Knitting as a Metaphor for our Lesbian Lives

Posted in Essays (E)

The inaugural Annual Lesbian Knitting and Woolcraft Show was organised by Anah Holland-Moore and held at Yandoit in country Victoria 16 - 17 August 2008.

I was on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland that weekend bemoaning the fact that while I'd had a great time at the Old Lesbians Organising For Change (OLOC) Conference in LA, 30 July - 3 August 2008, and was looking forward to the equally famous Women In Tune (WIT) womyn's music festival in Wales, 22 - 25 August 2008, the first lesbian knitting event in Australia was happening without me. Mind you, those two international gatherings were so inspiring and full of creative fun I would heartily recommend both of them to anyone travelling in the US or the UK. And while I might have missed out on the first one I made sure I was there for the second Annual Lesbian Knitting and Woolcraft Show in the Yandoit Hall, 15 - 16 August 2009.

Knitting, I've been doing it for years. Like a lot of womyn of my generation I was taught how to knit at primary school, was encouraged by my mother who was also a knitter, had to knit a beret in first form at High School but didn't do much more knitting than that till I began knitting baby clothes and later on jumpers and cardigans for my children in my late teens and early twenties. And then nothing till I became a lesbian feminist activist and began knitting socks in all those interminable collective meetings that were held most evenings of the week and went till all hours while we planned fundraisers and demos, argued theory and criticised our practices, and generally kept the feminist revolution going in order to overthrow the patriarchy and change the world.

The reason I knitted was because knitting somehow aided and abetted my thinking processes. It gave me something useful to do, a bit like knitting in front of the TV. At least by the end of a frustrating or non-productive collective meeting I had half a sock to show for it. The reason I knitted socks was because they were simple, just plain stocking stitch round and round the four needles, striped for variety but without a heel and with tapered toes. I always gave the socks away as birthday presents, they came in handy for fundraising raffle prizes and for my own comfort during the winter months under my desert boots.

It didn't seem to matter that I was the only one who sat in collective meetings, in workshops at conferences, at discussions around kitchen tables, in front of the fire at home and knitted. I didn't care that no other lesbian feminist activist I knew knitted and everyone was so used to me sitting there with my wool and needles that no-one ever said boo about it. It wasn't as if I didn't pull my weight. In fact I sometimes said far too much and often more than my fair share when it came to giving an opinion or making a decision.

One day in 1998, after years of writing and publishing my own books, I decided to knit a book for a sculpture exhibition at the local environmental farm, CERES, in Brunswick. It took awhile to work out how I was going to go about it but eventually I figured out the different themes and colours for each page and the more I knitted the more the pages started taking shape. I worked out how to add 'pictures' using different materials, like feathers and a key, made yellow pom-poms to depict wattle, crocheted a purple lesbian symbol, varied the stitches to look like bricks and embroidered a fire. I sewed the pages back-to-back with cardboard in between so they would stand up and worked out how to bind the pages together to make a book.

Having decided the book needed to be anchored onto something I then painted an old wooden chair with bright colours and painted pictures on the seat. Once the book was attached to the chair with blue wool I called the whole lot Land Is Life. During the sculpture exhibition the chair was hung from a hook on a vine-covered veranda attached to a wholefood vegetarian cafe where people could turn the pages of the book to read it.

It took few more years, several more pairs of socks and a number of painted chairs before I made the decision to knit a chair for the Women's Salon Exhibition at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick in 2008 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of womyn's suffrage in Victoria. I had an old wooden chair without a seat. Once I had unscrewed the legs from the round centre, I was able to begin knitting differently-shaped parts in brightly coloured wool to cover all the various sections, starting with very narrow long socks with cuffs and shaped toes to fit the front legs. It took a number of weeks to do and was tricky in parts, especially when it came to assembling the chair and at the same time attaching the various woollen pieces till it was completely covered. But the result, Safe Seats for Womyn, was unique and beautiful, even if I do say so myself. And because a friend very kindly drove it to Yandoit for me, the knitted chair won first prize in the Exciting Use of Colour section in the first Lesbian Knitting Show later that same year.

While I was in the US in 2008 I was given a pattern for a round, multi-coloured baby blanket. Not really wanting to knit while I travelled, (I had my laptop with me and was writing in any spare time I had), I was, nevertheless and despite my protestations to the contrary, given round knitting needles and several balls of wool by a friend in LA and encouraged to begin. Of course, once I'd started and because it was such an easy and unusual pattern, I couldn't stop. I knitted in front of the TV and while we chatted with friends. When another friend in Oregon gave me enough additional balls of wool to finish the blanket I did just that. The result was an oddly-coloured but nevertheless extremely attractive blanket for my new grandson who, appropriately enough, was born on 4 July.  

Which brings me back to the Lesbian Knitting Show in 2009. I didn't want to be part of the competition and was encouraged to set up a display table with the knitted chair, the knitted book on the painted chair and the baby blanket (which I'd borrowed from the baby for the occasion). I also added a few other items I'd knitted with wool that had been donated to the lesbian community earlier that year: a pair of fingerless gloves for my partner, a scarf, another smaller baby rug out of grey wool and a pair of socks for the lesbian who had donated the wool in the first place as a thank you gift. I also added four of my old striped knitted socks, (there'd have been many more except most of them were still in the dirty clothes basket waiting to be washed), one with several darns on the worn heel I'd turned when I was still doing turned heels back in the 1980s. 

The whole event was a splendid lesbian occasion. All of the work on display showed a great deal of skill and imagination, most of it was also artistic and creatively exciting and there were entries with a political message as well as those that made you smile. There were felt scarves with decorative pieces that were also works of art, baby clothes in bright colours, hats made by visual artists, jumpers knitted by lesbians in their spare time, a couple of knitted toys, a patchwork quilt, wall hangings and a sculpture with driftwood and felted elves. My partner sat in the midst of it all doing spool-knitting and coiling the long piece into a circle she intended making into a hearth rug. There were lots more items far too numerous to mention and all of them inspiring.

A brave lesbian had agreed to award prizes for the Most Original Work, Iconic Lesbian Item, Unusual Knitting Materials and Wearable Art, amongst other judgements difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy. And everyone who attended the exhibition was encouraged to vote for the entry they thought was the most worthy of the Best In Show award. Several local womyn set up stalls to sell their knitted products and other produce and seemed to enjoy the conviviality of the lesbian community and womyn-only environment for change.  

I spent most of my time in the kitchen making sandwiches, putting dollops of jam and cream on scones and dispensing cups of tea and coffee to the enthusiastic participants and attendees. In between times I did a couple of stints on the door or else sat outside in the sunshine next to the enclosure with the alpacas and chatted with friends who'd made the effort to drive up from Melbourne and even interstate for a day or a weekend in the country.

Knitting: it's usually regarded as womyn's work and therefore a craft and many lesbians have eschewed it for years. And yet there we all were at the Lesbian Knitting and Woolcraft Show in August 2009 with our woollen art and our practical and beautifully crafted works, having a fine old time and taking pleasure in our lesbian selves and in our creativity.     


© Copyright Jean Taylor