Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 11, Winter 2014. Photo by Fergus Ford for the Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook by Felicity Ford
Anna Maltz on mending the social fabric of Britain – And why knitting at the Pub matters.
In this issue we are celebrating the beauteous British public house, that perfect establishment for gathering to share time, tales and a tipple. Sadly, the current outlook for pubs in the U.K is bleak, much like it was for haberdashers in the 1990s. They are closing down at a rate of knots and, as we all know, knitters don’t like knots. The alarming statistic is that on average we lose at least 4 locals a day. There’s a whole host of reasons why they are on the brink, such as supermarkets selling cheaper booze, and zoning laws that make it easy to convert pubs into housing (generally luxury apartments) or shops (generally local/’metro’ versions of giant supermarkets).
But what has the beleaguered British pub got to do with knitting? And why might we, the knitting community, want to champion the pub and save it from extinction? Well, aside from pubs being convenient and comfortable spaces to knit (and rather splendid locations for photo shoots), I see strong overlaps between pubs and yarn shops. Pubs aren’t just vendors of booze. They’re our social clubs and community centres, where we go for camaraderie and advice, much like a yarn shop. For those of us living in small spaces they become extensions of our homes, a sort of annexed living room with a cast of characters to rival any soap opera. They are where generations mix, advice is shared, opinions exchanged and disagreements entertained. The knitting shop analogy may fall short as our woolly circles are largely underpinned by online interactions (Ravelry, blogs, twitter, instagram and the like) which of course social drinking is not, yet there is something intrinsically different and bolstering to your health about communicating IRL. As social creatures, isolation does not suit us well. There’s a lot to be said for not drinking alone and the same goes for knitting.
While I’m not condoning the over-consumption of alcohol (or yarn for that matter). When you go shopping for yarn of course it’s in the shop owners’ interest that you leave with as much as possible, but they will also guide and encourage you to make the right choices. The idea is that you leave happy and therefore come back, just like in a pub. There’s a sense of community and shared responsibility. Another cheery note on the subject of community and locals, be they boozers or yarn shops, is that when you spend a pound at a small or medium sized business, an estimated 63p stays in that local economy, whereas only 40p of that pound stays local if spent at a big business.
Pubs tend to cater to a specific community (football fans, cool kids, foodies, real ale drinkers, dog owners, old men, suits on a Friday, winos, etc.) in the same way that knitting shops have their niches. I’m imagining what the equivalents would be: your LYS specialising in local ethical yarns is your real ale pub; your international standard bigwig stockist (selling mainly Coates plc products; a large umbrella company encompassing Rowan, Red Heart, Susan Bates, Milward, Schachenmayr, Aunt Lydia, Anchor and more) is a chain pub; your old fashioned multipurpose haberdasher with an extensive range of acrylic colours and crochet cottons is your traditional ‘old man’ pub, and for lovers of cashmere and hand-dyed, you’ll likely frequent your local gastro pub. Knitting remains an undeniably female dominated occupation and pubs are often still seen as male spaces. There is definitely a history of pubs being a male preserve. There were times in British history when women weren’t just unwelcome, they were not allowed in at all, or there was a token section where women were admitted if accompanied by men. There even used to be a gutter running under the bar so you could whip out your todger and take a pee without losing your place in conversation. Times change. For this reason alone, knitting in pubs is a brilliant way of highlighting and perpetuating progress while celebrating and continuing the best of the past. We can foster both an inclusive community and the empowerment of hands-on self-reliance skills.
Plus pubs are fab places to knit. A little drink helps the stitches and conversation run more smoothly. Their public nature means they are the opposite of exclusive. Shy knitters can hide behind both their stitches and their pints, while gregarious ones can rouse the bar in to a spontaneous singing knitalong. They can be a bit dark, as you need less light to raise a glass to your lips than you do to count your brioche stitches. But just as you wouldn’t wear a white wiggle dress to a picnic (unless it had a John Waters theme and you were going as Divine in Polyester, in which case, get your pompom maker out), there are certain projects you wouldn’t take to the pub, and others which are perfect. I like to refer to garter stitch as the social stitch – something you need to pay far less attention to than stranded knitting or, god forbid, lace. Though this will depend on your personal propensities, there’s a time and a place for those things and it might just be called alone time. Our projects to knit in company should be conducive to chatting, drinking and developing a strong girl crush on your neighbour’s handiwork skills.
After a few decades of decline, which brought them to the brink of extinction, yarn shops are experiencing something of a renaissance as we realise the impact of making things ourselves and the importance of shared stitches to the fabric of our lives. Hopefully the half-century decline of the British pub can enjoy a similar turnaround. As much as I can’t imagine my life without knitting, I hate to think what the social landscape of Britain would be without its public houses. Let’s meet for knitting and a pint soon.