Here is a long essay exploring how the craft of knitting is used in mourning and memorialization—including in ‘continuing bonds’ with the dead and recovering connections with maternal ancestors. Drawing on qualitative interviews with knitters and my own life-writing, I discuss how knitted items are used to honour heritage, make space for reflection in grieving, maintain the presence of the dead, and provide tactile comfort in the face of loss. The piece is dedicated to my dear Nanny, Ethel Hasler (1927-2018).
Note: A couple of years ago I decided to stop trying to pursue a career in academia. This decision, and the fact that I just wasn’t writing anyway, led me to cancel a contract I had with an academic publishing imprint for a book titled Knitting, Modernity and the Sacred: Crafting Spiritualities. But there is some material in there that I’m proud of and would like to get into the world–out of gratitude to my research participants if nothing else. So here is part of what would have been a chapter from that book.
Most of this essay is already published in Material Religion: The Journal of Arts, Objects and Belief, so head there if you need a version in a more conventionally-scholarly venue, as well as more information about my research methods etc. See also this essay in a sociology of religion collection and this academic article which includes more autobiographical material.
The previously unpublished parts are the autoethnographic passages about my grandmother, and I’ve got these in bold if you’ve read the other stuff before and/or are short on time.
All images are mine. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Knitting, (Grand)Mothers, and Memory
When meeting for our interview, Janet (48) kindly drove to meet me at the railway station of a small city in Scotland that I had never visited before, before taking us to the café of the public gardens. I found her to be an expansive and articulate storyteller throughout the interview, despite the depression and social phobia she has struggled with all her adult life. Of all the significant projects that participants showed me during the interview stage of my fieldwork, it was Janet’s that most moved me. This was partly due to the pride and joy she exuded when laying out her sock—knit in undyed wool in a complex cable pattern (see here for pattern on Ravelry [can’t find elsewhere, apologies])—on the table in front of me, as well as the meanings and relationships imbricated in it by her explanation of its importance:
J: the thing I’ve brought with me today, that you said to bring, that meant something, is a gift for somebody.
AF: Do you want to get it out now?
J: Yeah…<gets out item> So it’s a kilt sock.
AF: It’s beautiful. So who’s it for?
J: This is for my son, who will be twenty-one next month. My mum… My son’s a [bag]piper and Mum always wanted him to have a made-to-measure handmade kilt for his twenty-first birthday. And, unfortunately, Mum passed away […] very suddenly. And my sister and I spoke about it, and I said that I would like to honour Mum’s wish and to get him a kilt for his twenty-first. And she agreed, so we set the wheels in motion, but of course, because it’s made-to-measure, he had to know about it […] And then I thought ‘That’s a shame, because he knows what he’s getting for his twenty-first, he’s not going to have anything really to open’ […] And then I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do him a pair of handknit kilt socks!’ So again, me being me, couldn’t do a simple sock, went for the most complicated pattern I could find! So, it means a lot to me because it’s the most technical knit that I’ve ever done. It’s also because it’s for my son, and I’m just really, really hoping he likes it! But it also has a bit of my mum in it, as well. So that’s why it means such a lot to me.
It was thinking about Janet’s kilt sock—just a single sock because she had not yet finished the second one—that led me to the concept of crafting sacred connections: the knitting of significant objects as a way of marking and strengthening bonds with the things that matter most. Woven in with the stitches of Janet’s kilt sock—in her lengthy quest for the ‘right’ pattern, in the painstaking following of its demanding instructions, unpicking and reworking mistakes, in working the intricate cable technique to produce fabric with the appearance of braids and Celtic knots—is her love for her son, the importance of the rite of passage of his twenty-first birthday, and commemoration of her mother.
My grand/mother’s knitting
Janet’s response to the first question I asked in our interview, ‘how long have you been knitting?’, was the following story:
My mum taught me to knit when I was young, and then—I suppose like most kids—I put it aside and didn’t really do anything with it. And then, about four years ago now, I suddenly took a notion to start knitting again. And, me being me, couldn’t go for a simple pattern: I decided I was going to knit my husband—who’s 6ft1!—a jumper. Also it had to be a cable knit jumper […] I’d got it all knit up, and it was all looking beautiful. And, he went to try it on, and he couldn’t get it over his head. So off it went to the Knitting Hospital, also known as Mum. And she said, ‘you cast it off too tight at the neck!’ […] My mum—she crochet, but she also did knitting—she crochet from when she was at primary school, so anything that went wrong, it was ‘Mum…what do I do with this? Mum! What does it mean when it says that?’
Janet’s mother was central to her account of her craft practice, as the person who taught her how to knit and crochet, and provided valuable assistance in her early efforts. Many of my participants were taught to knit by a mother and/or grandmother, as, indeed, was I.
I took up knitting as a serious leisure activity when I was eighteen, asking my mother to show me how to do it, and raiding both her and my maternal grandmother’s collections of yarn, needles, and patterns. In the following years of my knitting adventures, especially in response to a particularly impressive feat of skill, my grandmother (‘Nanny’) would say ‘I taught you/her how to knit’. I wasn’t always able to resist the temptation to correct her, that while she taught me how to knit when I was about six or seven, it was my mum who I had really learned from as a young adult; however, Nanny had taught me how to purl and how to crochet (neither of which was a straightforward process). Although I only vaguely remember sitting next to Nanny on the sofa, learning the four-step process of forming a knit stitch with bright acrylic yarn and child-sized plastic needles, it was clearly an important memory to her. More significant for me was the time we spent knitting together in my late teens and most of my twenties, as Nanny grew more forgetful, more frail, and more firmly ensconced in her armchair in the corner of their living room.
