Knitting for the Bodies we have: International Women’s Day 2021

When so many of us returned to knitting as part of the sustainable DIY activist movement that empowered makers, how has it been co-opted to perpetuate normative beauty myths and conspicuous consumption?

In this post to mark the 26th anniversary of International Women’s Day I want to focus on one of the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Declaration, ‘Women and the Media’ to reflect on how the social media activity of our knitting community ‘plays a significant role in perpetuating and challenging social norms that condone discrimination or … objectify women, but also [how it can] showcase strong women leaders and protagonists who can become role models for their audience’.

My thoughts are intended as a series of reflections on some of the existing discussions taking place within the knitting community which I’ve referenced in previous posts, and a series talking points that I think may merit further reflection. It’s an opportunity for me to get some of the ideas out of my head and into some sort of order, (I hope) and perhaps to spark ongoing discussion in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think too.

This post was originally written to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of International Women’s Day last March, but it was never quite finished for publication as countries succumbed to covid lockdowns like tumbling dominoes and I became preoccupied with finding a repatriation flight that wasn’t cancelled within hours of my booking it. Now a year on, the opportunity to re-visit this post also enables me to update some parts of it, but also to reflect that many of these issues remain frustratingly persistent. The scope of the post has expanded a little and hope I adequately reflect changes in the last year.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge how the normative beauty myth that has been prominent in social media, and in the selling of knitting as a pastime, has engaged in a monocultural whitening of the knitting community. Whilst this in no way reflects the reality of our craft, it certainly reflects how it is represented. Thus, not represented are people of colour to the point that they are assumed not to exist in indeed ignored out of existence.

Artist Lorna Hamilton Brown wrote her MA thesis titled “Myth − Black People Don’t Knit: The importance of art and oral histories for documenting the experiences of black knitters’, exploding the very myth that this failure to represent has perpetuated.  She has also explored this issue in a guest post on the Loop Knitting Blog; Hidden in Plain Sight – in honour of Black History Month 

Copyright: Lorna Hamilton Brown
Context – In the artists own words: The starting point for this artwork was the alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill by George Floyd which led to him losing his life…. When I heard on the news that the $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman which was due to be released in 2020 was going to be delayed until 2028 – plus there was no guarantee that Tubman would be on the new note, I decided to knit a note to honour Harriet Tubman and George Floyd. Link for more information.

Jeanette Sloan similarly had been exploring issues of race and representation through social media platform and published articles like ‘Black People Do Knit’, written for Knitting Magazine and compiling the POC Designers & Crafters list on her blog. In 2019 she teamed up with Lorna Hamilton Brown, Alyson Chu and Jimenez Jospeh to formalise this into a dedicated website, BIPOC in Fibre.

Others have spoken of the visceral impact of their experience of marginalisation and experience of racial prejudice within a range of elements of the ‘knitting community’ at festivals, in yarn stores as well as online.

Gaye Glasspie has rightly been recognised for her eloquence in this matter and her willingness to share experience to support change within the community through her fabulous you tube channel – I’m linking directly to her Stand in the Gap video and via her instagram account ggmadeit.

These shared lived experiences illustrate how not seeing oneself as part of the representation of the knitting community effectively closes those spaces, be that the actual community represented, or the fora through which it is represented e.g. social media spaces, from wider participation. These yarn shops, festivals or online social media communities are not then the open inclusive communities I certainly want to be part of, instead they effectively become ‘gated’ communities where existing members establish their admission criteria and police their boundaries. This is one area where there has been change in the last year. Whether this really goes beyond the performative, time will tell. Certainly the experience of makers of colour on wider social media suggests that it remains an often hostile space both penny but also through direct message, reporting and shadow bans.

When I first wrote this post I debated publishing a blog post that examined the wider intersections of discrimination beyond those based on colour so soon after the death of George Floyd, so soon on the heels of the death of Breonna Taylor, when the need to confront how we respond to the racism so deeply embedded in our own communities felt like the core issue we should focus on. Then I thought back to the most influential writers on race and gender that I have read, who have repeatedly stressed the importance of intersectionality long before the term was coined, not only on the basis that those most significantly impacted by these intersectional oppressions are women of colour.

“So behind this concept of intersectionality is a rich history of struggle. A history of conversations among activists within movement formations, and within and among academics as well. I mention this genealogy that takes seriously the epistemological productions of those whose primary work is organizing radical movements because I think it’s important to prevent the term “intersectionality” from erasing essential histories of activism. There were those of us who by virtue of our experience, not so much by virtue of academic analyses, recognized that we had to figure out a way to bring these issues together. They weren’t separate in our bodies, but also they are not separate in terms of struggles.” 
― Angela Davis

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Haymarket Books,  2016:p.19

This quote from Angela Davis resonates and draws attention to the concept of intersectionality as a product of histories of struggle, of activism, of peoples’ experience. It is easy when one sees lists of the social and political identities that come within the umbrella of intersectionality, for example, race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, ability, physical size, to see these in the abstract, and to overlook that these elements of identify formation are shaped by lived experience. This list is not exhaustive and often such lists are themselves effects of how particular power structures are socially and culturally located. Note for example, my initial list did not include caste, immigration status, citizenship, and I am sure there are many other identities that could be included and through which we could uncover processes discrimination by simply focussing on how privilege, oppression, power, and marginalization operate. What Davis reminds us is that these are not abstractions but embodied identities, and to be adequate our politics and our struggles need to recognise that and how these identities coincide, overlap and compound discrimination. As she says they ‘are not separate in our bodies, but also they are not separate in terms of struggles.’ I also find Davis interesting in the how throughout her work she locates oppression in capitalism and it is to this I now turn in relation to conspicuous consumption and marketing in the knitting industry.

