Downtime

Felted Red Faces and Crocheted Toupees

Why the knitting community has taken up its needles to make crafts inspired by the president’s angry little mug.

A Donald Trump pincushion.
Emily Manktelow

How strange is it to have made a pincushion in the shape of Donald Trump? With that rotund shape, puce face, and bouffant hair, Trump screams pincushion to the seasoned knitter.
And a quick internet search reveals that I’m not the only one. From felted faces to crocheted toupees, Trump’s angry little mug has clearly inspired the crafting community.

I first started knitting in November 2017. I watched on TV as women filled the streets of D.C. in the chilly winter of the Northern Hemisphere, wearing those woollen pussy hats. Meanwhile, at my own place of work (a university in the U.K. that I have subsequently left), some of these issues seemed painfully resonant, too. We were in the middle of an internal gender equality audit, and the findings had been disturbing. Despite overwhelming evidence of a worryingly persistent gender pay-gap, and allegations of sexist bullying and even sexual misconduct against staff and students, I’d found that male colleagues were defensively resistant to the process itself, let alone new policies or awareness campaigns.

In the midst of all that political ferment, an email popped into my inbox with an intriguing subject line: “Knitting Politically.” “Do you knit? Do you want to know how to knit? Do you want headwear that keeps you warm during upcoming protests?” Those who answered yes to such questions were warmly invited to come along to our stuffy and frayed staff common room for a lesson in knitting, a chat over cheap mugs of reheated tea, and a general get-together at the start of a new teaching term. We were a department struggling with collegiality at that time, and trying to take steps to encourage a more open and friendly culture among staff members who were overstretched and overstressed.

I can’t say that I was a fan of knitting, or crafting in general, at that time. Quite apart from my heady combination of perfectionism, impatience, and two left thumbs, knitting seemed, if I’m being honest, like a profoundly feminine and dull activity. It made me think of rosewater, rich tea biscuits, and potpourri. Knitting felt fusty and wool makes me itch. Nonetheless, I thought it might be a nice and innocuous way to spend some time away from work with colleagues. I tucked the invitation away in my mind to consider at another time.

Upon re-opening my email a few minutes later, I found that the invitation had riled some of the more defensive of my male colleagues. A languidly condescending email exchange had appeared in my inbox. Dripping with disdain, their emails declined the invitation while taking pot shots at recent attempts to improve the culture of the department—and pouring scorn upon the young female colleague who had made the knitting overture in the first place. I will never fully understand why these entitled colleagues felt the need to deride what was simply a friendly invitation, and a way to channel people’s feelings of alienation and worry about the political climate of the time. But I will always be grateful to them for lighting such a fire of fury in me that I determined at that moment to attend that meeting for political knitting, and to overcome my own preconceptions about both knitting and people who knit.

Knitting and female activism have a long history, as do attempts to trivialize and undermine knitting by those who feel threatened by female political action. Knitting’s seemingly innocuous connections with domesticity, maternalism, hearth, and home have made it a useful tool for women dispossessed of political voice. British women famously knitted their way through World War I, when the fruit of their needles traveled to the front lines: The scarves, sweaters, and gloves they made were a way of bringing domestic comfort to the trenches, yes, but these items also plugged a very real gap caused by clothing and uniform shortages. At the same time, the image of women knitting at the nation’s hearth reinforced ideas of stability and domesticity that were menaced by the realities of war, including the destruction of family units. Women thus wound themselves into politics, economics, and culture with their skeins of yarn. In the U.S., too, knitting became a form of wartime patriotism and a homey activity with which to support what often seemed like a faraway war. The Red Cross encouraged Americans to knit both before and after April 1917, when the USA joined the war. Knitting for the archetypal soldier, “Sammie” in the U.S. and “Tommy” in the U.K., became a marker of patriotism through which civilians could support their boys overseas and make a place for themselves within wartime discourse and propaganda.

