Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.
One weird side effect of writing about your knitting for a living is that the number of people who comment on your knitting can be enormous. To chronicle the day-to-day progress of a big, complicated shawl for the public is daunting and unnatural. Knitting is meant to be seen when it’s complete, not laid bare for inspection as it grows stitch by stitch.
Having hundreds or thousands of people pore over a piece of work may sound like fun, and it can be. My first sweater reached the finish line loudly cheered on by a crowd of blog readers who had watched it grow from nothing, and encouraged me to continue on in the face of neckline issues and a second sleeve that threatened never to end. Certainly that was far more gratifying than showing it to my then-boyfriend, whose entire response was, “Hey, nice.”
It does no good to point out to such a person that he is, thank you very much, looking at tens of thousands of stitches made with several miles of string; that these stitches have been arranged (with help from Elizabeth Zimmermann) into the shape of a garment that fits your own very peculiar measurements exactly so; and that smack in the middle of all this you charted and knit a band of stranded color work–your first ever stranded color work–spelling out a favorite tag by Seneca from your first year Latin book.
No, if you point these things out, you will sound peevish. And all you will likely get from the other person is an amended, “Uh, I mean–very nice. Cute.”
The flip side of the cheering crowd is the crowd that fails to cheer. I don’t mean they just watch in silence. I mean they speak up to let you know what you’re doing wrong. Which is, not infrequently, everything.
Such people assume that because you have made your work public, you have also magically sprouted a titanium carapace that prevents them from stinging you. Not that they won’t try.
A certain amount of immunity does build up. The first time someone who presumably has little else to do with her days looks at a piece you’ve spent three hundred hours making and says, simply, “Blech,” it hurts like being kicked in the chest by a horse. The fiftieth time, it only hurts like being poked in the eye by a strong monkey.
But you shrug it off, because that is part of your job. You become good at that part of your job, or you get another job.
Sometimes the poke is especially weird and vicious. I am thinking today of a photograph I posted on Instagram some time ago of a tiny piece of fine lace still on the needles. It was an antique edging pattern of leaves, worked with cotton thread on a nineteenth century pair of 0000 needles. That photo got a lot of oooohhh and aaahhhhh which it may or may not have deserved. “What are you knitting this for?” people asked.
I answered them by way of a photograph of Ethel, one of my small collection of antique china head dolls. Ethel was more than naked when she came to me–she was nothing but a head. After sewing her a body, I planned to dress her from the skin out beginning with a cotton petticoat. This lace was intended as trim.
Quite a bit of the oooohhh and aaahhhh changed to eeeuuww and uuugggghhhh. It’s one thing to say, “I would never knit that.” It’s another to say, as many did, “You shouldn’t be knitting that.”
A long-time reader told me she was “very disappointed. I never knew you were one of those doll people.” Another said it made her uncomfortable to think of “a grown man owning a doll,” and that she felt I should–if I must continue this sort of knitting–“Keep it to yourself. It’s creepy. We don’t need to see it.”
By this time this happened, I had already lived four decades as a guy who could never manage much interest in most “boy” things, as artificially defined by the narrow-minded adults who presume to make the rules. So, for once, I genuinely did not care. There was no sting. I enjoyed knitting small things for Ethel, and would (and do) continue knitting small things for Ethel. (And her sisters.) (And for my dolls’ house.)
But not everyone has my thick skin, built up layer by layer over years of fighting back because I had to. And comments like these–which are all too common in the crafting world–so often halt joy in its tracks.
It’s not just men with dolls who hear it, of course.
I’ve heard knitters criticize other knitters for an interest in a yarn or a project or a technique they consider a joke. (All she knits with are novelty yarns. All she makes are baby clothes. So low class!)
I’ve heard knitters criticize those who crochet or who want to learn to crochet. (It never looks good, you know. So lumpy. So low class!) I’ve heard crocheters criticize other crocheters who “only” work zigzag afghans or doilies or filet wall hangings. (So stuffy! So old-maidish! So low class!)
I’ve heard weavers and quilters and embroiderers criticize knitters and crocheters (We make art–they’re just crafters. So low class!) And I’ve heard all kinds of people snark about macramé. (In case you think I’m typing this while balanced on a high horse…I’ve been guilty of that one.)
I would like to suggest that we all cultivate the craft of self-restraint–that when we find ourselves on the point of making such comments, we sit back from the keyboard or bite the tongue.
Quite aside from sounding ridiculous–how can one form of fiber craft be “lower” or “higher” than another?–we need to think about the cumulative effect of millions of people saying “You shouldn’t do that” to millions of other people.
I am just old enough to remember the days when it seemed pretty certain that knitting, weaving, sewing, and crochet were all on their way out–forever.
We were in a new age! An age when women could do anything! By which it was meant that women now could do “boy” things, as artificially defined (once again) by the narrow-minded adults who presume to make the rules. Women were not required–or even supposed–to do “girl” things any more. (So old-maidish! So low class!)
Yarn companies folded, yarn shops shuttered, and department stores sold off their stocks of dry goods. Even women’s magazines stopped publishing patterns. Why? In large part because society had come to sneer at people (especially the female half of people) who spent leisure time working with their hands, and sneering can have dire consequences.
We who care about handwork hear enough “no” in our lives from outsiders who think we should buy our socks, not knit them; who think money spent on yarn is money wasted; and who mention grandma’s crocheted afghans only as a punch line. We should never, ever discourage a fellow member of the global needlework circle from any creative pursuit that catches his or her eye.
No, not even if it’s macramé.
Now, if you will please excuse me, winter is right around the corner, and I am making Ethel a knitted coat to go with her newest hat.
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and Knitty.com.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned. Visit him at www.franklinhabit.com