The Culture of Knitting

November 19, 2009

As a knitter and an academic (although not an academic in the field of visual or textile arts), I found this treatise on the culture of knitting an engaging read. I consider myself well plugged in to the knitting culture at large: not only do I knit copiously but I read numerous knitting blogs and I blog myself. I have just acquired a circular sock-knitting machine to learn how to make machine-knitted socks, I use Ravelry (a social-networking tool for knitters) and I attend fibre festivals one or more times a year. Joanne Turney's book, however, significantly expanded my understanding of the field.

I have an interdisciplinary background that encompasses language, culture, education, developmental psychology and data analysis. With chapters ranging from gender and knitting to historical perspectives, postmodern knitting, knitting "narratives" and political knitting, The Culture of Knitting covers a wide spectrum of cultural components. And, more than once, Turney's treatment not only ably summarised my own background knowledge in a particular field (gender and sexuality of language and culture, for example) but extended it to new understandings. Her discussion of masculinity and "sporting male bodies" that "display taut, rippling muscles" and "discipline and strength" as canvases for soft, supple "sporty" knitted cardigans was fascinating. In looking at trends from the 1920s through to the 1980s, she proposes new insights into the hypersexuality of knitwear and how it is marketed - perhaps most notably via a discussion of the cardigan sported by one of the stars of that 1970s TV shrine to masculinity, Starsky and Hutch.

Turney's treatment of knitting narratives surprised me in how far it exceeded the expected analysis of knitting in literature. While her treatment of knitting in literature is thorough and absorbing, even more engaging is her discussion of how the knitting process and product can itself form a narrative. She illustrates this theory with a case study of work by Celia Pym, a Harvard art student who travelled around Japan and moved to her next destination only after she finished knitting a blue ball of wool. The knitting process determined her travel, and its progress measured both time and place: "The knitting became a sign of time spent in one location, with memories of peoples and places entwined in the construction," Turney observes. At an exhibition in Japan of her work, Pym found that the labels of places where she had knitted different sections elicited much interaction from exhibit viewers, who made their own connections to those locations (via thoughts of family members in that locale, for example). Thus, much like a written narrative, the knitting product became meaningful in different ways to different viewers.

It is difficult to summarise Turney's entire book adequately in a short review, as its highlights are numerous. A chapter on knitting politics gives a thorough and widespread treatment of topics as diverse as the creation of high-fashion knitwear for women with disabilities (typically, clothing for those with disabilities is designed for the ease of the caregiver rather than the wearer, with little consideration of fashion); philanthropic knitting; environmentally conscious initiatives such as designer-knitted reusable shopping bags; and a provocative project that covered a Second World War tank in donated squares of pink knitted fabric, all the same size and stitched together - a powerful anti-war statement against Danish, British and American involvement in the Iraq war that interweaves public protest with knitting's connotations of home and quiet.

I gladly recommend this book not only to scholars working in visual and textile arts but also to those with interests in broad interdisciplinary treatments of culture. Turney covers a lot of ground, and the book offers copious photos as exemplars as well as thorough and thought-provoking analyses.

The Culture of Knitting

By Joanne Turney. Berg Publishers. 288pp, £55.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781845205911 and 05928. Published 1 August 2009

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