activism


It’s that time of year again, when a knitter is asked to knit for strangers, to knit for an idea, to knit for small change.

Sure, in theory it looks lovely.  Money and awareness for causes and a bunch of knitters feeling good about themselves.  Everybody wins.

So why don’t I do it?  Why do a cringe when I’m forwarded the “Innocent Smoothie Hat Campaign” or the “Children’s Society Big Stitch Appeal”?  Am I just a big Grinch?

For those who may not know, the Innocent campaign asks knitters to make little hats that go on bottles which are sold in markets. 50p of each bottle sold goes to Age Concern, a charity for the elderly in the UK.  What happens to the hat once the consumer has finished with the product? It’s probably tossed away, maybe stuck for a moment on an unhappy pet.  Why can’t Innocent just donate the funds with every bottle sold at Christmas? (Actually, they only donate 25p of each bottle, the other 25p coming from Sainsburys but who’s counting?)

The Children’s society appeal is asking people to help knit the largest Christmas stocking for a Guinness world record.  The emails I have received don’t really explain how this will help disadvantaged youth, besides raising the profile of the organization.

I have received appeals for knitting for premature babies as well as knitting for stillborns.  I can see how something handmade might humanize things, and give the parents some comfort.  But the idea of actually knitting something for these campaigns strikes me as a base sentimentality.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I have also seen calls for knitting hats for the homeless in NYC.   From the campaign blurb:

And keep this in mind: the people who receive your items aren’t likely to complain if there are a few dropped stitches, or if the color’s not what they like. They want to keep warm, that’s all.

You know what?  I bet they do care if their hat is wonky.  I hope they care.  And I’m sure that’s not all they want, either.  My father worked with homeless vets for the last 30 years, dealing with the complex problems everyday. There isn’t so much a lack of warm woolens as dire need for affordable housing and health care.  Primarily mental health care.   It might make the knitters feel good, and maybe even some of the recipients will be momentarily touched but it’s so patronizing– it reminds me of people who get in a charitable mood at Christmas and want to temper their guilt so they drop some money in a beggar’s hand on their way to the mall.

Perhaps I should elaborate here before you think me some kind of monster. When I was a child I was often in the hospital, sometimes in intensive care.  Once, a nurse brought me a clown doll made by a volunteer.  Now, maybe it was because it was a clown, a yellow clown, but I received that thing with a kind of dread.  Surely if strangers were knitting for me, I was doomed?  I was the most pitiful of girls, and was probably going to die.   I kept that yellow clown around for many years as a reminder of just how bad things could get.  Plus, I knew how to crochet and some part of me understood the skill and time involved in its pathetic manifestation. To throw it away seemed even sadder.  And then I got over it.

Sometimes knitting isn’t the right way to show someone you care.

Knitting as activism is different.  In the current climate, often charity and activism are conflated.  They are two different things.  Charity throws spare change at gaping problems in the system.  It offers some comforting gesture to victims of tragedy.   Activism confronts the system with demands for change.  For example, things like the Knitted River— are knitted activism.  The river has actually been used as spectacle in demonstrations.    It is a metaphor for collective action, where the smallest among us is more powerful joined with others, and the project itself has called into question water injustice, educating the knitters involved and the public, as well as making political demands.

And there is Marianne Jorgensen’s surreal anti-war statement– the pink tank cozy. Volunteers knit the squares– this transcends even activism to me.  It charges Mike Kelly’s high-art handicraft imagery— which he appropriated from grans all over the world– and gives it back to us.

(photo by mms on flickr)

Give me more collective stitches like this, and then maybe I could feel good about knitting for an ideal.

The Knitted River, on display at The Alexander Palace Knitting and Stitching Show.

This weekend I went to the giant knitting show which is affectionately known as Ally Pally. This is the second time I’d gone and there’s nothing like it for feeling totally out of your demographic. It’s all older women, and there’s something about all that yarn that makes them aggressive and single minded. You can put to rest any ideas of polite grans. These women have survived wars and scarcity, or like to think they have. And you’re not going to get between them and their yarn, cause you’re a young ‘un. The strange thing is it’s not a fire sale. There are very few deals to be had. Most things are actually marked up for the show, and can easily be found via the web or ebay. It’s best to just browse and be inspired– though I did pick up a couple of bargains.

But I go thinking I’m going to see all these women wearing their hand knit creations, or knitting in public– kind of a communial knitting experience. Ally Pally is not that. A kind older woman saw Alice and I knitting and she said, “It’s so nice to see young people knitting.” You know, I’m THIRTY-EIGHT. I guess I should be flattered but it’s all rather matronizing. As the day went on things began to happily thin out and Liza and I were able to check out the Colinette booth in a more civilized manner. We actually got to discuss yarn and projects with other knitters, which is kind of why you go to a knitting show.

Colinette had made “marshmallow” just for the show– a cushy, smooshy thick and thin wool, loftier and chunkier than Point 5. I can’t wait to get it on the needles. I’m going to make a scarf for myself out of the velvet leaf, and a top-down bolero for Liza out of the velvet bilbery.

Colinette Marshmallow– 100g for a fiver! Not bad at all.

An interlac bag made of carrier bags by the By the Knitting and Crochet Guild of Leighton Buzzard.

This was an impressive meditation on waste and reuse. After helping Edie with the carrier bag canopy project, I know how hard it is to work with carrier bags– the skill and hard-headedness of this project moved me. It’s also beautiful.

I was most impressed seeing the Knitted River in person. I had seen pictures of the march to end water poverty, snaking the river through the streets of Westminster, and I was blown away.

knitted_river

It is a metaphor for communal action, and a poetic visual argument. (By the time I got to knitting a square for this, there were thousands more than they had asked for– volunteers sewed up the 100,000 squares.)

I wish more of the stalls at Ally Pally had things like this featured instead of just wares for sale.