From Grandma’s Living Room to Prison Classes: Knitting in 21st Century America

For as long as I can remember, Grandma’s knitting has been a staple of my wardrobe. In  kindergarten, my favorite day of the week was the one when I wore the pink jumper with little pigs’ faces on the front and their tails on the back; in third grade, I rocked her handmade poncho as often as I could get away with. Over the past decade or so, her projects have gotten smaller in  size, but not in significance: a Grandma scarf made an appearance onstage at the 2012 Nebraska School Activities Association’s state play production tournament, and her socks keep my feet cozy during long Midwestern winters. There does not exist in my memory a time when Grandma didn’t knit, which is perhaps why it took me twenty years to ask the question, “What is Grandma’s history with knitting?” Once I did, however, I couldn’t let it go, and the answers I found through my grandma’s personal experiences highlighted  many different pieces within the wide world of knitting. Though often seen as the province of the elderly, knitting is an art that is still kicking— in fact, Corey D. Fields sees the “revitalizing of the activity for a new generation of practitioners”. By documenting Grandma’s personal experience with knitting, as well as the experiences of those she introduced me to, I discovered a vibrant and varied knitting culture within Brunswick, Georgia, that seems to be representative of nationwide trends.

Beverly Meyer began knitting around 1950, at the age of 12, under the direction of her mother. Her first big project started her senior year of high school and finished perhaps the year  after; it was a pair of argyle socks, similar to the ones her older sister Dana was knitting for her fiancé. Grandma’s socks were for Warren Schollaert, whom she would later marry. She never made another pair of argyle socks (or men’s socks, for that matter); they were hugely labor-intensive, and after only a few months they snagged on something and unravelled— a disaster that Warren, my grandpa, claimed with a chuckle “almost unsealed the deal” of their marriage. Grandma stopped knitting for the most part  while she raised her two children (my dad Warren “Skip” and aunt Kelly Schollaert), but when her grandchildren— my sister and I— came along, she picked it back up in earnest and has been knitting ever since. “It’s a good project at night,” she told me, “sitting there watching TV, ’cause I think just sitting there watching TV is kind of a waste.” Like her granddaughter, she is much more comfortable when she has something to occupy her hands.

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Grandma working on a pair of socks in her living room.

Big projects, like sweaters, shawls, and blankets, are mostly a thing of the past for Grandma; instead, she focuses on scarves, socks, and hats, working mostly from knitting patterns she finds online or purchases in kits. Her socks are particularly beloved by her granddaughters, daughter, and daughter-in-law: colorful, thick, and warm, they are the epitome of comfort. One pair is made of yarn that fades from blue to green to yellow and back, a color scheme I remember picking out because it reminded me of the beach she takes me to whenever I visit. They fit a bit snug now, as the stitches are relatively tight and don’t stretch as much compared to a pair of socks knitted and given to me by my German host mother Annette, made with looser stitches.   

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Grandma sock on left, Annette sock on right.

Nevertheless, Grandma socks are my favorite of my knitted articles, tied with an aforementioned and -pictured scarf. This particular scarf earned the distinction of participating in an award-winning one act play, as well as being the first scarf I received from Grandma. It is brown and grey, with fringe that doesn’t appear on any of her later ones. The yarn is among the thickest of that used in her scarves, with tighter stitches as well. Like her socks, it combines function with craftsmanship— because of the thick yarn and tightness of stitching, this scarf is my go-to on particularly cold days, while the other ones serve best as a fashion accessory.

While she occasionally utilizes the internet, Grandma primarily obtains her knitting supplies from The Stitchery of St. Simon’s, a yarn shop located on St. Simon’s Island, about a 20-minute drive from her home in Brunswick. It’s a fairly large store, with walls and cubbies practically overflowing with yarns of different colors, materials, and thicknesses, as well as examples of projects ranging from unconventional scarves to small stuffed mice. As Grandma   pored over the seemingly infinite options and consulted with the owner, Bo Anderson, she remarked, “Every time I come in here I just want to knit, knit, knit.”

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Grandma browsing in The Stitchery.

The main mission of this trip was to procure sock yarn, since I had remarked that mine had become a bit snug and I wouldn’t mind a new pair; by the time I returned to Minneapolis, Grandma had already started on a pair with the yarn I had picked out. While Bo had plenty of information and suggestions for Grandma’s other projects, she absolved herself of any questions regarding socks and sock yarn, since she doesn’t “do” socks. Just like Grandma chooses to focus on smaller pieces that take less time, Bo has her preferences for projects that do not include the complexity of piecing together socks. But Grandma and I were not the only customers in The Stitchery; we also encountered a woman whom Bo informed us was 106, and had just recently picked up knitting as a hobby. She was meeting with another veteran knitter for advice on improving her technique. Even within a group of women who fit the popular image of a “knitting grandma,” their experiences with the practice varied widely both in preferences of projects and styles and in their introduction to the craft.

For these women, knitting was one of perhaps several things they held in common. But for Grandma and 35-40 middle schoolers at Glynn Middle School in Brunswick, it is the only thing they have in common. Every Thursday morning, she drives to the middle school and sets up shop in the art classroom with suitcases full of knitting supplies and her fellow volunteers, Trish and Betty. The group is called Knit-Wits, and it is open to any middle schoolers looking for a way to occupy themselves between the time the busses drop them off in the morning and the beginning of class. The group consists mostly of girls; a few boys have joined, Grandma said, but usually don’t attend more than a handful of sessions. In order to receive grant money for the program, Knit-Wits must first knit a service project. This usually ends up being a small blanket for animals at the local shelter, since the dogs and cats like to have something snuggly and, as Trish and Betty good-naturedly pointed out, don’t usually care about the technical quality of their  blankets.

