Stitch ‘n Bitch alive and kicking in cities and universities

Alison Reiheld is the Director of Women’s Studies at SIUE and Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy until summer 2019 when Carolina Rocha will take over as Director. Here, she follows up on Christy Ferguson’s Women’s History Month post on the history of Stitch ‘n’ Bitch. Is Stitch ‘n’ Bitch still a thing? You betcher bottom dollar, it is.

The cover image of Stoller's 2004 Stitch 'N Bitch book. The subtitle reads: "stitch-by-stitch instructions * 40 fresh patterns * how to start your own knitting group * and everything you need to know to get your knit on." The cover is two-toned. On one side is a 1950's pinup-style woman in cowgirl getup holding a pair of knitting needles and using a ball of yarn and unraveling string as though it were a lasso. On the other side is a modern photograph of the author herself jauntily holding two enormous knitting needles and a partially knitted piece, with a big smile on her face. Stoller has blond hair and pale skin.
The cover image of Stoller’s 2004 Stitch ‘N Bitch book. The subtitle reads: “stitch-by-stitch instructions * 40 fresh patterns * how to start your own knitting group * and everything you need to know to get your knit on.”

In 2004, Debbie Stoller published what has become a wildly successful book on knitting entitled Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook. Stoller explicitly drew on the historical movement of the same name which brought women together in community. These communal knitting sessions often became de facto consciousness-raising sessions in the classic feminist tradition: realizing gendered patterns in their relationships and positions, women came to see as structural and social–and thus changeable–what they might once have thought was a simple matter of individual choice or misfortune. Acknowledging this history, the cover of Stoller’s book extols not only the book’s value for knitting itself but also as a guide to starting a knitting group. Stoller subsequently published several spinoff books including one for men who want to learn to knit.

Before Stoller’s book was released, she wrote in the year 2000 about her knitting group which was explicitly feminist. The publication in which she wrote? The feminist magazine BUST. Women who subsequently started Stitch n Bitch groups in Chicago, LA, and Austin all connect their communities to Stoller’s revival of the movement and the BUST article. A 2004 article in the Irish Times brought attention in Ireland to the US movement. Irish Times reporter Anna Mundow wrote:

On a quiet night this summer in a hip New York coffee house a group of young women pushed a sofa and some easy chairs into a circle near the window, settled in for the evening and took out their needles. Some drank beer, some herbal tea. Most were pierced or tattooed. All were knitting. The conversation, ranging that night from Iraq to female circumcision, paused whenever somebody needed help with a dropped or difficult stitch. Invariably, a knitting-disaster story followed; everybody groaned and laughed, then it was back to serious discussion.

This was a weekly meeting of the local Stitch ‘n’ Bitch group, a nationwide sorority whose members have rediscovered a staid craft and transformed it into a feminist fashion statement. That’s right, knitting is back. And this time it’s political.

“It made me rethink my original feminist position,” writes Debbie Stoller, author of Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook, describing the epiphany she had while finishing a sweater on a long train trip. “It had been 30 years since the feminist revolution . . . so why, dammit, wasn’t knitting receiving as much respect as any other hobby?” Stoller should know the answer. Having earned a PhD in the psychology of women from Yale University, she co-founded the “third-wave feminist magazine” BUST. A few years ago, in New York City, Stoller founded the first Stitch ‘n’ Bitch group, which at the time felt more like a coven than a movement. Even in jaded Manhattan knitting drew stares. “I might as well have been churning butter on the crosstown bus,” Stoller writes.

Fabric arts have typically been gendered feminine (at least until it comes to high status jobs in fashion which are often occupied by men, from Ralph Lauren to Gianni Versace).  And so knitting remains primarily a craft practiced by women, and passed down intergenerationally from women to women. Recently, there has been increased attention to men knitting, including this 2017 entry over at The Good Men Project. It is a kind of “making” that appeals to some men who also are interested in metal fabrication and wood-working, as well as to women who want to do creative work with their hands, the product of which is almost always intended for use rather than merely for display.

