“that sweater is screaming the ’80s”

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Lela Nargi, ed., Knitting Memories: Reflections on the Knitter’s Life (Voyageur Press, 2006).

Now, I don’t want to be churlish. There are some great things in this book of short essays edited by Lela Nargi. Elanor Lynn’s piece, for example, really gives a window on her idiosyncratic creative process and the particular sense of place, space and connectedness her knitting defines. Local attachment is also a theme in Eiko Berkowitch’s lovely account of making and change over time as “learning to live with the slow process.” Both of these essays really showcase the aesthetic sensibilities of their authors while also being written with a certain committed modesty. But the quality of the rest of the book is variable. The writing in some pieces is much better than in others, and quite a few were the source (for me) of minor irritation (Lily Chin’s grumblings about the terrible hardships of ‘knitting for a living, for example).

But it is the overall effect of the collection that I found most troubling. This is why: one of the most interesting things about contemporary knitting (and the fibre arts in general) is its lively sense of community. While knitting is an activity most of us engage with in private, many of us wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for the world of other knitters: for that vibrant, sociable, argumentative network of shared expertise and collective experience that is behind every object that we make. Knitting groups all over the world have returned coffeeshops and pubs to being linchpins of the public sphere.* Boards, kals and ravelry have created other kinds of spaces for learning, inspiration and discussion. In a very profound sense, knitting today really is about knitting in public: it is about being a knitter in a community of knitters, about making within the context of other’s making (in the broadest sense).

What surprised me was how far these public resonances of knitting were absent in Lela Nargi’s collection. The meanings of knitting here, in fact, are resolutely private. In most of these essays, knitting is predominantly associated with individual obsession, family life, acts of sentimental gift-giving and (most disturbingly) with conservative domesticity. Overwhelmingly, knitting is represented as a retreat from the public sphere, rather than as a sign of participation in it. For example, in Robert Cowley’s essay, his wife’s knitting is a retreat-within-a-retreat: an escape not just from the world outside, but from the domestic chaos that surrounds them after the birth of their child, perhaps too (his anxious subtext) from the marriage itself. Knitting here seems a way of not engaging with the public: of shutting oneself away and shutting it out, of denying the public might even exist.

In some of the essays, this denial takes on the features of pathology. For example, one writer mentions that she started knitting following Kennedy’s assassination (for her, an anecdotal coincidence rather than a conscious act). And forgive me for groaning at another author’s account of her grandmother’s knitting as a sort of silent, internalised response to 911. These well-known moments of collective experience are not occasions for engagement with the social or public, but rather prompt rejections (through knitting) of the public altogether. Across the collection, there are few accounts of the pleasure or productivity of creating communally, little sense of what can be gained from an activity that is also associative and shared (beyond the world of the familial or domestic).

In Betty Christiansen’s essay, the author’s sister tells her to get rid of an old sweater which is “screaming the ‘80s.” To me, this book was screaming the ‘80s in that it seemed to encapsulate the privatised, inward-looking sensibility characteristic of that decade. Depressingly, the collection’s predominant focus on subjective experience and domestic identity called to mind that familiar Thatcherite dictum “there is no such thing as society: only individuals and families.” For the majority of writers in this collection, there is, indeed, no such thing as society: only individual knitters and their families. Of course, it could be said that a collection of conservative, private knitters in itself constitutes a kind of knitting public. But this 1980s assemblage seems a long way from the contemporary world of disputation and debate, of participation, association, encouragement and support that energises and inspires much knitting in public today.

*See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962; 1989).