The impact that knitting had on this particular relational bond is a major aspect of the importance, indeed, sacrality, that knitting holds for me. Together Nanny and I looked through her booklets of patterns, dating from the 1940s to the 90s, including for the complex (and sometimes frankly bizarre) cardigans and jumpers she had made for me as a child. She pieced and crochet together the first item I ever knitted for my own use—a scarf of patches in different stitch patterns—and picked up the button bands on my first garment, a cardigan. For the first couple of years, Nanny patiently soaked up my frustrations at the difficulty of reading patterns and ‘reading’ my knitting (often not helped by my choice of dark-coloured or highly-textured yarn). When I was failing to meet a knitting deadline, such as a gift for a specific occasion, Nanny would help by knitting part of it for me; it was always glaringly obvious which sections had been worked by Nanny because she knitted to a tighter tension and with a much neater finish than mine.
Mine and Janet’s accounts are not unusual. In the words of focus group participant, Kelly (34), ‘I learned crafting at my mother’s and my grandmother’s knees’. As Jo Turney writes, ‘[f]or many people, their first experience of knitting, and of learning to knit, is associated with family and the home’. Knitting is ‘a tacit skill passed from one person to another’, thus learning to knit is often an ‘intergenerational sharing of knowledge’ from a mother or grandmother to a child (2009, 12). The learning and teaching of knitting is something that takes time and a degree of commitment and intimacy, ‘an intense, one-to-one experience of learning’ (Brooks 2010, 34). As demonstrated by Janet’s story of the cabled jumper, being taught to knit by another person is not an immediate, one-off process: the mothers and grandmothers who may have shown the knitter how to form stitches are also likely to have been repeatedly asked for help in remembering what to do, and untangling knotty problems. Because in Scotland children used to be taught to knit in primary school, several of my participants talked about how they learned at school, with their early efforts needing to be rescued by mothers and grandmothers. Pauline remembered how:
both my mother and my grandmother are really good knitters and actually that was quite intimidating. They tried to teach me when I was a child and that just wasn’t really happening. And then when I was at school—I was about seven—we had to knit a cotton dishcloth. And you think, ‘what seven year old wants a cotton dishcloth?’ And cotton’s not easy, you know it’s not get any stretch to it, and I was really struggling with this thing, taking it home and Mum would sort it and the teacher knew perfectly well my mum knitted more of it that I did.
Like myself and Beth (who was taught by her grandmother but also only has ‘vague memories’ of knitting as a child), Pauline elected to take up knitting as a young adult:
in one of my mum’s magazines was a jumper that I really wanted, and it was very not at all traditional, but it was colourwork, in really bright colours. And I asked my mum if she would knit it for me and she just said, ‘no, but I’ll help you knit it yourself’. So we went out and bought the yarn. So that was my first thing, and you know probably not particularly well-knitted, but it got me back into knitting, or got me into knitting.
This turn in mine and Pauline’s conversation came about after we were politely interrupted by the waitress at the café in which we sat knitting together, who interjected to tell us about her own knitting experience and travails. When invited to join Pauline’s knitting group meeting there later that evening, she replied that she had worked a long day already, but does enjoy watching people knit, and used to love watching her nan knit. My transcripts of several of the interviews that took place in public places are dotted with similar interruptions, with memories of mothers and grandmothers a common theme of comments of the curious passers-by. Indeed this is representative of my daily experience as a person who knits in public places: people will ask me about what I’m knitting, and then tell me about the women in their life that they remember watching knitting, or who knitted things for them.
Janet referred to her mother throughout our interview, with various aspects of her crafting coming back to this central relationship. She told me her how her mother, a minister’s wife (‘babies that got christened in our church used to get a little posy of flowers and a baby jacket’) continued a ‘family tradition’, in which ‘any new babies that were born within the family were made what was called a Rafferty Baby Jacket’. Janet’s paternal grandmother, ‘Gran Rafferty’, a widow with seven children, would crochet a jacket for any child ‘needing a new cardigan’ living on their street in a Scottish west coast town, according to ‘a pattern that was in her head, it wasn’t written down […] she used to be able to look at a child and just whip one up, in the right size’. Gran Rafferty later taught her daughter-in-law, Janet’s mother:
So when Gran Rafferty passed, Mum took it on […] I think it’s nice that there’s that sort of thing that gets passed on that’s not written down. I’ve never seen the pattern anywhere, I’ve never even come across anything that looks vaguely like it, and I just think that it’s nice that that tradition continues. So before Mum’s eyesight got too bad, I said to her ‘Come on then, you’ve got to teach either [Janet’s sister] or I how to make this baby jacket, so that we can continue this tradition’. So she sat with me and we made one together. But unfortunately we haven’t had a family baby since Mum passed away, I haven’t been able to put it into action yet! But that appeals to me, that tradition of handing down patterns or stories or family tales that get passed from one generation to the next. I like that idea. I suppose continuity. And something that’s—I was gonna say unique to our family, it probably isn’t unique to our family, it’s probably just the pattern that was unique to our family!
Indeed, the traditions of (sometimes unwritten) patterns being made and gifted within families is not unique to Janet’s family, and was mentioned to me by several participants. While an everyday and unpretentious practice, it is nevertheless an intentional enshrining of the family, which speaks to the sacrality of families and their traditions (or myths and rituals) in a wider context.
