It was brave of the PM to say recently that she knits as a relaxation – even if it was a soft interview for the Australian Women’s Weekly. Not just because powerful women tend to be wary of revealing a more girly side, but because it was such a gift to the cartoonists: a red-haired Madame Defarge, knitting in a blood-soaked Place, as the tumbrils roll by, loaded with the finest flower of carbon-emitting mining aristocrats. If there was such a cartoon, I missed it. Maybe nobody reads A Tale of Two Cities anymore.
Public figures tend to go for blokey hobbies, even the women, with a heavy emphasis on sport: jogging or cycling, following cricket or the AFL. It’s not long ago that politicians would have run a mile (or in the case of Anna Bligh, a marathon) from such overt signs of domestic behaviour. And not only women: a former Archbishop of Canterbury was regularly mocked in the British press because his hobby was tapestry.
Knitting is a soothing choice of hobby, and I imagine Julia Gillard could use some soothing these days. Repetitive and largely mindless, it’s something to do with your hands while your brain is otherwise engaged – or disengaged – and you produce something useful. I used to knit on long flights until knitting needles were banned as potential weapons.
We think of knitting as a female activity, but knitting was once more widespread and by no means limited to women. Shepherds and sailors knitted: watching sheep – or the horizon – doesn’t usually take up 100 percent of your brain.
Knitting does not go back as far as weaving, but it’s hard to tell just how old it is, since textiles, usually made into ordinary hard-wearing clothes, rarely survive for long except in the driest climate. It’s not surprising then the oldest examples of knitting – socks – come from Egypt some time around the 4th century.
Knitting has many advantages over weaving: it is portable, unlike weaving, and knitting needles are cheap compared with the high cost of a loom. There’s less wastage with a knitted garment, too, for not matter how well you ‘cut your coat to suit your cloth’ there will be some scraps left over.
A picture by Bertram of Minden from the end of the 14th century shows the Virgin Mary knitting. She is making a child’s garment for her son, using 4 needles to knit in the round. No doubt this reflects the knitting style of Bertram’s Germany, but it also creates a seamless garment, like the ‘seamless robe’ referred to in the Crucifixion story.
During the long dark nights of winter when there was not much else to do, knitting styles proliferated across northern Europe, and areas across the North and Baltic Seas developed its own exuberant patterns. They have a practical purpose: interweaving 3 or 4 colours into the intricate patterns of Fair-isle or Scandinavian styles are definitely not for the faint-hearted – or TV – knitter, but it has the advantage that the finished product is thicker and warmer than a single knit. Arran or other cable knits, on the other hand, were made of unwashed wool because the lanolin in the wool made them waterproof. Since they were all the same off-white colour, the cable designs helped fishermen to recognize their own pullovers.
Mechanization arrived early in the knitting industry. The most common use of knitting was to make socks and stockings, knitted in the round in plain (stocking) stitch. In England in 1589, William Lee designed a stocking frame to produce a rudimentary tube of knitted fabric. He applied for a patent from Elizabeth I, but the Queen refused on the grounds that the machine would put many people out of work. During the industrial revolution, this act made her a hero of the Luddites, the men who broke the new machines they saw as a threat to their jobs.
During the 18th century, industrialization made woven fabric cheaper. The textile mills produced woven cloth, whereas knitting, which remained a cottage industry, went into decline. At about the same time, fashions were changing and men began to wear trousers of woven cloth, rather than pantaloons and knitted stockings. The radical mob in the French Revolution were called sans culottes because they wore trousers, not culottes, or pantaloons, like the aristocracy.
Women, however, have continued to wear stockings. Silk stockings in particular acquired an erotic charge: Stella Tillyard, in Aristocrats (1995), describes the first Duke of Leinster’s foot fetish, and how enthusiastically he collected his wife’s silk stockings!
There’s another aspect of modern knitting – and its related activity, crochet – that is interesting people more generally. Recently several female mathematicians have been using crochet to reproduce hyperbolic geometric structures that occur in nature (and also in Pringles crisps) and the Australian scientist Margaret Wertheim has organised a project to crochet a whole coral reef.
Knitting and crochet patterns are just algorithms, after all, and I wonder whether, as 3D printing takes off, there may be new ways in the future to look at plain and purl. But it may take a new kind of scientist, a woman scientist, to find them.