knitting as Political

Over a year ago, now, but still so fresh, isn’t it? The stunning swerve in what we all expected, the days of numbness, fear, despair, loss of faith in the process.  Then, those with energy and resolve, began to untangle. The Pussyhat Project was born. According to The Inquisitor, News Worth sharing, in an article by Melissa Norton (January 21, 2017):

The “Pussyhat Project” launched a massive campaign in anticipation of the Women’s March by encouraging people to knit or purchase pink hats with pussycat ears to be worn at the Women’s March on January 21, the day of the presidential inauguration.

The “Pussyhat Project” was founded by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman who envisioned “a sea of pink, cat-eared hats forcefully marching toward the White House.” The crafty duo designed a simple pattern and posted it online for knitters to download. Over 100 drop-off locations collected the completed hats to be distributed for free to protesters at the Women’s March on Washington.

The pinkness matters according to different knitters interviewed for the article, including a couple at Knitty City, a yarn shop on the upper West Side of New York city.  One called pink “the color of love, compassion and caring.”  

And why the pussycat shape? A dig at Trump’s televised claim to be able “to grab any woman [he] wants by the pussy,” the word “pussy” became controversial during the election and women knitters claimed to be taking the word back.  The basic pattern is an easy one to knit. The internet made it easy to pass the pattern on, as well as passing on information about pussy hat knitting parties (knitting can be very social), and where to donate the finished hats.   

The Women’s March in Washington, which I didn’t go to, but I know many here did, turned into an international event.  What follows is from an interview delightfully called  “Grabbing Back the Pussy” (by Emily Cataneo, in Jewish Women, Amplified, March 14, 2017).  Let me give you some of the more interesting parts of the interview.  Even though pussy hats are only part of the topic, here, I find their origin and the way they became iconic interesting.

In answer to the question of how she came up with the pussy hat idea, Jayne Zweiman said:  

I’ve been recovering from a concussion for a couple years now. So much of the healing process is really isolating, and so I roped in my friend Krista [Suh] to learn how to crochet with me. We discovered this incredible community at the Little Knittery, a knitting store. [my emphasis:  more on knitting communities and knitting stores later]

We went there on November 10, after the election, to be with our knitting community. It’s predominately women there, and it seemed like the right place to process what had happened. By then, the Women’s March had been announced, and Krista was going to go to D.C. I had this huge deep desire to be there—but how could that happen, given my injury?

Krista realized it was going to be cold and that she would need a hat. Then she thought, what if other people wear hats too? And so she got in touch with our knitting instructor, Kat Coyle, and asked for a pattern for a hat. Then we realized that if I couldn’t be at the march, there were likely many people like me. The person who makes each hat can also be represented at the march, even if they’re not there in person.

And so we teamed up: we made a PDF with a pattern and a description of the project, and then shared it.

In answer to a question about how the idea spread so quickly, Zweiman says:

Kat is part of the knitting world, and she let people know who have important blogs. We set up on social media on all fronts, including Ravelry (the knitters’ site), and really utilized those. We reached out to yarn stores across the country, the kind that might have classes and that host communities. We contacted them and got them on board. That was really important in terms of trying to create spaces where women could talk about politics in a community atmosphere.

But we also tapped into people who had never been knitters before. The idea was that anyone could participate, even people who couldn’t attend marches for medical, financial or other reasons. You could be a knitter, a crocheter, a marcher, or none of that—you could just spread the word. Whatever skill you have, whatever you can give, you can be part of the project. We started to get picked up by more and more blogs. We asked people who were knitting to tell their local newspapers. Then the Huffington Post picked us up, and then national news.

For me, the most interesting answer is what comes next.  Zweiman, in addressing why these hats caught on so quickly, describes the effects I felt when knitting pussy hats.  By the way, I made eight of them, and gave all of them away, all but one, which I wore to the March in Cincinnati:

What we heard was that a lot of people were really depressed and had no idea what to do with themselves. This was something you could physically do that was positive, it was kind, and it was a way to connect and use your voice. When a knitter or a crocheter makes a hat, she can include a note about which women’s rights issue is important to her. She then gives her hat to a marcher directly, to one of these local yarn stores, or sends it to our collection site in DC. That way, if you’re in the middle of Kansas, you can still connect with people on the basis of women’s rights, in a really positive and personal way. I think that’s really a beautiful thing, in this time of social media when we just forward articles. That feels very not real. Actually, making a hat is one of the most real things you can do.

