The Revolutionary Power of Knitting
Not long ago, Michelle Obama posted a black-and-white photo of herself on Instagram, cozy in an armchair, a nearby side table displaying an adorable baby pic of Malia and Sasha. She is barefoot, dressed in wide-legged jeans and a satin shirt, smiling widely as she looks down … at her knitting. “Every time I tell people how much I love to knit,” she writes in the caption, “They seem so surprised!”
And I thought, why?
I suspect it’s because knitters, unlike Mrs. Obama, are presumed to be aging ungracefully: prim, elderly (probably white) ladies rocking away on the porch in cultural irrelevance. Before I refute that — yarn lovers come in all ages, genders, sexualities and races — I want to ask, even if it were true, so what? The dismissal, the reflexive derision of women from midlife onward — especially if we stop chasing social media standards of beauty — is a nasty form of ageist sexism.
Besides, that imagined innocuousness can be a strength, even a superpower. Knitting is considered a “craft,” one you begin by “casting on,” evoking spells and witchery, a kind of practical magic. What greater sorcery is there, really, than making something, whether turning raw fiber to thread or raw flour to bread or engaging in the ultimate creative act: conjuring new humans from nowhere at all?
Our needles have also been a sharp political tool, wielded to fight injustice, to express both patriotism and protest, especially when other outlets were forbidden. No matter how you ended up feeling about those pink pussyhats, it was no accident that women’s first collective act of dissent after the election of President Donald Trump was to knit.
Back in the days of the American Revolution, women’s boycotts of British cloth in favor of “homespun,” and their defiant public “spinning bees” were at least as instrumental in the fight for independence as the spilling of all that tea. Molly Rinker, whose nickname was Old Mom, and who was one of the era’s fabled spies, reportedly tucked bits of information about British troop movements into balls of yarn. Who would suspect an aging matron, placidly knitting socks at a scenic overlook, of tossing message-laced skeins to the patriots? Knitting’s benign reputation allowed her to subvert the very conventions she appeared to uphold.
The French had their “tricoteuses,” which translates to women knitters (they have a word for that!), particularly those who, during the Reign of Terror, sat before the guillotines bearing grim witness to public executions. You may recall Madame Defarge from “A Tale of Two Cities,” whose stitches formed a Reaper’s roster of the condemned. Her real-life counterparts were equally complex, a mix of feminist hero and vengeful villain. Many (presumably savoring l’ironie) were said to knit liberty caps as the heads rolled: those red, conical hats with the point folded forward that represented freedom from tyranny. Marianne, a national symbol of France, is often depicted in a liberty cap. So, for reasons I cannot determine, is Papa Smurf.