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Susan – researches knitting and literacy

Knitting is a humble craft but it’s got huge power

My research in knitting: My work and my personal interests came together when I was thinking about knitting.  I did a project where I worked with some families, talking about their everyday literacy practices at home and craft came up quite a lot in that.  So I started to think about my own craft and what it meant, which brought me to this project.  In the context of this huge proliferaiton of ways in which we can communicate now – the emphasis on the digital, the virtual, doing things at a distance.  The way that people still do turn to physical ways of exploring and expressing what’s important to them.  This project looks at how knitting and crochet enable people to explore what’s important to them.  The bottom line is to say something about themselves, how they feel about the world and to connect.  That’s another thing that’s really important to me, how people connect and the notion of community, be that through various forms of literature, film or craft.

I used to be a secondary school English teacher, from that I did an MA and then a PhD at Nottingham.  I’ve always been interested in people’s everyday lives and how people engage with literacy; reading, writing and meaning making.  I grew up bilingual, in North Wales.  So I’ve always been interested in language and how people make meaning in just ordinary life.  I did my PhD on bilingual reading choices and how people were being creative in meaning making in their everyday lives.  Not necessarily anything to do with textiles; more traditional reading and writing practices.  Since then, working at the University as a researcher I’ve been involved in school projects where kids have worked in the communities in creative ways: intergenerational projects, community film and community theatres.  The heart of it is ways that people make and share and communicate what is important to them in their lives in ways that don’t always get noticed or in ways that don’t always get credit or get billed as ‘reading’ or ‘writing’.  I worked in a shared reading group in a community in Nottingham with a few colleagues with the same premise which is how ordinary people engage with literature.  What it means to them.  That’s been really important to me.

I went into the Crafting Literacy project with a kind of social model, that what was happening was to do with connecting with others across time and space.  Partly because that’s how I’ve looked into it before.  People are talking about how it connects them to their mums, or their grandmothers, or aunties; it is quite often a female genealogy going on.  Or how it connects people across time and place.  People are making things for family members that they can’t see through lockdown or geographic distance and so on.  It very quickly became apparent by what people were saying that the materiality of knitting is a way bigger feature than I had anticipated.  The material itself, how it comes together, the loops knotted together making a new thing.  It wasn’t a surprise, as a knitter I can understand it.  That’s where my thinking is currently about it, what is it about the materiality of the practice that enables those particular meanings to be made.  Why somebody would want to make something out of wool to send to their relative rather than say writing a letter – what is the significance of that?  I think the materiality of it links to wider meanings as well.  How knitting has been framed in society, some of the stereotypes around it, how it’s been used to keep women busy like lots of textile practices were.  That comes down to the materiality of it, the fact it’s portable and soft; the fact that you can do it and look after a baby at the same time.  All of that history of domestic knitting that persists comes from the materiality of it. 

There will be Academic outputs to contribute to the conversation that in turn will shape policy in terms of education.  How we might keep chipping away at this very narrow view of literacy in formal education.  Reading and Writing is defined very narrowly whilst art, design and craft is being elbowed out.  There’s that ongoing conversation that is needed to keep challenging those ideas and help to build awareness of the realities of people’s lives and what people actually do do.  One of the themes of my work has been trying to highlight the impact of that narrow view.  I did a project that was on family and community literacy and wrote a book from that, which was very much making the argument that we need to understand what’s happening in people’s everyday lives so that we can understand the impact of narrow views for example in relation to the Bedroom tax.  It was round about the time of the Daniel Blake film, so I wrote about representations of literacy in that as well.  We need recognition of the creative way that people use lots of resources in their everyday lives to navigate.  I’m hoping that there will also be a follow up project with public engagement with the ideas and I can pick up more on the materiality side of things than’s been possible with current Covid restrictions. 

