How Politics Tested Ravelry and the Crafting Community

How Politics Tested Ravelry and the Crafting Community thumbnail

In the spring of 2016, Jayna Zweiman, an artist, persuaded her friend Krista Suh to buy a Groupon for crocheting lessons at a yarn store in Los Angeles called the Little Knittery. Yarn shops, like bike or record stores, can be alienating to newcomers; patrons and employees sometimes act like members of an exclusive club who share the language of obscure wool blends. But Kat Coyle, who has owned the Little Knittery for nine years, has worked hard to make it an inviting place, outfitting it with worn Persian rugs, a giant pink sofa, and several comfortable chairs. Every Friday there were “knit nights,” open to all. After a few lessons, Zweiman and Suh became regulars. The crowd ranged in age from adolescent to geriatric, and sitting around knitting or crocheting gave Zweiman an “opportunity to really listen,” she told me.

On November 10th that year, two days after Donald Trump was elected President, Zweiman called Suh and told her that she wanted to go to the Little Knittery to find comfort. Zweiman was particularly interested in the concerns of older women at the store, and when she learned about the Women’s March she knew that she wanted to participate. She had a background in socially minded design projects, and she and Suh considered knitting a special hat to commemorate the march. Coyle agreed to help write a pattern that would be visually striking but accessible to knitters of all levels. Looking around the store, they selected a fuchsia-colored yarn produced by a Uruguayan fibre company called Malabrigo. The easiest type of hat to knit is a flat rectangle, folded and sewn together, which produces two floppy corners that resemble cat ears. Coyle knit three prototypes, and within a few days the group had named it the Pussyhat, a reference to Trump’s hot-mike moment with Billy Bush. “Krista had this vision of massive amounts of people wearing the same style, the same hat,” Coyle said.

She went on, “I just said, ‘Let me take a picture of this, and I’ll put it on Ravelry.’ ” Ravelry, which is often called “the Facebook of knitting,” has nine million registered accounts—about a million of which are active every month—an exhaustive database of patterns and yarns, and hyperactive message boards. “Telling a knitter to check out Ravelry is like telling someone who just got a computer, ‘Hey, you should check out Google,’ ” Edith Zimmerman, an avid knitter and the creator of a popular e-mail newsletter called Drawing Links, said. When new knitters come into the shop, Coyle typically says, “Get on Ravelry. Just get on. It’s going to blow your mind.” She added, “It goes all over the world. And that’s what happened” with the hat. “It went all over the world.”

After Coyle posted the Pussyhat pattern to the site, the women worked with more than a hundred and seventy-five yarn stores around the world, which served as dropoff and pickup points for knitters and hat recipients. “The country sold out of pink yarn,” Coyle said. (Four years later, Malabrigo’s fuchsia yarn is often on back order.) Some people went to the Little Knittery thinking that they could buy Pussyhats. “And we said, ‘We don’t make them for sale,’ ” Coyle told me. “ ‘You have to knit your own or get somebody to knit it for you.’ ”

By January 21, 2017, the day of the Women’s March, Zweiman claims, hundreds of thousands of hats had been knitted, creating a visual symbol of a moment in political history. “We created a sea of pink pixels,” she said. Prototypes of the Pussyhat later appeared in several exhibitions at major art museums. Sandra Markus, the chair of the fashion department at the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.), has published research on Ravelry’s Pussyhat Project group, which has about forty-five hundred members, some of whom still assemble on a regular basis to discuss knitting and politics. She remembers the discussions around the Pussyhat at her local yarn store on the Upper West Side, where women gathered to knit. “To be able to really combine the political with the craft,” Markus said, “I think it was the first time it was ever done in such a significant, visually impactful way.”

“I know how much knitters like a project,” Coyle told me. “I also knew, from my own community, they were really anxious and depressed. And what’s knitting good for? Soothing the nerves.”

Not everyone on Ravelry was soothed, though. “Embarrassing and degrading,” a user named Glassbonnie wrote, of the Pussyhat. GirlsandDogs called it an “incredibly ugly hat with a vulgar name.” Others argued that the energy dedicated to the Pussyhat could be channelled into providing for the homeless, a comment that produced more digital sniping. “Unless all of your knitting is for charity, please don’t try to lecture people on what they want to make for themselves for their own reasons and on their own time,” Merrymcg14 wrote.

