The Common Good
February 2007

Knit Local, Act Global

by Molly Marsh | February 2007

Stitching for Social (and personal) change.

Knitting is hip. Subversive, even.

Take knitting and crocheting, crafts previously assigned to grannies and church ladies, combine them with the punk-inspired Do-It-Yourself movement and the connecting possibilities of the Internet, and you get a large-scale revival. And like any revival worth its salt, it has transformative effects—personally, socially, and spiritually.

The last few years have seen record-breaking yarn sales, a burst of knitting-inspired blogs and Web sites, a TV show called Knitty Gritty, and several new fiction books (“knit lit”) that have as their premise the friendships formed in knitting circles. One, titled The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs, will hit the big screen next year starring Julia Roberts, rumored to be a knitter herself. Nonfiction fans can find more socially minded fare, such as Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time or Knitting Heaven and Earth: Healing the Heart with Craft.

The revival carries a new attitude, even a political edge, brought by a wave of women in their 20s and 30s who approach stitching with a hipster sass and sensibility. Although people of all ages are gravitating toward knitting, these “chicks with sticks” have accounted for a 150 percent increase in knitting and crocheting since 2002, according to a study by the Craft Yarn Council of America.

Debbie Stoller, co-founder of a magazine for young feminists called Bust, has helped refashion the knitter-as-dowdy image into one that’s plucky and cool. She grew up knitting and crocheting in a household that considered them respectable forms of art, but as she got older, she realized they carried a huge stigma. “As far as I could tell, the only reason they had this bad image was because it was something that had traditionally been done by women,” Stoller told a National Public Radio reporter. “As a feminist I wanted to change that.”

Stoller started running craft ideas and projects in Bust magazine in 1999, and has since published several books on knitting and crocheting that carry instructions for iPod covers, yoga mat bags, even bikinis; there’s not a single toilet paper roll cover in the mix. For women worried that knitting or crocheting marked them as oddball or old-fashioned, Stoller and others showed them knitting and feminism could co-exist, that anything traditionally considered “women’s work” could be re-evaluated and reclaimed. Purl Grrrl has, to use Stoller’s rallying cry, “taken back the knit.”

Knitting and crocheting—clothing, especially—can also be a form of resistance, an alternative to consumerism and capitalism. The time and expense knitting or crocheting can require is considerable; as anyone who has ever knit a sweater can tell you, we don’t pay enough for the human labor invested in most of what we buy. Making things by hand helps us value their true worth; it also assures us that, at least in some cases, our socks and mittens aren’t made in sweatshops.

“There used to be a stigma attached to making something yourself, but that’s gone,” said Mary Colucci, executive director of the Craft Yarn Council. “We’ve become so mass-produced that people have a new attitude about handmade things. It’s refreshing.”

In some cases, those handmade items, and the act of creating them, are political—call it “craftivism.” Cast Off, a London knitting group, holds “knit-ins” in parks, subway cars, and other public places around the city, both to introduce newcomers to the craft but also to raise the ideals of both self-sufficiency and community. These “guerrilla knitters,” as they’ve been called, have also marched in anti-war demonstrations with the slogan “Drop Stitches, Not Bombs.” Among the items for sale on their Web site is a hand-knit hand grenade—a far superior alternative to the real thing.

The Calgary-based Revolutionary Knitting Circle, which describes itself as a “loosely knit circle of revolutionaries,” operates similarly. Their aim is to resist corporate globalization and promote local independence by staging “knit-ins” at places of power. Usually that’s banks and government buildings, but in 2002 they turned up at the G8 Summit in Calgary for a “Global Knit-In.” Some protesters knit blankets to give to the homeless, others knit peace armbands and squares that, when stitched together, were supposed to represent the social safety net. “Knitting is symbolic of ‘community independence,’” group founder Grant Neufeld told a reporter. “We need as communities to be able to take care of ourselves because when we are not able to take care of ourselves, we end up dependent on others—in this case the corporation—to survive.”

THE MEDITATIVE AND spiritual qualities of knitting can also yield inward revolutions. It can be healing to stitch in a corner by yourself or in a group, working with your hands to create something beautiful out of a ball of string. For one thing, you can’t rush. You have to slow down and focus on what’s directly in front of you—a salve for the overprocessed, overanalytical mind.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits comes in stitching with others. Knitting circles (aka “Stitch ’n’ Bitch” groups) are places for connection, for sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. After all, most of us don’t knit because we need to make our own clothes (buying the sweater is actually cheaper); we knit because we need each other.

That’s the case for the “Knit-Wits,” who have met every Monday morning at Barbara Berger’s home in Sacramento, California, for 10 years. The group is comprised of former co-workers and church friends who have stitched their way through the deaths of spouses and other painful challenges. “Some people call us the ‘Knit-Nots’—there are days when we do very little knitting and a lot of talking,” Berger says. “It’s a support group; it’s not just the knitting. It’s just really important to maintain these relationships.”

And while personal friendships are strengthened, knitting circles such as Berger’s are also reknitting the social fabric of their communities. Whether it’s creating caps for newborns and chemo patients, afghans for Afghans, prayer shawls, or socks for homeless men in their towns, it’s a chance to offer tangible and spiritual support, to do something enriching and meaningful.

Janet Bristow and Vicky Galo started the Prayer Shawl Ministry after their experience in a program of applied feminist spirituality at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary. The ministry invites stitchers to create prayer shawls for people in need—a neighbor with cancer, a stranger who’s down on his or her luck, children in developing countries. Knitters pray over the shawls before, during, and after their creation—the prayer shawl Web site contains prayers, blessings, and liturgies for doing so. Many church services incorporate a time for blessing the shawls before they’re distributed.

“A prayer shawl is prayer for the shawl maker. It’s a spiritual practice. The shawls are made in prayer, given as prayer, received as a prayer, and hopefully worn in that spirit,” said Bristow from her home in Farmington, Connecticut.

While it’s hard to quantify the ministry’s growth, its impact is evident in the increasing number of workshops and seminars Bristow and Galo are asked to give. Their Web site also contains many testimonials from creators and recipients of the shawls. “The shawl prayed for me. It gave me strength,” one woman wrote. “It thought and spoke for me when I could not, and it brought comfort at a time of agony.” For a Fort Collins, Colorado, woman grieving the suicide of her 16-year-old son, the three shawls she received were concrete evidence of consolation. Wrapped within one, she writes, “I know the broad, deep mystery of God’s presence in new ways.”

Bristow and Gola had no idea what the ministry would become. “We never meant for this to happen!” Bristow said. “We were just reaching out to the people in our lives. Obviously we were in the right place at the right time. We were ready for it, and I think the world was ready for it.”

Whether it’s for fun, fellowship, or “craftivism,” the world seems to have renewed its passion for knitting. When we hold needles and a ball of yarn, we also hold possibility; we can knit ourselves to each other and our wider communities in large and small ways. What could be more revolutionary than that?

Molly Marsh is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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