In the interviews I’ve been asking people ‘what it means to you’, and how does it enable you to express that meaning.  No one’s struggled with that.  They all know what they intend and what they want to say.  Those have been the most powerful bits of the interviews.  I’ve been really quite humbled by how powerfully people are able to articulate what it means to them.  It’s made me reflect on how much knitting means to me.  The interviews have been incredibly moving, not necessarily because of the difficult situations the people may be in when knitting has helped, but because I find it very moving to hear how much people get out of this practice which is quite routinely disparaged and hidden.  Even they themselves might not think that it’s an important thing to talk about.  What knitting means to different people does vary and is linked a lot to legacy, the times when it’s been important, the connections to people they’ve known.  It’s been a huge privilege to get an insight into those quiet moments of people’s lives where they’re making a connection to those that are important to them.

My own knitting practice: My mum and my grandmother were prolific knitters.  It mainly consisted of Aran cardigans, mainly for themselves or other relatives.  They made loads and they made them very quickly, that’s what it felt like.  My maternal grandmother always wore an Aran style of cardigan with the big leathery buttons.  They were always happening, there was always something being made for someone; clothes for myself and my brother, although as we got older it wasn’t always that welcome.  We received them because it was something that she wanted to do, more than because we wanted them.

My mum was a big crafter, partly from necessity more than as a hobby.  She sewed a lot, she made lots of clothes on a sewing machine, costumes for events.  When I was little I was a majorette and she would get involved in the making of the costumes with a few of the other mums.  There were always bolts of fabric around the house.  The hum of the sewing machine was always there.  Even now, one of the appeals of the sewing machine is the the hum of it and the therapeutic rhythm as the fabric goes through the machine.  It reminds me of my mum making outfits.  She did knit, but it was more functional than for leisure.  She taught me to knit.  I remember I must have been about 6 when she first taught me and it was a mess.  I couldn’t get the right tension and it was all knots. I found it easier to sew.  I was always pottering with something, not particularly skillfully.  I liked to be doing something, making things for dolls.  I remember asking my mum ‘can you make me this’  I remember clothes for dolls in particular; clothes for Barbie and Sindy dolls.  When I was a little bit older, I saw a jumper in Woman’s own and she always did it, kind of begrudgingly.  The last thing I remember her making for me for was a jumper with flags on it using intarsia when I was about 14.  She was quite complaining about it, but she did it.  I’ve always been quite interested in flags, it just looked quite different and colourful.  I didn’t feel competent enough to make it myself at this stage,

Then I made my own things, not very successfully.  One of the first things was a black cardigan; not a great choice for when you are starting out in knitting to make things in a black yarn that you can barely see.  It was quite plain but I was quite pleased with it.  That was the wanting to wear black phase.  I didn’t do it for a while, but picked it up again when I was expecting my son.  I fell into the role of knitting.  I made a cardigan and a hat and a little jumper.  It didn’t fit, it was too small.  All of this knitted stuff appeared from everywhere.  I got inundated, it’s amazing friends and ‘aunties’/work mates or colleauges would produce pram blankets.  I didn’t know them, they were my mum’s colleagues, it was more that they were making them for her as she became a grandmother, a way of connecting to her.  I don’t think I knew them at all. 

from Louise Walker’s knitted taxidermy book

When I was a child it was a way of connecting with my mum and my grandmothers.  Not that it was conscious, it was a kind of language, it felt quite a natural thing to pick up.  When I was a teenager, it was more of a statement.  I’m going to make this cardigan now, against all advice not to use that wool or that colour.  Making stuff for other people seemed to fit with the female role.  Asking my mum when I’d gone wrong about the pattern or the stitch, what do I do now?  You have these skills, this is what you do.  I love making things for my nephews and nieces; toys, those kinds of things.  Then work got in the way.  When I started up again, I was interested in doing things that were a bit different.  Donna Wilson’s creatures, Oddbod bunch soft toys that are all quirky.  I was drawn to those as they are a bit different and they made people smile and led to me remembering that I could knit.  I made a few things from her book.  I wasn’t looking on line for knitting things then.  I made things like hats and slippers for a colleague’s grand daughter.  I made converse boots style slippers for a friend’s daughter.  I made toys and a rug for my nephew.  He was really into wildlife, Bear Grylls.  I made a tiger skin rug for him that looks way more complicated than it is.  I thought ‘that looks really fun’ and I could see that it would fit with him and his sense of humour.  I hadn’t really thought it through how I would make it.  It was big chunky needles and big yarn with a fairly basic intarsia body, though the head was quite 3D.  It was quite an undertaking, a real statement piece.  He liked that so I followed it up with a big whale.  Again I think it appealed to him at that time, though I don’t know where it is now. 

