Knitting madness

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

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.

6 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Janine Boon || June 4th, 2015

    I’ve just spent two days in bed sick and powered through my knitting. I know Tash well and participate in Knit in Public day each year, usually at the pub with my knitting group (we actually meet there weekly to enjoy a pint and a ball of yarn!) I’m also looking forward again to this year’s Knit August Nights in Napier at the moment, it’s always fun to catch up with knitters from all over the country – and a lot of them are in their 20s – 40s, so definitely not your Nana’s knitting circle any longer.

  2. Comment made by Marguerite || June 9th, 2015

    Lovely blog Caren! I have also started to feel the urge to knit and crochet this winter, but I haven’t actually started. Speaking of knitting in public, Metiria Turei was spotted knitting (and tweeting about knitting socks) at the last Green AGM. And, don’t forget these marvelous knitters from the Second World War

  3. Comment made by Matariki || June 10th, 2015

    Great post Caren! I’ll also add in my two stitches (get it? I’m hilarious!) in regards to great knitting resources: Pomcast and Knitfm for knitting-related podcasts and The Knitographer is the only New Zealand knitting blogger that I have found so welcome any other suggestions.

    Looking forward to our MCH knitting date soon.

  4. Comment made by Sarah T || June 10th, 2015

    Of course there was also the (in)famous Judith Tizard knitting in Parliament saga in 2002

  5. Comment made by Caren Wilton || June 10th, 2015

    Thanks Sarah – I loved this sentence: ‘Judith Tizard has been knitting since she was 5 and completes a third of a shawl each caucus.’ Personally I was brought up knitting while reading or watching TV, and in recent years I’ve been to a few Lights Up movie showings, aimed at knitters – the lights are only dimmed halfway so you can knit while you watch. I can absolutely concentrate on other things while I knit, so Bill English’s response to Tizard’s knitting (‘contempt and arrogance’!) seems quite over the top.

  6. Comment made by Caren Wilton || June 10th, 2015

    Here’s another one for you Matariki:

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