Spinning Yarns

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve become aware of threads, bright fibres, at the edges of my vision. Somewhere, someone has been weaving their way around the habitual bits and pieces of my everyday; I have found lamp-posts caught-up in patchwork, whole avenues enscarfed, the cords hung with dew like flocculent Technicolor spider-webs. Knitted fragments appear where I least expect to find them. Loose strands spread, reaching out into a subtly unravelling grid, soft weavings speckling London’s greyness, brightening an overcast winter’s day in a Shropshire town. It seems wrong to call them fragments, for the more of them you see, the more you realise that they are woollen remarks in a larger conversation that is taking place out there, in plain sight. Somewhere, unknown members of an industrious community – of guerrilla knitters or yarnbombers – take the time to knit themselves into a colourful discussion, lending their hand-made voices to a collective statement, made tangible in alpaca and acrylic, lambswool and linen yarn. From London to Mexico City, Bali to Philadelphia, individuals invested in a collective, feminist reclamation of knitting, and of the everyday landscapes of our built environments, have been conversing in colours, in cosies. Moss stitch and stocking stitch, carefully ravelled, speak to the observer’s eye of of creative energy which, as a London yarnbombing group writes, doesn’t necessarily need direction or concrete meaning, but should inspire the viewer to similar imaginative innovation. When we take a step back, these patches form responses to each other, not unlike the way that written graffiti might prompt an exchange between strangers on a wall; what our response should be, though, remains unclear.

What sets the woollier discourse apart from its stencilled cousin is the conscious and laborious act of crafting a way into a community that imbues the knitted ‘word’ with a different kind of meaning from the seeming spontaneity and self-conscious aesthetics of the painted word. The knitted one stitches its individual creator into a wide tapestry of discussion about the nature of creativity, the imaginative reclamation of municipal spaces, and the kinds of value – and types of people – we associate with this particular craft. The liberating thing about the guerrilla knitting movement is that its play with anonymity gives us room to imagine male and female knitters at the same time as imbuing each knit and purl – moments traditionally associated with older generations of women, the necessities of mundane housework – with power and vitality. Interrupting the public gaze, and challenging the unsuspecting eye with incongruous patches of domestic stuff, yarnbombers use knitting to suggest the kind of things – about domesticity and value, creativity and gender, individuality and power – that we spend so long finding the right words to confront.

Curiously, though, I’ve come to realise that these soft fragments that impress cosiness onto stone and metal leave me uncomfortable. I think the problem lies in the military pose that the terms ‘guerrilla knitting’, or ‘yarnbombing’, strike, and the fuzzy purpose that accompanies this combative project, flippant or no. It’s hard to decide how far the military name and stealth tactics of the movement are meant to invest its material expressions with the weighty significance of protest and dissent, and how far it’s all just a bit tongue-in-cheek. While blankets for tanks in Holland, or wraps for the stone weaponry of Bali’s political sculptures interrupt violent male narratives in striking ways, the nature of many knitted displays leave troubling loose ends. Although they work to free this craft from a restricted history of gender specificity and domestic labour, an element of frivolity or luxury in the finished product seems to be a requirement. Perhaps I’m missing the point, but making jumpers for lamp-posts seems to prioritise superfluity, to obscure the merits of practical meaning in favour of quirkily achieved provocative thought. Moreover, its approach to knitting as an art form might elevate the knitted object beyond its gendered, domestic associations, but its kitsch levity also undermines a history of knitting-as-necessity in times of conflict, moments in which women went about shaping their identities through the items they made and the needles they used on a daily basis.

