Knitting, and indeed most other yarn-related crafts, has long been seen as the domain of women. When we think of knitting, we often picture an older woman, or perhaps that one scarring Shreddies advert. When I decided to write about knitting and gender, I found there was so much to say about this well-loved hobby, which has not only been weaponised against women but has actually inspired many men-dominated industries, most notably the world of computers.
First, let’s address the obvious: “women’s work” is always undervalued. Knitting was originally a tool for survival used to make clothes to protect us from the elements and to weave nets to catch fish and harvest fruits. Women were not always the only knitters: men sailors and fishers had to learn the craft to repair their clothes and equipment and it was also a fun way to pass long hours at sea. Only in the Victorian age did knitting become gendered. The Industrial Revolution changed the clothes-making game, rendering hand-knitting unprofitable. Knitting became a way to keep bored, wealthy women’s hands busy. Men, who had no time for unproductive activities (aside from sports of course) were soon excluded from knitting circles. To this day, men knitters such as Stephen West and Tom Daley are seen as ‘brave’ or ‘embracing their feminine sides’.
Knitting has been used to make codes and share messages for longer than you might think. There are some super visual examples of displaying data through knitting, from Sue Montgomery’s red and black piece displaying the gender of those speaking in a political meeting, to temperature blankets, and even physicists displaying knot theory. Knitting is a lot like a coding language, with letters and numbers used to describe certain stitches. Why is this important? Because when an algorithm is used in the domestic sphere it is feminine and idle, but when it is used in technology it is masculine and world-changing.
Women have embraced the power that comes from blending private and public spaces, and knitting has been used in a number of political ways. Yarn bombing, a type of street art which involves wrapping objects such as postboxes, bicycles, or streetlights in knitted fabrics, became very popular in the 2010s. Yarn bombing, apart from being beautiful, is a statement about the typically men-dominated street art scene, and is a reclamation of masculinised public spaces. ‘Stitch and bitch’ or ‘knit and natter’ style groups have also become popular, providing a women-only space for women to talk about their experiences, whilst knitting. In fact, some groups have used these spaces to embrace the empowerment that comes with doing something that is solely for pleasure, and not profit, a political movement in and of itself. In summary, knitting is not only scientifically proven to reduce stress levels, but it is also a political movement, and unnecessarily gendered.