Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?


Beth Ann Pentney


Knitting and Feminism’s Third Wave

Domestic crafts such as knitting have experienced an upsurge in Western popular culture as of late. This point might be painfully obvious if you live in a medium-to-large-sized city in North America, where yarn shops have been springing up, or springing back to life, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, due partly to the popularity of the publication Stitch’n Bitch: The Knitters Handbook (Stoller 2003). This book, with its ironic tone and kitschy visuals, and the flurry of activity on the Internet (in the form of weblogs, websites, and netrings devoted to knitting) shed some light on the complicated relationship third-wave feminism has had with feminist politics and traditional femininity. Popular third-wave discourse, exemplified by Debbie Stoller, who is co-founder of the third-wave magazine Bust as well as author of Stitch’n Bitch, aims to celebrate and reclaim the domestic arts as a way to fuse fun with politics and her belief in women’s community building through do-it-yourself (DIY) culture.[1] Valuing the craft of knitting is a feminist act in itself according to Stoller, because the denigration of knitting correlates directly with the denigration of a traditionally women-centred activity (9). This type of reclamation has faced scrutiny from those who argue that the celebration of the domestic arts is neither politically effective nor feminist; rather, the resurgence in the popularity of knitting is merely an extension of a trend that supports individualistic, apolitical consumerism, as yarn prices certainly reflect a tendency to sell to upwardly mobile women with considerable disposable income. While I agree that the celebration or reclamation of a craft is not an end in itself, Stoller’s position warrants further examination, especially as it offers an avenue to examine what I call ‘feminist knitting practices,’ which include active and purposeful knitting projects used in the spirit of feminist goals of empowerment, social justice, and women’s community building.

I argue that contemporary third-wave feminism should be imagined as a practice. By doing so, different cultural practices can be utilized for feminist goals by people who may not readily identify as feminist. The advantage of casting a wider net over what ‘counts’ as feminism is that it recognizes that feminism is part of the contemporary North American social fabric, rather than a necessarily reactive political movement. Thus, thinking of feminism as a practice will help recuperate third-wave feminism, a movement that has been routinely lambasted by mainstream media and second-wave feminists for its failure to unite in large-scale political protest over issues of importance to women. Building upon the idea of feminism as a practice, I outline and provide examples of feminist knitting practices as they occur on a continuum. As I see it, a continuum model places different feminist knitting practices along a horizon that does not engender a hierarchical valuing of such practices. Instead, imagining feminist knitting practices along a continuum recognizes that while they may differ in tactics, scope, and purpose they nevertheless contribute to a feminist ethos. I begin with an examination of women’s community building and celebration of knitting as a domestic art (located at one end of the continuum), move into a consideration of outreach and fundraising activities such as those undertaken by Beryl Tsang and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (located towards the middle of the continuum), and conclude with examples of knitting used in public forms of political protest, including rallies, marches, and public displays (located at the other end of the continuum). Although I envisage feminist knitting practices along a continuum, I also consider the problems associated with this model to determine what, and whom, has been omitted from feminist knitting practices and ways to address these omissions.

The question posed in the title of this article, Are the fibre arts a viable mode for feminist political action? can be answered in the affirmative if the term ‘feminism’ is expanded to include “a practice as well as a politics and a strong intellectual movement” (Gray 90, italics in original). Anne Gray’s expanded definition acknowledges the important place that ‘experience,’ which can be used to challenge truth-claims and taken-for-granted certainties that often marginalize and silence groups of people, occupies in feminism. The problem of identity politics that weighed down second-wave, liberal feminism and led to exclusivity and much subsequent criticism from lesbian women, poor women, ‘third world’ women, and black women can be overcome to some extent by envisaging feminism as a practice. Doing so allows for difference among feminists rather than assuming or demanding adherence to a specific subject position (in the case of second-wave, liberal feminists the subject position represented was predominantly white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class, and biologically female). Gray’s conception of feminism does not assume that there is a correct way to practise feminism; rather, it acknowledges that different practices can be taken up in the spirit and cause of feminism, and, in the process, feminism can be widened to embrace those who may not otherwise identify with the term. Knitting can be used for feminist goals because it is grounded in a gendered cultural practice that can readily be politicized for different purposes by different groups and individuals. Thus, when I refer to ‘feminist knitting practices’ within the context of this paper, I am referring to (1) knitters and knitting practices that explicitly acknowledge the gendered (feminine) associations with knitting and the historical devaluation of women’s handicraft and (2) knitting that is created within and for the goal of purposeful social change. In identifying and examining such practices, I hope to add some richness to the debates on the re-emergence of domestic arts in a feminist political context.

