‘Are you a writer who knits, or a knitter who writes?’
My mother asks the question, and her challenge gives me pause. Which is the thing that I am, and which the thing that I do? I have been knitting and writing creatively since I was seven, by chance developing the two skills side by side. In primary school I wrote my first story in the form of an illustrated poem about three witches and it was pinned to the wall of our classroom before my mother stashed it in her keepsake box, where it remains to this day. I do not remember the first thing that I knitted, but the feel of the needles at work in my hands is a memory muscle-deep, one which sparks each time I pick up a ball of yarn.
Knitting is the manipulation of spun fibres into fabric using a pair of needles. With the lift and slip of a thread, I conjure garments to adorn, warm and comfort. As I magic three dimensions from the flat two of a pattern, the power to shape worlds fizzes in my fingertips. In the familiarity of its repetitive movements, knitting is vaunted as a relaxing salve for mental and physical ills. Legion are those who attest to its rehabilitative properties.
But my relationship with it goes further: for me, knitting is an individually tailored creative spur. As I work my needles and see something new take shape in my hands, I feel joy spreading through me like warmth. It is the joy of creative immersion in a task, the heady satisfaction of doing something that simultaneously occupies, challenges and delights. In its construction of a coherent whole from a single thread, the physical reality of knitting mimics writing’s narrative drive. Already immersed in the process of creating, I find that ideas become words, words cohere into sentences, and sentences start to form stories. The trick is to knit enough to get the words flowing, but not so much that there isn’t time to yoke them to the page.
It is no coincidence that our terms for fibre and fable intertwine. When we want to recount a story, we spin a yarn. If we deceive, we pull the wool over people’s eyes. For centuries, female spinsters (the masculine form is spinner) spun wool to earn their livelihood, and the word gradually became synonymous with ‘unmarried woman’, one not dependent on a husband for her keep. We weave narratives as we weave cloth, and our words for them are bound together: text and textile share the same Latin root, textus, ‘that which is woven’. ‘Fabric’ has its origins in faber, an expert worker of materials including metal, stone and wood. ‘Forge’ shares the same root, the same practical, physical origins. Replete with echoes of blacksmithery, the word speaks of strength and skill, of effort and exertion. But fakery and fabrication lurk there too, threatening delusion, of fantastic duplicity. Fibre craft can be beguiling, and those that do it, dangerous agents for enchantment.
Women who spin, weave and knit are legend, from Homer’s Penelope, unravelling and reweaving a shroud as she waits for Odysseus’s return, to mythic Ariadne, saving Theseus in the Cretan labyrinth with her ball of yarn. In Greek mythology, the three Fates, the Moirai, hold the mother thread of life – Clotho spins it, her sister Lachesis measures it, and Atropos clips it short. In Norse mythology, the Norns, goddesses wielding shears and spindles, do likewise.
I am not alone in combining writing with knitting. Though now defined by the product of her pen, Virginia Woolf was well-known among her social circle for her skill with yarn and needles. Woolf viewed knitting as so important as to be ‘saving of life’. Sister Vanessa depicted Virginia holding yarn and needles, not pen and paper, in a painting now displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, and the voice of Edith Sitwell crackles with something like dismissive envy when she remarked in a letter, ‘I enjoyed talking to [Virginia], but thought nothing of her writing. I considered her “a beautiful little knitter”.’
Though we think of the primary function of knitting to adorn, warm or comfort, it too can speak. The very fact of the handmade-ness of a knitting garment tells of the love, time, effort and skill given willingly by one person to another. In this, knitting can be a powerful tool to communicate and connect. Literally and symbolically, it has things to say, and for all knitting’s old-lady-by-the-fire image, the reality of it is as varied, vivid and alive as the millions of people across the world who wield their pins. The invention of knitting machines precipitated the Luddite rebellions of the nineteenth century; knitters became icons of the French Revolution in the body of les tricoteuses; and the concept of ‘craftivism’ continues to be at the forefront of political debate around issues of race, equality and environmentalism. In 2017 millions of pink Pussyhats marched into the public eye in protest against the politics of Donald Trump, every one of them a hand-knitted symbol of resistance. Within knitting’s deceptively simple knit-and-purl lies the potential for soothing ills, strengthening communities, and speaking out.
Returning to my mother’s question, I decide to refuse the binary. The more I try to divide stories from stitches, the more I realise I cannot choose between them. Instead, I plump for a word that serves both my skills: maker. At first glance this seems too simple: one who makes. But in Scotland the word keeps a flavour of its other meaning – a makar is a poet, an artisan whose raw materials are words. The power of my hands and head are interlinked; to place one above the other would be theft.
Esther Rutter is the author of This Golden Fleece, available now from Granta Books.