Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 26, Autumn 2018
Like the cycles of the moon, stitches make an excellent marker of the passage of time. Each stitch is a unit, equivalent to the seconds it took to shape. When knitting in the round, we even make ourselves an alternative clock face that our hands travel round, leaving behind them indelible marks of minutes, and then hours, passed in stitches. The stitches we form are a beautiful manifestation of time, the benefits of age, and the acquired knowledge for shaping them. So why is it that these accumulated years are not celebrated, but derided in jokes about older women and caricatures of grandmothers? And why is ageing absent from the majority of images presented to us?
‘Knitting isn’t just for grandmothers’ is a very true statement in one sense, yet it often carries the implication that an activity associated with older women needs reclaiming or reinventing to make it relevant to others. Who decides what constitutes ‘old’ anyway? It is an elastic term. On a personal level, it shifts constantly in relation to our own age and those in our orbit. When you’re five, eight is old. When you are 58, 85 is old. When I was 5, my grandmother seemed old at 70; I’m now aged 39, and my 70-year-old mother still seems young. All my grandparents died at around 84, so while I am not old old, I am now halfway there by my family’s standards.
My current circumstances dictate that I will never be a grandmother, so I will not be able to use that title as a marker of true oldness. On a cultural level, old age is also flexible, expanding or contracting in relation to what and whom it is describing, as well as fluctuating with historical and geographical variations in life expectancy.
If ‘grandmother’ is being used as a stand-in term for ‘old woman’, perhaps it is useful to look at when a woman can become a grandmother as a marker of what that term can mean – bearing in mind that becoming a grandmother is an involuntary act. Let’s observe the UK age of consent, which dictates that sexual intercourse of the sort that can produce a baby is legal from the age of 16. Then, taking human gestation periods into account, this means that you could be a grandmother at 33. This probably isn’t the age most of us imagine when we think about grandmothers knitting. It is likely that we are picturing someone at least double that age, and a caricature at that.
Older women who knit, whether or not they are caricatured as ‘grandmothers’, are without doubt many moons older than the women that typically appear on knitting social media, or the models, professional or otherwise, we see pictured in knitting patterns. Knitting unites ages, and allows many occasions for intergenerational friendship, support and the exchange of knowledge through a levelling shared interest. However, there is a bias towards youth in the images produced by the knitting world as a whole, whether by knitters or businesses. The pictures that we see, and post ourselves on social media, are important, because as the the old adage says, seeing is believing.
Businesses certainly still rely heavily on the standard dogma of youth-worship in advertising. A change is overdue, and likely to happen slowly, but we can hurry it along by actively supporting more age-diverse imagery with equal likes, shares and purchases. The number of knitting designers who model for their own patterns dwindles dramatically among the over 40s crowd and falls off even more dramatically among the over 50s. I think this will change as the designers who found their stride during the Ravelry-led transformation of the knitting world continue to self-publish and model their own designs. They already seem at ease with being inextricably bound with their own branding, so one can only hope that we will have the joy of ageing along with them.
Knitters are a smart bunch but that doesn’t mean we currently have the capacity to instantly shed years of being influenced by the advertising industry insidiously telling us what type of pictures sell products. While we may want to see our own diverse selves reflected, we may not yet be in a position to actually perceive such images as anything more than a novelty, open to judgement in a way that images of ‘standard’ models are not. But we can work on this by supporting those who are already making the change and joining in ourselves. There might be an element of being sacrificial mutton, but social change relies on brave souls to push for it by being the change they want to see.
Away from the narrow frame of companies’ images, swathes of society have been turning the camera on themselves. While selfies are easily associated with the presumptive vapidity of youth, they are building up an entire catalogue of diversity. As the selfie generation ages, I hope they will continue to photograph themselves and thereby help remove some of the stigmas of age, making it visible where others have made it invisible – partly because the technology did not exist, and partly because of the flawed idea that old age is at odds with beauty.
This burden cannot be shrugged off without a formal and informal stock of images containing older people. Unfortunately, older women tend to edit themselves out. This may be down to shyness, or to satisfy personal needs for privacy, but it will not help to chivvy things along. The tools we need to share and praise images are already in our hands.
When I was a child, the superhero power I was most curious about was invisibility. I spent a lot of time considering it and the associated pros and cons. Would I be able to switch my invisibility on and off, or would it be a permanent condition? At what point would the things I came in contact with (such as food and clothing) become invisible too? And, being practical, I wondered whether my poo would be invisible or visible, once it left my body. When I felt awkward as a teen, the ability to disappear would often have been desirable. It was at this age that I was regularly told by older people that one day I would look back on pictures of myself, recognise my own beauty and aspire to such youth. In my mid-20s, I did a lot of work around making knitting invisible without erasing it (no frogging or burning). This resulted in a series of chromakey blue knits that could become invisible in a blue-screen studio. I did a lot of accompanying research into how invisibility is represented in film and television.
I found that it is usually something that men acquire in order to do unpleasant things such as breaking and entering, murder, theft, or just plain creeping around. Now I find myself at an age when I am regularly told that, as a woman, I will become invisible when I turn 50. To my teenage self, this sounds not entirely unappealing, but it is rarely presented as such.
If we want to counteract this invisibility, and see more older women in pictures and advertising, we will have to start taking pictures of ourselves more, because then the market can follow trodden paths, as it prefers to do. It is not fair to take ourselves out of the picture and expect others to put us back in. There are shining exceptions, but so much more can be done. Older women – please share images of yourselves! If duck lips, peace fingers and belfies don’t appeal, then find something that does. Advanced Style has achieved a lot by celebrating the beauty and joy of dressing up in older age, but it is still largely based on novelty and flamboyance. What we need is for it to become normal. Normal can still be a celebration and contain as much diversity for older people as it does for younger people’s fashion. Yes, yarn companies, designers and magazines do have a responsibility to show diversity in their models in order for things to progress, but that responsibility also lies in the less-youthful among us sharing pictures of ourselves, and in all of our reactions to images of diversity.
Ageing happens to us all, with every passing stitch, minute, and moonrise, regardless of race, gender identity, body size and physical ability. As inevitably as our projects grow and our knitting knowledge develops, so too does our age. Ageing is glorious; it is progress. It is something we should and can celebrate by taking, embracing and promoting images of those who would otherwise be invisible.