When I asked the open ended question “what does your knitting mean to you?” I received some very interesting answers. In today’s post Tom West talks about knitting and gender.
Tom West is a designer-maker based in Southsea, Hampshire. He’s soon launching the creative practice blog Teapot Magpie and an online shop of the same name, selling crocheted, knitted and stitched accessories for people and places. You can follow him on Twitter here
Over to Tom.
Image by Matthew Cleveland
I was sitting, knitting, on a train. That sounds like the start of a Pam Ayres poem, but it’s not; it was simply an average commute for me. The train stopped at its next station and a white-haired woman in a business suit got on and sat down next to me. It wasn’t until we’d pulled away from the station that she appeared to notice what I was doing. She shuffled about in her chair and turned towards me.
“What are you doing?”
“But you’re a man.”
Resisting the urge to frantically pat my crotch whilst screaming, ‘WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN?! WHERE DID THIS THING COME FROM?!’ I simply said ‘yep’, smiled and went back to the watermelon-themed Kindle cover I was working on. She gathered up her belongings and changed seats.
It’s 2014. The gender binary is steadily falling to bits. Women work on building sites, men stay at home with their children and this year’s Eurovision Song Contest was won by bearded drag phenomenon Conchita Wurst – but God forbid a man should break out a pair of knitting needles and K1, P1, *YO, SKPO; rep. from * to last 2 sts, P1 K1.
‘But I’m a man.’ That’s the kind of comment that suggests I shouldn’t be knitting because I’m a man. What should I be doing instead? Fixing up old cars? Drinking real ale? Pottering around in a shed at the end of the garden trying to get a broken 20-year-old lawnmower to work again? Would people rather I spent my time playing darts down the pub or arguing with my friends about football over a curry? You know – men’s stuff?!
Despite the existence of many well-known male knitters over the years, such as James Norbury, Kaffe Fassett and Stephen West (no relation), a worryingly large number of people assume that being a man means that you have neither the creativity nor dexterity to engage with knitting. Once these people get over the shock that you do in fact know your oxo cable from your Oxo cube, they do tend to praise you for your work, but it feels more like a pat on the head than a handshake. The following may appear crass, but I argue that it’s fair and accurate: many people see ‘man’ as a disability that I’ve managed to overcome in order to be able to knit. More than that, they don’t understand why I’d do so to start with, for am I not happy with my ‘man’s stuff’?
I always try to get these people to understand my relationship with knitting by asking them why they think women knit. The answers at each end of the spectrum are: the simple pleasure of making loops of yarn with pointy sticks, and the reclamation of the practice from the domestic sphere as both art and craft – for feminism! I always ask why I shouldn’t enjoy it for the exact same reasons. Whilst those two have become two of the many and varied reasons I love knitting, I do it simply because I love the process. I love making something. That’s why I love designing my own patterns so much – I can take a thought and turn it into something I can hold in my hands. I am a human 3D printer: the knitted item is a physical manifestation of my creativity. That’s when these people raise an eyebrow and pout. They just don’t get it. I try to dumb it down.
‘I feel like a spider making a web. Everything feels so natural, like it’s coming from within me.’
‘So you feel like you’re pulling your yarn out your bum?’
For a second, I’m overwhelmed by the thought of a never-ending, naturally-occurring source of instant yarn. All the same weight, all the same colour, all the same dye lot. Can you imagine?
Happily, the majority of people I speak with whilst knitting in public will experience a sudden realisation – that I’m OK. That the fact that I’m knitting is OK. That the fact that I’m a man knitting is OK. Then, they’ll be quite positive about it. Most of the time, they’re reminded of their mother or grandmother knitting when they were little. They’re reminded of countless itchy jumpers and blankets made of multi-coloured squares (of course). They like the fact that I’ve reminded them of something often from so long ago in their lives. They ask me what I’m making and why I’m making it, and are often supportive, if that’s the right word, of the fact that most of my creations sit outside the gamut of typically reproduced items. They wish me well, thank me for my time and pop off into the distance.
I never thought that one of the principal outputs of me knitting would be a series of challenges about the presumptions made about why I knit. I am both happy and proud that the fact that I knit, what I knit and where and when I knit it does challenge people’s preconceptions of both knitting and knitters. For a long time now, people have readily acknowledged that it’s no longer ‘women’s work’, but many don’t question what it is now; what has the craft become? Who does it and what does it mean to these people?
As more people knit in public, post photos of them and their work and blog about what they do, the chances for people to ask the right questions to get the answers to these questions become more apparent. You just need to be open-minded and ready to see beyond what’s between people’s legs, focusing more on what’s in their hands and what’s between their ears. The answers to these right questions will inform often, challenge sometimes and shock more often than they’d think. For both the person knitting and the person curious about them, it’s a brilliant conversation to be a part of.
But when I tell people that I crochet as well? Don’t even get me started.
Thanks so much Tom for this interesting perspective.
Are you a male knitter, can you relate to Tom’s observations?
Have you been guilty of gender stereotyping? Would you like to see more male knitters? (they do seem rather under represented at festivals and classes)
If you have an interesting answer to the question “what does your knitting mean to you?” do get in touch via the contact form.