Knit Is a Feminist Issue

'Knit With Norbury' (1952) cover
‘Knit With Norbury’ (1952) cover

Years ago, the fact I knitted horrified some of my feminist friends. They saw crafts, especially things like cooking, baking and needlecrafts, as conformation to some male imposed stereotype: knitting was a form of being suckered by the male hierarchy. This view was common to the point, I felt unable to knit when at some folks’ houses (and for me, knitting is just my default setting – something I do without even thinking, wherever I go).

Yet I felt, even then,  that by seeing crafts as subservience, my friends were missing the point entirely. I felt I was celebrating something feminine and that for me, was my feminism.  I read somewhere that whilst men have been busy fighting wars, women were quietly knitting; being creative.

Later, when I knew more about the history of knitting, I saw it was not a ‘feminine’ occupation at all until the 20thC; neither male nor female but more a case of celebrating human ingenuity.

Historically, perceptions have shifted backwards and forwards, so in some periods knitting was seen as a male pursuit; in some, a female. Often, in 20thC culture, male = “professional” and female = “amateur”. Hopefully we have moved on from this. I think we are finally finding balance again, where knitting belongs to everybody. But women of my generation endured that lengthy period of time when even other women despised what we did, as – ironically – it was denigrated because seen as ‘feminine’.

In the 19thC, knitting “‘was a universal occupation, both for men and for women…'”   (Rev W Nicholls, in The History and Traditions of Mallerstang Forest, 1883, quoted in ‘The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales’ (p. 70., Hartley & Ingilby, 1951). In the early Industrial Age, both women and men knitted.  The earliest recorded professional knitter, was female.  Kirsty Buckland cites the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first hard evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465. Later, men only knitted in remoter areas, which were generally isolated from society as a whole, like the Dales and parts of Scotland and Wales. Still later, it is recorded, men became embarrassed and derided for knitting – so gave it up, or at least, gave it up in public.

By the 1970s, it was seen as so thoroughly ‘feminine’ that even women were giving it up; in a society that judged you for conforming to the perceived male oligarchy. Especially in educated circles. Sometimes I felt like I had to defend or justify it – and sometimes it was my dirty secret; something I better not do in front of people. And yet, the more I learned of the craft’s history, the more I realised that knitting is a defiant, feminist statement – not a sign of being cowed by male oppression. Moving beyond feminism, it is full of the triumph of the human spirit; creativity, artistry and democracy.

Interestingly, ‘expert’ knitters, ever since the dawn of the TV age, have tended to be men. Designer like James Norbury (1904-1972), or Kaffe Fassett and knitting historian Richard Rutt, came to define the craft for their respective generations from the 1950s – 1980s. Rutt was taught to knit by his blacksmith grandfather.  Many of the (female) Dales knitters interviewed between the 1950s-70s, said they too were taught to knit by grandfathers.  Knitting seems to have almost – but not quite – died out amongst men. More accurately: men knitting in public nearly died out. Yet, whenever knitting hit the big time, we seem to have seen it through male eyes; and maybe sometimes culture has  denigrated it as the epitome of frivolous or unimportant even when these male knitter ‘experts’ absolutely did not.

Rather surprisingly, Marjorie Proops, the left-wing journalist wrote the Foreword to “Knit With Norbury” (Odhams, 1952). Turns out he was a regular contributor to the socialist ‘Daily Herald’. Proops describes her first meeting with him:

“…I labelled him, the way women label men, the Rugged Type. I could never imagine that his big hands could handle fine knitting, nor indeed that such a Rugged Type could really be interested in this gentle art… To watch him design a knitted garment is to watch and artist at work. He will dictate his patterns as a writer dictates a manuscript. And from the quick-fire dictation emerges a sweater or a suit that women rave about. One reason for his success, I think, is that he does with knitting what designers like Christian Dior do with dresses: he makes flattering garments in which a woman looks and feels her best…”

Tailored ladiesThe parallel with Dior is interesting, as his designs imposed a certain restrictive ideal of feminine beauty and ‘perfection’ on a generation of women. Norbury championed ‘tailored’ knitting; knitting shaped pieces that were then “made up” into the finished piece. “If the pieces of work are carefully blocked and then neatly seamed together to preserve their firm, tailored line, the final result will prove well worth the trouble taken….” (‘The Knitter’s Craft, James Norbury, 1950). Norbury goes on to say he uses at least 100 pins to block any one garment. Norbury was a male designer in a world where the overwhelming majority of people knitting his designs were female. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind there will be men knitting his designs:

“The way I have seen some women treat their knitteds fills me with dismay. I find myself wondering if women think they can maltreat them as much as they like without harm…”

(The Penguin Knitting Book, James Norbury, 1957).

