The knitting world unravels

Everywhere I look, I see division: splintering, fracturing, gaping fissures.

Some of this may turn out to be positive: green shoots heralding spring. The new Independent Group of MPs in the UK may be the beginning of a new order.

But much of it is bitter, sowing poison and pain. Like the cleavage that is ripping apart the knitting world.

It is personal and it can damage lives and livelihoods. (I won’t name names here but readers who follow knitters on Instagram or use may recognise the personalities.)

It began, as far as I understand, at the beginning of 2019, with a post on Instagram (which I didn’t see) naïvely enthusing about a forthcoming trip to India. This sparked an episode of consciousness-raising about racism in knitting and craft.

As in every community, racism exists, both overt and due to unconscious bias. And the online knitting community can “look” very white: white faces, Nordic scenes, snowy backgrounds. Non-white knitters and designers (BIPOC – black, indigenous and people of colour – a term I’ve learnt from this knitting debate) can feel uncomfortable and excluded.

Concerns were raised on Instagram about a fashionable Finnish knitting magazine that rarely features models other than of the young, white, and often emaciated type. The Finnish magazine responded in a way that was considered acceptable by those (generally white women) who knew best: it issued a contrite apology and promised to do better in the future. Knitters were relieved not to feel obliged to boycott the forthcoming issue.

Many knitting designers and online businesses also reacted immediately, if sometimes a bit clumsily, with words of support for BIPOC knitters. As a result, I became aware of some wonderful BIPOC designers over a period of about a week in early February. Some young (white) women issued guidelines on how to behave on Instagram and what to do and say in support.

Other designers took time to reflect. Not all knitting designers are extraverts, some see tangle and nuance rather than clear, straight lines. Some struggle for the right words, particularly if they don’t have English as a first language (in recent months I’ve bought online patterns from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Japan, Sweden and Germany as well as UK and US). Others may not see Instagram as the place for a nuanced debate on a complex issue.

When they did respond – belatedly, in the view of (again, generally white) others – their responses were not always deemed satisfactory. Some followed the example of Shostakovich, issuing abject apologies “in response to justified criticism”, and were absolved – or at least, one assumes so given that personal vitriol has not ensued. Knitters who subscribe to newsletters but don’t follow Instagram were puzzled as self-denunciations arrived in their inboxes.

Some designers did not apologise. They were hounded, denounced as racist, or  accused of creating unsafe space. Complaints were sent to the organisers of Edinburgh Yarn Festival (the mecca of the real-life UK knitting world). Forthcoming events were cancelled due to ill health. Some mocked such “excuses” on Instagram. Mental health issues were deemed “not to be an excuse for poor behaviour”, according to one poster on Instagram.

Leaving aside who gets to decide what is and isn’t “excusable”, what about physical health? What about compassion and tolerance? One of the deep ironies of the current debacle is that one of the designers now under attack has written thoughtfully and inspirationally about her experience of devastating illness, leading to life-long disability, and the role of knitting in her recovery. (Her writing inspired me to write about my own experience of Graves’ disease.)

The fissure in the knitting community has revealed interesting fault lines: age/generation and health/disability as much as race itself. Comments on Ravelry (a moderated, respectful forum specifically dedicated to knitting) are generally much more forgiving and sympathetic towards she-who-has-been-attacked-on-Instagram. But my guess is that Ravelry attracts an older group of knitters, some of whom have been drawn to knitting by life-changing events such as ill health – mental and/or physical – and disability.

Some of the conversations remind me of my own arguments about feminism with Ellie Knott  – ones that have introduced me to concepts such as intersectionality and made me conscious that my own brand of “second-wave” feminism is outdated. (We’re still working on my views on trans-gender issues, and whether my decades-long dictum that “gender is a spectrum”, with which I’ve occasionally offended family members at weddings, may need some development.)

The debate in the knitting community has already captured the attention of Quillette – the platform of radical right-wing “free thought”. (I’m not going to link to that publication, as I don’t care for its tone or its stance, but google will find it easily.) Terms such as “performative allyship” – which is what white women are calling on other white women to display on Instagram – are only too easy to mock. I can just about work out what it might mean, delving into my background as an academic linguist and drawing on conversations with my academic political scientist daughter, but I doubt it serves a useful purpose in a debate among knitters.

My sense is that the knitting world is in shock – not sure where the fissure will lead, whether the impacts will be dampened or whether this is just the start. But the past few days have re-set my relationship with knitting.

cushionI came back to knitting two years ago, after a long gap, with an overtly political knitting statement. But over the last couple of years, as Brexit has slipped ever further into the mire, and our non-government has shown greater incompetence and irresponsibility than I could ever have imagined, fair-isle yokeI’ve increasingly used knitting as an escape from politics. I’ve been drawn to the eye-candy of fair-isle yokes on Instagram as a break from the relentless flow of excrement on Twitter. And I’ve created my own fair-isle yokes as a distraction.

Now there is no escape.


3 thoughts on “The knitting world unravels

  1. I want to thank you for writing this and note that you’ve shared a lot of my sentiments. There’s a place where we need to admit fault and privileged. However, the tone some people are choosing to use (on BOTH sides) is taking away any true progress that might be made. I miss the days when I could log into Ravlery, or onto my favorite designer’s Instagram account, and just see beautiful pictures of yarn and knitting. I get change is needed and discussion is necessary, but the message coming from both sides make me just want to scream!


  2. I found this via Ravelry and wanted to thank you. I rejoined Instagram a little while ago, in part to re-engage with feminism and craft. I have been deeply disappointed to see people who have previously discussed the importance of empathy and nuance deny empathy and nuance to those they deem unworthy. I am very disturbed by the dangerous public statements that mental illness and disability is no excuse. A person in the grip of severe mental illness cannot and should not be held responsible for that illness or for their actions while suffering in any compassionate and just world. Being aware that you have an illness and are in a position to seek help is a privilege they have conveniently chosen not to acknowledge. Feminism that ignores mental illness and the vast scope of disability is not feminism.


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