A ‘sense of wanting to pass it down the generations’was important to interview participant Carla (42). She told me about the sessions she ran at a nearby community centre, teaching children (including her own) woolcrafts such as knitting, spinning and weaving. The project was borne out of disappointment at not being allowed to bring her children with her to her local craft group: while she had expected that the group’s ‘older ladies’ would ‘want to pass on the skills of their craft’, it seemed to her they intended the group for ‘chit-chat time’ rather than having young children present. This ‘spurred me on to think ‘well, I’d like to do that, I’d like to pass on my skills: is there something that I could do myself?’’ Later in the interview, Carla explicitly linked teaching crafts to her children with memories of knitting with her mother and grandmother:
Nana […] passed away before our kids came along—but she had thought that we would have children much before we did, and had been making baby things, so when I eventually did get a baby, it was produced out of a bottom drawer for me, which was lovely. […] So yeah, I suppose that’s really my—a sense of wanting to pass it down the generations.
In popular culture, knitting has long been predominately associated with women (usually older women), particularly grandmothers, mothers and aunts making gifts to clothe their families. In the early 21st century, the renewed popularity of knitting has often been contrasted with this traditional image, particularly in mainstream media reporting of the phenomenon, in an inherently problematic. As Groeneveld writes, ‘rhetoric around “new” knitting implicitly constructs older women as depoliticized and no fun’ (Groeneveld 2010, 272) but also neglects the extent to which ‘young women […] may, in fact, feel more connected to older women through crafting’ (Groeneveld 2010, 273). This explored in a 2011 book of knitting patterns, My Grandmother’s Knitting, in which editor Larissa Brown collects designers’ patterns and reflections inspired by ‘a grandmother or grandfather, a family member’. The book is framed as a response and refutation to a particular phrase:
Throughout our knitting world, there lurks the refrain ‘it’s not your grandmother’s knitting,’ meant to imply that our grandmothers were unsophisticated knitters […] This sentiment deprives us from really seeing knitting through our grandmothers’ eyes […] It discounts our grandparents’ skill—in many cases developed over an entire lifetime—and also their style, individuality, and grace. I hope this book will convince you—or just remind you—that the knitting we do is our grandmother’s knitting. (Brown 2011, 8, emphasis in original).
The relationship of participants’ own knitting and crochet to that of their mothers and grandmothers recurred throughout my fieldwork. For some this was one of contrast. Laura (33) differentiated her own tendency to break her resolve to only buy yarn that she already has a planned project for from her mother’s approach:
my mum doesn’t understand having a stash […] She couldn’t buy yarn and then go ‘oh what am I gonna do with it?’ She’s got to have a plan, and then she buys it. […] I think it’s a generational thing in a way. The way she talks about yarn is quite—I say ‘old fashioned’, she says that I speak about yarn in an American way.
Beth explained that she and her grandmother still talk about knitting, with the older woman telling her granddaughter:
‘You are doing like way more than I ever would have done […] because when I grew up I just did the basic things and I did the same things over and over’ […] ‘I knit because I needed to make warm things for my family, I didn’t feel the need to try fifteen different ways of casting on’ […] I had what I did, and I didn’t need a pattern for some of them any more, I just made them’ […] you are much more adventurous and you try a lot more different things’.
Knitting and crochet are also significant focal points for remembering relationships with mothers and grandmothers. In the focus group, Kate (56), spoke of how the colour of a particular yarn reminded her of an item that her mother had made for her:
My mum and I used to […] quite often sit and knit, chat away while watching television programmes, and it was a thing that we had joy sharing. And I didn’t realise quite how important that was until my mother died. […] At that particular time I wasn’t knitting so much, but my mum would knit me things, and I got her the stuff to knit and that was fine. But the older she got the harder it was to knit, but I got her this lovely yarn—it was a very similar colour to that—and she knit this and it was the last thing she ever knitted for me, and I could no more get rid of it…it’s an acrylic-y type thing, and I love it.
During our interview, Hazel (54) was working on miniature Christmas stockings knitted from small scraps of colourful acrylic yarn, from the knitting basket that her mother gave her when she took up knitting again. Hazel’s mother taught her to knit, and she knitted from childhood through to her early twenties, taking it up again after a decades-long gap. Her mother could no longer knit or crochet due to arthritis, but Hazel recalled the pram blankets her mother would make whenever one of Hazel’s friends has a baby, and ‘she crocheted a wee pram blanket when my nephew was born, six years ago, and I think that was the last time she crocheted’. Hazel was not sure whether the wee balls of yarn she had been given were leftovers from the pram blankets, but noted that:
they’re those sort of colours, and I just thought it was a nice thing to do. I quite liked the idea of using the wool that my mum had given me to make these wee things for my family as presents.
I was reminded of Hazel’s tiny Christmas stockings, made from the oddments left over from her mother’s crochet, when reading Brown’s words on her conversation with knitting designer Pam Allen:
even after a long career at the forefront of the knitting industry, she still loves the simple, creative challenge of a bag of yarn scraps […] Pam inherited this sensibility from her grandma, for whom a quilt was something satisfying and beautiful made by juxtaposing leftovers—a way to save moments in time by plucking memories from the scrap bin. Pam calls it ‘saving pieces of history’ (Brown 2011, 17).
It also reminded me of a knitting project made by myself and my own grandmother. A decade after Nanny had taught me to purl and crochet, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the preceding few years she has stopped knitting and crocheting, and, in an effort to keep Nanny’s mind and hands as active and occupied as possible, following the diagnosis my mum suggested we start her crocheting a blanket, like the ‘granny square’ types she used to make. Nanny was unable to remember the pattern or follow the written instructions, so she needed me to show her what to do. In a bittersweet moment of clarity, she said to me, ‘I taught you how to do this, now you’re having to show me’. But then she managed to get the hang of it, and ended up crocheting obsessively, making about fifteen blankets for family and friends.