Part of what makes it difficult to outline clearly the connections between knitting, feminism, and activism is the existence of multiple and contradictory definitions of feminism, in both popular and academic circles. While it can be limiting to think of feminism occurring chronologically in ‘waves’ that exist completely, linearly, and separately from each other, it is important to recognize the economic and cultural advances some women have experienced as a result of second-wave feminism during the latter half of the twentieth century in North America and parts of Europe. Second-wave feminism encompasses many kinds of feminism but is popularly associated with the grassroots political activism that emerged in the 1960s alongside social justice movements such as the student movement, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement. Feminists fought for reproductive rights, abortion, pay equity, and equal opportunities in the workplace, and they interrogated the family as a system of oppression, among other important issues, and often did so publicly and aggressively. In contrast, third-wave feminism has been characterized as a movement more directly concerned with race and sexual politics and associated with active debates within postmodern theories and critical (yet playful) engagement with capitalist consumption and media.

The Riot Grrrl movement, which emerged out of the punk scene in the United States in the early 1990s and influenced the trajectory of third-wave feminist politics, aesthetics, music, and engagement with popular culture, has also left its mark on contemporary DIY culture, and the effects can be seen in contemporary knitting culture as well.[2] Critical of the sexism and exclusivity at work in the punk scene, Riot Grrrls began producing zines, music, and events that addressed issues such as sexual abuse, body image, and sexuality. Like the Riot Grrrl movement’s DIY aesthetic, which is utilized in zine making, music production, and Riot Grrrl fashion, knitting discourse encourages creativity in spite of artistic skill or training, the creation of personalized, one-of-a-kind objects, and a reliance on a word-of-mouth network for sustainability in a marginal marketplace. Personalized and unique hand-knit objects have been used to eschew mass production in favour of non-corporate, small-scale production, often in support of women-owned local suppliers, yarn shops, and designers. The Internet has had a tremendous effect on the expansion of word-of-mouth networking; weblogs (blogs) and netrings now foster diverse communities of knitters online.

For the purposes of this paper, I align myself with feminist theorists who argue that we are in the midst of a third-wave of feminism in North America. I consider third-wave feminism in light of the characteristics outlined by Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake in the edited collection Third-Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration:

Through its celebratory and critical engagement with consumer culture, the third wave attempts to navigate the fact that there are few alternatives for the construction of subjectivity outside the production/consumption cycle of global commodification [...] Committed to cultural production as activism, and cognizant that it is impossible for most Americans to wholly exit consumer culture, third-wave feminists both use and resist the mainstream media and create their own media sites and networks, both of which are key components of successful activism in technoculture. (19-20)

While third-wave feminism has been criticized for its seemingly individualist agenda and concentration on the media, Heywood and Drake argue that these interests must be taken seriously as political engagements and also as representative of a culture imbued with postmodern philosophies and economic instability. The push towards a global economy has shaped the way that young feminists organize and theorize. Third-wavers are also characterized by their concern for broadening the definition of women and incorporating issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability more critically into the feminist goal of equality. If second-wave feminists have been historicized as women who put down their knitting, third-wave feminists may be characterized as those who have picked it back up again.

Of course, handknitting has a long and varied history that is culturally and regionally specific and always enmeshed in issues of gender, class, and economics.[3] Many of the examples that follow describe and explore feminist knitting practices and moments of activism that occur within a cultural context in which handknitting is not overtly recognized as a privileged activity. It is crucial that the conditions under which it is possible for certain groups and individuals to engage in knitting as a political tool be considered in light of global and economic factors that concurrently produce and reproduce unequal distributions of wealth in which handknitting is also a form of underpaid labour or a means to save money on clothing. While many women and men can incorporate knitting into their daily lives as a form of community building, as a reclamation and celebration of feminized craft, or as a political tool, the constraints faced by others who cannot afford this opportunity, who produce handknit items as a means of economic survival or for the sheer pleasure of it, must not be overlooked.

