Oxford Bluestockings

Today’s contemporary bluestocking is not one but many: the Oxford Bluestockings – a group of scholarly, knitterly women of whom I am very proud to regard myself a satellite member. Like their eighteenth-century namesakes, these contemporary bluestockings share a range of scholarly and professional interests, but in this instance were brought together by their common obsession with hand knitting. The Oxford Bluestockings regularly get together in local cafes, pubs, and more recently on zoom, and it was in a digital context that I met this great group of women back in the mid 2000s, and quickly developed firm digital and in-person friendships, which were based very much around thinking about our knitting, as well as the knitting itself. Over the years, the Oxford Bluestockings — particularly Liz Ashdowne, Lara Clements and Felicity (Felix) Ford (who you all know as Knitsonik) — have profoundly influenced and supported my own development as a knitter and later, as a designer. After my stroke, their friendship was hugely important to me. Liz was my first tech editor–helping me out at the very start when I realised I was not going to be able to return to academic lecturing and had to endeavour to somehow make knitting my business — while Felix and Lara were continually cheering post-stroke presences. I (and my nose) have very vivid recollections of one notable visit when I was in residential rehab, of Lara and Felix striding down the rather grey ward in spectacular, colourful, and knitterly attire, laden with a gigantic and delicious mountain of cheeses with which to relieve the tasteless monotony of hospital cuisine. I thought it would be nice for you to hear about this great group of women from one of their founding members, so I asked Liz to write a wee piece for us. Take it away Liz!

Knitted heart, made for me by Felix, complete with patched-up patent foramen ovale (it was a hole in my heart of this type which caused my stroke. I had an operation to patch up the hole).

The Oxford Bluestockings were born in January 2005. Our founder, Lara Clements, had received a copy of Stitch ‘ n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook by Debbie Stoller and had been inspired to start her own group. I heard about it from my friend, Aliki, and went along to the inaugural meeting in the Jericho Cafe in North Oxford. The initial group of about half a dozen were largely drawn from my own workplace, a nearly academic publisher, but over the years we’ve had scientists, linguists, historians, musicians, artists, pastors, librarians, charity workers, and university administrators and knitters from all over the world including the UK, US, Australia, France, and the Netherlands.

Oxford Bluestockings in glorious handknits at Liz’s wedding in 2011 © David Solomon

At the start we didn’t really call ourselves anything other than “the Jericho Cafe knitters”. The
Oxford Bluestockings came about when we needed a name for our website (this was the mid-2000s when everyone seemed to have a blog or site) and the name, punning on “Oxford Blue”, stockings, and Bluestockings, seemed a good fit for a group of young, professional and academic women with strong interests in craft and feminism.

Katie and Ellen knitting at the Jericho cafe in 2007. © Liz Ashdowne

Everyone in the group had a different knitting “backstory”, some, taught by older relatives, had been knitting since childhood, others had taken it up more recently and were self-taught. I had taken up knitting the year before, inspired by memories of much-loved doll’s clothes knitted by my granny. Although I really enjoyed knitting it was an occasional hobby, rather than a full time obsession. I was very much limited to (and intimidated by) the yarn and printed patterns in the local Rowan shop and library and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about all the amazing things I was discovering that I could do with yarn and needles.

Joining the Bluestockings changed all that. At one swoop I had a group of new friends who found knitting as interesting as I did. Chatting with my new knitting buddies revealed a whole new world of possibilities: blogs (including the forerunner of this one), podcasts, tutorials, online yarn shops and patterns. And best of all, a group of like-minded women with a mix of abilities and skill sets who were able to teach and inspire each other. When I taught myself to knit I had no idea you were “supposed” to hold the yarn in any particular way or that (among others) you could knit in English or Continental style. I think my fellow Bluestockings were equally surprised to find that I knitted (and still do) speedily and proficiently in neither style, instead passing the yarn from hand to hand for each knit stitch. At almost every meeting I learnt about some new technique or trick depending on what projects we had all brought along. I learnt why it was a good idea to swatch my work before starting and block it when finishing (and indeed to block my swatches), how to do a “magic” cast-on and make use of a “magic loop”, and was inspired by emulation to try colourwork and seamless

Felix and Mark at their wedding in 2017, with bluestocking-knitted bunting. © Liz Ashdowne

We also learnt new skills together. First one of us, then another picked up a drop spindle, and then a spinning wheel, and then joined the local guild of weavers, spinners, and dyers. Two members, Katie and Megan, set up yarn dying businesses, several others (most notably Felix) started writing and publishing knitting patterns, and for several years I moonlighted as a tech editor doing work for designers including Felicity Ford, Brenda Dayne, Kate Davies, and Knitty.com. Through this time we supported each others’ endeavours, bought each others’ yarn, test knitted and gave feedback on patterns, attended art shows, lectures, and book launches. As we grew older there were also milestones and events to celebrate outside knitting. We put together woolly ensembles and knitted bunting and flowers for weddings, and made blankets, cardigans, and hats for babies.

Liz and Felix with handknitted tarmac tuesday bunting. © Felicity Ford

One of my favourite Bluestockings group projects was the patchwork blanket we made for Felix to help cheer her up after foot surgery in 2008. The only rule was that the squares should be 6 inches square and so, when we came to sew up the blanket at a typically tea and cake fuelled Bluestockings crafternoon, we had a riot of colours and textures ranging from stripy mitered squares, cables in hand dyed yarn, an intarsia sheep, and a whole appliqued sock. We had all used leftover odds and ends of yarn from our recent projects which meant that Felix could identify who had knit each square without us needing to tell her.

Felix recovering in hospital with her bluestocking blanket © Mark Stanley

The early years of he Oxford Bluestockings were punctuated by outings to yarn shows and
fibre festivals with coach trips to London, on one of which we visited an exhibition about the original Bluestockings at the National Portrait Gallery, house shares in Stirling for Knit Camp, and Shetland for Wool Week, and camping in Cockermouth for Woolfest. The arrival of two children mean I’ve not managed so many of these in t he past six years (yarn shows are not particularly buggy friendly) but I still hope there’ll be more in the future.

Felix and Lara knitting and camping Woolfest in 2009. © Liz Ashdowne I recall Liz, who is behind the camera, was wearing an amazing halter-neck dress that day of her own making. KD
Knitting and feminism. Kate, Felix, Liz (behind the camera) and Lara camping and conversing at Woolfest in 2009. © Liz Ashdowne. Please note my requisite gigantic cup of tea and Felix’s superlative tea brewing equipment, including pot, cosy and strainer. KD

Back in the present, the Bluestockings are still meeting weekly via Zoom. In fact the switch to virtual meetings, due to the pandemic, has meant that I’ve been able to attend more regularly for the past year than when meetings were still taking place in the Royal Oak in Oxford. It’s not quite the same as meeting in person, although the light is often better than in our rather gloomy pub. Like many others we’re going to have to work out a balance between in person and virtual meetings in the future, especially as many of our working patterns have changed so much in the last year. For now, it’s enough that we’re still able to gather and knit away on our blue stockings.

Reading and knitting. Elizabeth Montagu bluestockings in progress. © Bethan Jenkins

With thanks to all Oxford Bluestockings past and present (and apologies to anyone I ’ve
missed off): Abby, Aliki, Bethan, Claire, Ellen, Elizabeth, Emily, Felix, Helen, Hilary, Jaq,
Jenny, Kate, Kate, Katie, Kerry, Kirsty, Lara, Laura, Lien, Liz, Megan, Mikal, Ruth, Sadie and

Thank you, Liz.