The problem is the way these modern knitted things seem to have been produced to say something compelling, at the same time as their makers profess to say nothing, in particular, at all. The difficulty lies in how yarnbombers work against the stark, practical language of hand-woven objects that they simultaneously evoke. Far from the deadly handiwork of the French Revolution’s tricoteuse, the political charge of suffragette embroidery, the abolitionist solidarity of the communally crafted quilt, the yarnbombers’ modern approach to knitting as a so-called protest art, smoothes the creases from the craft’s dark history of fraught identity politics. In smothering us with the luxuries of leisure, idiosyncrasy, freedom of expression, colour, their approach permits us to take these things for granted. It indulges us, making us lazy readers of bright surfaces, safe in the knowledge that just looking at and considering these works is somehow enough. This soft protest, this cosy and unhurried rebellion, seems to misunderstand the urgency, the drive, the subversion that lies at the heart of so much crafted dissent.

                                    ‘Young men, my suitors, now my lord is dead,

                                    let me finish my weaving before I marry,

                                    or else my thread will have been spun in vain. […]’

                                    We had men’s hearts; she touched them; we agreed.

                                    So every day she wove on the great loom –

                                    but every night by torchlight she unwove it,

                                    and so for three years she deceived the Akhaians.

                                    But when the seasons brought the fourth around,

                                    one of her maids, who knew the secret, told us;

                                    we found her unravelling the splendid shroud.

                                    She had to finish then, although she hated it.

                                         The Odyssey, Book II, trans. Robert Fitzgerald                           


Knitting’s history of protest is thick, its militant voices subversively knotty, its interlaced vocabulary of function and symbol both disarmingly eloquent yet rebelliously, personally complex. Appreciating its acts of resistance involves attending to each stitch for the effort that went into it and the forces that drove it. Some of the most compelling – and troubling – items of dissent draw attention to the very labour of protest of which they are created, manipulating effort into message. These peculiar weavings are worth reading carefully, for, considering the manipulation it entails on a basic level, the craft of protest can also be misused.

In the last months of the American Civil War, Mrs Hugh Holmes Lee begun work on another pair of socks for her bare-footed Confederate boys. The war had brought on four long years of extra knitting for the soldiers, lint-picking, and bandage making, which had stripped her work basket bare. This time, though, making do was nothing to be ashamed of; this time, her makeshift wouldn’t remind her of the shreds her cossetted southern life had been reduced to by this cruel war. Smiling to herself, Mrs Hugh Holmes Lee carefully added to her neat rows, suspended on three needles: the off-white thread of unravelled Yankee tents ran rough through her fingers.

Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

Mrs Lee’s sock, half-knitted, its needles still mournfully attached and holding the composition together, now resides in the archives of the late Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Originally conceived by the women of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society as a monument to the men who died for the Confederacy and the women and children who devoted themselves to the South’s cause during the Civil War, the museum housed an astonishing array of military and domestic items donated by individuals through the 1890s to the present day. To the modern eye the place was like a cabinet of curios, eloquent in their brooding morbidity – delicately woven hair necklaces told of efforts to exert intricate control over the uncertainties of the wartime present; samples of ersatz homespun made by slaves and their owners, now placed in museum cases, seemed to take great pride in their own ingenuity as objects of survival; woven palmetto fans sighed over the memories of stagnant heat, the luxury of remaining composed and ladylike as battle raged through backyards and parlours. As their presence in the museum suggests, these were things that, despite the impoverishment or anxieties they made manifest, were nevertheless regarded with a sense of pride by the women who made them, who kept them, thought on them, displayed and looked on as these parts of themselves, rehomed under glass, spoke with them again, though now as if from a distance.