Knitting is unique in its ability to attract politically motivated people, including feminists, DIY subcultures, and queer communities. Kerry Wills’ interviews with knitters in the United States led her to the conclusion that “knitting can accommodate all kinds of people and a breathtaking variety of agendas” (73). She suggests that knitting in particular, unlike crafts such as crochet or embroidery, serves as a common link between what may otherwise be disparate groups, providing opportunities for community building through shared love of the craft. Other academics have pointed to the importance of women’s community building through knitting, particularly in circumstances where knitting has functioned not as a beloved pastime but as a means of income or as a supplement to a family’s clothing needs.[4] Also, the abundance of online knitting resources has amplified knitters’ access to communities and provided them with a global platform for both virtual and ‘real life’ events planning, interpersonal relationships, and outreach. The Internet has been, in an almost all-pervasive way, an integral tool in third-wave feminist practice. While much of the activity online regarding knitting may not be defined as overt feminist activism, a closer look at the phenomenon of online knitters demonstrates feminist knitting practices at work in many online forums.

Online Communities and Knitting

Research has suggested that weblogs reflect gendered genres, with women authoring the majority of personal, diary-style blogs (Herring & Paolillo 452-53). Coupled with statistics from the Craft Yarn Council of America that report that 53 million American women know how to knit (para. 1), it is not a stretch to assume that most knitting-related Internet resources are written by and for women. However, there is a sizeable and growing contingent of male and queer knitting blogs and netrings available online.[5] These groups, though under-represented in this paper and in knitting culture more broadly, are integral to the reclamation of knitting as a valued activity. If knitting is to be redeployed for feminist goals, we must consider the subversive potential of male knitters and queer knitters and the power of various genders and sexualities to undermine the negative stigma that is often still associated with the ‘feminine’ because it is bound up in gendered and heterosexist norms. As Stoller points out in Stitch’n Bitch, gender equality is not accomplished when girls and women appropriate ‘masculine’ activities, sports, and professions. We must ask why men and boys have not enthusiastically taken up ‘feminine’ activities, sports, and professions (9). Moreover, if one of the goals of feminism is to disrupt the continued naturalization of a dualistic gender system (masculine/feminine) and the association of certain characteristics and activities with one gender (i.e., knitting as feminine), then the role of male, transgendered, and queer knitters is integral to this process.

One of the main characteristics of the knitting blog is its implicit organization as a multivocal space. In essence, the blog format provides knitters with an audience and a method for dialogue across vast geographical expanses.[6] Nancy Baym describes online communities as ‘communities of practice,’ where “a community’s structures are instantiated and recreated in habitual and recurrent ways of acting or practices” (22, italics in original). Identifying and studying selected blogs, websites, and ‘real life’ events, provides some insight into communities of practice in which knitting, feminism, and activism come together.

Collectivity and community building through knitting has been studied by Carolyn Wei in her examination of the Knitting Bloggers Netring, a group of blogs or online journals that are devoted to knitting and united by theme and accessible by membership. Wei argues that the encouragement of feedback establishes a sense of community between women who use these sites as readers, bloggers, and commentators. Moreover, knitting blogs also frequently incorporate links to other favourite knitting blogs, in effect creating a double-layered approach to community building. Established in 2002, the Knitting Bloggers Netring has over three hundred blogs in its directory, according to Wei. Using content analysis to chart the norms of this particular netring, Wei found that

over 90% of the blogs supported commenting, an impressive number given that commenting is not offered by the most popular blog software, Blogger. Blogger users must utilize a third-party tool or service to enable comments on their sites. The commenting helps foster community since fellow Knitting Bloggers as well as any other visitor can leave praise for a current knitting project, ask questions about knitting technique, or post any other kind of comment. (para. 29)

