The Power of Knitting

Knitting. Respectable. Staid. A pastime for blue rinsed matrons knitting things in pastel shades for children too young to protest.



Or not! I like knitting, but I’m not keen on wishy washy pink and I’m not planning on joining the Women’s Rural (peace be upon it) anytime soon. I’ve felt a bit isolated! However, recently I’ve been finding knitters and knitting popping up in all sorts of unexpected places!

Knitting seems to have something about it which some see as subversive and even threatening. Perhaps its the pointiness, or the clicking or maybe that it demonstrates the wonderful female ability to multitask. Then there’s the folk memory of sharp needles, pricked fingers, witches and death. I’ve been told that knitting in a work meeting was an act of “insubordination” even though it is perfectly possible to listen to someone talking and pay attention at the same time, but male colleagues quitely culling email and playing minesweeper on their laptops and otherwise not concentrating never seem to attract the same attention. Then again I’ve left tedious meetings on organisational restructuring clutching several inches more jumper than I started with to have senior managers comment “at least someone got something out of it”!

It seems that in recent years a new generation of knitters have been flexing their needles and are starting to to use the art as means of expression. There are echos of  the tricoteuses, the women of the French Revolution who, having been excluded from the galleries of the National Convention,  took their protest and their knitting to the foot of the guillotine. Although some accounts view them as little more than bloodthirsty gossips,  others such as Aspasie Carlemigelli, an associate of Robespierre  embraced the revolutionary ideas of equality and democracy

Now I’m not saying that we should bring back capital punishment, but knitting as a public statement seems to be making a come-back with various “yarn bombing” projects hitting the streets. Yarn bombing – street art involving knitting –  can range from being eye-catching and humorous public art to more political activities such as the Knitting Nannas against Gas group in Australia who are protesting against unconventional gas extraction , or the UK’s own Wool Against Weapons project which is planning to link the Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield with a seven mile long knitted scarf this summer, or more simply an anonymous yarn bomber’s comment on the Edinburgh tram project


Wool against Weapons scarf section

I recently posted a picture of a yarn bombed bus on a bus campaign page I run. It was one of our most popular posts. So what makes yarn bomb protests powerful? Partly its the colour and the humour. Partly its the cuddlyness. Perhaps its the folksy hand-crafted, painstaking non-commercial nature of knitting. But I think it is also that these protests are being made mainly by women, traditionally the silent majority when it comes to public political statements. Perhaps this is what we really mean by knitting together the fabric of societies.


Another aspect of knitting heading in an unconventional direction which fascinates me as a scientist is mathematical knitting, something I stumbled across one Christmas after spending a happy afternoon putting varying numbers of twists into paper chains to make mobius strips and other shapes and then cutting them down the middle lengthways to see what happens  (try it sometime !). This set me Googling mobius strips and from there it was a short hop the Toroidal Snark website , run by Dr Sarah-Marie Belcastro (a female mathematician with teal coloured hair) is a mine of information about both mobius strip geometry and mathematical knitting. If you hanker after a mobius strip scarf, klein bottle hat or randomly patterned aran jumper this is the place to go.

So next time someone mentions they are knitting you something for Christmas remember it might be something more interesting than a poorly shaped jumper!