Guerrilla Knitting: Using Yarn as a Weapon

How rebellious are you feeling? Perhaps what springs to mind when demonstrating against injustice is rallies, speeches in Trafalgar Square, chanting and placard waving. Probably not reaching for your knitting needles. Yet this is rapidly becoming the coolest way of expressing discontent, resisting injustice, showing solidarity with the oppressed and highlighting environmental issues. 

At the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson protests against police violence and brutality on black Americans, the women of The Yarn Mission established a knitting group that focuses on knitting about race and social injustice. One of the groups founders Chey Onna Sewell is quoted in the Guardian Newspaper as saying “People consistently underestimate the power of knitting … They don’t recognize its radical properties.” So what can be so radical about the ancient craft of knitting? It’s, after all, a hobby largely portrayed as the pass-time of old ladies in rocking chairs. Is it because this seemingly innocent activity actually offers a literal way to ‘take society into your own hands’, to self-empower by knitting your own, unique items outside the power structures of big fashion labels and mass manufacturing?

If you think this is just an American quirk, you’d be mistaken.

Back in our very own London, groups like Knit The City run by the wonderfully named Deadly Knitshade have been ‘Yarnstorming’ lampposts, statues, old telephone boxes and other items of street furniture for a few years. Their style of activism is Banksy meets Aunty Flo, with a large dose of humour thrown in. The web site describes their activity as: “Yarnstorming (also known as yarnbombing): the art of enhancing a public place or object with graffiti knitting (Or putting knitting on something unexpected in public and running away giggling wildly)” This approach puts protest in an arena that combines knitting as an extreme sport (running, police-dodging and such) with political resistance. Given the number of male statues in London, yarnbombing represents a definite female mocking of male power through it’s domestication and softening of the hard stone and bronze memorials. 

There is however an underlying and ancient association that links power and fate with wool or thread. In Greek mythology Ariadne the goddess of Crete who was in charge of the famous labyrinth, helped Theseus overcome the Minotaur and escape with the aid of her spun thread, thereby saving future would-be sacrificial victims. This is an intriguing story of suffering and social injustice being resolved by the use of thread. It would be interesting to form parallels with some of todays labyrinthine problems that feature seemingly inescapable suffering… to consider what a more contemporary use of thread might change. In South America for instance, making clothes and learning specialist skills such as hand-embroidery allows women to work and victims of domestic abuse to leave and support themselves. So is the thread in the myth merely a metaphor or could knitting actually have a serious role in counterbalancing some of the cruelty in society?

Ancient Greek culture and consciousness is underpinned at an even deeper level with the connection between the spindle, thread and our mortality, in the form of the three Moirai known in English as ‘The Fates’ (think the 3 hooded witches from Disney’s Hercules). These were the three female incarnations of destiny. Named Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (the cutter), these three controlled the thread of life for every mortal from birth to death. From this mythology we’ve evolved such phrases as ‘life hanging by a thread’ and ‘someone being cut off in their prime’ placing the ultimate power over our existence with the one-who-has-the-thread, drawing attention to the extreme frailty of human existence. This unexpectedly profound image of the humble spinner, knitter or weaver as controllers of mortality suggests that we might have ‘lost the thread’ and become unconnected with some of the wisdom of ancient Greece. The devaluing of crafts such as knitting, seems to have put us, like Sleeping Beauty at the spinning wheel, asleep for a hundred years. We’ve drifted into a denial about the importance of social justice, ignoring the short time we are here on this planet, forgetting to bother with the bigger picture and thinking mostly about ourselves, our salaries, our sandwich at lunch. It’s a shot in the dark – but maybe by taking up knitting we can change society. We can use them as a symbol of protest which is much less aggressive than the usual shouting, marching and placard-waving we usually see. We can also have fun in groups and make new friends. You never know – maybe if we connect the ancient Greek mythological past to this activity and invest in some knitting needles this autumn, we can create something new in our lives and perhaps go further to create something that might change world – but if that falls flat, at least we’ll all be really great grandmas!

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