Knitting on public transport breaks down barriers; maybe because it looks a bit strange or unexpected, or you look more approachable so people are more comfortable about watching you. Sometimes you can have a really nice conversation, but sometimes it’s drunk men who joke ‘knit one purl one’ at you – but how do they know that abbreviation and that it’s an insult? Knitting has a resonance in culture. It’s not a benign thing to do, it gets a reaction. It shows up in quite a clear way people’s attitudes towards women and craft.
Learning to knit:I got re-taught quite a few times as it didn’t really stick. My first experience was when I was on a narrow boat holiday, age 7, with my grandparents and my nanny taught me and my cousin. We made these boob tube dresses for our toys. I remember not liking it and thinking that this takes so much effort and time and I’ve just got this squiggly thing in the end. She used to knit socks in the round on double pointed needles, but now they’re just straight tubes, which my grandad jokes are ‘make your own heel socks’. Everybody gets a pair of these socks for Christmas; me, my brothers and whoever we’re going out with at the time. Mine are usually this horrible pink whereas they get nice oatmeally ones. They must be made out of huge balls of wool as usually the colour stays around for a couple of years.
Then, when I was about 20, my friend was running a knitting event at an international woman’s workshop. She got really into knitting food, and needed someone to practice teaching the patterns with. So, we were knitting lemons and toast, or an egg. She had to teach me how to decrease and shape. At that point I got a bit intrigued as I began to understand structure and the effects that you can get. Afterwards I started knitting this cowl thing, but I was knitting into the back of every stitch in both directions and it was insanely tight and I thought that knitting was so hard and horrible and couldn’t see why anyone would do it. It wasn’t coming out flat, it was all twisted. It was only when she offered to watch me knit that she could correct me and I and the knitting were less tense after that.
The last time when I got retaught was a couple of years later when I lived with a friend and she got completely drawn into knitting. It seemed that she was having so much fun, I wanted to know what it was about. I just didn’t want to be beaten by it. It was only then that I didn’t have to have someone next to me anymore.
Teaching others to knit: I’ve taught quite a few friends how to knit which has made me look at knitting in a totally different way. Things that you think are obvious aren’t; like you have to turn a hank of wool into a ball before you knit it, which meant that one friend got into a terrible mess. Another friend I have to remind how to knit every time; she always enthuses about how nice and relaxing it will be. But then, when she drops a stitch, she gasps as if it’s a major stressful event like being hit by a car and she ends up lying down on the bed while I fix it. She’s a musician and loves the sounds of knitting which made me consider something that until then I had thought of as silent. Teaching creates an opportunity to hear about people’s perceptions and insights about knitting before they are exposed to anyone else’s ideas.
Everyone’s reasons for wanting to learn are different. For one friend, it was about working things out. She wants to know how things work. It bugged her that she didn’t know. I teach them how to knit a hat, as it’s quite quick and you don’t have to do any purl stitches. I get them nice wool and wooden needles that are lighter and more stable. Cheap tools make it harder. I start them with double pointed needles in the round as they don’t know that it’s considered difficult, as it’s all difficult when you start and that way they end up with a hat. I enjoy making it pleasurable, if you’re going to be a knitting enabler you have to get in with the good stuff.
What do I knit? Now I mainly knit clothes for myself. That type of knitting feels quite technical and the focus is on the finished garment, it’s more akin to my work making costumes and I expect the same level of quality. I tried machine knitting during my textiles foundation course. But that almost feels like it’s something else, not knitting; more akin to drawing or painting and sculpture.
I can knit easy bits whilst watching ‘the Wire’ but usually I listen to things and knit at my studio table. I don’t tend to knit with other people, as I have to concentrate. I always used to knit on the train, bus or launderette when I worked in London; people watch you and it can be quite disconcerting at first. I remember when I was making a striped shawl on the overground, a guy opposite was watching me and he wanted to know what it was. He was from Iran, and said I reminded me of his aunts who used to sit and knit and talk. He said that I must be really intelligent to knit and talk at the same time, he had no idea that garter stitch was so simple.
My Tension Square: I was in the garden looking at things that were malleable enough to be able to knit, what can get twisted in that way. Straw doesn’t work, even though you think it might, but carrot tops are really soft, though they really dry out, very fast. I really loved doing it as I had that feeling of the knitting being experimental, when you’re not sure what it’s going to do or will really happen.
I never do swatching for projects, not even for garments. I just go for it, because normally I have to re-start something three times anyway. I discovered later on that undoing things was something other people found really awful. I didn’t know it was horrible, so it never bothered me. It’s not like fabric, when you cut into fabric it’s done that’s it. Knitting is great, you can just unravel it and go again, it doesn’t matter.
What’s great about knitting? I knit because I can create a material from another; it’s quite fascinating. Normally if you want to make something big you need big equipment like a loom. I like being able to make fabric but not needing any major tools. All the possibilities interest me. It’s something that gets more interesting and nuanced the longer that I do it. The more that you read about it, that it’s got so many associations from domesticity or women or crafts. They’re all interesting ideas to consider and notice. Sometimes I’m interested in the thing that I’m making, the end product. Sometimes it’s the process of knitting, the experience and the feedback that you have from engaging it.
A friend of mine told me about these long work meetings that he would go to and how some of the women he worked with would knit throug the meeting and how he would be surprised when they would make really pertinent points. He’d assumed that they wer passive or not fully concentrating because they were seemingly doing something else. But that was because he had no idea of the process, of what’s involved and he assumed that they’d switched off. Knitting isn’t associated with thinking, whereas other crafts are treated with reverence and respect. Your inward perception of what you’re doing can be treated so differently. The things that are made are treated as objects/products – they aren’t recognised as having inspiration or meaning. People don’t ask about why, they focus on how.
Magic Moments: At the beginning of lockdown I realised that I was going to have a lot of time and doing natural dying with wool was something I’d always wanted to try, but never had enough time. I had the idea bubbling in my mind for a long time after I’d read a book by Sheila McGregor about fair-isle knitting. I dyed all the yarn with indigo, madder and turmeric, whereas they used lichens in Scotland. I liked the idea of using a limited palette of colours and making my own design.
I’m knitting the whole jumper as one piece, with no seams. I originally started from the bottom going up, but then I realised it was going to be too small so I unravelled it. Then I started from the neck, and worked out the pattern as I went. The hard bit was working out the increases from the neck as the repeat pattern is 32 stitches wide and always increasing by that amount to fit the pattern in. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but I have, so I won’t ever to be able to do it again.
You really have to concentrate whilst doing it, but recently my grandfather collapsed and was taken into hospital. Whilst we didn’t know what was wrong and if he was going to recover (he’s fine now and it was a brief, fixable problem), I was worrying and just wanted to make something but didn’t want to think too much about it. The jumper took too much concentration, but I realised that I didn’t have to continue the pattern. So on one sleeve I just dropped doing the pattern and just started knitting in one colour. I realised that it’s ok to not do what you intended, knitting can reflect the maker, knitting can reflect your experience and it can be about your life and how you’re feeling at the time. It made me realise that I don’t always have to make things immaculate.