- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (April 7, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780345362537
- ISBN-13: 978-0345362537
- ASIN: 0345362535
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 31 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #251,844 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting Paperback – April 7, 1990
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About the Author
Anne L. Macdonald was for fifteen years chairperson of the history department of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. She was the author of No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting and Feminine Ingenuity: Women and Invention in America. She died in 2016.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A social history like this was considered beyond the pale of “real” history when I was growing up, and I well remember my father’s indignation when his only son, a Yale history major, enrolled in a distinguished professor’s course in American social history that was irreverently nicknamed “Pots and Pans” by the prankish students. In those Depression days, my father equated expenditure on such “twaddle” with money down the drain, and the message was not lost on his youngest. When I hit the college big time a few years later, I prudently matriculated in political science and history, and consorted with kings, presidents, prime ministers and emperors, with a dash of wars and treaties on the side. The virtual dearth of women’s affairs in historical texts struck me as deplorable, but in the thirties and forties I was not spurred to demand exhumation of “Herstory.” Nor could I have conceived that one day I would write primarily on women, especially about their knitting!
This book grew, not from a decision to “write women into history,” for knitting is certainly not the vehicle for elevation of their status, but from curiosity piqued by my own history of unflagging knitting. With no genetic endowment from a nonknitting mother (an architectural engineer/homemaker), an indifferent-knitter maternal grandmother (a proud college graduate whose unsolicited, pro-New Deal political comments kept the pot boiling in our Republican household) and a tatting but unapproachable paternal grandmother, my two sisters and I, impelled by some ancient urge, “took up the needle” and blossomed into dedicated sewers and knitters. To my knowledge, our brother (the aforementioned pots-and-pans fellow metamorphosed into bank president, horseman and knowledgeable collector of antiques) lifted a needle neither in anger nor in delight but luckily married a gifted and delightful stitcher.
Of my many questions about knitting, I kept returning to “Why don’t men knit?” I had heard that some men knit, but despite maintaining a vigil like an ornithologist scouting a rare species, I never actually spotted one until I had just begun this book—plain as day, right there on the subway! The preppily clad Capitol Hill staffer opened his cordovan briefcase, extracted a magnificent blue sweater on round needles and clicked away. From my briefcase, I plucked an article freshly duplicated at the Library of Congress, caught his attention and held up the headline: KNITTING IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH. Bursting with laughter, he held it aloft for craning passengers, and everyone exchanged knitting stories for four stops, parting as old friends at the transfer point—an auspicious beginning.
My research has since validated my previous observations that in America, where knitting has been assigned to woman’s domain, adult knitting males are stared at, fussed over, almost petted as daring, even darling, adventurers or avoided for being too “feminine.” In a current attempt to obliterate the latter stereotype and to cultivate increasingly unisex markets, knitting publications such as Knitters, which devoted eight pages to “Men Who Knit” in its Spring 1987 issue, hope to stiffen the resolve of potential knitting-men who aspire to knit without risking their macho image. Snickerers have always been among us. Even the Greek philosopher Lucretius, who credited men with weaving the first cloth (“[F]or the male sex in general far excels the other [women] in skill and is much more ingenious”), conceded that when “rugged countrymen” upbraided clothmakers for such domestic tasks, the clothiers capitulated and were “glad to give it over into the hands of the women.” After the Industrial Revolution, when European textile mills attracted both male and female workers, the exclusively male knitting guilds declined, and hand knitting endured as essentially a female household occupation, a tradition exported to America. Though it is generally accepted that knitting is not gender specific, with one sex no more qualified to perform it than the other, an 1888 American needlework writer traced sex differentiation to competition in the Garden of Eden: “Whether he was slower in the work, or made a bad job of it, we are not told; but for some reason he dropped out, and woman is now the admitted queen of needle-work.” Many “queens,” secure on their domestic thrones, jealously guarded the gates to their needlework sanctuary. One knitting manual editor wrote haughtily, “While it is true that there are men, notably in England, who knit, it is really a woman’s job.” I thought I’d better look into that!
To broaden and contemporize my research in American knitting, I interviewed dozens of knitting friends and knitters at knitting workshops, conventions and seminars, inserted author’s queries in knitting publications and asked for help from Pat Trexler, who generously published my questionnaire in “Pat’s Pointers,” her weekly column begun in the mid-sixties and nationally syndicated in over eighty newspapers. The response, particularly from Pat’s devoted followers, was so monumental that our mailman, exhausted from shoveling fat batches through the slot, rapped on the door and inquired, “Okay, I give up. What are you doing?” What I was doing was not very scientific. I was not quantifying responses by entering data in columns and categorizing replies to each question. Into what column would you put instructions for “Granny’s bedspread,” a “Cape Cod coverlet,” a “potato scubber” knit from nylon netting (it really does the job on Idahos!), a scrapbook of forty years of knitting projects, family photographs, a pair of comfy bedroom slippers, several pairs of hardy mittens, an audio tape beginning “Hello there, Anne, let me introduce myself. Of course, you know I knit!”—all contributed by caring knitters to someone they’d never met?
