The year 2006 is a little early to try to figure out what has been happening in the last five years. Unfortunately, the different cross-currents of cultural and social change may only be understood once they are no longer of immediate concern. There is a few social phenomena that could be guessed at, however, and to me, the popularity of knitting among the young, educated intellectuals is one that is worth speaking of.

I am speaking mostly out of anecdotal evidence here. I know that in my own social group, it is a popular activity, and this seems to be true of everything2 as a whole. I have noticed some lifestyle pieces in the local paper about the popularity of craft nights in some local establishments. Portland also has some small cooperatives based around various craft type projects. Whether knitting, or other small scale crafting, is really something that is more popular than it was twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago, is something that would take a lot of involved sociological research to try to come to an answer on.

in my own view, it is indeed a sign of some of the issues of the early 21st century. Since the late 1950's, Americans have won more and more negative liberties, until there are very few social and cultural structures waiting to be broken. At the same time, many forms of material wealth have been increasing. The ability to communicate, and the variety of cultural life to be experienced, is great to a degree that it would have been hard to imagine even twenty years ago. All this should leave the young, college educated people of today fairly happy. However, not all is perfect. Living conditions and job prospects are not always assured for the young today, even for those with graduate degrees, and there are lingering clouds on the economic horizon, that, while too complicated to get into here, certainly are worrying. The United States has also been at war for 4 and a half years, the third longest war in our history. All of these things are causing quite a bit of worry. But what are the young intellectuals going to do about it? As I have stated before, most of the symbols of repression have been removed from our culture, there is not the feeling of thick-necked police sergeants siccing dogs on non-violent marchers that there was during the civil rights era. While anger at corporate dominance still shows up in people's emotions, and politics, it is something that people have become jaded to, perhaps through repetition. After all, if you go out and watch any corporate, Hollywood movie, chances are that an evil corporation will be a stock villain. And in opposition to the current society, the answers seem to be limited: the days of heading for the barricades and seizing power seem to be gone. It is not just that the people of my generation are cowards. It is that having seen so much, the idea of bringing history to a close through a revolutionary manifesto or master plan seems somewhat quaint.

So what do you do in a world where the problems you face are nagging but not always apparent, where the things you find wrong with the world's political order seem too engrained to change, and where the idea of social or political revolution seems impossible, if not plain quaint? You take matters into your own hands. While chances of the workers of the world spontaneously throwing off their chains and seizing the means of production and leading the world into a post-patriarchal, post-Descartian society seem a little far fetched, you have some means of production in the form of needles and yarn. Perhaps not enough to free yourself from wage slavery, but perhaps a better way to spend your time then writing another manifesto or expose of capitalist hijinx. At the end, you have produced something material, something to assert your independence over the impersonal, incomprehensible web of global production. It is true of knitting, and also true of more involved projects: brewing beer, making biodiesel, reverse engineering the twinkie or writing free software. In any case, it is taking a "bottoms up" approach to a society that seems to be too confused or obstinate to reform en masse.

As a social movement, knitting and small craftmanship has many good things. It provides a concrete embodiment of ideals of self-sufficiency. It allows solidarity, both within the group, and outside of it, based on a topic that can be shared widely. It also allows people to think technically about projects, a skill that can be scaled up as needs demand. And, it saves the rest of us the trouble of having to read more manifestos.

On the other hand, I wonder why so many very intelligent, energetic people have seemed to turn their energy away from larger things. Has the world become so imcomprehensible and unchangable that the best minds of my generation can't think of anything better to do than to make a sweater? When conditions either get so bad that we must take action, or there is a sea change for the better in our society, will hours spent nervously making scarfs with our hands prepare us for it?

“In an age when so many of us sit in front of computers all day long, we may feel the desire to create, to touch, to make something tactile with our hands. And in these uncertain, anxious times, warm handmade scarves and cozy sweaters feel protective and comforting. Of course, this last discovery we can’t claim for ourselves – it’s something our grandmothers have always known.”

