In the Loop conference series has ran for three years now, producing ‘In The Loop’ (Eds. Hemmings, 2010) along the way. This year’s conference, In the loop 3, was held at the Winchester Discovery Centre, not too far from the ‘Knitting Reference Library’. The three-day event aimed to explore the ‘voices of knitting’. Wellbeing, exploration and representation were among the themes that talks were based upon, and ideas discussed. The conference kicked off with keynote from Dr Martin Polley on knitting and the Olympics. Through following exploring the relationship between the two, Dr Polley illustrated how following knitting through time can reveal histories and debates of a topic such as the Olympics. From the inclusion of knitting in the Wenlock Olympic games in the nineteenth century, to the public place of knitted tributes in the London 2012 games. In the afternoon Anna McNally, archivist from Westminster University, illustrated how following the history of knitting at the Regent Street Polytechnic, revealed a history of politics and change at the institution, and the changing place that women held there, as discussed in weekly newsletters documenting the polytechnic and its knitting activities. Tom Van Deijnen gave a virtual tour of his ‘Curiosity Cabinet of knitting stitches’. Tom creates swatches of various knitting stitches and exhibits them in a way that mirrors ‘curiosity cabinets’, cabinets like those at the Natural History Museum. Sharp pins hold the knitted swatches in place and they are catalogued and ordered. Much like bugs or fossils are held in place and ordered at the NHM.
Dr Jessica Hemmings started proceedings on day two, discussing the merits of introversion and working alone for creativity. This idea provoked the celebration of collaboration, and the idea that knitting is social and collective. Creativity, and creative ideas might best be born from time working in insolation, though ‘lone knitters’ are often represented in popular culture as eccentric or worse, ‘insane’. Angela Maddock offered a fascinating talk on knitting, the body, and relationships. Focusing on ‘red yarn’ and its representation in film. Angela illustrated the ways it had been framed as disruptive, as dangerous, or as symbolic of flesh and the body. Angela’s work ‘blood line’ was particularly emotive; Angela and her mother worked on the same knitting, in a performance act, using red yarn, to symbolise their connection and relationship. Criminologist Dr Alyce McGovern is conducting research into the yarnbombing, and its seeming elusiveness from the same perception or punishment as other forms of graffiti. Dr McGovern explored ‘craft and crime’ more generally too; looking at the work of Freddie Robbins on ‘murderer’s houses’ and how it revealed our assumptions about women and crime, and how knitting can give voice to these ideas.
The final day of the conference was a keynote from Dr Jonathan Faiers on ‘knitting and catastrophe. Through well chosen film clips, Dr Faiers illustrated his argument that knitting is also in the making, or unravelling. It has a formlessy that is threatening. This risk of formlessness challenges the cosy and wholesome image of knitting. Through the film clips, Dr Faiers, showed how ‘the knitter’ had became a motif of ‘impeding doom’. Dr Jo Tourney, author of ‘The Culture of Knitting” (2009) discussed Sarah Lund’s sweater from ‘The Killing’. The sweater, Dr Tourney argued, is a narrative device, it tells the story of nationhood and nostalgia for place. Much like knitting, the process of finding the ‘murderer’ is all- consuming, leaving the result an anti-climax. The sweater is, perhaps, a motif of this experience. One of the most stirring talks of the conference was that of Emmanuelle Dirix. Exploring ‘vintage mania’ in visual culture. ‘Keep Calm XYZ’ or ‘make do and mend’ goods have felt insincere for a while now, divorced from their conception of necessity and austerity. To engage in ‘vintage craft culture’ is to affirm spare time and wealth. It is the opposite of thriftiness and frugality. More dangerously, Dirix argued, is the ‘regression’ in feminism through this culture. Women have been ‘stitched up’ by the cath kidston sewing kits, they don’t actually know how to use.
Many of the audience members argued that ‘craft consumers’ pursued craft culture, without sustained engagement, or gumption to learn craft skills. Interesting reworking of Colin Campbell’s (2005) Craft Consumer.
Throughout, the conference, and on each day were talks from speakers who had travelled from Shetland. As a geographer, I really appreciated the importance of knitting to the sense of place, identity and experience of space in Shetland. Keynote Hazel Hughson spoke of the potential loss of craft skills from cuts in funding, and the importance of knitters taking ‘ownership’ of their knitted crafts. Helen Whitham hails from Shetland, and is a textile graduate from Dundee Unversity. Helen talked through her graduate collection: knitwear with a narrative, a cultural and emotional collection to Shetland as ‘home’. Hopefully, this will encourage owners to hold on to their knitted garments for longer.
I must apologise that this quick review has not been comprehensive; it’s my personal highlights, and the talks that resonated with me the most. The diversity of audience backgrounds, has meant each one of us took away something different from the experience (See Tom of Holland’s review of the conference here!). Many of the speakers felt they had to ‘admit’ they were not proficient knitters. I too must admit I’m still struggling with my knitting. I’ve taught myself from YouTube, but I’m not the best knitter. I’m much better at sewing. I watched in awe at the pace and skill with which audience members worked on their knitting projects, as they listened. I picked up some great tips too. One knitter encouraged me to work on ‘swatches’, rather than be caught up in knitting patterns or big projects – this will improve my confidence and skill.
The conference theme was ‘voices’ of knitting. It seems to me that knitting has multiple voices, and things to say. It suffers from an image problem that renders the craft conservative, or associated with older generations. The voices of knitting are multiple, and the conference spoke of ways that knitting reworks its assumptions. It gave voice to knitted artists, young knitters, knitting in films, knitting in popular culture, as well as celebrating the heritage of knitting (for those interested Professor Sandy Black gave a talk too; her book ‘Knitting: fashion, industry, craft’ is out next week).
Perhaps knitting is disturbing not comforting; criminal not safe, uneasy, not wholesome. Yet at the same it is cosy and comforting. The ambivalence of knitting practice is what has sustained my academic interest so far. The current ‘revival’ of knitting is ripe for critical engagement, and ‘In the Loop’ conferences have done just that and more. In the Loop 3 was a space to tell the stories of knitting, and through knitting. Knitting, and knitted objects are everyday and familiar, as well as extraordinary and surprising. It is this liminality that allows it to ask so many questions, provide or reveal narratives and at the same time consistently border on collapse (Faiers, 2010), with always the opportunity to be reformed, reworked, and affect.