This built-in mode of feedback and linkage reveals an interconnected web of online knitters who refer to one another with a sense of familiarity and who use a common lexicon that fosters a group identity. Moreover, the blog format widens the platform for a blogger to receive appreciative comments, encouragement, support, creative inspiration, access to patterns and yarn, and advice.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Canadian author of several knitting books and a popular blog entitled Yarn Harlot, uses the phenomenon of online community as a platform and as a practice for community building and large-scale charity work. Her blog regularly features images taken while on promotional book tours, and, since she is considered a celebrity in the knitting world, Pearl-McPhee draws substantial crowds of women and men to her presentations across Canada and the United States. While on tour, Pearl-McPhee turns her blog into a photo journal of her travels. She takes pictures from her position on stage or in front of a room and thus captures and documents the communities of knitters that gather to hear her speak. By revealing the audience in this way, Pearl-McPhee strengthens the online community by giving substance to the great numbers of knitters who take part both online and in real life. Pearl-McPhee also posts images of individual knitters that she meets on tour, knitters whom she identifies by name and provides links to their blogs, thereby creating another dimension or layer to the community-building spirit of knitting blogs.[7]

Pearl-McPhee’s blog is also used to support the work of Doctors Without Borders through an ancillary group she created in the wake of the tsunami disaster in 2005, aptly called Knitters Without Borders. Her blog keeps a running tally of money collected, which by early 2007 had reached a total of $320,093 (this total was reached after a call out to knitters on 15 December 2006 to double the $120,000 raised previously). By combining advocacy and craftwork, Pearl-McPhee taps into the connections she fosters through her blog. Knitters Without Borders is only one example of a numerous array of knitters who organize, collect money, and knit for social causes.[8] Charity work in and of itself is not feminist, of course, and women have often been engaged in unpaid charity work and fundraising at the expense of being involved in formal public politics (due to social norms or sexist laws that dictate appropriate feminine behaviour); however, Knitters Without Borders and the work of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee reflect feminist knitting practices because, in the process of raising money for a social cause, Pearl-McPhee is extremely vocal about the power of knitters to effect social change and about the inherent sexism of those who doubt the compassion, intelligence, and ability of knitters, both male and female, and women in general to make significant change in the world. Pearl-McPhee believes that women today can knit because of the work accomplished by women of the second-wave feminist movement, women who gave up traditionally feminine activities such as knitting and sewing “in order to break down notions of what women were capable of ” (qtd. in Wills 53). She sees knitting as a ‘feminist reward’: because women are now perceived to be capable of more than they once were, it is possible for a woman to both knit and succeed in a non-traditional occupation (52).[9]

Another example of feminist knitting practices that occur and flourish within online communities of knitters is the knitted breast prosthesis created by Canadian feminist, educator, and knitter Beryl Tsang. She began knitting prosthetic breasts for herself when breast cancer and a radical mastectomy left her searching for a suitable replacement. She claims that the breast forms on the market were ugly, heavy, and reminiscent of raw liver. They were also expensive and required special bras that were unattractive and demoralizing. The success of her own knitted prosthesis led to the creation of Tit-Bits, a line of knitted breasts that can be purchased in a wide array of colours, textures, and sizes. In addition to selling Tit-Bits, Tsang’s Tit-Bits website provides a space for women with breast cancer to find information, share their stories, and chat with other women. Tsang also submitted the Tit-Bit pattern to Knitty, the free online knitting magazine. Although she was advised that publicly sharing the pattern for Tit-Bits at the same time that she was trying to sell them was equivalent to entrepreneurial suicide, Tsang says that she was not interested in the bottom line. She wanted women to be able to have access to Tit-Bits, whether or not they could pay for them (personal interview by author 2006).