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Knit-Wits working on projects with Trish.

Once this project is completed, students can move on to personal projects. Most of the girls I spoke to were making scarves: Raquel was making one  for herself; Yecenia was using yarn gifted to her by her brother to knit a scarf for him; Semajderia’s half-finished pink scarf was for her mother, since pink is her favorite color. Trinity was not making a scarf, but instead a hat for her god sister. The remainder of Knit-Wits didn’t have a personal project with them, whether they forgot to bring it or hadn’t yet started one, so they worked instead on community pieces that lacked a specialized purpose. At the end of the school year, they will be stitched together and wrapped around various structures around the school in a “yarn bombing.”

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Yarn bombing from 2016.

Like Grandma, fellow Knit-Wit Betty started knitting around the age of 12, and she picked it up sporadically throughout her life until she joined the Knit-Wits. Trish began around seven years ago when she retired. All of them now transmit their skill to interested students at Glynn Middle School, individuals they likely never would have encountered without the common ground of knitting. These students  in turn spread the craft by bringing friends to their Knit-Wit meetings, giving handmade gifts to their loved ones, or, in the case of the young entrepreneur Trinity, starting a knitting business to sell her crafts.

The benefits of knitting for the Knit-Wits are threefold: they learn a skill, produce objects of which they can be proud, and fill the time waiting for class to  start with something productive. However, the advantages of knitting extend much farther, both cognitively and socially. Trish, a retired educator, enthusiastically informed me of the usefulness of knitting within STEM fields, as well as the implementation of knitting groups in prison and the positive results thereof. Knitting has been brought to groups that do not match our collective image of the quintessential knitter, and along with it has gone the ability to calm the mind and improve social functioning. Knitting, and the benefits thereof, are not the sole property of elderly women, and these women, in my experience, thrive on sharing their knowledge with others.

I started this project to understand my grandmother’s personal connection to knitting, and I ended up with prison: at Dorsey Run Corrections Facility in Maryland, where Lynn Zwerling leads a weekly knitting class for inmates. A far cry from the elderly woman rocking in a chair, knitting needles in hand, these prisoners are nonetheless passionate and devoted to their projects. According to Zwerling, “This isn’t about knitting. This is about resocialization.” She uses knitting as a tool to teach empathy; inmates knit hats to be donated to students in Baltimore’s public schools, as well as for loved ones, but Zwerling’s rule is that participants must eventually knit a hat for someone they’ve somehow let down. One member plans on making a hat for his mother; Percell Arrington picked the colors of his sons’ favorite football teams when he made them hats, and William Bright knitted for his significant other. While there is very little in common with a correctional facility classroom and the cozy living room where Annie the cat used to curl up in Grandma’s knitting basket, knitting infuses the space with the same sense of patience, discipline, and generosity.

However, despite the adoption of knitting across widely varied groups, there still seems to be a resistance to it on the basis of the stereotype of knitting as a grandma’s activity. Fields encountered a resistance in the Neo-Knitterz group he studied to associating themselves with knitting: even as modern, young knitters, the women in the group maintained the cultural image of grandma knitters and were loathe to be included. Mark Stapleton, a member of Knitting Behind Bars, says he was initially mocked for joining the group (though he eventually saw the same man who made fun of him in class). Meanwhile, while Grandma is certainly aware of and occasionally annoyed by the stereotype that “all old ladies do is knit,” it doesn’t really bother her. She has often brought her knitting project on planes and received compliments and awe from fellow passengers. Perhaps it’s just because she fits the cultural image that she gets such positive attention for her knitting, but maybe it reflects a society that admires craftsmanship, regardless of the medium or craftsman.

It is not readily apparent, however, where exactly the knitting old lady image came from, even knowing the history of knitting. A comprehensive scholarly history on knitting is not particularly easy to procure; instead, one must turn to personal knitting blogs that devote an entry or two to the craft held so high in esteem by the writer. In her blog post “The History of Knitting Pt 2: Madonnas, Stockings, and Guilds, Oh My!”,  Davina Choy traces the origin of knitting as we know it today to 11th century Egypt, spreading to Spain around the 13th century. Later, in the 14th century, “knitting Madonnas”— images of the Virgin Mary knitting as she tended to baby Jesus— began appearing, marking the first traceable reference to knitting as a domestic activity. However, as knitting became more and more popular, male-only Renaissance guilds took over the craft, to eventually be deposed by knitting machines. The Industrial Revolution is what eventually relegated knitting to the domestic— and implicitly, the female— spheres, and incidentally is also when most scholarly interest in knitting seems to end. Kerry Willis, however, tracks the draw to and functions of knitting from the industrialization of the practice to modern day in her book The Close-knit Circle: American Knitters Today. Knitting proved useful to homesteaders without access to machine-made products, soldiers from the Revolutionary to the World Wars in need of socks and a reminder of home, and countless women who passed the time in the company of friends and neighbors, each with a ball of yarn and a pair of needles.

Even as material and economic necessity ceased to be a factor in knitting, women have kept it up, and the reason is clear: across contexts, settings, and demographics, the common thread (pun intended) of knitting is the spirit of giving. Grandma knits for her family based on their tastes and preferences. Knit-Wits begin their knitting journey with a service project and then work on gifts for family and friends. Dorsey Run inmates’ hats are given to loved ones or donated to those in need. For the individual knitter, the benefit is the process. It is centering, calming, and disciplined. It’s no wonder, then, that as our lives seem to get more and more hectic, knitting is making a resurgence. The personal benefit of unwinding with a pair of knitting needles, transferring the tension from oneself to the rows of stitches, combined with the social reward of giving one’s labor of love make it unlikely that knitting’s popularity will unravel any time soon.

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