It strikes me, repeatedly, that the bodies represented and mobilised to sell within the knitting community are are young, slim, white, female and conform to a rather conventional notion of ‘pretty’. In this respect they mimic the clotheshorse models of mainstream fashion, again perpetuating very specific beauty myths that not only colour the body, but also shape the body in very particular ways. Moreover, this is often paired with an aesthetic that places these bodies often quite passively in particular environments. These images convey little sense of movement or labour or the functionality required of bodies to inhabit such environments, thus erasing any sign of embodied experience. If you are yelling at the screen, ‘but what about’. I hear you, I will point to some great exceptions below, mostly from the Independent sector, but they by and large they are notable because they are exceptions or if you prefer, trailblazers.

In the last 18 months or so Jacqueline Cieslak has helped shape how the knitting community has begun to face embedded fatphobia and move towards greater size inclusion. In doing so she has articulated a political project which challenges the way in which political, social and cultural practices, and moral discourse or language, excludes larger bodies. She also highlights how fatphobia is also embedded in white supremacy in globally universalising a white European, thin, beauty aesthetic, such that the appropriate response is not simply personal but also political, social, and cultural.

Jacqueline was interviewed in issue 32 of PomPom magazine in a piece entitled ‘Liminal Bodies’. It’s a great piece which I highly recommend and PomPom have now made it available for non-subscribers/buyers via their blog. It is no surprise that PomPom, which has consistently demonstrated a commitment to wider inclusion, and Jacqueline have teamed up to publish Embody: A Capsule Collection to Knit and Sew. Based around 3 core patterns, the book stakes knitters through the options to produce up to 25 variations to suit and fit a wide size range.

Copyright: PomPom Magazine
The front cover of ‘Embody, A Capsule Collection to knit and sew by Jacqueline Cieslak’

But size inclusion is not important in just one direction. While much of the English language size inclusively debate has emphasised the exclusion of larger bodies, there has been less debate around how smaller bodies are excluded. Often rooted in histories of colonialism and white supremacy, women of asian heritage and/or nationality have identified how western culture infantilises them, expects submissiveness and fetishises their often smaller bodies. In knitting terms, when seeking smaller sizes, the oft repeated response to knit from aged-sized patterns for children should ring some very loud alarm bells.

However, there’s more to our bodies than their colour or whether they are big or small. What about differently proportioned bodies, or differently abled bodies, or unstable bodies that change over time, trans bodies, post surgical bodies, menopausal bodies. Our bodies can be psychologically challenging and challenge our sense of ourselves. Body dysmorphia can result in repeated shock and a sense of not knowing the person looking back at us from the mirror. Susan Crawford has spoken about this with an honesty and rawness following surgery for breast cancer, that I cannot express how much I admire. Her Evolution Collection is an amazing creative testament to the journey cancer forced upon her, as well as a size inclusive pattern collection. It can be easy to lose oneself in a world where one doesn’t see oneself represented, in a myriad of ways.

Copyright: Susan Crawford
The back cover of the Evolution Collection

In the last year it has been disappointing to see some of the responses and pushbacks to calls for greater size inclusion and I have wondered about this as some surprising voices have been vocal about the perceived ‘burden’ of grading across a much wider range of sizes. On reflection I think some of this push back comes when small independent often one-woman or small design companies are disproportionately held to a standard that some of the larger ‘faceless’ yarn subsidiaries of age multi-national craft businesses are not. The parasocial relationships established with eponymous design businesses developed via social media means there is a direct line to these individuals to call them to account, while the big players who determine the structure of the business and for whom design is about selling yarn and who can devalue to the design process accordingly, conveniently remain out of reach.

Similarly, as we approach the 31st March when the Ravelry ‘classic’ design will be retired rendering the site inaccessible to a number of users with chronic neurological conditions and visual difficulties, there have also been some notable silences, online bullying, gaslighting and a refusal to stand by previous proclamations and commitments to inclusion.

None of us exist in isolation, we are all complex mixtures of various intersections and it’s easy to focus on our own and the challenges we face, more than the privileges we inhabit. I’m conscious that as a white, rural working class born, highly state educated, middle aged, comfortably off, cis gendered woman, that I have highlighted how I see the absence of certain groups in our community, including where I have no direct lived experience of this. So, I would like to extend an invitation to those of you who do:

If you would like to contribute to the discussion but don’t feel able, or don’t wish to do so directly, I’d be happy to support you to get your voice heard. I’d happily host an opinion piece which you can put your name to or otherwise, I’d happily interview you over the internet, assistive technology, via email, or face to face if we could make that happen – you’d get to set the agenda and get final editorial approval of course, or if you have an idea of what would work for you, please let me know.

If you’re uncertain about working with me, you might want to read this interview from a few years ago.

Please also feel free to share in the comments and to give shout outs to people you see doing interesting things in the community. Comments on my blog are moderated.

I’ll end with a quote from Jacqueline Cieslak’s piece for PomPom, a call to arms if you will, to work together:

Self-love mantras and bath bombs will not make the power structures of our world more equitable and accessible; we need political will and intersectional community building for that’

PomPom Magazine Issue 32, March 2020, p.43

Until Next Time, All the very best,

Tess xxx

International Women’s DayStudent Summit 2021

2 thoughts on “Knitting for the Bodies we have: International Women’s Day 2021

  1. Hi Tess, I really enjoyed reading your commentary on this and I shared the blog post over on my Youtube channel. I’ve love to discuss this with you further at some point. Hope you have been well. Anushka x

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