Filling the Well

Knitting, Symbols, Power

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Today is International Women’s Day.

A friend of mine has been knitting a lot of pink hats over the last few months. She keeps giving them away, because someone always wants one, and she can make more. Last week, she was waiting at an airport and spotted another knitter. The typical conversation ensued as she asked, “What do you have on your needles?” A sweater for her granddaughter. “And what are you working on?”  My friend raised her needles to show a pink square of yarn.  The other woman’s eyes got wide.  “Is that one of those hats?”  Yes.  And then she smiled, “I’ve knitted some of those myself.”  Instant connection.

This story made me think of two different passages in two of my favorite Victorian novels.

First, from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:

“Darkness closed around, and then came the ringing of church bells and the distant beating of the military drums in the Palace Courtyard, as the women sat knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them. Another darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into thundering cannon; when the military drums should be beating to drown a wretched voice, that night all potent as the voice of Power and Plenty, Freedom and Life. So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.”

(Let’s pause for a moment to admire Dickens’ writing, his cadence, the relentless repetitions and embedded ironies, and that killer last line.  Dropping heads.  Boom.)

Okay, I’m back now.  This is of course Dickens’ master melodrama about the French Revolution, and what he is describing is the impending arrival of the Terror, the guillotine, and the story of the impassive women who sat as observes, knitting as hundreds of people were executed.  Quite the scene.

Here’s the other passage, early on in Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad:

“Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again — not half, by a long way.”

(Let’s pause for a moment to reflect that Conrad is writing this in his third language.)

Here, protagonist Marlow is describing the front office of the merchant company he works for. He’s about to be ordered to the Congo to go after Kurtz. The Latin is the old gladiator call:  “We who are about to die salute you!” More knitting, more death.

I’ve often thought that you can take the girl out of grad school, but you can’t really take grad school out of the girl. If I were still in academia, doing close readings and deep literary analysis, here’s what I’d do with these passages:  I’d try to find out if Conrad was specifically riffing on Dickens (I wouldn’t be surprised); where else this iconic image of women knitting as harbingers of doom might appear; I’d research the historicity of the image, if there is a source for women revolutionaries in France using knitting to encode records and send messages (wikipedia says yes!  And associated with a women’s march no less, hmmm…..).  I’d look for other ways knitting might appear symbolically in Victorian literature. Then I’d expand out and look for this image of women knitting at the boundary of Darkness in other periods of literature.

But I’m no longer in academia and however intrigued I am by all these questions, I don’t have a month or so to spend pouring through academic journals. I’m on a novel deadline.

However, I’ve lately become interested in the symbolic potential of knitting. It seems relevant.

In the two passages above, knitting is ominous. The knitting women sit at the threshold between life and death. It seems a strange association to me, because for me knitting is productivity, life, and love. It’s a thing that turns common yarn into sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, socks, and a million other good things. A hand-knitted item is not just useful, it embodies the love and esteem of the one who knitted it for you.

But I wonder:  if you don’t know how to knit, it’s a mysterious skill. Someone manipulates a couple of sticks in an arcane fashion, and cloth pours out. Objects with patterns, shapes, and complexity, made from the simplest tools. It’s a thing that mostly women do, often in groups, that looks a little bit like magic. Like witchcraft.

I imagine that the sight of tens of thousands of pink hats, and the dawning realization that they were not manufactured in some distant country, not funded by a dark conspiracy, that they were in fact made by tens of thousands of hands united in solidarity, right here in the U.S., was just as terrifying to some conservative commentators as the sinister Madame Defarge, knitting the record of who should die by the guillotine’s blade.

When commentators asked, Who funded all those hats? Where did they come from?  We paused a moment before answering because we almost didn’t understand the question. Yes, yes they were made in America.  We made them. And we realized these commentators who were so suspicious of the hats could not conceive of women communicating on a such a scale to produce tens of thousands of these objects.  Could not comprehend women making such a powerful statement with their own two hands and a little bit of yarn.   (Last year, after that regrettable hacking episode of Supergirl, I joked that no one would ever be hacking Ravelry to expose users’ information. I’m not so sure now…)

One suspects they have never been inside a craft store. Which is a little sad, isn’t it?  I think of going through my life without making things, and I get ill.

Our hats are bright pink instead of the black wool of Conrad’s sentinels.  It seems appropriately post-modern, that a sea of stylized pink ears should evoke similar foreboding in some. I approve.

But of course, they only appear foreboding to outsiders, to people who don’t understand the message. They see a ridiculous knitted object, maybe slightly risqué if they dared say the word out loud.  Those of us who make and wear pink hats see solidarity. These hats identify friends. Some astute commentators have pointed out that the sea of pink hats means photographs from the Women’s March can never be repurposed and made to represent something else. They mean safety, that you can be among strangers and know you’ll be all right, because you see a knitted pink corner peeking out of a pocket.

They’re a symbol of what we can make, and the power we have when we unite. We make hats. We can remake the world.

Kitting, knitting into the light.

 

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