I learned to knit because I wanted to volunteer. I’d just moved to New York City, I was 25, this was in 2000 and I thought about who I wanted to volunteer with. I wanted to spend time with older people as I missed my Grandparents. So I thought about what do old people do? Well my grandmother knits – so I very naively thought that will be great, as knitting is something only old people do. I was 25 so I can give myself some grace for that, we all know that myth persists.
I went to work (I worked in a publishing house) and we had this open meeting with everyone in the room so I said ‘hey does anybody in this room know how to knit’. Most everybody in the room raised their hand, but none of them knew that the other people in the room knew how to knit yet they’d worked together for years. It was this moment of surprise and recognition, but then the meeting started and I don’t think we ever really talked about it again. One of them knew about a knitting circle so she gave me the contact information. I invited somebody I knew from home that lived in New York that said she also wanted to learn to knit. The most embarrassing part, as if it isn’t embarrassing enough thinking only old people knit, was that I was embarrassed to go to the knitting shop. So my friend Cherise went and she picked up stuff for me: some Kelly green yarn and some lovely wooden knitting needles.
Knitting saved my life
We went to this knitting circle in this apartment and it was full of women of all ages and backgrounds. At this point I had been going to a lot of punk shows and I was working through depression as I’d been assaulted but I’d buried all those memories and I was numb and angry. Holding this yarn and connecting with people about making something was transformational for me. I was making something from nothing, I could feel it. Once I started knitting I stopped drinking really heavily, it got me on the path away from destructive tendencies, it changed everything in time: to find a community, to find myself, to be able to feel safely. Sometimes with traumatic experiences you just go numb. People would touch me, but my body was so shut down that I couldn’t feel it. But I could feel the yarn, I could feel it run through my fingers. Going to a yarn shop, touching all that yarn felt so good. That led me to a path to eventually go to trauma therapy and do a lot of healing. Knitting saved my life. It’s not hyperbole, I was in a really bad space. To be able to knit and be in this space with a bunch of women and for there to be no one right way. One person taught us, then they would go talk to their friends. Then someone else would come by and say ‘No, that’s wrong you need to do it like this’. There were people from different cultures, of all different ages. I remember someone over by the snack table was talking about their divorce. There was space for small talk, space for learning, space for deep conversation. It felt like this safe womb like space. It was a safe space to not know, to explore. That was a really supportive group of women. Having that experience got me into a current in the Punk DIY experience that I adore, that was not destructive. Loving creating.
I would just knit in my Aunt’s apartment. I made this horrible scarf. A lot of people learn to knit and they start with 30 stitches and then they end up with 60 and it’s full of holes and it’s so horrible. That was the first thing that I made. I came back to North Carolina and started a knitting circle. I just asked a group of friends as well as a group of people on-line that were making. There was a huge resurgence of people like me that were into the DIY culture, that were into making. This was before 9/11. There was a lot of interest as a lot of us grew up in the eighties and were taught to play basketball, or sport. We didn’t necessarily learn how to make stuff. Then with the internet in 2001, people could share what they were doing from England, from Iceland from wherever. When you have something like knitting which was taught largely by family or community it feels different depending on where you are. That was also life changing. You could see all these patterns and ways of doing things. There’s no one right way. I still read people saying ‘it’s the wrong way’ but if you’re creating fabric out of yarn you’re still doing something.
I made a lot of scarves, a lot of hats and a lot of things that didn’t fit, I’m not going to lie. I have made a lot of pretty shapeless things because for me the interesting part is playing with colour and the mind space you get with knitting, the meditation. I have ADHD so sometimes I need space to concentrate on a pattern and that can be hard to find. It’s hard for me to follow really complicated patterns sometimes. My brain likes projects where I don’t have to think and knit. Recently I made some legwarmers that were out of scraps. I like things like fingerless gloves that are pretty simple and use up scraps. I’ve donated stuff like small vests for Afghanistan. I’ve done a few cardigans and jumpers but I didn’t like the final process, probably because of the yarn that I’ve used. I see people on knitting boards saying that they want to get more technical but that’s not me. I just like the process, learning about different histories of knitting, thinking about simple items where the colours shine and the yarn does.
I also do embroidery, so I’ve knitted a lot less in the past 10 years. A lot of things I start making and then I undo them. I have a hat that is for my partner that has been sitting in a bag for a year. I have bags of yarn for projects. Maybe the reason I have so many unfinished projects is because I’ve forgotten where I am as I tried to do projects where the pattern was on my computer screen or a phone. Maye if I was a better knitter I’d be able to figure that out. So now I print them out and write where I am. I still have some work to do on my knitting skills. Lately I have some yarn that one of my great aunts gave me for Christmas. I’ve been playing with it, first I knitted a swatch just to see how many stitches per inch. I’ve just tried different stitches like Brioche stitch and then undone it. The point isn’t always making something. The point is how I feel knitting it. Sometimes it’s nice to sit in the car and I try a stitch for a while, sometimes when you start you have an idea in your mind and then you think how would this look in moss stitch or in a rib. I want to learn about how what the yarn does, what are its capabilities. It comes from making a lot of things that don’t fit. I have anxiety that I might be making a hat and it’s too big for the person and then they’re all excited and it’s disappointing. Whereas some of the more shapeless things, like if you make someone a scarf it’s going to fit. I have some yarn that I have pegged for some projects. My goal for this year is to make at least one.