That’s it, right there, in a nutshell.  Knitting is something I could “physically do that was positive, it was kind, and it was a way to connect and use my voice.”  In fact, ANY knitting I do is all those things, but also more, so much more

In answer to a question about the symbolism of the hats, Zweiman says:  

. . .the Pussy Hat Project. It was a play on words: pussy cat, pussy hat. It was also a reference to the Hollywood Access moment, with Trump’s pussy grab comment. That was really a moment in the election that both sides of the aisle came together and said, this is not okay. So this was an opportunity to really think about how the word ‘pussy’ is about the feminine in a really derogatory way . . . We wanted to change the way that word is used, and look at the feminine as something that’s powerful and strong. And have room for conversation about words like this, and what it means to be a woman.

Of course, any time you refer to “what it means to be a woman,” you are going to have some disturbances in the field.  I would be remiss in talking about the whole pussy hat phenomenon without mentioning the criticisms.

One criticism is that the use of “pussy” as emblem excludes trans women, who don’t have the same genitalia as cis women—I think “cis” is neologism to refer to women born with traditionally female physical attributes.  The Urban Dictionary defines it as “Short for cis-gendered, meaning someone who identifies with the sex they were born as.”  Zweiman’s answer to that question is:

The word pussy is meant to be derogatory towards everyone, towards everyone’s feminine qualities. That’s more of what I was thinking about when I made this project: feminine qualities, not necessarily the specific genitalia.

Going forward, I think it’s important to pay attention to the most marginalized of women’s groups. A lot of cisgender women are also very uncomfortable with the word pussy—but I think it’s important to raise awareness. Women’s bodies are being legislated, whether they’re trans or cisgender, and reproductive rights are very much on the chopping block. I think a reference to the pussy and the womb is not necessarily inappropriate within the terms of the Women’s March.

Without getting too far down that particular rabbit hole, let me mention one other criticism of the Pussy Hat Movement—this one by Charity Rakestraw, “The Problem With Pussy Hats,” in the Huffington Post, 4/23/2017.  Rakestraw is concerned about “Commodification and ill-defined ideologies,” which she believes “have been persistent concerns for feminism for decades,” saying that “now is a crucial moment to collectively, and critically, take stock of the economics and rhetoric surrounding our new-found mobilization.”

She refers to ways the second wave feminists were christened “New Women” in order to be sold cigarettes and sanitary napkins and asks “Have we substituted substance for salability?”  She says the current movement is not just “marketplace feminism and ‘femvertising’,” but

grassroots commodification and branding. From pussy hats to “yet she persisted” tees sold on Etsy, the merchandise of the movement smacks of the same capitalist subversion engaged in by Cover Girl and Kotex and Diet Coke, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Are we reducing an ideology to objects to be purchased (or crafted, in some cases) rather than further defining it, expanding it, and working for systemic change? Our own commodification might be successful in marshalling more Americans to action (see the Women’s March on Washington,) but the language and methods of organization require some additional consideration.

She suggests that “Appropriating the “pussy” comment is a great way to draw attention to the seriousness of the objectification of women.”  But she questions “how far will the hats go to further a serious agenda to combat the root of the problem: women are thought of, treated, addressed differently.” Further, she says:

Linguistic appropriation is a tactic successfully used by civil rights, LBGTQ rights, and women’s rights advocates for decades. By actively using words of oppression and bigotry, activists (including feminists) alter the meaning of language and diffuse the negative and denigrating views embedded in that language. The women’s movement, however, and the accompanying feminism has not demonstrated a coherence around a common, and inclusive, identity in order to effectively appropriate prejudiced language. In other words, we know what we are against. Now we must consider what are we for and if we can or even should market that on a hat or travel mug. While many of the products you can purchase provide some funding for Planned Parenthood and other worthy causes, the fact remains that supporters are literally buying in to a branded movement that is shaped at present as a reaction to statements made by men. Resistance is vital, but it will only take us so far. Building a united, intersectional, proactive feminism that doesn’t simply resist but responds and upends the system is even more important, and astronomically more difficult.

Of course, Rakestraw has a point.  But she’s also a bit of a party pooper, seemingly without a sense of humor.  I mean, who can use the words “intersectional” and “proactive” in the same article as the playful “pussy hat”?  

Still, this argument is for another time, and a more philosophical mind.  My interest is more what knitting does for me, and I suspect for other knitters.  And also in the culture that surrounds knitting, a culture that has taken an activity from the “domestic sphere” and made it into not just a strong, affirming, respectable act, but one that allows its practitioners to automatically find community wherever they go.  Certainly, as the pussy hat project illustrates, knitting can be overtly political—producing overtly political products.