By rejecting mainstream options for mastectomy patients – that is, breast augmentation surgery or expensive prostheses – Tsang subverted the available subject position for women with breast cancer (as patient, victim, and consumer of medical products). Tit-Bits require a sense of humour: ‘everyday tits,’ ‘fancy tits,’ and ‘floosie tits’ describe the types of knitted breast prostheses available for purchase. They also require a lot less out-of-pocket expense than conventional options and provide a way for women to reconnect with their bodies through craft. Creating a personalized breast out of yarn, however small a gesture it may seem, shifts the emphasis from dependency on the medical system to women’s self-healing, creativity, and humour.[10] Gina Doherty’s Rethinking Tit Bits weblog complements the politics embedded in Tsang’s product with calls for donations of handknit Tit-Bits for the ReThink Breast Cancer annual gala and silent auction, which in 2006 was held in Calgary, Alberta. The call garnered a response from knitters who mailed Doherty their own creations to be auctioned for breast cancer education, research, and support.

"Tit-Bit."

“Tit-Bit.” Copyright of the author, 2006.

Knitting and/as Political Activism

If feminist knitting practices occur on a continuum, where women’s community building and celebration of knitting as a domestic art are located at one end of the spectrum and outreach and fundraising activities such as those undertaken by Beryl Tsang and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee are located towards the middle, then the other end of the spectrum is occupied by public forms of political protest, including rallies, marches, and public displays. There are numerous examples of people engaged in political protest through the use of craft and in different online forums, which is alternately called craftivism or, for knitting specifically, knitivism. Again, while these groups do not necessarily define themselves as feminist, they undertake actions that can be understood as operating within the definition of feminist knitting practices. Canadian art historian and media scholar Kirsty Robertson asserts that “knitting has been appropriated by the global justice movement as a sophisticated technological metaphor for networks of connection outside of and against the globalization of capital” (2005, para. 1).[11] Utilizing the unexpected materiality and out-of-place-ness created by knitted objects in the context of political protest, artists and activist groups such as the Revolutionary Knitting Circle, Marianne Jørgensen with the Cast-Off Knitting Club, and Knit4Choice work to disrupt the normalization of war, globalization, capitalism, and anti-abortion politics in contemporary Western societies. In so doing, these knitters forge together gender, race, class, and ethnicity issues.

The Revolutionary Knitting Circle’s “Knitting Manifesto” outlines the group’s commitment to anti-globalist, anti-corporate, and anti-capitalist action, and their political organizing has occurred in the form of knit-ins, rallies, and marches. They identify themselves as a “constructive revolution […] creating community and local independence which, in this corporate society, is a truly revolutionary act” (Revolutionary Knitting Circle, emphasis in original). Using the Internet as an organizing and advertising tool, the Revolutionary Knitting Circle has campaigned successfully for peace and community sustainability at events such as the lead up to the G8 Summit held in Kananaskis, Alberta, in 2002 and at the global day of action to end the occupation of Iraq, held in Calgary, Alberta, on 20 March 2004 and pictured below. Their call to action in protest of the G8 meetings in 2002 reflected their amalgamation of craft and activism:

We call upon activists throughout the world to join together in a Global Knit-In to challenge the G8 and the global corporatism it stands for […]

On that day, we ask you to organize a group of knitters […] at one of the seats of corporate power in your communities. Transform those spaces through knitting. Create ‘soft' barriers of knitted yarn to reclaim spaces from the elite to the common good. As the community is knitted together, corporate commerce is slowed or halted and the community can prosper. (para. 1)

The Revolutionary Knitting Circle’s call to action exemplifies the group’s belief in the potential for community cooperation through craft. The ‘soft’ barriers they propose are symbolic of local alliance and represent the rejection of economic progress in the form of corporate wealth that they believe occurs at the expense of local producers and citizens. Indicative of feminist knitting practices in general, the Revolutionary Knitting Circle is aware of the gender politics involved in their form of protest, since, by “having all genders take [knitting] up together, traditional gender roles are challenged” (para. 2). Despite the sometimes problematic position crafting occupies within commodity culture, the Revolutionary Knitting Circle succeeds at bringing together feminist criticism of traditional gender roles and social criticism of corporatization, globalization, and capitalism.

"Peace Knits banner."

“Peace Knits banner.” Copyright permission granted by Grant Neufeld, 2007.

