Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 27, Winter 2018
When we look to the past for inspiration, we are always being selective. The past and the future are fantasies of different sorts, filtered and shaped by the present. They provide a rich seam for inspiring knits, knitting and how to wear our creations, but those dreams are always more of a reflection of current realities and desires than they are about a time passed or to come.
I find it hard to idolise the apparent realities of the past; the dominant narratives are narrow and violent and I don’t want to invite them onto my needles. The lion’s share of recorded history was/is authored by, and pictures, straight, white, affluent men perpetuating power structures that hold little romantic or creative value to me. I do dabble in imagining a past that would lead to a future I would like to be living in, but mostly, I try to focus on now. That requires some imagining too.
Let’s imagine this as a natural history documentary. Picture a camera close-up into an underground burrow, but it’s an upstairs room in a pub. Instead of a covering of straw and down enveloping a huddle of fresh-eyed fuzzballs, ancient upholstered chairs hold a tangle of knitters, animatedly chirping and squeaking. I would like you to imagine this in David Attenborough’s voice, because frankly, that makes everything better. David narrates: “Once on the brink of extinction, these beautiful creatures are thriving, even in the face of dramatic changes in the environment. We ascribe this to their ability to adapt: to function as a community, and to innovate. For these shy yet fierce creatures, it has been predominantly the females of the species, the flamboyant males and those of a non-binary nature, who have ensured their continued presence in a harsh world. Their fight isn’t over, but the numbers are healthy.” Cue dramatic music.
For a good while, it has been habit to think of knitting as historical, as part of the past – but knitting has been saved. Saved from the brink of extinction. Hell, in my mind, it’s even off the endangered species watch list. If preservation is our main concern, it’s useful to note that there were more pussyhats marching on Washington on January 21, 2017 than there are big cats left in the wild. That march was a historic moment and knitting was a big part of it. Not because knitting is inherently historic, political, liberal or feminist, nor because it was chosen by those who raised their voices and organised on that occasion, but because it makes sense within the networks of mass communication and skills available to us right now. Not as a re-enactment drama, throwback or sympathy vote, but as a prescient, vigorous, and living practice. Because knitting is thriving and adapting in many ways.
Much of the current health of knitting could easily be attributed solely to the adoption and proliferation of digital technology. This has certainly eased the formation and interaction of communities. While it is absolutely true that computers, smartphones and the world wide web have been essential, they are the vehicle, rather than the driver. To even give the digital cogs the honour of the shotgun seat would be to miss the playful joy of the constant revisions and innovations in how and what we knit. Not only in how knitting travels through society, but in the fabric itself.
Brioche, double knitting, marlisle, shaped intarsia and stacked stitches… In some senses, these techniques have always been around in some shape or form, because they rely on the existing canon of knitting stitches, but oh what we do with them nowadays! It’s not like it used to be. Almost unrecognisable. And in recognising the folks who are helping to take them places, we are also doing something modern. By being able to cite and thank those who have dedicated their time to the betterment and diversity of our stitching pleasure, we break from a past whose ’unventers’ largely flowed namelessly back into the ebb of history. So, thank you to the likes of the very alive Nancy Marchant, Nathan Taylor, Lucy Neatby, Alasdair Post-Quinn, Wendy Peterson, Jana Huck, Britt-Marie Christoffersson and Xandy Peters for guiding the adventurous to the next frontier. There are so many others, including those who are not (knitting) household names or simply not familiar to me – testimony to the fact that the knitting world is huge, encompassing many different countries and cultures, and operates on many channels, thus making omniscience impossible.
