Ahead of our forthcoming Manmade event, celebrating men who make, knitter Benjamin G. Wilson wants to know why people are still so surprised by his passion for all things yarn. He’ll be speaking about this very topic at the event – book your place at his talk for just £5 (plus booking fee) here.
As a male knitter, there’s a certain type of article I’m often interviewed for. It’s usually called ‘Knitting With Balls’ or ‘Here Come The Boys’. It’s assumed, by journalists, that male knitters are unusual enough to attract readers. Why is this? Why is needlework, particularly knitting, seen as feminine? How did craft become ‘women’s work’? Why are male knitters still novel?
Let’s go back in time
The ‘womanliness’ of knitting is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that’s specific to the west. 15th century French knitting guilds were composed solely of men. The Peruvian island of Taquile still boasts a male dominated culture of knitting. Yet in contemporary, western culture, men only appear as recipients of knitting – not knitters themselves. Book titles such as Knits Men Want: The 10 Rules Every Woman Should Know Before Knitting for a Man or Knitting for Him reference men in the third person. Even The Manly Art of Knitting, a rarity in that it was written for a male audience, only titles itself ‘manly’ to imply it’s still a novelty.
Steven M. Gelber, leisure historian, argues that sex segregation of hobbies reflects the wider social change that took place during the industrial revolution. In particular, he looks at how ‘the domestic’ became a woman-dominated space.
“[Men] may have been the titular heads of their households, but they had little to do there,” he explains. “When industrialisation separated living and working spaces it separated men and women.”
When men did create in the home, he says, it was according to the ‘half pound’ rule – that is, only with tools above that weight, and whose results were functional. Men’s work, even in the home, had to look like ‘real’ work. In contrast to their husbands’ masculinity, women crafted with lighter tools and towards decorative ends. Large paint brushes, falling as they do between those categories, could be considered an uneasy neutral territory. Gardening, which is at the intersection of domestic/public and decorative/functional, could be seen as neutral too.
We don’t just have the Victorians to blame for our current situation, though. Paintings of ‘knitting madonnas’ date back to the 15th century, and a passing skim-read of European mythology shows us that weaving is for goddesses and smithing for gods. Still, the domesticity of needlework is central to how we treat needleworkers. Knit In Public Day remains a revolutionary act for some. Joanne Turney, writing in the excellent The Culture of Knitting, draws explicit links between textile work and the historical role of female homemakers. “Knitting within the domestic sphere is a relatively mute activity; it is invisible labour, unseen and unrewarded, and as a consequence is socially and culturally deemed without value,” she says.
“[It’s connection with ‘thrift’] further removed the occupation from the sphere of the monetary marketplace, firmly establishing its position as part of a ‘woman’s world.’”
All about the money
In short, knitting is seen as women’s work because it doesn’t pay anything. Back when knitting was a commercially important activity, as it was in 15th-century Paris or 18th-century England, men knitted prodigiously. However, they dropped out when the world ceased to pay. This kind of misogyny still lingers on today in subtle ways. Carpenters, for example, aren’t asked to carve tiny chairs for smoothie bottles. Knitting for charity remains a fixture of craft culture largely because women are expected to work for free.
And that, perhaps, is the heart of the issue. Male knitters are novel because we don’t expect men to indulge in the trivial or unwaged. Knitting can be seen to imply a loss of power, and powerlessness is for ‘girls’. Asking “Why do you, a man, knit?” carries the subtext “knitting is for women, and so lesser.” We can do better. We really shouldn’t get excited every time a man picks up his needles. Rather than asking “why does he knit?” we should surely be asking “who cares?”
This feature originally appeared in issue 52 of Mollie Makes, a lifestyle magazine for those who live creatively. The latest issue of Mollie Makes is the Etsy takeover issue, out now!
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