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October 30
Staying in the Loop

​How knitting is interwoven with the works of artists, innovators, and revolutionary thinkers
Rogue Knit.jpg
Knitting's quaint and retro image as a worthy and sedate hobby may be widespread, but it relies on a complete misunderstanding of the diverse and occasionally revolution associates knitting enjoys with art, philosophy, radicalism, and the crafts movement. It might be true that the more mundane aspects of knitting have remained pretty consistent over a period of centuries, but it is a practice and a skill that nevertheless invites innovation and radical thought.

This is not surprising according to a feature in the New Yorker published earlier this year, which highlighted the similarities between the arts and crafts movement and the contemporary democratizing forces of technology. In both cases, cheap and accessible tools are placed in the hands of everybody to do with as they wish. Given such emancipation, it is little wonder that the use to which such tools are put - be they knitting needles or an iPad - can be eternally surprising and groundbreaking.

The article cites the example of Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired who quit his job to become the CEO of a robotics company and in 2012 published a manifesto, called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Anderson argues how important it is for people to make things and not just sell services and makes no distinction between 3D printing and Web 2.0 and traditional forms of manufacture. "If you love to plant, you're a garden Maker. Knitting and sewing, scrapbooking, beading, and cross-stitching - all Making," he writes. "The digital natives are starting to hunger for life beyond the screen. Making something that starts virtual but quickly becomes tactile and usable in the everyday world is satisfying in a way that pure pixels are not."

The practice of knitting, along with other crafts, has long enjoyed connotations with rejections of established order. The counter-cultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s, which continue to influence thought to this day, used craft as a way of rejecting consumerism and homogeneity, encouraging creativity - ideas which still underpin the modern crafts movement.

In English, the words 'craft' and 'crafty' denote cleverness, cunning, and trickery. The French word for knitting is tricot. In historical terms, it is a word inextricably bound up with the French Revolution as female knitters, les tricoteuses, would often sit beside the guillotine during public executions, cheerfully chatting and knitting in between beheadings. Often they are depicted in paintings from the time as knitting Liberty Caps. In literature, the most famous of these women is Madame Defarge in Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, an active Revolutionary who secretly encodes the name of those to be executed in her knitting.

A less bloodthirsty example of the revolution use of knitting has arisen in London over the last five years. Knit the City is a loose collective of knitters whose aim is "to guerrilla knit the city of London, and beyond that the world, and bring the art of the sneaky stitch to a world without wool." Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but they have achieved a great deal of prominence as well as notoriety. Their best known stunt was to knit a cosy for a phone box in Parliament Square, but they are also known for a variety of other happenings - or yarnstorms - including the Web of Woe, a large spider web in London's Leake Street.
More mainstream creative outpourings of knitting even deserve their own section of the V&S's website​, where visitors can find both mainstream applications of the craft including a catalogue of patterns from the 1940's, as well as explore the work of innovators such as Ruth Lee and Freddie Robins. The latter says in an interview: "As far as I am concerned, any increase in knitting is a good thing. If everyone knitted the world would be a better, happier, and certainly a warmer, place." And you can't really argue with that.