Once Nanny ran out of people to crochet blankets for, we decided to try to get her knitting again, and I set her to work on a blanket I had started for myself as a way of using up the leftover yarn from past projects. The blanket consists of patches shaped like apple cores that tessellate together, and sewing it up was too tricky a task for Nanny by this point, but I thought it would be good mental exercise for her to follow the pattern in knitting the individual patches.
After leaving Nanny to get on with knitting the patches, on my next visit I was caught off-guard by the progress she had made, and how it contrasted with the way she used to knit. It reminded me of how I used to knit, and how that had compared with the way I knit now. Some of the tiny balls of yarn that I had left Nanny with were of insufficient quantity to knit an entire patch, so two or three colours would have to be worked in stripes on the same patch. While I had given her strict instructions about which yarns to use together on the same patch, Nanny had cheerfully ignored my tasteful guidance. She has used colour combinations that I now would not dare, and experimented with pattern and texture rather than sticking to my pre-approved stripes. I was simultaneously delighted—to see Nanny’s enjoyment and creativity in approaching the task—and pained by what it showed about how her brain was changing. In the past, Nanny’s knitting had always been flawlessly neat, following the prescribed pattern and techniques to the letter. Examining the misshapen, multi-coloured blanket patches, I could see that she no longer noticed (or cared about) joining a new end with a knot; that, rather than responding to errors by unpicking and starting again, now she dealt with any mistakes by fudging and carrying on. With dementia, when Nanny knitted she was in the zone. She was able to be absorbed in what she was making rather than judging it, to try out new things as they occurred to her rather than do what the pattern told her to. It seemed to me here Nanny was knitting in the way I did when I first learnt: enthusiastically, incessantly, creatively, without worrying about neatness or good taste. In more recent years, proficiency had made me cautious, and much as I valued the craft skills it had taken years to develop, I began to miss those early days of unthinking experimentation.
When I showed Nanny the finished blanket, which had been challenging to sew together given her relaxed attitude to the pattern, she told me ‘it’ll keep you nice and warm up in Glasgow’.
Six years on (eight years now!), this apple-core blanket, made of ‘pieces of history’, remains in ‘everyday use’ (cf Walker 1994) on my sofa. It covers my lap as I type these very words. The blanket is a material memorialization not only of the various knitting projects that the yarns are left over from, but also of my grandmother’s knitting and its relation to my own. It reminds me how my knitting has always been entwined with Nanny’s knitting, both during my formative years—in which she was the archetypal grandmother, her life defined by maintaining the home, cooking, and crafting for her family—as well as the last decade of her life, when the caring roles were reversed.
The meaningful project knitted by Solan (49) is another example of ‘saving pieces of history’. Originally from Shetland, but now living in the central belt of the Scottish mainland, Solan finds that knitting Fair Isle and Shetland lace patterns, and participating in associated online groups, enables her to ‘feel more connected with the community that I left behind’. At Edinburgh Yarn Festival she was wearing a cardigan with a Fair Isle patterned yoke.
Solan explained the significance of her cardigan:
the pattern means a lot to me—I lost my mum about six years ago, and she’s the one that taught me to knit […] because my mum had knitted commercially and it was something she’d done for the family, it was something I was so used to seeing happening wherever I went. You know, family, friends of my mother’s would all sit and knit. So it was something as a four-year-old I wanted to join in with. […] And then six years ago I lost my mum. And I got all of her knitting material when she passed. So I got her stash, I got her books, I got her knitting belt. And in one of the little sort of school jotters with squared paper in it, I found this pattern, that she’d charted out. I don’t know when—20 years ago, 40 years ago […] the pattern was a way of reconnecting with my mum, and with, you know, the generations that went before.
Solan’s cardigan was knitted from a pattern of her mother’s that she had found after she died; although most of the yarn had been purchased recently on a trip to Shetland, ‘some of the wool’s actually either mine or my mum’s stash, that we’ve had for years. So there’s, you know, another connection’. The leather belt she used to knit the cardigan—‘because we’re Shetlanders we use a knitting belt’—had belonged to her mother and was ‘handmade by my grandfather, so it’s got even more family connections within it’. Making the cardigan was a way of celebrating and connecting with how Solan’s craft practice—the knowledge of how to form stitches, the materials of knitting, and the patterns—had been inherited from her mother, and in a wider sense from the past and present communal tradition of Shetland knitting.
Unpicking the past
Associations with knitting and heritage are not confined to the familial; as seen in Carla’s account, the desire to preserve and pass down traditional skills goes beyond one’s own family. In contemporary knitting practice, this is reflected in the popularity of knitting patterns that use historical techniques and traditions, often associated with particular places and regions, such as Shetland lace knitting, Aran cable patterns, and Fair Isle and ‘Nordic’ colourwork motifs. Many knitters collect and work from vintage patterns, and designers such as Susan Crawford recreating vintage designs in instructions and materials more accessible to a contemporary knitter.