Covertly political, too.  During times of war, when women were not permitted to fight physically to defend their countries, they could produce socks and caps and scarves to keep soldiers warm.  I imagine them getting together in groups to knit and to reassure one another that their work would keep some defender of their homeland warm, and by extension, safe.

 

Knitting in History

Among the histories of knitting I looked at are two established authorities with very different approaches.  One, the more scholarly, is by the very Reverend Richard Rutt, Bishop of Leicester, published in 1987 called A History of Hand Knitting.  He refers respectfully to Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, originally published in London in 1928, reprinted by Dover Press in 1972.  Rutt looks at knitting by date and region; Thomas organizes her presentation by knitting techniques.

First, from the scholarly Richard Rutt, who points out that unlike spinning or weaving, knitting doesn’t figure in any ancient myths. Some claim that Penelope was knitting rather than weaving, using a frame knitting technique much like those little spools we learned to knit on as kids.  Approaching knitting in an historical manner is plagued by several problems. How does the author define what she or he means by knitting—considering the equipment and the technique for producing a structure or looking at the nature of the structure itself without regard to how it was produced?  many of the earliest knitted garments have disappeared. The reason for this is simple: early knitting was made from natural fibers like cotton, silk and wool – fibers that decompose.

Even the language is a problem.  In fact, there is not an ancient Greek or Latin word for knitting! The word “to knit” didn’t make an appearance in the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary until the fifteenth century and wasn’t part of any European language until the Renaissance. All this suggests that knitting a relatively new invention.  An ecclesiastical author writing in the 16th century refers to liturgical garments using “contextus” translated as “interwoven” because he had no Latin word for “knitted.”  A word used by Pliny the Elder much earlier ,”Scutulatum textum” was briefly thought to be the Latin word for what we now know as knitting, but Pliny uses it to refer to a spider’s web, or the little shield or plate-chequered pattern, such as in ornamental pavement.  (According to Mary Thomas, one myth has it that Eve knitted, in the garden, the pattern on the skin of the snake.)

In the Renaissance, words related to mesh, net, or knot, as well as words used in accounts of lace-making or cap-making (that is referring to the most commonly knitted objects) became connected to knitting. The German word “strikke” is from the word for rod or stick, an instrument used in knitting, similar to a word used for stick in Denmark and Sweden. The Russian word “ryazat” means to interlace or to twine.   

And in English, we recognize “knit” as also meaning “to fuse,” as with broken bones.  In a mid-15th-century proverb, “knyt” refers to marrying.  Among the other meanings assigned to knit are twining, plaiting, clenching (as a fist is clenched) to set fruit, to swarm (as bees do), or to join as in a pact.   And I cannot resist telling you that Rutt points out Shakespeare uses the word 38 times. But in half of those uses, he means to join, as in broken bones, hands, hearts, souls.  Macbeth speaks of “sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” after all.

Quoting from the writer Johann Christoph Beckmann, (published in 1780), “the art of knitting was first found out in the 16th century.” Beckmann attributes the invention to the Spaniards, “conjecturing” that they got it from Arabians. (p.2)  Later, in considering a process related to knitting, called “nalbinding,” Rutt challenges Beckman’s “conjecture” saying that “knitting developed from nalbinding probably in Egypt(p. 23)” Nalbinding, similar to knitting, involves pulling yarn through a “bight” (a loop) but unlike knitting uses a sewing needle, that is a needle with an eye, to pull the yarn through the loop.  He also points out that “knitted structures” (meaning the product, rather than the process) were also discovered among the Taulipang Indians living between Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil, and among the Warrau people of the Orinoco delta.

Not surprisingly, he pinpoints the common nature of knitting in Western Europe with the tradition of “knitting Madonnas” a type of painting known as Madonna dell’umilita. They are called madonnas of humility because the virgin is seated on the floor not on a chair or a throne.  A particular painting he discusses is attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Sienna in the 14th century.  The virgin in the painting uses four needles, knitting in the round, holding the needles under her palms and carrying the yarn with her right forefinger.  The details of the painting suggest, according to Rutt, that knitting was done by women, in the home, and known in Northern Italy by the 1350’s. Rutt discusses many knitting Madonnas in his section on “Knitting before 1500.”  The products they knit, which he shows when possible in figures that are part of the text, are socks, pillows, relic purses, priest “mass girdles” (which appear to be a kind of vestment that can also be twisted, plaited or woven, and other decorative items for non-ecclesiastical use.

