Department of European Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology
University of Aberdeen
Department of Anthropology
Edward Wright Building
Aberdeen AB24 3QY
University of London
University College London
14 Taviton Street
London WC1H 0BW
Entanglements. Anthropological perspectives on knitting as sensori-material and symbolic practice
Background & Relevance
UKKnitting, the bringing about of a textile surface and ultimately a piece of clothing, has been part of people’s, mostly women’s everyday lives in Austria for decades. In the last five or so years, however, knitting practices have continuously made their way into public awareness, may it be by way of so-called stitch’n bitch groups whose members knit jointly in public places such as libraries, cafés or museums, or by way of feminist activist knitting interventions, etc. These public displays of something that was much rather seen to be belonging to home culture, of something that was imagined to be happening mostly behind closed doors, at first glance give the impression as if knitting was suddenly returning from nowhere. At second glance, however, it rather points to the (apparently unexpected) persistence of this practice throughout the last decades and ultimately to its (surprising) neglect in academic and most specifically in anthropological research. While publicly visible group knitting activities have already attracted some academic interest, »private«, individual knitting practices in the home still remain largely overlooked. Knitting, from my point of view, is, however, not only a legitimate field of research because it has finally »gone public«, as this reasoning might deny everyday forms of knitting in the home their meaning and value. Therefore, without essentialising knitting as feminine, private, housewifely and motherly, I want to draw attention to knitting as it has been and continues to be practiced: namely by (mostly) women, young and old, in their homes, who have been bringing about a considerable amount of bodily and aesthetic knowledge. In doing so, this project also reclaims »feminine« practices such as knitting as knowledge practices.
Situated at the convergence of material culture studies, sensory ethnography, phenomenology, auto-ethnography and gender studies, this PhD-project aims at revealing meanings of knitting practices and knitted things in the everyday lives of Austrians in urban Graz as well as rural Vorarlberg. The aim is not do a comparative study (urban vs. rural), however, much rather for the data to complement each other as neither exists separated from the other. Apart from auto-ethnographical self-experiments, knitting people (mostly women) and their lifewordly experiences as much as individual interpretive models are at the centre of enquiry.
Oscillating between enquiring into phenomenal and symbolical qualities of knitting, this research focuses on the following three inextricably intertwined (and for the purpose of the proposal artificially separated from each other) areas and respective sub-questions:
Materials and Senses | Here, the interest lies on *phenomenal qualities* of knitting practices and hence on scrutinising knitting as microcosm of anthropo-material Zusammenwirken – probably best translated as co-action or synergy. What kind of specific bodily-perceptual (practical) knowledge does this sensory practice bring about and how does this affect ways of relating to the (social / material) environment, and of perceiving the world ultimately? From this perspective it is the body and its engagement with and entanglement in sensory and material on the one hand, and social and cultural dimensions and determinants of life on the other hand, from where culture and culturally meaningful (knowledge) practices emerge (cf. Csordas 1994). Following the materials (Ingold 2011) in a chaîne opératoire inspired way (e.g. Leroi-Gourhain), the technical steps are traced, ultimately uncovering how materials, humans and the (social and cultural) environment and their entanglement in the technical process co-constitute each other.
Gender | On the other hand, knitting is conceptualised as *symbolic practice* and by doing so textile threads and their entanglement become representative of gendered spheres and meaning-making.
Against the background that especially during the era of European industrialisation knitting and needlecrafts in general used to be instrumentalised as a mechanism for the disciplining of young girls in order to engender female bodies displaying desired ideal female values such as industriousness, placidity, emotional control, passiveness, purity and decency (Ehrmann-Köpke 2010; Ladj-Teichmann 1983), the question is relevant, in how far knitting contemporarily still serves as an arena for the negotiation and construction of gender, or feminity respectively.
Besides that, knitting reveals very clearly the strong link between gender and economy. The historical division into male and female spheres, or into productive (economically valuable) and reproductive (economically worthless) activities respectively, also entailed a (economical) devaluation of handcrafted things. Needlecrafts hence turned into Liebesarbeit (things made for the love of the presentee). In how far and how do handcrafting practices such as knitting contemporarily fit into neoliberal, flexibilised, precarious (gift) economies? When – as reported frequently – needlecrafting is about the joy of creating and doing and hence the value of effort lies in itself, the question is relevant, if needlecrafting practices elude the efficacy of neoliberal principles or if self-referential and altruistic pursuit has much rather been absorbed by it.
Knitting connections | Thirdly, the *dynamics of material culture in everyday life* are carved out by looking at the interrelationship between sensoriality and sociality. This is for example relevant in the case of self-knitted gifts which are said to shape relationships in specific ways, as is the case with new-borns and their nascent social web. When new-borns are given self-knitted baby blankets or waistcoats, they are not merely clothed. They are much rather enshrouded in sensory-experienceable as well as symbolical »knitted warmth«. A terminally ill woman’s need to knit baby blankets for her unborn twin grandsons, does not only demonstrate that she wanted to ensure they would not get cold. It much rather illustrates in a very beautiful and at the same time very tragic way, how she used knitting in order to escape her transience and continue to »knit« relationships beyond her death. Similar to the argument of Susanne Küchler about quilts in Polynesia, this shows how ›things lay bare the threads of connection‹ (2005: 189) and become ›symbolically dense icon[s] of sociality‹ (ibid.: 176).
Contribution to anthropological research
It comes as a surprise that a practice as central in many women’s everyday lives as knitting has not been researched from the perspective of a discipline that conceives itself to focus on the mundane, the overlooked, the hidden gems of everyday life. My research is not only one of the first attempts to approach this neglected research field; it furthermore also contributes to major anthropological debates in the field of material culture studies and research on craft practices. Additionally, my work seeks to (re-)unite the sensory and the material as two sides of the same coin, not only in everyday life (emic) but also on the conceptual level (etic). In line with Ingold (2014), I less focus on materiality but rather on the materials themselves and their entanglement, while at the same time acknowledging that a concrete practice – in a Lévi-Straussian sense – such as knitting is always also an immaterial practice, transmutating internal relations into tangible relations.
Supervisors (Cotutelle de thèse): Prof. Dr. Katharina Eisch-Angus & Prof. Dr. Susanne Küchler