I knit most days.  I go through phases, when I have more or less time.  I can always tell when I haven’t knitted for a few days I find it very calming.  I need to do it.  Lots of people say the repetitive motion of it helps.  I find it useful to have something I can do with my hands.  In my work I have to use my brain, so doing something with my hands helps me back in sync, link back with the world a bit more.  Mainly I do it by myself;  I do go to a knitting group, it’s more of a workshop where you go for advice or help out.  I also really enjoy the social dimension.  I have friends who knit, but we don’t talk a lot about it.  We admire each others things, when we wear them and we acknowledge it.  It’s kind of unspoken what we get out of it.

There are two ways I approach my knitting.  Either I see something and think who would like that, or I think of a person and then make something that they might like.  I might happen on something on line and there’s some kind of resonance for me.  I saw somebody tweeting a few months ago, a happy cactus with a big pink bobble on the top.  My friend’s daughter likes cactuses, so I thought that she might like it.  The things I made for myself started relatively recently.  I’ve started doing a little bit more when I got a bit more confident with my knitting.  I’m trying out different techniques.  Yesterday I finished a cardigan that I’ve been working on for over a year that has some lace work in it that I hadn’t really tried before.   I’m quite a slow knitter and easily distracted.  I start something and then make 4 or 5 other things along the way.  I think as I’ve done more knitting, and get more confident I’ve thought that I’ll try stuff out, try out that technique.  The next thing on my plan is to try out a fair-isle pattern.  I’ve done a few colour things but that will be more of a challenge, I’ll have to use my brain.  I’m a bit of a perfectionist; most of the things I’ve done since teenage years I’ve taught myself.  I was thinking about this the other day when I was sewing buttons on the cardigan and it reminded me that I don’t really like sewing very much.  I do cross stitch, which is a bit like colouring in.  Neatness is quite important to me and that’s why I get more nervous with sewing.  I feel like with knitting it kinds of sorts itself out.  It ends up being relatively consistent, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t like sewing things up either.  At the end of projects when I desperately want to finish I get quite nervous when I know I have to sew it up. 

I admire other people when they can do really complicated lace work and things like that.  I might file something away to try at a later date.  I find with knitting that there’s so much to know, so many techniques, tips and tricks that one of the ways that you feel that you’re making progress is when you know how something and can help somebody else.  I’m not sure that this sense of not knowing ever goes away.  It’s one of those very skilled crafts with all these different dimensions that you can master.  Once you’ve mastered the technique then there are different ways that you can apply it or use different yarns. 

You have to find your space within the landscape and then venture out. 

I’m really interested in how so many different themes can be covered by knitting.  I’m looking at a specific aspect of it: meaning making from an education or literacy perspective.  The ways you can use knitting to make a case for so many aspects of life from mental health and well-being, identity, heritage; personal as well as industrial heritage; sustainability now.  I’m interested in where we go with textiles.  It’s important that we attend to what we do with textiles in everyday life and how these skills help us out in the future.  I was at a talk with Barbara Burman, who was saying that the needle is a tool of our times; people will need these skills so we need to be attending to how we make and use things.  Our relationship with materials is really crucial at the minute.  I’m just fascinated how knitting is part of an answer to lots and lots of questions.  I’m doing a small bit of that and am conscious that I’m always having to rein myself in.  There is a thread through that to sustainability and the importance of the knitting practice to the future of the planet.  It’s a huge area that I’m quite passionate about.  Before my current research, I knew those things, but I hadn’t really felt the implications as strongly as I do now.  It’s a very humble craft but it’s got huge power. 

Want to know more?  Susan Jones is Associate Professor in English Education, in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.  She has researched and published in the areas of language, literacy and cultural practices and is currently exploring the links between amateur fibre crafts, such as knitting and crochet, and everyday meaning-making supported by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.


Published by jencableart

Jen Cable is a mixed media textile artist who loves to draw attention to the outmoded, fabulous, awful and bizarre aspects of culture and everyday society

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