Ravelry's New Policy Isn't Surprising; Knitting Has a Long History of Being Political

On Sunday, June 23, Ravelry dropped a bombshell statement: it will no longer tolerate pro-Trump content on its website. This kind of statement would come as a shock to pretty much anyone - taking a political stance of any kind is something that companies generally avoid at all costs - but it is even more shocking to many people because of what Ravelry is: a knitting website.

But Ravelry is more than just a knitting website, it’s THE knitting website. While there are many sites that publish patterns or articles about knitting, Ravelry is the only one that does it all: patterns for free or purchase, cataloguing users’ yarn stash and projects, and hundreds of forums where knitters can talk about anything from sock knitting techniques to their favourite sports teams. For any knitting website to take a political stand, let alone the biggest one on the web, seems incongruous to many people, some knitters included.

But taking a political stance is anything but incongruous in the knitting community; textile crafts have been political for hundreds of years. Today most needle artists engage in their craft for enjoyment or as a side hustle, but for most of human history it was an important daily activity in the running of a home and community. Sewing, knitting, even spinning were a vital part of a woman’s education. Because such activities were considered domestic and part of the woman’s sphere, it was a natural outlet for women to engage in politics and activism; in fact, it was one of their only ways to do this.

Rebelling Against the British With Early American Homespun Cloth

The American Revolution is possibly best known for throwing tea into the Boston Harbour, but few people know that women were resisting British imports long before the fish got doused in Earl Grey. The non-importation movement of the 1760s featured heavily around textiles, with women of the colonies proudly spinning and weaving “homespun cloth” to replace the “English Plain” being imported from overseas. Spinning schools were established to teach women how to cloth and clothe their homes by their own hands. Hartford, Connecticut proposed a bounty of twelve pounds to the person who could produce the most woolen cloth in a year. Some newspapers began referring to the spinners with patriotic titles like “Daughters of Liberty” and “Daughters of Industry.” As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich puts it in her book “The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth,”

While New England’s Sons of Liberty indulged in rum, rhetoric, and roast pig, her Daughters worked from sunup to sundown to prove their commitment to ‘the cause of liberty and industry.’

Perhaps New England ministers eagerly embraced the Daughters of Liberty because they could not unequivocally defend her Sons. In publicizing the spinning bees, they promoted a form of political resistance built upon sacrifice, self-discipline, and personal piety rather than on street action, drinking, and flamboyant self-assertion...”

At a time when women could neither vote nor speak in public, spinning meetings proved women’s capacity for organization and desire to affect the world around them. At spinning and weaving bees, women shared labour and equipment while discussing politics, which was considered very taboo at the time. They used (or even learned) their textile skills to actively and intentionally change imperial policy. The resulting yarn could be given to the local pastor to distribute, or used by the women for trade creating a female underground economy, another form of rebellion as it avoided the taxes imposed by the British.

Knitting Spies

Charles Dickens may have invented Les Tricoteues in his book “A Tale of Two Cities” but knitting has been used as in espionage for centuries.

In October 1777, during the Battle of Germantown, Molly “Old Mom” Rinker acted as a spy for the Continental Army. Sitting on a rock overlooking the Wissahickon Valley, the unassuming Molly knit while observing the British troop movements. It is reported that she then wrote notes to George Washington which she placed inside balls of yarn and rolled them down the steep cliffs for Washington’s men to retrieve. The yarn carried military secrets, while the act of knitting made her inconspicuous and resulted in a nice sweater or shawl (sticking it to the British importations, while she’s at it). Although the British won that particular battle, Washington’s skillful leadership (based largely on the information he received from Molly) impressed France enough that they decided to send more assistance to the Americans.

Phyllis Latour Doyle, a spy with the Special Operations Executive during WWI, kept her secret codes on a piece of silk that she kept wrapped around her knitting needles to avoid suspicion. The British government banned knitting patterns for fear that they could contain secret messages. Some accounts mention yarn that had been knotted in morse code and then knit into garments, which were unraveled to find the secret code. These accounts are unverified, like many espionage techniques, but we do know that knitting was frequently used to provide a plausible cover to overhear useful information.

During WWII, women who lived by train yards in Belgium were hired to stitch coded messages

Modern Knitting Protests

With such a lengthy history of knitting and spinning as protest, it should come as no surprise that it’s alive and well today.

In 2005, Nina Rosenberg’s the Red Sweater Project asked participants to knit small red sweaters, each representing an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, which she hung from a tree outside her San Francisco home.

In 2012, the group Government Free VJJ made knit and crocheted vaginas and wombs which were then mailed to male elected officials in the United States. "The message is hands off my uterus. If you want one to control, here's one of your own," according to the group's co-founder Donna Drunchunas.

In 2014, 5 women held a knit-in at the office of Vermont Gas to protest a pipeline expansion. Arrests were made. Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio said, “Palmer was knitting what appeared to be a turquoise scarf, and had knitted about 8 inches of it before Vermont Gas closed at 5 p.m. It is unclear if she was allowed to continue her knitting at the police station.”

Knitting Communities Then and Now

Knitting Communities have worked for change and made history for generations and they will continue to do so for generations more. This move by Ravelry to ban pro-Trump comments on their forums is just another modern example of this.


Sources and Further Reading

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For the First Time in 20 Years, it's Public Domain Day in the US

On New Year’s Eve, when the clock was rolling over to midnight to start 2019, it brought another long awaited new start with it; the first time in 20 years that a new crop of American publications entered the public domain. To the rest of the world this 20 year gap may seem strange; after all, new works enter the public domain every year. But in America, this annual liberation from copyright law was put on hold and we all have Disney to thank for it.

Back in 1886 most of the world agreed to the Berne Convention which dictated copyright terms be the author's life plus a certain number of years: in Canada it's life +50, in the UK it's life +70. But America had already set up its own system; works created before the ratification of the Constitution in 1776 remained in the public domain and anything created after qualified for copyright protection, as long as the rights owners continued to renew it. Copyright law evolved over the centuries until 1978 when the law changed to author's life +50 years, or 75 years past the year of creation for anonymous or corporate-owned works. In 1998, Disney realized that their iconic debut of Mickey Mouse (the short cartoon Steamboat Willie, which came out in 1928) was set to become public domain in 2004. They drummed up support from other creative corporations and successfully lobbied to have the rules changed. The resulting act became known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (or, more derisively, as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) and changed the public domain rules to life +70 or 95 years past publication. This created the 20 year public domain drought we have experienced until now.

So with the dawn of this new year comes a new bundle of works that can be made available to us via Project, Google Books, Internet Archive, literally anyone who wants to make then available.