In both scholarly and popular accounts of women and domestic crafts since the second wave of feminism, there is a recurrent theme of how quilting, embroidery and knitting provide material witness of the lives of women of earlier generations. In the 1987 collection, Women and Craft, June Freeman describes women’s craft as ‘the voice of a huge section of the population who do not feature in history books and who are otherwise silent’ (Freeman 1987, 55). For Sue Scott, writing the same volume, ‘works of craft created by our mothers and grandmothers’ should be ‘treasured’ for how they represent ‘time salvaged from a life of hard work, time used to create something of beauty for their own pleasure’ (Scott 1987, 26). Feminists in the second wave were, however, profoundly ambivalent about women’s domestic craft; Rozsika Parker glosses how in the 1970s feminists regarded embroidery as ‘both an instrument of oppression and an important source of creative satisfaction’ (2010, xi). As a form of labour confined to the home, or of leisure that was unvalued and usually focused on benefitting others, knitting in second-wave feminist analysis is the result and representation of women’s oppression within patriarchy (see Turney 2009, 9-10).
In feminist discourse around the so-called ‘revival’ of knitting in the early 21st-century, there has been a critique of the previous generation’s rejection of craft as well as renewed emphasis on how the act of knitting could be a way of connecting with the uncelebrated women of past generations. The popular book that led the way in encouraging the ‘new wave’ of knitting—Stitch’n’Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook (2003)— was written by Debbie Stoller, then editor of the feminist magazine Bust. In the introduction to her book of knitting techniques and patterns, Stoller argued that ‘Betty Friedan and other like-minded feminists had overlooked an important aspect of knitting when they viewed it simply as part of women’s societal obligation to serve everyone around them’ because ‘knitting served the knitter as well (Stoller 2003, 9) [This narrative of second-wave feminist attitudes to knitting and domestic craft, reimagined by their third-wave descendants, occludes the relation of craft and activism in the women’s liberation movement, and the ‘turn to the crafts’ of the 1960s and 70s counterculture and peace movement (see Groeneveld 2010, 269, citing Minahan and Cox 2007, 13)]. For Stoller, knitting is a source of ancestral connection, not only to her immediate family but a wider conception of foremothers:
Whenever I would take up the needles I would feel myself connected not only to my own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, but also to the women who had developed the craft, the women who had known, as I did, the incredible satisfaction and sense of serenity that could come from the steady, rhythmic click-click-click of one’s knitting needles (2003, 9).
In accounts such as this, contemporary feminist knitting becomes a ritualized means of connection with the women of the past, whether one’s own family or all those who have participated in the craft. An understanding of this as ritual activity is supported by the prevalence of the representation of craft as ancient tradition in popular texts on the spiritual significance of knitting. Tara Jon Manning writes in Mindful Knitting that learning to knit ‘provided me with a temporal connection with the women who came before me’ (Manning 2004, 2, my italics). Rachael Matthews devotes a chapter of The Mindfulness in Knitting to ‘Learning from the Past’, and tells readers that ‘[y]our first knitting lesson qualifies you to enter a rich dynasty of nimble-fingered, creative people, who have made precious fabrics for thousands of years’ (Matthews 2017, 15). For Susan Gordon Lydon, ‘with each piece of handwork I do, I connect with the centuries of women who cultivated their inner lives and expressed them through the humble works of their hands’ (Lydon 1998, 5, my italics) and ‘[a]ny craftsperson, when setting out to make something, connects to a heritage so ancient […] that it makes the mind reel’ (Lydon 1998, 109, my italics). This link between knitting the past and spirituality is not coincidental, and maps onto contemporary broad understandings of spirituality ‘as that which gives life meaning, in a way that connects the inner sense of meaning with a sense of something greater’ (Gardner 2011, 9, my italics). Here the notion of lost female ancestors forms the ‘something greater’ with which knitting is a means of connection to.
The significance of memory and memorialization is paramount in two of my fieldwork participants’ projects centred on uncovering and paying tribute to female ancestors’ histories. At Edinburgh Yarn Festival (EYF), Lotta (31, from Finland), had with her a shawl she was in the progress of knitting. She explained:
This is something I’m working on at the moment. This is the second of five shawls that I’m knitting. Actually what makes it meaningful to me is the grey yarn here. This yarn is older than I am. It was handspun by my great grandmother, my mother’s mother’s mother, of the last shearing of their sheep. Then they gave up their sheep, so this was the last batch.
Lotta’s great-grandmother preserved three skeins of this special handspun yarn for the rest of her life, and five years after her death it was passed by her daughter onto her own granddaughter, to knit a shawl for her. Lotta had two skeins left after her grandmother’s shawl was complete, so it was decided that one would be made for all the female descendants: ‘we agreed with my grandmother that I’m going to knit a shawl for herself, my mother, my auntie, myself, and then my partner’s daughter’.
Lotta was the last person I interviewed at EYF, and because the venue was closing up I did not have time to ask her more about the significance of these five shawls, of maternal heritage— ‘my mother’s mother’s mother’—about what she was thinking about in the process of making them, or what it meant for her great grandmother to be giving up her sheep. All I have recorded is my admiration of the quality of the expertly handspun yarn, and Lotta’s emphasis on Finland’s poverty in the period immediately following the Second World War, when this yarn was made. Perhaps it says enough about the role of craft in memory and sacralizing kinship bonds that this 2-ply grey woollen yarn was preserved by its maker for six decades, then taken on by her descendants to create gifts for each female member of the immediate family line.
