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.
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.