Knitting’s new life

A new generation takes up an old craft with more Menno roots than appear at first stitch

July 5, 2011 | Young Voices
Emily Loewen | Young Voices Editor

It’s already clear that knitting is back. Boutique yarn stores spring up in abandoned storefronts and a search for “knitting” on turns up 152 pages of results. According to Stitch ’n Bitch author Debbie Stoller, the hobby has woven its way in and out of popularity for the last hundred years. But why has it come back this time?

It was women’s activists of the last century who caused knitting’s latest spin out of the spotlight, Stoller maintains. “Feminists were claiming that anyone who spent her days cooking and cleaning, and her nights knitting and sewing, all in an effort to please her husband and her children, was frittering her life away,” she writes. But in Stoller’s opinion, the resurgence of knitting represents a new variety of feminism that values the traditional work of women, instead of implying that only men’s work is worthwhile. Aside from feminism, she also writes that freedom from an exploitive corporate culture, and making fashionable clothes, helped the needles stage their comeback.

Yet even between its popularity peaks, knitting was a part of the Mennonite grandmother stereotype. With this latest resurgence comes an opportunity to ask, “Is there anything particularly Mennonite about it?”

For Natasha Plenert of Winnipeg, Man., stitching knits and purls reflects the traditional Anabaptist values of simplicity and resourcefulness. She sees the resurgence of skills like knitting—or the increasingly popular canning and gardening—as a desire to escape dependence on corporations. “Even if I’m just knitting a scarf, it still means it’s a scarf I don’t have to buy,” says the 21-year-old from Home Street Mennonite. “It wasn’t made in China.”

Knitting also helps recipients escape the commercialism of modern life, says Allison Krause Danielsen, also of Winnipeg. “Handmade things make people feel more cared for in our throwaway world,” she says via e-mail. And knitting doesn’t just build community by sharing the products, in some cases the activity itself becomes a social event.

Krause Danielsen participates in an intergenerational, intercultural knitting group at Charleswood Mennonite Church. The group gets together to knit prayer shawls, which Charleswood’s pastors distribute. Along with snacks and fellowship, the group also spends time in prayer for the people who will receive the shawls, although the knitters don’t know who that person will be.

Crafters don’t have to participate in a dedicated group to feel a connection between knitting and prayer, however. Although Jaymie Schmidt of Foothills Mennonite Church, Calgary, Alta., hasn’t made a prayer shawl, she says that when working on a project for someone else, “I do feel a connection with them as I knit it. There is a kind of rhythm that can put a knitter in a prayer-like trance.”

But for Schmidt, practicality made her pick up knitting needles again years after she first learned from her mother. “When you think about it, you use two needles to twist one piece of string around, and, voila, a sweater,” she says in an e-mail.

Plenert agrees that a desire to build technical skills encouraged people to pull their needles out of Grandma’s closet. These days, she says, kids aren’t taught many skills, noting, “We learn how to follow instructions, but not to do anything really creative.” And while it’s half in jest, she does make a connection between Earth’s limited resources and the desire to learn some practical skills: “It doesn’t seem like this lifestyle of consumption and buying everything at the store pre-made for you is going to be able to last forever. I guess it’s a pre-emptive thing.”

Although this new generation of knitters may yearn for the technical skills of generations past, these new crafters aren’t only doing it out of need. “It’s not just knitting the bare necessities,” Plenert says. “There’s lots of really nice and potentially frivolous things out there, too, that I’m knitting and other people are knitting.”

Making clothes and accessories also allows people to get trendy clothes at a cheaper price, notes Stoller.

With one part spirituality, one part simple living and one part fun, knitting may just be the perfect hobby for today’s young Mennonite.

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