Earlier that weekend I had more opportunity to ask another interviewee, Alexandra (38), about her motivations in designing a series of knitting patterns ‘based on, or inspired by, the lives and stories of the female members of my family’, with the collection named ‘Formidable Women’. She had with her a hat that was still on the needles: a three-colour stranded colourwork pattern worked in green, purple and white 4-ply wool, ‘the suffragette colours’, to honour Alexandra’s several ancestors who took part in the movement for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. She explained that this was the starting point of her idea for a collection:
I’ve done quite a bit of family history in the past and my mum is a professional researcher and family historian. So she knew a lot of the stories. And I found them all fascinating, and thought ‘well why don’t I take that inspiration and work that in wool and stitches?’ So yeah, so that’s how it started. So the idea came from this one, my suffragette ancestors; it then went off in different directions and I’ve got various other completed ones. But I’ve come back—I’ve been going round giving some talks about my suffragette ancestors recently, so I decided it was time to knit up my hat design.
Alexandra then brought out an apple-green knitted lace shawl, which she told me ‘was inspired by the story of another great great grandmother, who was a Polish Jewish refugee, who fled the pogroms in the mid-nineteenth century, and ended up in Birmingham’. The shawl ‘told the story’ of Alexandra’s ancestor both through the materials she had chosen and stitch patterns:
I’d used the St. Kilda Blacker yarn, which takes a very ancient and rare breed of the Shetland Soay and Borerary. And I wanted to take that yarn, which has a real sense of place and ancientness. And yet those sheep too were immigrants at one point. They’ve been here a long time, but not that long in the great scheme of things. Humans brought them in, but they’ve settled and become rooted in that place and developed their own sort of speciality in a way. So I was thinking of the story of my great great grandmother who…. fled for unpleasant reasons, rather than being brought for positive reasons. But yet she adapted to her new surroundings; she chose her own path in many ways.
The stitch patterns symbolized the different elements of her journey: ‘horseshoe lace’ for travelling by horse; ‘the purl lines here to me represent the train tracks she travelled on. And the wavy lace at the bottom, the sea journey’. Thus the shawl as a whole ‘represented her journey but also her settling and establishing herself in her new surroundings’. Another shawl, one that Alexandra did not have with her for our interview, was made for her own mother ‘for her 70th birthday. And that represented her mother: I took various elements of her life that were particularly important, and I sort of wove them into a pattern’.
Alexandra described the whole project as ‘a lot of fun!’, but also reflected on it having some profound personal resonance: ‘it’s been a really interesting way of just exploring those women’s stories and thinking about where some of those elements echo in my life, where they’re different. But that sense of who you are as a member of your family’. When I asked her why she wanted to knit objects relating to her ancestors, she replied,
Ah <pause> Because I wanted to tell their stories. Whether it would be the active suffragettes in York, or religious refugees, or hardworking Victorian laundresses, and the various other stories I found. I found they were really interesting stories and I wanted to tell them in some way. And I could give talks about some of them, I could write about them, and I may well do so. But as a knitter, I also wanted to express that with wool.
This desire to ‘weave a pattern’ of the ‘stories’ of family history through ‘wool and stitches’ demonstrates how craft is used as a way of ritualizing connection with the sacred, including the relationships between the self, place, and the past. The process of discovering and creating a narrative order out of these stories is important, but designing and making knitted textiles from them gives an additional, materialized layer to this engagement.
Mourning and remembrance
As seen in the previous section, knitters curate the objects and materials made and used by those who have died, and create their own objects in commemoration, sometimes from specific materials, objects or designs connected to that person. They also find the process of making is affectively soothing in the context of grief, and provides an opportunity to remember the person who has passed away.
The use of textile craft in grief-work following a bereavement is a consequence of stitching being a time-intensive physical process, which creates a space for reflection in memorializing. In reference to embroidery, Rozsika Parker comments that the ‘time taken to complete a memorial sampler or picture allowed a period of mourning, and possible acceptance of separation and loss’ (Parker 1984, 38); quilting is another domestic craft traditionally utilized in processes of grieving and mourning (see Carocci 2010; Collins 2015). Women’s historical and traditional crafting of commemorative objects (see Tobin and Goggin 2013) seems to be continued in a contemporary, everyday context in knitters’ memorial practices. As with the example of Solan’s cardigan, bereaved knitters select, preserve and repurpose the objects and materials made and used by deceased loved ones, often those foremothers with whom their knowledge and love of the craft is associated. Janet told me how she had spent some of the money she inherited from her mother on a spinning wheel:
I wanted to buy something that I could remember Mum by, but that I could use. And I thought, ‘ah, I could get a spinning wheel’. Because, as I say, Mum—all her days—knit, crocheted, and I thought ‘well that’s sort of continuing that sort of thing’. You know, whilst it’s sitting in the room I can look at it and think ‘that came from Mum’, and when I’m using it I can think ‘well, it’s sort of a natural progression’, from knitting with wool to wanting to make wool in order to knit. And I think she would approve.
Others created objects as an intentional mourning practice. Alison, a questionnaire respondent, reported:
When my Grandfather died last year, I knitted up rather a lot of little cork gnomes, using leftover corks from his winemaking hobby. We gave them away at the wake for friends and family to take away with them. I figured if people saw the gnomes and thought of him it would be a nice memory.
At EYF, Nalle (44, originally from Germany but now living in Iceland) showed me a bright green shawl she knitted during the period around her mother-in-law’s funeral. She described how the process of knitting the shawl was a ‘soothing’ way of ‘coming through grief’ due to the simple and repetitive lace pattern, ‘just something mindless to knit along’; ‘this stitching is really so…contemplative […] nothing really to think heavily about the pattern, so mind can wander’ [sic]. She thus found the time spent knitting it opened up a space for remembering her mother-in-law—‘stitch for stitch, you are remembering’—for thinking about the person she was:
She was herself a huge knitter, and she had a knitting machine and she did all her handicraft. I thought, ‘oh she would have loved this green’. She loved so much seeing me knitting, and I had this remembrance about the time we spent. And it was just very <pause> difficult in the beginning, because really I saw her the whole time, like sitting, ‘oh yes this is lovely, this is your colour, oh I like…’! She would speak to me! And as I got along, I was just…feeling good, in that way…I really love to remember her, all of the times we had […] this is very much her, in the shawl.