Mrs Lee had been stopped mid-sock when Union General William Sherman’s men threw her out of her home. Dispossession had stopped even the most rebellious of crafting hands, and the story that accompanied the object to the museum when it was donated by relatives noted she’d never taken the piece up again. It’s a difficult object to deal with, because its material act of rebellion against the invading Union army is not visually apparent in an immediate way; this is not a straight-talking thing. The mythology of this object’s matter relies on verbal narrative rather than visual representation, a supportive network of storytelling that asserts Mrs Lee’s anecdotal possession over a personal act of creative rebellion that seems to have failed. There’s more to it than this, though. Strangely enough, the museum holds two unfinished socks, which suggests that Mrs Lee’s wartime experience of personal collapse was far from unique. Taking into account the numerous wartime poems and stories that urged women to knit with militant mien – ‘Fair ladies, then, if nothing loth, / Bring forth your spinning wheels; / Knit not your brow – but knit to clothe / In bliss our blistered heels’ – Mrs Lee’s unfinished sock becomes a potent symbol of women’s frustrated, domestically limited attempts to make their mark upon a man’s war. Placed in the museum amidst the relics of male military action, the artefact and its potential are reasserted, leaving tangible traces of the voices that war so often drowns out.

The half-finished sock might appeal to a more general understanding of women’s place in war, but its position within the Museum of the Confederacy does suggest an overtly political side to this artefact’s narrative. Suspended in a politically charged museum, Mrs Lee’s half-finished sock doubly suggests defeat, as well as the unfinished nature of the Lost Cause, a cause which might be taken up by the viewer’s own enterprising hands and woven on into satisfying completion. One look at this object sets one’s fingers itching. In a way, this thing generates its own mythology without needing words to do so. Reminding us of Penelope’s unfinished burial shroud, it is a melancholy thing, the stuff both of life and of death, of an ongoing movement between feminine rebellion and submission, of narratives that begin but find themselves unable to end. For the women of the fallen Confederacy, the museum provided a way of marking one’s voice in the face of instability, dispossession, the fall of a national ideology and a personal way of life.

The worrying thing about these objects is their appeal: the worrying thing is the way they draw you to them, ‘all politics aside’. These individual oddities in which we can read stories of survival, desperate assertions of identity, attempt, as we read, to stitch us sympathetically into their melancholy bid for prosperity. The worrying thing about these objects is the things they hide, the violences they conceal, the culture of slavery, the history of brutal subjugation that this carefully crafted matter, and its surroundings, have the power to conceal. Or, to look at it another way, the things we fail to see when taken in by the striking visuals of ardent, desperate dissent. The museum also houses woven artefacts that face us with the uncomfortable thought that we almost certainly fail, on a daily basis, to interrogate the darker corners of our manmade things, to consider their origins, the substance that lies beyond the surface. As well as Mrs Lee’s sock, the Museum holds samples of colourful wartime homespun that a white southern woman had arranged and pasted carefully onto board, quite clearly claiming the work as her own. In actual fact the material had been produced by her slaves. While speaking superficially about hand-working a sense of identity from the worsted of poverty and decline, this terrible arrangement is undoubtedly an act of violence that alienates the African American producer from their handiwork and suppressed the voice of the maker threaded into those samples. Regarded as a possession, the slave was a producer whose own creative works could be appropriated as the crafted possessions of their mistress’s own hands.

Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

By disentangling the story of this proud collage, though, the sense of southern identity so brazenly presented can also be unpicked. Dependent upon her slaves for the materials that sustained her household, and with it her capacity for self-definition, the white woman who fashioned this board surely found herself coming undone after Emancipation in 1863, and in the years of desolation following the war. The strangeness of the arrangement lies in the fact that she made concrete her expression of a lost self, and her lost slaves, by setting evidence of these into decorative composition. In so doing, this woman asserted a kind of ersatz articulation of self: vital to her perception of her own existence, precariously hanging in the balance after the Confederate surrender, this object attempts to take the place of ‘resources’ long since exhausted. If these things, so tightly woven, arrange themselves to attract the eye, to fascinate, to elicit moments of affective communion from those whose eyes they attract, they are also objects riddled with holes, with telling traces of artifice that are worth pulling at. If the worrying thing about objects of protest is their carefully crafted appeal to our love of surfaces, our appreciation of a vibrant or imaginative whole, then sometimes it’s also worth noticing the close work of the individual knit and purl, making ourselves read between the rows.