In a similar vein, Danish artist Marianne Jørgensen, together with London’s Cast-Off Knitting Club and volunteers from all over the world, produced thousands of knitted and crocheted pink squares that were sewn together to cover a Second World War tank to protest Denmark’s involvement in the war in Iraq. The tank was part of the Time exhibit at the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center, Copenhagen, in the spring of 2006. Of the exhibit, Jørgensen writes:

Unsimilar to a war, knitting signals home, care, closeness and time for reflection. Ever since Denmark became involved in the war in Iraq I have made different variations of pink tanks, and I intend to keep doing that, until the war ends. For me, the tank is a symbol of stepping over other people’s borders. When it is covered in pink, it becomes completely unarmed and it loses it’s [sic] authority. Pink becomes a contrast in both material and color when combined with the tank. (para. 5)

The bright pink knitted squares adorning this foreboding military vehicle disrupt the flow of the image of a tank, an image that has been increasingly naturalized in the current barrage of propaganda that incites fear of the ‘war on terror’ in a global media landscape. Combining what Jørgensen refers to as the symbolic ‘home, care, closeness’ (and, I would add, ‘the traditionally feminine’) with the violence and trauma caused by war machines forces the viewer to reconsider the perceived ordinariness or inevitability of war. The ideological affiliation of knitting with the feminine is exploited rather than rejected by Jørgensen in this demonstration, to such a degree that the cultural meanings imbued in the colour pink – femininity, a lack of authority, and nostalgic ties to the domestic – are used to destabilize the tank’s symbolic power.

"Tank-Cozy."

“Tank-Cozy.” Copyright permission granted by Marianne Jorgenson, 2007.

Both the knitted tank protest action and the Revolutionary Knitting Circle’s events demand a renegotiation of power roles in the definition of community borders and boundaries, with the goal being the delegitimization of multinational corporations and war-machine governments. Both forms of activism also rely on self-identified communities of knitters engaging in critical thinking about gender and craft. The Wombs on Washington project similarly addresses borders and notions of ownership, in the form of ownership over women’s bodies and legal rights to abortion, while simultaneously exploring gender, knitting as activism, and community identification.

"Knitted womb."

“Knitted womb.” Copyright permission granted by MK Carroll, 2007.

Wombs on Washington was a project inspired by the knitted womb pattern created by MK Carroll, which appeared in the free online magazine Knitty in the winter of 2004. In early 2005 a group of knitters organized via LiveJournal, an Internet blog host, by creating a members-only online community called Knit4Choice. The organizers, two young women in the United States, called on other knitters to use MK Carroll’s pattern to create knitted wombs to drop on the Supreme Court steps in Washington, DC, in symbolic protest of attempts to restrict abortion laws in the United States and in continued support of the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The community received enthusiastic support: it had nearly three hundred members registered a month after its creation. After considerable debate, the group posted a guiding statement that outlined its purpose:

WoW [Wombs on Washington] is an organization made up of concerned, crafty citizens who feel strongly about women's reproductive rights and the importance of allowing women to make decisions regarding their own bodies without judgment or unreasonable obstacles […] It is WoW's hope that by seeing the vast differences among our representative wombs, laid out before the Supreme Court building, our elected and appointed officials will remember that every woman is an individual with unique needs and circumstances, and are capable of making personal decisions without government interference. (Wombs on Washington, comments to “Guiding Statement and Poll,” 9 February 2005)

There was much concern raised by some members of Knit4Choice regarding the purposeful omission by other members of what was seen as politically loaded terminology, including ‘pro-choice’ and ‘feminist.’ The discussion revolved around inclusive language and the fact that not all members self-identified as either feminist or pro-choice, given the negative connotations associated with both terms in popular culture. Many contributors argued that evading the use of such terminology would only water down the clearly pro-choice aims of the group, which would result in members “participating in a project which is, at best, apologist” (Wombs on Washington, comments to “Guiding Statement and Poll,” 7 February 2005).