During Trump’s term, hat patterns sparked political discourse. As he geared up for reëlection, his supporters began publishing patterns for hats with slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall.” These hats eventually led to a ban of all Trump discussion on Ravelry.

“Let’s take off all their personal protective equipment.”
Cartoon by Yasin Osman

“Ravelry is just a microcosm,” Kim Denise, one of the site’s volunteer moderators, told me. “Knitters are just the same as society.” Denise joined the site in 2009, and even then she noticed a “growing radicalization among Obama haters” on Ravelry. “Trump brought that to a head.” Jessica Marshall Forbes, one of the site’s two founders, remembers the early days of Ravelry well. “You know, we just wanted to make a nice Web site about yarn,” she told me. “I look back on it now, like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t so bad.’ Because look what we’re dealing with now.”

Launched in 2007 by Jessica Marshall Forbes and Cassidy Forbes, a young married couple, Ravelry was intended to serve the needs of skilled crocheters and knitters like Coyle, who was among the several hundred people invited to test out the site during its beta phase. Cassidy and Jessica had met as undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Five years after graduation, Jessica was working for Brandeis University’s study-abroad program; she took up knitting as a way to pass her thirty-minute commute. As Jessica became increasingly proficient, Cassidy noticed her frustration in finding knitting patterns. At the time, there were many popular blogs focussed on knitting—Yarn Harlot, the Knitter’s Review—but finding patterns and information about techniques could take hours of research. Cassidy, a computer programmer, didn’t know how to knit, but she could build an online database. The couple began to talk about what a knitting Web site might look like, and they sent out feelers on Jessica’s blog, frecklegirl: “The idea is to create an encyclopedia of cool patterns (and yarn too??) to mix in blogging and other social aspects. I think it would be nice if knitters had a place where they could share their completed creations, get help for works in progress, and get ideas for future projects.”

One commenter wrote, “You’d better contact a patent attorney ASAP! Seriously.”

The couple made a New Year’s resolution to launch the site, which they tentatively called Entangled, before a knitter friend suggested Ravelry. After the beta testers, who were sworn to secrecy, contributed various ideas for improvement, Jessica went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, one of the country’s largest events for yarn lovers, and began spreading the word.

When she got back to her hotel that night, Jessica said, she opened her computer to find “thousands of people on the waiting list to get in.” She called Cassidy. “What should we do?” she asked. “Should we take the waiting list down?” It was, as Jessica said, “an innocent time” in the social Internet—Twitter was barely a year old—but she was already getting a taste of how easily users could be ruffled. Some people on the waiting list accused the site of being “just a popularity contest. You have to know somebody to get in.”

Cassidy soon quit her day job. With no funding and no experience in business, she and Jessica began selling T-shirts featuring yarn jokes like “Where my stitches at?” or “I swatched,” a reference to the small pieces of fabric that more fastidious knitters create before starting a project. They turned their small apartment into a fulfillment center and sold about thirty-two hundred shirts. “Instead of getting money from outside investors, we were really started by the community itself,” Jessica said. By the end of the year, Ravelry had fifty-seven thousand users.

Ravelry became the largest crochet- and knitting-pattern database in the world, and it enabled designers to sell their patterns without going through an established publication. The site currently lists more than a million patterns, for traditional hats, sweaters, scarves, cowls, and mittens, and for objects that would be hard to find in a store or a knitting magazine: Sasquatch-mask balaclavas, garter belts for Barbies, dog sweaters adapted from runway looks, ChapStick holders in the shape of a penis. (Cassidy has never knit or crocheted seriously. She once made an octopus but never finished the eighth leg, and the object is referred to in the Forbes home as “the septopus.”) Users can also meticulously log their projects, from pattern to yards of yarn required and tiny modifications added to a pattern, photographing each step of the process. Upon completing a project, a user gives the work Ravelry’s most satisfying designation, an “FO,” or Finished Object.