Craftivism only took off from there. During World War II, British civilians on the home front were encouraged by the Ministry of Home Security to knit their way through the long nights of bombing during the London Blitz. Prisoners of war knitted despite the horrendous conditions of their captivity—even in the tropical heat of Singapore. “Make Do and Mend” was a key wartime philosophy, once again fusing female home-crafts with the political and moral economy of wartime Britain. In America, the connection between knitting and war was made even more poignant by the resonance between Pearl Harbor and the purl stitch: “Remember Pearl Harbor, Purl Harder,” one slogan went. For American civilians so far away from the frontlines, knitting creature comforts for WWII Sammies was a promise to remember them. As Wonoco Knitting Company enjoined New Yorkers, “Don’t Let Them Say ‘We are Forgotten Men!’ ”

American wartime knitting propaganda also foreshadowed the importance of “craftivism” for “third-wave feminism,” when feminists sought to “reclaim” knitting, and crafting in general, as a powerful female activity in the face of its associations with domesticity and triviality. Even during WWI, a special Red Cross knitting bag, emblazoned with the Red Cross symbol, sought to publicly display the importance of the woolly work. The song sheet for Glen Miller’s “Knit One, Purl Two” showed a knitter in stilettos, cheekily perching on a portrait of the composer. Second-wave feminists rallied against this idea, many seeing home-crafting as an artifact of domestic oppression. The irony from the long historical view here is that women were traditionally the weavers and clothiers whose cottage industries were destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. The mechanization of garment and cloth manufacture, and its move into the male-dominated world of the factory, made domestic knitting an activity of either poverty or leisure. Third-wave feminists subsequently sought to break the associations that thus emerged between home-craft and poverty or idle leisure.

Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, knitting serves a narrative and political function. I, like many women worried about the erosion of female reproductive rights in the Trump era, have been re-reading Margaret Atwood’s classic while watching the brilliant TV adaptation. In the book, Serena Joy is initially mocked for her obsessive knitting. Offred envies her “small goals that can be easily attained.” But knitting is later a part of a key exchange between Offred and Serena. On an overheated summer’s day, Serena sits in the garden and knits despite the heat.
Calling Offred over, she has her hold on the skein of wool between her hands while she winds. “I am leashed it looks like, manacled; cobwebbed, that’s closer,” she says. Serena is about to suggest that Offred sleep with chauffeur Nick in order to ensure a pregnancy. Before that, though, Offred comes to realize that Serena’s knitting is itself a form of rebellion—against the conformity of the uniform-scarves she should be knitting, and against her own age and arthritic pain: “Perhaps the knitting for her involves a kind of willpower; perhaps it even hurts,” Offred muses. She begins to see the knitting in a different light: “evidence of her stubbornness, and not altogether despicable.”

My own first attempt at knitting was markedly unsuccessful. I am someone who frequently walks into doors and trips over my own feet. Knitting seemed to be an exercise in making all of your fingers into thumbs. Perhaps it is a reflection of my state of mind at that time that I could remember the required movement only by chanting “stab, strangle, hang, stab, strangle, hang.” Pushing down my usual perfectionism and impatience, I kept practicing. My annoyance and frustration at the world skipped and stuttered through lines of garter stitch. Though this is the simplest stitch you can do (row after row of knitting, rather than the more common knit, purl, knit, purl alternation), I found myself confounded by inexplicable holes, developing painful calluses on my fingers, and literally tying myself in knots.

When I managed to finish my first pussy hat, though, I was overjoyed. I gave it to my 4-year-old niece who delightedly hopped around the living room, assuming it was a bunny hat. I was OK with that misconception. To see her embodying some sense of generational female solidarity, even if she didn’t know it, felt powerful. It felt meaningful. It felt like we were standing on the shoulders of a long line of female activists who were calling up to us.

As a professional historian, knitting for me has become a way of connecting with women of the past—a way of drawing energy from their struggles and successes in the face of what seemed insurmountable structures of power and control. They created small moments of autonomy and connection through their home-craft. They also took to the streets to protest a patriarchal culture that oppresses many more people than it glorifies. The knitters of Britain were out in force on July 13, marching against Trump’s “working visit.” Pussy hats abounded, of course, including my own raffia version made for the unexpected heatwave that has recently hit these shores. My needles have been clacking their way through skeins of wicker for weeks. So too, though, did knitted signs and quilted banners. Men, women, and children came together with their craft projects that day, just as they did at the Comforts Committee of the Navy League’s three-day knitting bee in Central Park in August 1918. Back then, it turned out that the war was just three months away from its end.