The intended symbolism of the Wombs on Washington event also sparked discussion when a LiveJournal poll was conducted by a college student in April 2005 and contributors explored the real possibility that the knitted wombs might be swept into the trash, a foreboding sign that would be more reflective of political leaders’ attempts to restrict women’s reproductive choices: “If the mantra of the prochoice movement is ‘My Body, My Choice!’ Wouldn't a more fitting action be along the lines of wearing the uterus on the outside of our clothing wherever we go, to demonstrate our ownership and protectiveness of our most politically charged organ?” (froggy_dear, 18 April 2005). The dialogue surrounding the proposed event, the fair use of MK Carroll’s original pattern, and the guiding statement – what Wombs on Washington was actually attempting to say, and for whom – lasted well over a year. The womb drop never occurred, as the date continued to be pushed back because of lack of commitment from members who were unwilling to be present at the drop/protest.[12] This failed attempt may support the arguments of those who contend that third-wave feminism suffers from an inability to coalesce into a unified force, due largely to an agenda that emphasizes plurality and divergent voices.[13] However, I am reluctant to agree with this representation and the line of thinking it encourages, since it negates the powerful dialogue that the project inspired among the LiveJournal community specifically and in other online knitting communities more broadly and it presumes that a movement’s success is dependent on, or equivalent to, large-scale political protest.

The Wombs on Washington project raises several questions about the potential for third-wave feminist activism to mobilize through craft around issues important to women’s rights. The debate that erupted and the support that was galvanized for the project was important in and of itself, and it displays the potential for knitting to be used with feminist political goals in mind. I would argue that feminist knitting practices emerged throughout the process (identified here as online community building), through women’s cooperation and organization for purposeful social change, respectful discussion and debate regarding women’s reproductive rights, fair-use of the artist’s copyrighted knitting pattern, and the playful, tongue-in-cheek celebration of both the ‘domestic’ crafts and pro-choice visibility.[14]

Conclusion: Third-Wave Feminism and Feminist Knitting Practices

The examples discussed in this paper reflect what I see as a continuum of degrees of feminist knitting practices: online and ‘real life’ community building among knitters, mainstream advocacy and fundraising for social causes by knitters, and explicit public protest through knitting and knitted items. There are different degrees of politicization among the examples cited, but all work within the boundaries of the definition of feminist knitting practice, which relies, more broadly, on a reconfiguration of the definition of third-wave feminism so that feminism can be understood as something that one practises, despite differences of sex, gender, sexuality, class, race, ability, age, ethnicity, and any other moniker of identity that has served to divide feminists in the past. This reconfiguration opens up the possibility for a more inclusive feminism, one that escapes the problems associated with difference that have bogged down much feminist theory to date. Moreover, the concept of a continuum of feminist knitting practices recognizes that different forms of feminism are connected, valuable, and necessary in both the context of everyday life and in more formalized political action. As third-wave feminists explore the complexities of being both critics and consumers of popular culture, as well as critics and participants in gendered spaces and subjectivities, it is time to seriously analyze the potential for traditional popular craft to be used as a vehicle for academic and mainstream conversations about gender, art, cultural products, and work and capital.

Clearly not all acts of knitting can or should be considered feminist in intent, and this too must be explored more carefully to identify the limitations of an overly optimistic conception of feminist knitting practices. Third-wave feminism has been criticized for its tendency to ignore the conditions under which some women are able to participate in consumer-culture-as-politics. According to third-wave writers such as Heywood and Drake (20), the pleasure of engagement with contemporary popular culture cannot be dismissed, and yet the experiences of ‘third world’ women and men who work in textiles complicates the potential for reclamation and celebration of feminist knitting practices. Similarly, the process of reification, whereby man-made goods are stripped of their association with the conditions of their production and given new meaning through branding, for example, might challenge the possibility for the use of knitting as a form of political protest. These concerns do not cancel out the potential for knitting to be used as a political tool by feminists, but they do require attention in order for feminist knitting practices to occur in a context of informed, critical self-reflexivity.