Mary Thomas begins her history of knitting saying that it came from the Arabian Peninsula, “whence it spread eastwards to Tibet, westwards as far as Spain, carried thence and to other Mediterranean ports bh the Arabs.”  She provides a figure of Arabian knitting in silk from the 7th to 9th centuries.  She claims authoritatively that Egypt “learned her knitting from the Arabs,” and in Coptic Egypt, knitting discoveries (which she also shows in a figure) date from the 4th and 5th centuries. She points out that in the ancient city of Yemen, the city of the Queen of Sheba, knitting is said to have been known forever—Thomas is the one who says “the pattern on the serpent’s back was knitted by Eve.”  Speculating that knitting was carried to the rest of the world by sailors and tradors of the Mediterranean, she assumes originally that men, too, knit. And that as it was an industry in Europe, there was a process for them to get into the medieval guilds that formed around craftsmanship.  To be admitted to the Knitting and Hosiery Guilds that formed in the 15th and 1th centuries on the Continent and in England was a process that took six years:  

three years to learn, three years to travel, after which the apprentice made his Masterpieces in thirteen weeks.  These were

1)   to knit a carpet 4 ells square, the design to contain flowers, foliate, birds and animals in natural colours. (existing carpets are mainly about 6 ft X 5 ft)

2)   to knit a beret

 

  • to knit a woolen shirt
  • to knit a pair of hose with Spanish clocks (which she never explains).

 

In some guilds it was specially stated, ‘stockings to be made after the English style,’ others that the beret stockings and shirt were to be knitted and afterwards felted, but the knitted carpet, as principal masterpiece, was acknowledge by most Guilds after 1602.  

Mary Thomas, it should be noted, collapses some of the technical distinctions that Rutt draws—calling the carpet, which was probably done on a frame (given its size) “knitting.”

She points out that knitting was always “highly regarded as a feminine accomplishment in the home and in old documents a bride’s ability to knit was quoted as part of her dowry” (p.5)  She infers that knitting had two sources of development: the Guilds, “which brought the art to such a high degree of perfection” and the home and convents. She goes from the guilds into Scottish knitting, claiming that the Scottish “lay claim to its invention as St. Vicacre, the son of a Scottish king” was adopted as the patron saint a “guild of Stocking Knitters formed in Paris about 1527.”  Then she goes on (I love quoting her admiring, but a little prim voice.) “the beautiful lace knitting of Scotland has, like their openwork embroidery, ever been a source of wonder and admiration.”

She is impressed by the fact that this “small community, situated on the edge of civilization” has a surviving knitting industry “such as might have thrived in the days of the Guilds.”  She is impressed at how children are taught to knit from “earliest childhood” and describes the process of starting a child knitting. She also commends the pace at which master knitters knit, with “the aid of a knitting stick or sheath.”  After lamentations about the rise of the machine, which “banished hand knitting from the industrial world [she claims] The work of the Master was finished. The fine delicate knitting gradually became coarser, and ultimately petered out altogether”(p.12).

Mary Thomas then has chapters on knitting implements, yarns, gauges and tensions, knit movements (the corresponding fabrics that the different stitches produce), techniques for casting on and binding off along with the different selvedges that the techniques produce, and then shaping the garment by increasing and decreasing—all, as you can see, much more practically aimed at the actual knitter.   The history then works its way into her narrative by means of different kinds of knitting–looped, beaded, embroider—and where those varieties originated and the kind of garments they produce. The last few chapters are dedicated to specific common knitted items: shawls, gloves, socks and stockings. Finishing with “hints” chapter. Very rudimentary and charming illustrations are abundant throughout.  But without a hint of the political or individual personal nature of knitting.

Knitting Culture is playful

Knitting culture—the knitters, the online sites, the blogs, the stores—is playful.  There are jokes about how knitters cannot resist buying yarn into the piles of yarn take over the house:  the one who dies with the largest stash wins, the joke goes. A highly respected and major website for knitters is called “Ravelry.”   “Ravel,” get it?

When I logged on just now, I joined 4,303 “Ravelers” online at that moment.  A Community created Wiki informs the user on not just how to use the site, but also “fiber-related businesses” and how to contribute to the databases on the site.  On the site, I can find patterns that are either free or very cheap and downloadable, which I can search for either by the kind of garment or the kind of yarn (material, thickness, manufacturer) or the brand of yarn or the designer.  I can find links to various online yarn stores—though I find going to yarn stores to be a real treat and would rather do that whenever possible—more on yarn stores in a minute.

[punning names of stores, knit bombing

Knitting is Personal

The reason I think knitting has persisted for so long is because what knitters produce is beautiful:  beautiful to do and beautiful to behold. Knitting satisfies a deep desire in us to create beautiful things with our own hands.  

 

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