As we increasingly get our clothes from factories, so many of us have lost the capacity to make our own clothes through sewing from patterns, knitting, crocheting, and have even lost the capacity to mend and repair our own clothes. Being involved in the fabric arts is often as much anti-consumerism as feminist, and certainly cannot be assumed to indicate support for traditional family structures and modern globalized economies.

Amongst America’s 327 million residents–according to craft and hobby research, as digested by Ivy Decker–

  • “28.8 million Americans participated in knitting and/or crochet in 2016.
  • That year, the crafts represented a market of $2.79 billion, with an average monthly spend per household of $20.57.
  • Knitters and crocheters are likely to also participate in other needle arts.
  • 77% buy their supplies in a physical store. 4% buy outside physical stores, and 19% buy from both.
  • 62% give the items they craft as gifts. However, knit and crochet items are the most commonly donated crafts at 18%. 58% also keep their items.
  • While 18% consider themselves experts (one of the highest percentages of any craft) the other 82% rate their skills as beginner or intermediate.
  • 71% of knitters and crocheters are female. 29% are male.
  • 37% are employed full-time.
  • Like we mentioned, knit and crochet age ranges are fairly even across the board: 34% are 18-34, 36% are 35-54, and 30% are 55+.”

So, knitters are not just stay-at-home parents or housewives or retirees, knitting is highly relational (not just done together but also to make something to give to others as well for oneself), some men do knit (perhaps more than you thought). and it is distributed across the age range.

At one point in 2010, a website maintained by Stoller–now defunct, alas–showed over 700 stitch n bitch groups nationwide in the US. By 2013, there were over 1000 in countries across the world. Some, like the Yarn Addicts of Manchester, don’t have the term in their name but still identify themselves on Meetup as a Stitch n Bitch group. Others, like Orlando Stitch n Bitch, embrace it wholeheartedly or exist under the close analogue of “Knit n Bitch” communities.

Stitch ‘n Bitch communities bearing that name persist to this day not only in cities but also in universities:

  • SUNY Potsdam Stitch-n-Bitch says “We provide a place to participate in yarn-based activities, relax, and have fun! We are a friendly group of women and men who love to talk while knitting and crocheting. We have members at every level and encourage beginners and those who are experienced to join. We can teach you if you don’t know. Come have fun with us!”
  • Whitman College’s Stitch ‘n Bitch group is mostly made up of faculty, staff, and students but is open to the community and was profiled in a local news article
  • The University of Missouri’s Stitch n Bitch group is run out of their Women’s Center and meets weekly. They explicitly welcome beginners and offer company, community, and support.
  • The Glasgow University (Scotland) sewing society also intermittently runs a Stitch n Bitch
  • At Southern Methodist University, a thriving monthly Stitch n Bitch does everything from knitting to cross-stitching, as profiled in this 2018 article.
  • The University of Calgary (Canada) runs a periodic Stitch N’ Bitch initiative with support from both their Women’s Resource Centre and their campus mental health program.
  • University of Illinois has a Stitch & Bitch club of its own just upstate from SIUE
  • In the UK, Leeds has a thriving academic Stitch’n’Bitch society described in this student newspaper article as “unsung heroes”
  • Stockton University’s Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Center runs several support groups including a Stitch n Bitch group they describe as “an open community for knitters of all stitchability.”

This is of course not an exhaustive list and is subject to change. Though Stitch n Bitch communities at universities go in and out as student and faculty interest waxes and wanes–CU Boulder’s once-active Stitch n Bitch community called Bitchcraft seems to be defunct–as a movement, they persist and have a vital place on many college campuses. SIUE Women’s Studies has also tried to get a local community started, notably during the 2017-18 academic year, with varying success. These groups carry on the tradition of feminist communities, not always composed of women but none hostile to women, communities in which women can find support from other women and from men who participate. And communities that make their own stuff and take pride in the skills that allow them to do so.

Women aren’t the only ones who can do “women’s work.” And too often anything typed as “women’s work” is valued less. Knitting and the fabric arts are no exception. But they do have value. And they have value for university communities and for communities of all kinds.  And when done in community, they offer a special kind of joy.

 

 

 

 

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