Notes

1 The University of Oregon’s Zines and Do-It-Yourself Democracy website describes DIY culture as that which “promotes an ethic that demands freedom from the control and ubiquity of large national and multinational corporations. DIY counters corporate culture, industrialization and mass consumption through small scale enterprise,” and it is a culture that has seen a rise in popularity as a result of punk music and zine-making subcultures and, more recently, crafting (para. 1). back

2 Knitting books such as Shannon Okey’s Knit Grrl rely on and perpetuate a direct connection between the Riot Grrrl movement and the DIY politics of knitting. back

3 See Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1987) and Anne L. MacDonald’s No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1988). back

4 See Madeleine Leonard’s “Women’s Paid and Unpaid Handiwork in a Belfast Estate,” Journal of Gender Studies 3/2 (1994): 187-95, and L. Abrams’ “Knitting, Autonomy and Identity: The Role of Hand-Knitting in the Construction of Women’s Sense of Self in an Island Community, Shetland, c. 1850-2000,” Textile History 37/2 (November 2006): 149-65. back

5 For examples of some of the most popular netrings and communities for male and queer knitters, see Menwhoknit.com [http://www.menwhoknit.com/community/]; Menknit.net [http://www.menknit.net/]; The GLBT Knitters List [http://www.glbt-knit.com]; and The Queerknit Netring [http://www.ringsurf.com/netring?action=info&ring=queerknit]. back

6 As might be expected, the topic of knitting often serves as a jumping-off point for writers of knitting blogs, a phenomenon studied by Rhiannon Bury and Nancy Baym in other online audience communities (private mailing lists and Usenet discussion groups, respectively). back

7 Pearl-McPhee’s photos reveal a predominantly white, female crowd. A consideration of class and race privilege challenges the perception that feminist knitting practices can easily be adopted as a tool for coalition building, particularly if they are only accessible to a small cross-section of the population. back

8 The Interweave Knits website lists over eighty groups that are organized around knitting with charitable intentions, such as calls out for knitted items such as baby blankets for premature or poor babies, knitted bears for children in war-torn countries, knitted socks and hats for the homeless, and knitted scarves for breast cancer survivors [http://www.interweaveknits.com/community/charities.asp]. back

9 One could argue that second-wave feminism has not only created a space for contemporary women to pick up their needles with pride, it has also challenged naturalized gender roles and masculinity in such a way that contemporary men need not be ashamed of knitting. A larger study of male knitters and online knitting communities for men would be a useful addition to the work done on knitting and feminism up to this point, as the phenomenon exemplifies one of the rare spaces in which men are taking up ‘feminine’ practices in the spirit of gender equality or, at the very least, gender neutrality. back

10 On the other hand, the novelty of the Tit-Bit exists in a culture in which there is an expectation that women ought to maintain their feminine sexuality despite illness. Perhaps a more interesting and complex example of feminist knitting practices might occur if the Tit-Bit pattern were appropriated by pre-operative male to female transsexuals to perhaps challenge the definition of feminist knitting practices adopted in this paper. back

11 See also Robertson’s “The Revolution Will Wear a Sweater: Knitting and Activism,” in David Graeber and Stevphen Shukaitis, ed., Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization ((London: AK Press, 2007) and chapter 5 of her doctoral dissertation, entitled “Webs of Resistance: Knitting, Textiles and Networks,” in “Tear Gas Epiphanies: New Economies of Protest, Vision and Culture in Canada” (PhD diss., Queen’s University, 2006). back

12 Over fifty knitted wombs were collected, and they have since been exhibited at the Alt-Fiber: Reclaiming Art/Craft show, held at the Assemble Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, in early 2006. back

13 For examples of this debate, see Ann Brathwaite’s “The Personal, the Political, Third-Wave and Postfeminism,” Feminist Theory 3/3 (2002): 335-44; Jo Reger, ed., Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women's Movement (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Deborah Seigel’s “Reading between the Waves: Feminist Historiography in a ‘Postfeminist’ Moment,” in Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, eds., Third-Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 55-82. back

14 On the other hand, by choosing to use a knitted uterus as a symbol to protest the perceived threat to women’s reproductive freedom, Wombs on Washington may have inadvertently limited its membership and, literally, its ‘manpower.’ While there was at least one member who self-identified as ‘male’ in the group, concerns over inclusivity and exclusivity were connected with terminology associated with feminist and pro-choice politics and did not address the ways that men might be involved in the protest action. The question of how the symbolic gesture could be translated to include men who support women’s reproductive freedom was not addressed, and this omission is perhaps reflective of the limited success of the action and the continued perception of abortion rights as women’s rights rather than human rights. back


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