Materials of mourning
As well as using the process of knitting to aid ‘the grieving process’, Nalle’s finished shawl became a way of maintaining the presence of the deceased in a material form. She wore it frequently because the colour matched much of her clothing, but also as ‘a nice way of feeling like she’s with me’; ‘having something in hands that belongs somehow to her’ [sic]. Both Nalle and Solan were ‘drop-in’ interviewees; we had not arranged the interview prior to their attendance at Edinburgh Yarn Festival, and their shawl and cardigan were meaningful projects they just happened to have with them.
These well-used and well-loved knitted objects perhaps lend support to the scholarly thesis of the ‘pervasive’ presence of the dead in the 21st century. It is claimed that that the latter 20th century was dominated by a model of the ‘sequestered dead’ in modernity, in which mourning customs, therapeutic approaches, and the bodies of the dying and the dead, are distanced—both spatially and affectively—from the lives of the living (following Ariès 1974). While acknowledging that ‘sequestered’ practices remain significant, contemporary scholarship on death and bereavement emphasizes a social shift to maintaining ‘continuing bonds’ (Klass, Silverman and Nickman 1996) with the deceased (Howarth 2007; Maddrell 2013; Walter 2018). Continued relationships with the dead, and the sense of their enduring presence in absence, are given material form in a variety of ways beyond the churchyard burial headstone. The ‘[i]nnovative spaces and practices [that] have emerged in the face of weakened common rites of memorialization and grieving’ (Maddrell 2013, 510) include memorial tattoos, trees, domestic shrines of photographs and special objects, and stone cairns at treasured beauty spots (see Hallam and Hockey 2001; Maddrell and Sidaway 2010; Maddrell 2013). The knitted projects discussed by my participants are further examples of such ‘vernacular’ memorials. They are objects that are special—made by hand with skill—yet, at the same time, everyday. They are carried with the bereaved owner, not kept at a distance. They are public in the sense of being on display on the wearer’s body, yet also private in that their relation to the deceased and to mourning is not obvious from the object itself. Yet their material properties—colour, tactility and function—remain significant.
Nalle had chosen bright colours not usually associated with mourning for her ‘mother-in-law-shawl’:
And I wanted this very colourful edge, I had this in mind quite a long time as well. She wouldn’t like sitting us around weeping all day. She <inaudible> quite a practical person! ‘Life goes on, and so it is, and just move on’!
The colours resonated with Nalle’s memories of her mother-in-law: ‘I know she would’ve liked the green […] the colours were so clear, in Iceland. Really blue blue sky if it’s blue, and the grass just pops out in May and it’s green!’
The prevalence of shawls in this section—indeed, this essay—is in part due to their popularity as knitting and crochet projects. Yet, as Donna Bowman notes, there is also a particular specialness to shawls in the knitting world because they are not common in contemporary western dress: ‘We don’t see shawls every day; in fact, we rarely see them outside of special occasions […] no one wears a shawl without meaning to—because almost no one wears a shawl at all. Its material presence, therefore, must mean something’ (2016, 4). The way that shawls may be worn—wrapped around the shoulders—was not mentioned by my participants, but their ‘encircling, with its message of love and presence’ (Bowman 2016, 3) is significant in prayer shawl ministry, and is perhaps an implicit factor in the memory shawls my participants spoke to me about.
At EYF, Judith told me that she often wore her meaningful shawl. Like Nalle’s and Alexandra’s, it is also green, also lace. The shawl was not originally intended as a memorial object, but began as a project that ‘just so happened to be what was on my needles’ when her mother was dying in hospital, a couple of months prior to our interview. Judith’s grief was still ‘very raw, the whole loss thing, it’s something I’m finding difficult’ but she wanted to tell me about the shawl, hoping that ‘sharing and getting things off your chest’ would be ‘cathartic’:
So I knitted a shawl, while my mother was dying. And that sounds a little bit macabre, doesn’t it? But actually I found it one of the most comforting garments I’ve made. It wasn’t so very long ago actually. <pause> Yeah, I think when I hold it and feel it, I remember spending this really lovely time with her, when she was dying. And I remember her feeling the wool, and what I’d knitted, and her saying how soft it was. And talking about her own knitting stories as well. And yeah, a very difficult time, but having something to share, it was quite happy, and in all that, to have something happy, it was good.
Knitting the shawl out of yarn that was ‘particularly soft and a really lovely colour’ provided ‘something that feels quite natural, and colourful, and beautiful’ in the context of the ‘grim’, ‘sterile environment’ and ‘very clinical atmosphere’ of the hospital. Judith valued that in her mother’s final days she had ‘something that she could—<breaks off> I could see her holding it, and feeling it in her fingers’. Following the death of her mother, for Judith the completed shawl bears the memories of that special, final time with her mother. Its softness and colour is a comfort:
I have this piece of knitting now that I can hold, and touch, and feel, and all that kind of tactile stuff. It’s really amazing how, how although it’s attached to quite a sad event, actually what it brings back is that memory of the last few days where we were chatting, and still connected and <pause> it’s good. […] in the wearing of it, and the using of it, and it being very familiar, it kind of—<breaks off> it makes it ok.
