A friend recently asked why I’d bother to knit dishcloths in a perplexed and possibly appalled tone. I’d not thought twice about knitting dishcloths, but now well, it felt like a small act of rebellion. The more I thought about though, the more rebellious I came to feel. And it’s taken a while, but I think I finally have the words to explain it.
We live in a fast culture, a culture of buy it now, and work smarter. Instant gratification is just part of the social mores of our time, and well, if many of the students I teach are anything to go by, it’s almost become our birthright. With the decreasing costs of labour and production and the ready availability of the things we need, we have come to see buying things as the first port of call. I’m not pretending I am immune to this, growing up in the 90s that was just part of life, part of being a modern citizen, but it has taken us away from our roots and it’s happened within the lifetime of just one generation.
My mother grew up on a farm in rural New Zealand about 40 minutes outside of a small city in the 1950s and 60s. For her, bartering and sharing among neighbours and making things by hand and from scratch was the norm. But it wasn’t my norm growing up. Somewhere in moving to the city and becoming a young professional the values of homemade and homegrown got lost to some extent. She did recover a lot of them, but still it wasn’t the same. It’s only now in her retirement that she is moving back to her roots again.
In an age of more more more, I find that generally I want to do less as I get older. I learnt to knit (thanks to my mother – an extremely skilled knitter) properly a few years ago after a few false starts. Since then, there has really been no stopping me. I am the kind of person who likes to keep busy and knitting is one of the only ways I can keep still. In fact, I credit knitting with keeping my stress levels down, which has kept the migraines and asthma attacks at bay much more effectively than anything else I have tried. So knitting was and is something I needed to do to stay sane, and I’d done a good round of hats and wanting to work with something other than wool, I thought I’d try cotton dishcloths.
As I started on what has become an enormous pile, I realised that knitting something functional was satisfying in a way that knitting something pretty never would be. Knitting something functional was a way to imbue what I was making with love and care, calm positive energy that I would be reminded of every time I picked up the cloth everyday. It was also quite a satisfying middle finger to the culture of why make when it’s cheaper to buy. It might be financially cheaper, but it’s not necessarily cheaper for the environment – especially not when those cloths are made of plastic fibres that aren’t going to decompose, or worse when cloths are chucked out after just a few (or less) uses. Also my dishcloth was working double time – as I knit it, it was providing me with stress relief and an enjoyable pass time for only the cost of a ball of cotton, and once it was knitted it would then serve out its purpose in the kitchen.
Furthermore, I realised, there was something decidedly subversive about turning back to the kind of crafts my grandmothers and their mothers before them would have made. Deliberately taking up what had been seen to be traditional women’s work was healing. I’m 30, so my experience of feminism has been radically different from those of older generations. I was born into a time where, given my upper middle class background and the white privilege that came with it, I was brought up being told I could be anything I wanted. That narrative will be familiar to many women of my generation but there was something a little more that was never quite said but was definitely implied – you can be anything you want, but it better be something high powered if you’ve got the brains for it. This is the implicit message that those of us born in the 80s (at least from my well-educated demographic) grew up with – that since the doors to higher-powered careers were now open to us, we should damn well be walking through them. But I never really wanted to, and I’ve grappled with this a lot.
This message was also wrapped up in a message of consumerism and the push to live the lifestyle we were all supposed to aspire to. Nowhere in that mix was time or space for women’s work. That wasn’t part of the narrative. Who’s got time for knitting when there is a world to conquer? And while the pussy hat movement is a clear testament to the world conquering power of knitting, my revolution has been a more personal one. Reconnecting with women’s work, has brought me closer to my own sense of who I am and what I value, it ties me to my ancestors who would have spent time doing the same tasks (albeit not while watching documentaries and Downton Abbey on Netflix). In a sense it grounds me, and helps to reconnect back to a simpler way of life, while also being downright practical – something that my grandmothers would have valued highly.
So to my dear friend, who couldn’t wrap her head around my knitting something so mundane and functional, I knit because it keeps me sane, and because with every stitch I dismantle the patriarchy that I’ve experienced and rebuild my sense of self as a woman. And if I can find my own sense of self as a woman in the way that I choose, I will be better able to support the next generation of women, whom I teach to do the same. And of course, I also knit dishcloths because they are super small to knit and fit better in my handbag and who wants to carry around more stuff than they need to. See… functional (on so many levels)!