Thursday 8 March 2018

Let's End Knitting Stereotypes For Good: International Women's Day Special

Today, Thursday 8th March, is International Women's Day - 24 hours to honour everything that women bring and contribute to society. As the website says, the day celebrates 'the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women'.

Lesley Manville image courtesy of Radio Times
A recent interview in the Radio Times magazine with actress Lesley Manville got me thinking crossly about how anti-feminist outdated and patronising stereotypes about knitters have survived into the 21st-century and are even uttered by women themselves.

When asked about how she felt about reaching a milestone birthday, Manville said:
"It's OK to be 60. You can have a lover at 60. You don't have to be shoved in a cardigan doing knitting."
OK, it was no doubt meant to be a light-hearted, humorous comment, but it perpetuates the trope that knitters are elderly, sexless, sitting in God's waiting room and have nothing better to offer society than a knitted teddy bear or jumper.

Firstly, it's incredibly patronising to women of a certain age who knit. Many of these women learned to do so from their own grandmothers and mothers and, bringing up their families in the 1950s and 60s, knitted out of economic necessity. Their houses didn't have central heating. Ready-made clothes were expensive to buy in the shops. These women poured their love for their families into every stitch they knitted, whether they were creating a jumper, cardigan or pair of socks. They had the skills to darn well-loved garments and re-use wool for other accessories - techniques that are becoming more popular nowadays with the advent of an anti-consumerist backlash.

Image courtesy of
Now, in their later stage of life, these knitters pass on their knowledge to younger generations and keep traditional crafts alive. People may scoff at the idea of knitted toys or scarves being sold at a school fete or church bazaar, but they're forgetting the many hours of volunteering that goes into the creation of them and the funds their sale raises for charity. A more recent example includes knitted hats and scarves being given to refugees in Europe to help them cope with biting winters. For them these gifts could help keep them alive - I would imagine the recipients would be very grateful to the women who knitted them and would not poke fun at their age and appearance. Nor would the parents of premature babies gifted tiny knitted hats to keep them warm in their incubators.

And let's not forget that there's a growing interest amongst men of all ages in knitting too, as reported on this blog last year in an interview with Lewis Ryan, the founder of ManKnit. Creating warm garments from natural products is a survival skill: even Bear Grylls can't expect there to be a branch of Mountain Warehouse in the middle of a wilderness. Knitting is a technical skill, where an awareness of maths helps greatly. Wool doesn't care which gender knits with it.

Of course knitting as a hobby isn't for everyone. We all have different interests and that's part of the beauty of diversity. Yet society doesn't stereotype traditionally-male pastimes such as woodworking and car maintenance. We don't say that a man who chooses to whittle in his spare time is styleless, past it and will never have fun in the bedroom again.

The elderly female knitter stereotype also ignores the fact that lots of girls and women of all ages like to knit. It's a creative, expressive, sociable hobby that has been proven to help those dealing with depression, cognitive function impairments and anxiety. It's women who organised the Pussyhat Project, marching to protest against the curtailment of women's rights, using knitting as a powerful political tool. It's mainly women who, appalled to see the waste of good fleece, have fought to raise the profile of British wool in this country and across the world, helping to secure the future of British sheep breeds and their farmers' finances.

Lush photo courtesy of Tin Can Knits
So Manville, with respect, knitting might not be for you but please don't add fuel to the ancient knitter stereotype fire. As women, let's stick together. Here's a thought on International Women's Day: you mention you don't want to be shoved in a corner wearing a cardigan, but perhaps if you took up a pair of needles and learned to knit a stylish one such as Tin Can Knits' Lush during your acting breaks, you might be tempted to cross over to the dark side.

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