When winter comes, my desire to knit kicks in. I barely think about it over summer, but as the weather cools down and the nights draw in, a kind of obsession takes me over; it seems increasingly to me to be some sort of primal instinct, some kind of nesting thing, rugging up against the cold.
Knitting as a domestic craft boomed in New Zealand during the First World War, when Lady Liverpool, wife of the governor, encouraged women and children to knit socks and scarves for the troops overseas. In 1915 she published the country’s first book of knitting patterns, Her Excellency’s knitting book, whose cover bore the ditty: ‘For the Empire and for Freedom/We all must do our bit;/The men go forth to battle/The women wait – and knit.’ Her patterns included socks, balaclavas and gloves, as well as a ‘mitten for an injured hand’ and a ‘soldiers’ shooting mitten’. Mīria Pōmare, wife of the politician Māui Pōmare, joined forces with Lady Liverpool, launching a fund to provide comforts to the men of the Māori contingent – knitted garments included, of course.
Vast quantities of knitting were produced during the war. In August 1916 alone, 130,047 items were made, and in 1919 the people of Rangataua in the central North Island wrote to Lady Liverpool to alert her to the stellar work of Harriet Gardner, an old-age pensioner who had produced an average of 1.36 pairs of socks per week over the 220 weeks of the war.
So, after all this wartime industriousness, how could you stop knitting? Knitting became a major home craft alongside sewing, and remained that way for most of the 20th century, until the availability of cheap imported clothing combined with changing attitudes to home crafts to turn women off knitting.
There’s another knitting boom these days, one with a hipster edge (‘not your nana’s knitting!’). It’s fuelled by the internet, with new devotees learning to knit from YouTube and talking to each other on the wildly successful Ravelry website. People gather in groups at the new, stylish wool shops to knit and socialise, and classes at weekend knitting retreats like the annual Unwind and Knit August Nights sell out within minutes of going on sale. Tash Barneveld, owner of Wellington’s Holland Road Yarn Company, says, ‘The most noticeable change between the knitting of our grandmothers and now is that we are at leisure to knit. Now we have the luxury to choose it as a hobby, whereas for past generations it was required to clothe families in an economical way.’
13 June is Worldwide Knit in Public Day, though knitting in public has a long history – check out these women knitting at a protest, during a lecture and in the ladies’ gallery at Parliament. And I can attest to the fact that the Wairarapa evening commuter train from Wellington is another hotbed of knitting, with me among those snatching the chance to complete a few rows.