When I asked a question to clarify that the shawl was in everyday use rather than set aside for special memorial practice, Judith emphasized ‘it’s not a macabre getting it out to be a bit mournful, it’s more having a little piece of that memory, to take around with me, and it’s good’
What lay behind Judith mother’s urge, as she lay dying, to stroke her daughter’s knitting? Why did Judith later gain such comfort from feeling the finished shawl in her hands? Claire Pajaczkowska theorizes that textiles’ primary role in human life as clothing means that they are associated with the body, and with touch, in a way unlike other materials. Textiles also ‘continue to bear the connotations of the tactile even when they are not worn or made explicitly for bodily contact’ (Pajaczkowska 2005, 243). There are material reasons why textiles have an especially significant role in culture, associated with the earliest of memories, most basic connections, and crucial stages of the human life cycle. Knitted and crochet fabric bring not only an instinctive sense of comfort in the face of grief, but also an embodied sense of presence and memory.
Two months after I interviewed Judith, on a Friday evening in May, my Nanny died. It was peaceful, after about a week of no longer eating and drinking; she was in her bed, with her daughter and son with her. I wasn’t with her; I was at Glasgow airport, still on my way to fly down to England to say goodbye. All throughout that day, I kept thinking of Judith and her shawl. I had packed some knitting to take with me, to knit at Nanny’s bedside, and I made sure it was project in soft yarn, so that she would enjoy touching it. But I didn’t need it in the end, she was gone before I arrived, and I can’t even remember what project it was.
Both before and after Nanny’s death, I repeatedly heard Judith, responding to my question of how her mother died: ‘She was very old…and it was her time’. The sense that a person has ‘their time’, the moment that is right for them to let go, was of a comfort to me. It helped me not to berate myself for not choosing to travel down earlier, that ‘her time’ had been once I was on my way to be there to support my mother.
On that journey, sitting squeezed in between two strangers on the commuter plane, staring resolutely down at my book in the hope no one would notice my tears, I remember the knitted bookmark I found myself placing over my wrist, running my fingers along its stiff garter stitch ridges of ivory-coloured cotton, tracing the holes of the yarn-overs of the floral lace pattern. The feel of that bookmark in my hands—‘this piece of knitting now that I can hold, and touch, and feel’ (Judith) was an anchor against being swept away by the grief, like a self-soothing child with a blanket or soft toy. The bookmark was more comforting because it was knitted, and someone had knitted it for me. Just like Nanny had knitted me so many gifts, and I later had for her.
‘And now I have this piece of knitting’… like any piece of knitting of mine, I have only because she taught me.
Ariès, Philippe. 1974. Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Bowman, Donna. 2016. Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women’s Theological Imagination. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Brown, Larissa. 2011. My Grandmother’s Knitting: Family Stories and Inspired Knits from Top Designers. New York: Abrams.
Carocci, Max. 2010. “Textiles of Healing: Native American AIDS Quilts”. Textile 8.1: 68-85.
Collins, Lisa Gail. 2015. “Cycles of Mourning and Memory: Quilts by Mother and Daughter in Gee’s Bend, Alabama”. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 8.3: 345-52.
Freeman, June. 1987. “Sewing as a Woman’s Art”. In Women and Craft, edited by Gillian Elinor et al, 55-63. London: Virago.
Hallam, Elizabeth and Jenny Hockey. 2001. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg.
Howarth, Glennys. 2007. “The Rebirth of Death: Continuing Relationships with the Dead”. In Remember Me: Constructing Immortality – Beliefs on Immortality, Life, and Death, ed. Margaret Mitchell, 19–34. Abingdon: Routledge.
Klass, Dennis, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman, eds. 1996. Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.
Lydon, Susan Gordon. 1997. The Knitting Sutra: Crafting as Spiritual Practice. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Maddrell, Avril. 2013. “Living with the Deceased: Absence, Presence and Absence-Presence”. cultural geographies 20.4: 501-22.
Maddrell, Avril and James D. Sidaway, eds. 2010. Deathscapes: Spaces for Death, Dying, Mourning and Remembrance. Farnham: Ashgate.
Manning, Tara Jon. 2004. Mindful Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice to the Craft. Boston: Tuttle.
Matthews, Rachael. 2017. The Mindfulness in Knitting: Meditations on Craft and Calm. London: Leaping Hare Press.
Minahan, Stella and Julie Wolfram Cox. 2007. “Stitch’n’Bitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality.” Journal of Material Culture 12: 5-21.
Pajaczkowska, Claire. 2005. “On Stuff and Nonsense: The Complexity of Cloth”, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 3.3: 220-49.
Parker, Rozsika. 1984. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: The Women’s Press.
Groeneveld, Elizabeth. 2010. “Join the Knitting Revolution: Third-Wave Feminist Magazines and the Politics of Domesticity.” Canadian Review of American Studies 40.2: 259-77.
Scott, Sue. 1987. “Countless Hours: Grandmother’s Crochet”. In Women and Craft, edited by Gilian Elinor et al, pp. 23-26. London: Virago.
Stoller, Debbie. 2003. Stitch’n’Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook. New York: Workman.
Tobin, Beth Fawkes and Maureen Daly Goggin. 2013. “Connecting Women and Death: An Introduction”. In Women and the Material Culture of Death, edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fawkes Tobin, 1-10. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
Turney, Joanne. 2009. The Culture of Knitting. New York: Berg.
Walker, Alice, and Barbara Christian. 1994. Everyday Use. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press
Walter, Tony. 2018. “The Pervasive Dead”. Mortality. Online: https://doi.org/10.1080/13576275.2017.1415317