Richard Rutt wrote the first comprehensive history of British knitting. We have gone through a period where people started to criticise Rutt’s work; some have said his scholarship lacked rigour, for example. Yet for all the criticisms, it largely passes scrutiny. It was the first work of its kind, in terms of scope and depth. Thirty years on, it remains required reading. Last year, I was working with two other knitters (the amazing Tom van Deijnen and Corvid) to reverse engineer a particularly tricky 19thC glove. It turns out Richard Rutt had not just written about the glove in his ‘History of Hand Knitting’ but had also fully reverse engineered it.  Photos of Rutt’s reverse engineering of the G Walton glove are here, on Tom’s blog:

Since writing the above, Tom worked on  a reverse engineering project of his own, with this glove, so probably became more acutely aware of the intricacies of this pair of gloves, than he could have guessed at the time of writing that post! I still maintain this is the most complex extant Dales glove. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, in ‘The Okld Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, thought it a more primitive example than the later gloves – but then, they weren’t knitters!

Rutt’s version was perfectly sound and creditable – he had also picked up the mistakes, inconsistencies and subtleties we found, over thirty years later. It is easy to try to retro-fit our contemporary mores on male ‘expert’s like Norbury or Rutt. Yet they were products of their own time – the bombastic Norbury can come over as the ultimate ‘mansplainer’ – yet the reality was closer to “passionate advocate of our craft”, I think. In the rush to point out inaccuracies in his attempts to deliver the history of the craft, we lose the essence of the man. At least he was trying to piece together the craft’s history and doing it before anyone else. His designs still work. I’ve collected Norbury’s books since the 1980s; maybe only knitted one or two of his designs over that time, but could see they were well crafted, clever designs.

'The Knitter's Craft', James Norbury, 1950
‘The Knitter’s Craft’, James Norbury, 1950

There is an element of sexism creeping into knitting, in some places online, with male knitters/bloggers sometimes characterised by women as “mansplainers” and at least one (brilliant)cutting-edge designer who happens to be male, being lambasted for being a ‘fashion victim’, and capitalising on his own ‘notoriety’.  When I look at his work, that’s not what I see and I think if men were saying that of women designers’ work, we’d find it unacceptable, to suggest someone only has success because of their gender. The designer in question is successful because he is good at what he does. End of story. All he is guilty of, is  betraying a fairly mainstream European sensibility with some photo-styling that (for some people) pushes the boundaries.

This is, in reverse,  the same kind of sexism that made my own  knitting go underground for a decade or more, in the 1980s/90s.  When it comes to this designer’s work, I think it is motivated by envy – as when I read the threads lambasting him,  the commentators do seem very envious of his talent and amusingly shocked by his photo-styling – or busily pretending not to be shocked. Whilst being shocked. It’s an exercise in pearl-clutching from people who are usually the first to satirise pearl-clutching.

We can’t retro-fit our own political correctness to male designers from sixty years ago. In the end, all designers should stand or fall by the quality and usefulness of their designs.  We’re now, thankfully moving out from an age where sexism against women or men, is acceptable.  Hopefully. Good design is good design. ‘Experts’ may well be male or female. And the same goes for knitters. And the same goes for designers. Norbury’s commentary, introductions and the bits between his designs, may now seem ‘dated’ and even offend our sensibilities; but the work stands the test of time. There is nothing I would not knit, in any of his books that I own. Just as I found, if Rutt’s scholarship sometimes is a bit doubtful –  the unseen workings-out behind the scenes of ‘A History of Hand-Knitting’ were impressive. We are all products of our own time but sometimes design, or ability, outlives that time. And design? It has no gender.

"The Knitter's Craft", James Norbury, 1950
“The Knitter’s Craft”, James Norbury, 1950