I have a computer, but I don’t know how to compute “I spent a total of eighty hours on that rat’s sweater, and then he left me for a younger woman!” Nor can I enter on a diskette the interest and consideration that prompts writers to send Christmas and Easter cards, to telephone encouragement in my research (“You are really doing something worthwhile for the knitters; I’m so sick and tired of hearing about quilters!”), to dispatch flowers after hearing that my late acknowledgment of a letter was due not to sloth but to a fall on a spiral staircase at the Library of Congress (a good address for a fall—more impressive than the basement stairs), or to determine my favorite colors (to enable a writer to graph her “family” pattern in “my” colors). Knitters’ affinity for each other defies description; only their own gestures and words convey that special relationship.
When these hundreds of knitters attacked the “Why do you think more women than men knit?” question, most responded in this vein:
Girls are less fidgety, sit quietly longer and perform small motor tasks like knitting earlier than boys whose inner energy drives them to gross motor skill activity [from an elementary school teacher].
Maybe we women knit more because we’re involved in more intimate social interacting—and the tradition of keeping hands busy while talking stuck with us.
Men are too restless to sit still.
They’re afraid of being called sissies.
In this part of the country [Wheeling, West Virginia] boys play football; they do not knit.
They can’t tell their right hands from their left unless they are holding a screwdriver.
In agricultural societies men did the field work and were busy with animals and couldn’t take knitting along because it would get dirty while women did housework and had access to running water during free moments between cooking and farm chores.
Women can knit while they nurse their babies—I did it all the time.
Men are more comfortable in their workshops.
They don’t really think much about clothes.
We women are more open with our knowledge and share our pleasures more.
I don’t know why they don’t, but I like it that way; my husband would drive me nutty asking me questions all the time.
The only knitting man I ever knew is my thirty-four-year-old son who has knitted ties and a sweater, but he is in the Navy so doesn’t brag about it.
Octogenarian Nellie Dice, of Denver, Indiana, summed it up: “I think men do not generally knit because traditionally it is still as much ‘women’s work’ as it was in my grandmother’s day.”
Others, however, sensed change:
Perhaps more younger men are knitting. They aren’t so hung up on sexist roles as in my generation [from a writer in her eighties].
In these changing times all kinds of men are caring for children, doing laundry and housework and are more interested in creative crafts. I believe that with the cost of hand-made sweaters and the change in men’s attitudes toward who does what there will soon be an increase in interest in learning to knit.
I’m not so sure that it’s fear of being called “sissy” that bothers them but, like my husband, fear that their wives would load them with knitting projects. My husband is sharp enough to realize that it would be curtains for him if he learned how to knit, especially since I work in a yarn shop.
The “sex angle” was only one aspect of my inquiry, and while I didn’t specifically ask “Why do you knit?” they told me anyhow, most frequently citing their desire to keep a pleasant companion always at hand (“My knitting bag is my traveling companion and acts as my purse too. I’d be lost without it”). The symbiotic relationship between knitter and knitting is so powerful (“I found that knitting was one activity I couldn’t do without—and one worry throughout my childhood was that I’d either go blind or lose my fingers, depriving me of my much loved knitting”) that some wags have suggested that knitters, like ancient pharaohs, convey their worldly knitting goods to the great beyond: “My hairdresser says when I go, they should bury me with a bag of yarn and some needles”; “At a family gathering, when we were discussing wills and other legal matters, my daughter asked if I wanted my yarn and needles buried with me!”; “If there is no needlework in Heaven, I may not want to go.” A heartfelt summation came from Mary Julius, of Lanham, Maryland: “I knit mainly for the satisfaction of accomplishment. Since, in my thirty-odd years as a full-time homemaker, I expended such an enormous amount of energy merely to maintain the status quo with the same work still there to be done again the next day that it was so satisfactory to spend even a few minutes doing something that didn’t need to be done again! I like knitting because it can be enjoyed by myself or in amiability with friends.” Nora Lee of New York tallies her completed knitting projects with the satisfaction of “never wasting a minute while doing something useful for those I care about.” Alta Shively, of Plymouth, Indiana, reasoned: “My friends call me a Knit Nut. I find it a real pleasant time consumer. When I got married my husband was a farmer, coon hunter and trapper. He got up at 4 A.M., did chores, ran his trap line, worked all day, and went coon hunting every night that was fit and lots when it wasn’t. I told him if he’d keep me in yarn I wouldn’t complain. Somehow, we did manage a family, two boys and a girl!”
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"To obviate idleness, the unforgivable sin, and to assure the young lookouts performed constructively while keeping their eyes peeled for errant sheep,the Township of Andover, Massachusetts, adjudged knitting a productive substitute for 'larking about' " and so decreed in 1642. Knitting was part of the three Rs, so if you could read you could knit! Knitting also took place on sailing ships!
There are many Illustrations and sources and thus knitting from any period may be attempted.
A perfect gift for the knitter of your life!!