Debbie Stoller, Stitch ‛n Bitch

After a downswing that lasted about twenty years, the twin arts of knitting and crochet started becoming popular again in the late Nineties. Once again you could see women working with yarn on the subway, comparing patterns and projects in online crafting communities, and gathering in “stitch and bitch” groups in public places. The popularity of these crafts is still growing as I write this: yarn shops are opening up all over, while the few LYSes that managed to remain open through the Eighties and early Nineties are doing better than ever. It’s also worth noting that there are more and more men knitting and crocheting these days. It does occasionally seem that knitting is the trendy new thing to do, sort of like blogging and sharing playlists, and will probably go back to being an obscure hobby in another few years when we all come to our senses.

But the newness of the phenomenon is an illusion. Dispelling this illusion is as easy as finding a woman who remembers 1956. Find one, and ask her if she ever knitted. Chances are very good that even if she didn’t knit as a hobby, she at least learned how, either from her mother or in summer camp. Fifty years ago, knitting was one of the very, very mainstream women’s hobbies. Boys played baseball, girls knitted and sewed. You didn’t absolutely have to do it, but it was the rule rather than the exception.

A hundred years ago every woman knitted, and crocheted, and sewed. Knitting wasn’t even a hobby in 1906. It was a mandatory skill for all but the richest women, and even they were expected to know it as one of the basic womanly arts. If you were a mother, you damn well knitted socks for your family, amongst other things. Crochet was a mere hobby, but it, too, was almost universal. Asking a woman of 1906 if she knew how to knit or crochet would be like asking a citizen of 2006 if she knew how to drive, or ever watched movies.

The big difference between then and now is that the crafters of today knit by choice. We don’t have to supply our families with sweaters or socks. We live in a society that gives us everything. There’s a Gap and a Victoria’s Secret in every mall in America, working as hard as they can to make sure no woman ever has to knit another sweater or crochet her own lacy unmentionables. They’d very much prefer that we didn’t, just like Sony and PepsiCo would prefer that we forgot how to tell stories and cook our own food.

And so, of course, we choose to knit.

We choose to knit because our mothers did, and our mothers’ mothers, and our mothers’ mothers’ mothers and every other woman born in the last millennium. We feel their memories in the rhythms of our hands. We share their secrets in patterns passed down through generations, as simple as an Irish Rose or as complicated as an Aran sweater. In doing so, we celebrate their craftwork and the lives they spent churning out these creations, both the practical and the fabulous. We tell their ghosts that they are not forgotten.

We choose to knit because we reject the passive role in the Gap-Sony-PepsiCo world, the world where we do nothing but consume, the latest sweater in this season’s colours, the hottest DVD with exclusive Collector’s Edition commentaries and behind the scenes with the special effects teams. We want to make our own special effects. We want last winter’s colours, or next summer’s. We want to create it ourselves.

We gather together as knitters and hookers, because today’s world is a lonely one, where neighbours are strangers and extended families are something you see every ten years at the big reunion. There is a deeply social bond created in a group that crafts together. We share our patterns and our secrets, we help each other with big projects none of us would complete on our own, and while we stitch and bitch we become a community with a shared purpose. Quilting bees and corn shuckings were not just ways to get tedious jobs done quickly. They were the glue that held small communities together.

We knit because there is no satisfaction as fulfilling as the satisfaction we get from making something with our own hands. We like the thrill of learning a new stitch, seeing a series of increases form a perfectly curved skullcap, watching colour changes sketch a picture in binary, following a sequence of arcane maneuvers to produce a delicate cable on a sweater, and mastering a medium we never tried before. We giggle as we pull massive crochet hooks through loops of tough hemp cord and tug, tug at that bastard again and again until we have blisters on both hands and suddenly, magically, our tired hands are holding a pair of actual shoes. Later on we act all cool and nonchalant about it, but inside we are still smiling and still yup, that’s right, I made that.

Some might argue that instead of sitting around playing with needles and hooks, we should be out storming the World Bank, the WHO and the WTF, protesting the latest oil war, protesting everything to create a better future. I say that change starts at home, and the future won’t be worth protecting if we forget all the traditional small crafts like knitting and crochet before it gets here.

Lest ye be misled by prejudice and my use of the word “we”, let it be known that I am in fact a triple minority in the yarn craft community: a left-handed man who mostly crochets. “We” means we knitters, not we women.

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