It didn’t work out on the volunteer capacity, but I did go to my grandmother’s retirement home for an article that I was writing. She was a real southern disciplinarian, and really strict about the way to live your life. Knitting created a really soft relationship. It opened up a very loving space, where she was teaching me different techniques. I would do projects and she would show me how to do a crochet edge for example. She had first sat me down when I was about 12 with cross-stitch. So here we were over a decade later, bonding over knitting. It’s such a fond memory. All my cousins and her other grandkids were boys and weren’t interested. I also connected with my Grandfather’s sister, Jane. She would knit sweaters for us, for everybody at Christmas. We had never had a relationship until I started knitting, then whenever I saw her she would ask me about what I was making. I saw these doors open into having conversations with people that I’d known for decades, who I’d never been able to talk to.
Knitting was really big for me for a number of years. I love it, that moment of making. In 2003 I moved to England and ended up living in Rachael Matthew’s house. She was doing the Cast Off knitting club. Craft was becoming popular again in England, so I got to do these great events with her. We did Craft Rocks at the V&A which was a night event. There was knitting all over the V&A. In the Palais de in Paris, we taught people to knit. We also taught people on the tube. Rachael organised circle line knitting and the biggest one was where someone went passed their stop because they were knitting. To have that moment when someone realises that they can make something from nothing. It’s that Eureka moment that is so brilliant wherever it is, in a friend’s house or in public. That moment of connection is always the best moment. I used to say that having your knitting in public is like having a dog or baby, as people feel that they can come and talk to you. It’s like a safe way to interact. You can approach people who are knitting and share memories or experiences. I like that approachability. Someone came up to me at an event, who didn’t speak English. She came up to me, and just using her hands to mimic knitting and smiling and pointing. Knitting in public a lot and having conversations with all different nationalities and histories. It opened up all of these rich warm spaces which I never would have guessed. The best places are on train journeys because you can look out the window and people come and talk to you.
Decades later knitting is more popular. It resurges like everything else, like bell bottom pants. Especially in the last 2 years, being in the pandemic we need more of those experiences to create joy and discovery. That’s been lacking. My favourite thing is the magic moments with people, or when you figure something out that you didn’t know you could do. Sometimes there’s no end goal. Knitting is a very similar space to meditation. It’s a calming space, it’s about recreating that sense of calm, that sense of agency. It’s how you feel when you do it. It feels so great. A lot of people would be horrified that I don’t knit to make a sweater or something. But I want to learn a new skill or stitch, but I don’t want to make a bajillion sweaters because I can’t wear a bajillion sweaters. I don’t want to contribute to having too much stuff. I decoupled knitting from what I’m making, it’s the act that’s important to me. I don’t think that other people’s approaches are wrong. I just like to see how different yarns behave, how it looks.
Knitting has been a huge source of joy, a huge source of connection. It’s been finding other people who I’ve connected with over knitting. Most of these people have deep personal ties with how making makes them feel. Sometimes I read about people who are trying to make all the cool sweaters, but that’s not my lane. When I learned to knit and I wrote my masters at Goldsmiths I wrote my final paper about knitting and community development. I had learned how Rachael had created community and I wanted to learn more. People were always confused, why was I knitting as I was in my twenties. One of the professors thought I would be writing about a tattoo parlour and not about knitting and the connections to punk and DIY culture. No-one’s surprised now as I’m in the age range that people think you’re supposed to be knitting.
There’s a lot of prejudice and headlines that knitting is the new yoga. I always saw the connection to history and people of all ages from all over the world. That was the magic. It wasn’t about the age you knit, that ridiculous bias. My grandma made a lot of stuff and was completely badass. If you think about the fact that she had to clothe her whole family; that was badass. It still happens and people think that they’re being edgy but it’s offensive and you’re missing out on connecting. Everyone has a story about the people they know who’ve knitted. Knitting (or craft) connects us all. Once I stepped into that space then I didn’t have a lot of time for people who thought I was too young, or saying that it was a grandma thing.
Joy has been a huge current in making; I have a trauma history and so being able to feel and connect and create my own community was mind blowing and changed my life. Now I’m going down a road that is so full of appreciation and joy and connection. I started looking at joy and realising that joy is something that we all need, but sometimes it’s scary especially if you’ve had bad things happen, or you’re worried that bad things might happen. That visceral joy is like when you see a puppy or a baby or a flower and everything in your body gets a jolt of energy. I did a project on Instagram where I took a picture of moments of visceral joy every day for years because I needed to reconnect with joy and to realise how little I’d been feeling it, and how little other people are feeling it and how life changing it can be to feel it. That led to an affirmation project that went all around the world as a way of connecting with my own sense of self and a sense of agency. I’ve often found that when you leave a project open, you get rich things. For my stitched affirmation project, people have made affirmation cup-cakes; a professor made affirmation rings in their jewellery class and left them out for people. She even sent me one that she made and I wear it every day.
So now I’m doing a digital joy project about what brings you joy and why. My goal is to get 20 pieces of bunting this year, made out of whatever you like. Eventually it would be great to show all the pieces in person. When I showed all the affirmation pieces on a wall in a museum. The random person next to me spontaneously said ‘I feel so much joy in front of these’. The cool thing was that people felt joy making the affirmations and standing in front of them. It’s another way of seeing if people make with joy, will it create a digital bunting of joy? It’s a project about joy and making and bringing more of that into the world.
More about Betsy: Over the years she’s been called a lot of things, a crafter, an activist, an unsung hero, the godmother of craftivism, among others. And that’s how she prefers it, you taking her work and letting it best help you in a way you see fit. If you want to participate in Betsy’s digital joy project – check out her project page or episode 6 of her podcast or her Instagram.