One of my favorite patterns is for a sweater with an ambitiously detailed map of the globe, knit using a technique called intarsia. The sweater appeared in a special collector’s edition of Vogue Knitting in 1991. One Ravelry user noted that it took her twenty-five years to finish the garment. “I was very glad that the Eastern Bloc countries hadn’t yet separated when this pattern was created,” a Raveler wrote in her log, because it would have been so time-consuming.

“Finding people you had things in common with online was still a new thing,” Jessica said. On the site’s lively message boards, groups include Fountain Pen Lovers, Christians with Depression, Modest Girls-9-18, and the Completely Pointless and Arbitrary Group. During the 2008 election, social activity on the forums intensified. Ravelry had just one full-time employee in addition to Cassidy and Jessica, and they continued to address members’ concerns individually, giving users the sense that Ravelry was a community of acquaintances, rather than a rapidly growing social-media network and commercial platform. “We were kind of innocent and naïve, thinking that people will behave well, but this is not the case, even on a Web site about yarn,” Jessica told me.

A hard-right group called McCain Ravelry was formed by estranged users of a more center-right group called Conservative Knitters. After John McCain lost his Presidential bid to Barack Obama, the group’s name was changed to the Bunker—which was meant to signify a place of safety, although some interpreted it as a reference to Nazi bunkers. In early 2009, after a series of inappropriate comments were posted, the Bunker was shut down. One member likened the burgundy scarf worn by Obama at his Inauguration to a noose. Later that year, one of the group’s users wrote a five-thousand-word account of the saga on her blog, Teapot Tantrums, which was titled “Badge of Honor—Too Conservative for Ravelry?” In the post, she invited the offending Bunkermate to clarify the scarf-as-noose comment: “The reference, which was obviously lost on some people, was that WE were sick enough over his election to hang ourselves.” At the bottom of the post, the woman behind Teapot Tantrums linked to eleven other blogs, where aggrieved knitters complained about censorship and lamented the “inappropriate” patterns published on Ravelry, adding, “Parents, take heed and protect your underage fiber enthusiasts from what they will see on this site.”

Some anti-Ravelry posts written on other blogs began to challenge the real Ravelry in Google-search results. “It was bad,” Cassidy told me. “I remember crying in bed at night and being, like, ‘What have we done? We’ve created a monster, and we can’t get out of it.’ ”

“It is surprisingly difficult to say what knitting is,” Richard Rutt writes, in “A History of Hand Knitting,” from 1987. The craft, with its simplicity, feels ancient, but its foundational elements—knit-and-purl stitches, in alternating patterns, which make for a smoother garment and provide a palette for decorative stitching—are relatively modern. The earliest known garment to feature purl stitches is a pair of crimson silk stockings owned by Eleanor of Toledo, a Spanish noblewoman, in 1562.

Even in its earliest periods, hand knitting had a sociopolitical bent, as the proletariat toiled to make luxury garments for European royalty. In a clever reversal, Madame Defarge, the villainous tricoteuse of “A Tale of Two Cities,” encodes her stitches with the names of aristocrats who were next to be guillotined during the French Revolution. Although Defarge may be fictional, knitting was a way for Frenchwomen to harness social and economic power during the Revolution, most often by making “bonnets de la Liberté”—Liberty caps—which were worn by nearly everyone in Paris.

Across the Atlantic, knitting was already part of the formative nation: in 1664, Massachusetts had passed a law requiring all children to learn to spin and weave. At knitting bees, women stitched stockings and other garments, sometimes turning the events into frenzied competitions. During the American Revolution, knitting came to represent a form of resistance to Britain, which manufactured a majority of the American colonies’ knitted goods. In the early days of his Presidency, George Washington was so distressed that his slaves might not be knitting to their full potential at Mount Vernon—where his wife had her own personal knitter, a physically handicapped enslaved man named Peter—that he wrote in panic to his estate manager: “Doll at the Ferry must be taught to Knit, and MADE to do a sufficient day’s work of it, otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps. Lame Peter, if nobody else will, must teach her, and she must be brought to the house for that purpose.”

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