ℹ️ You’re reading Quartz Essentials: quick, engaging outlines of the most important topics affecting the global economy.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 1
Long regarded as quintessential women’s work, this stereotype has made knitting a cover for, or subject of, subversion. It was a format for wartime espionage and a means of transmitting secret messages for generations. The subterfuge entwined with knitting dates back at least as far as the American Revolution—making it perhaps the craftiest craft.
Who would suspect grandmas living near train depots of tracking enemy supply chains with yarn? Or guess that a lady sitting atop a hill with her needles and thread was actually passing along military intelligence? And how could anyone anticipate that brightly colored yarn could become a highly visible political message? There’s much more to the story than scarves, hats, and socks. The history of knitting, far from docile, is one crazy yarn.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 2
3: Years of training it took to become a trained apprentice or journeyman in an 18th-century knitting guild
4.5 kg (10 lbs): Wool produced by a sheep annually
6: Sweaters that can be knit from 4.5 kg of sheep’s wool, approximately
1.2 million kg (2.5 million lbs): Clean, raw wool produced globally in 2018
23%: Australia’s share of global wool production
339: Stockings knit by female pupils at the Ackworth Quaker School in Yorkshire in 1821
6,300: Yards of cotton used to knit a lace baby’s dress that won third prize in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Britain
9 million: Users on Ravelry, the social network for knitters, as of March 2020
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 3
Knitting is tying a series of knots in the right ways to make a piece of fabric out of yarn made from wool, cotton, acrylic, and many other materials. For hand knitting (as opposed to knitting done on industrial knitting machines), two basic stitches are good to know: knit and purl. Knitting every row on regular needles produces what’s known as garter stitch: little bumps of yarn that have a nice stretch to them. Alternating rows of knit and purl create the flat-looking stockinette stitch, which you are probably used to seeing in clothing. (If you knit on connected needles, or round needles, called “working in the round,” then it’s the opposite!)
Combining stitches in different ways is what allows knitters to create patterns and designs on clothes, not to mention the necessary stretchy ribbing at the base of a hat. There are lots of good tutorials online to get started, and free patterns for beginners, such as this set from knitting blog Tin Can Knits.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 4
“When my hands are busy, my mind stays focused on the here and now.”
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 7
In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge, the wife of a Paris wine shop owner, is characterized by her constant knitting. Defarge is anything but meek and mild. She is a spy and insurgent who knits into shrouds the names of those condemned to the guillotine. The superficial harmless femininity of Madame Defarge’s knitting masks her anger, savvy, and determination, and is exactly what makes her so dangerous.
Many real women throughout history have turned knitting to subversive purposes. Molly “Old Mom” Rinker, a spy for the colonies near Philadelphia during the American Revolution, perched on a hilltop and pretended to knit, dropping balls of yarn down the cliff with messages hidden inside for American spies to retrieve.
In World War II, female spies knit their coded messages straight into scarves and hats. Phyllis Latour Doyle, a British secret agent in World War II, used knitting as a cover. Doyle would chat up German soldiers and then encode what they told her in silk yarn. The Belgian resistance conscripted older women who lived near train yards to track enemy travel in their knitting.
Knitting was an especially useful cover in wartime because it was an activity promoted by many governments. A 1943 campaign by the British Ministry of Information, “Make Do and Mend,” advised housewives on how to darn garments and refresh old clothes in a time of austerity. Women were also encouraged to knit clothing for soldiers in conflicts from the US Civil War to the World Wars. If some of them were also sharing intelligence reports, who would suspect?
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 8
3rd to 5th century: A laborious technique called nålbindning is used to make socks, the earliest known example of knitted goods.
1100-1300: North African knitters use double needles to knit goods, including blue and white patterned socks.
1571: The Cappers Act in England decrees that most people over the age of six shall wear “a Cap of Wool knit, thickened and dressed in England, made within this Realm” on Sundays and holidays, except when traveling.
1589: William Lee invents the first mechanical knitting machine in the English village of Calverton.
1847: Abolitionist newspaper The Liberator declares sewing circles “among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery.”
1920: Suffragist Alice Paul poses sewing a flag like Betsy Ross for the cover of The Suffragist magazine after the passage of the US 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.
2005: The Wombs on Washington project asks people to knit wombs to support pro-choice legislation on abortion.
2014: A pair of activists form Yarn Mission, a knitting group aimed at fighting racial injustice.
2017: The Pussyhat Project encourages women to knit thousands of pink hats to wear in support of women’s rights and to protest Donald Trump at the inaugural Women’s March.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 9
Knitting, and reading patterns, has its own shorthand. Here are a few key terms to help you decode the world of knits and purls.
Cast on: to create the first row of stitches for a knitting project
Gauge: the number of stitches per inch or centimeter
Working yarn: the yarn coming off the ball
K2TOG: an abbreviation meaning “knit two stitches together”
P2TOG: an abbreviation meaning “purl two stitches together”
Hank: a loose ring of yarn twisted on itself to form a shape like a French cruller
Magic loop: a technique that allows for knitting projects of many different circumferences on a single long round needle
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 10
A ladies’ crochet group in Cloughmills, Northern Ireland, knit a wool replica of their village, complete with local shops, houses, and tiny vegetables in gardens.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 11
Both knitting and crocheting involve using needles or hooks to create a garment or piece of fabric from some sort of thread or yarn, but the methods are quite different. Crochet uses only a single hook to pull loops of thread into specific patterns. Hand knitting requires at least two needles (or a pair of connected circular needles) and every stitch is intertwined. Because of this, crocheting tends to create somewhat stiffer and sturdier fabric, while knitted garments have more give but are also more liable to unravel if a mistake has been made, like a stitch not being knitted in correctly, or “dropped” in knitters’ parlance.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 12
Yarn bombing is similar to graffiti—a highly visual, artistic form of protest and self-expression. Textile artist Magda Sayeg explains its origins as a way to make political statements or just have fun encasing the urban environment in brightly colored yarn.
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Quartz Obsession — Knitting — Card 13
Research suggests there are numerous physical and psychological benefits to knitting. Studies have shown that the repetitive act of knitting and sewing can induce a calm state similar to yoga or meditation. Knitting is also thought to lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce cortisol levels. One study of 60 self-selected participants with chronic pain found that knitting helped to reduce pain by getting people to focus elsewhere.
A 2018 report from UK group Knit for Peace identified similar physical and mental health benefits—lower blood pressure, distraction from chronic pain, slowed onset of dementia—and also concluded that knitting helped older people to feel more connected to society. “Prescribing” knitting for age-related conditions could in theory save the National Health Service millions of pounds a year, the report concluded.