When considering attribution and authorship, this could easily become a discussion about intellectual property, copying, copyright, credit, influence and etiquette, but these are subjects worth focusing on in their own right, on another occasion. To me, knitting is inherently open-source and stays relevant, exciting and healthy because of that. It’s what allows us to build on what exists, without necessarily needing to reinvent the heel. Being able to recognise and acknowledge an individual’s contribution is not mutually exclusive with being open-source. And so new systems, such as Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting or Felicity Ford’s Knitsonik stranded colourwork method, allow us to relook at our approaches to knitting and firmly empower us to knit on, with a new lease on familiar ground. We can nod our thanks to Hitomi Shida and Andrea Rangel for creating and compiling new stitch dictionaries. We also have designers pushing the boat out with construction, and sailing us to places we haven’t stitched before. Captains such as Olga Buraya-Kefelian, Woolly Wormhead, Svetlana Gordon, Bristol Ivy, Lucy Hague, Cookie A, and, of course, Norah Gaughan.
Our journeys to these new lands are often made possible by tools that are innovative in themselves. Many advancements have been digital, with apps such as Cathy Scott’s StitchMastery software for creating knitting charts, Hannah Fettig’s Stashbot for calculating yarn quantities on the fly, and platforms such as Ravelry, founded by Casey and Jessica Forbes. However, gadgets such as the Sirka counter from Sarah Jackson, for keeping track of multiple sets of numbers while you knit, is a firmly analogue solution. As are those sets of three needles that allow you to knit small circumferences in the round, which appeared on my radar this year. Having grown accustomed to circulars, interchangeables, carbon and square, who even thought there was space for another kind/configuration of needle? For knitting small circumferences in the round, Addi’s Crasy Trios follow on from the shortest short circular needles with one tip longer than the other (pioneered by Kinki Ambari) – and are a sort of mash-up between circular needles, magic-loop, DPNs and the three- needle system employed when using a knitting belt.
And sheep are on the move too – did you know that farmer Emma Boyles and shepherd Susie Parish, of The Little Grey Sheep, have come up with a new breed, the Stein Fine Wool sheep? Originally crossed from Gotland, Shetland and Merino, this breed is reared for the quality of its fleece in a market dominated for decades by breed development focused solely on high-yield lambing and meat production.
When it comes to dyeing yarn, the ingredients and equipment have changed little in recent years, but hand-dyers are honing their skills in regards to scale and repeatability of previously small-batch speckling, glazing, and space-dyeing. The effect of these innovations on how colour can be applied to knitting projects as one of the endless varieties of self- striping socks, planned pooling, and fades to be found, broadens our ideas of how we knit, and is supported by designers such as Andrea Mowry and Stephen West. The possibilities are literally dyed in the wool; a new approach to intentional colour placement, standing on the wool-clad shoulders of colourwork luminaries such as Kaffe Fassett, Kieran Foley, and Marie Wallin.
Even cognitive research is currently engaged in forwarding our understanding of knitting, recently finding it beneficial for mental health and for staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia. Notably, for the latter two, only when knitting is practised in such a way as to create new neurological pathways: you have to knit something unfamiliar, something new to you. It seems even our health relies on knitting being innovative and challenging, even if just on a personal level.
Yet despite these constant progressions, we keep on thinking and talking of knitting as historical and bound with tradition. Tradition is not inherently good. There are plenty of traditions that have fallen by the wayside or actively needed curbing, including ones that pertain to knitting (hello Shetland’s truck system and other methods of low pay). Yes, people of many persuasions have knit their way through a good chunk of history, and history includes the best of times and the worst of times. Just because it has been done for hundreds of years doesn’t make knitting an intrinsically historic occupation, but it is constantly historicised in a way that other actions and skills are not. People throughout history have had sex, and in more recent history, have taken to using spoons, yet we do not consider anyone having sex or using spoons as predominantly concerned with maintaining historical traditions. So much of the ‘thing’ around knitting is about its preservation, often just for the sake of preservation. For the longevity and health of knitting, it might actually be more prescient to not constantly historicise it, and tie it down with its roots, but instead allow it to just be. It might not even need romanticising: it might actually be good enough as it is. Because, you see, currently, exactly RIGHT NOW, knitting is particularly vibrant and progressive, and to see it as simply maintaining a tradition would be to ignore how much more is happening in knitting now than ever before. Not to mention how much more is possible in the future.