Karie Bookish Dot Net

Researching Knitting & Religion: A Guest Post by Anna Fisk

Note from Karie: I’m currently very busy working on my forthcoming book, so over the next few weeks you will read a series of guest posts on creativity, making and identity penned by some very awesome people. You are in for a real treat as they explore our shared world of making.

We are joined this week by Anna Fisk who is an academic based at the University of Glasgow. I know Anna from my knitting circles and always enjoy talking to her about the intersection of religion and culture. Anna’s craft practice is focused on the world around her and the changing seasons, from her Dear Green Shawl design available at p/hop to the natural dyeing, spinning and felting she blogs about at Knit Wild Studio. I asked Anna if she would write about her work researching knitting and making. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I enjoy my conversations with Anna.

Back when I was working on my PhD thesis in feminist theology and literature, I realised that being a knitter was a much bigger part of my identity than any religious affiliation ever had been. My account of learning to knit was probably the most significant story I told about myself. The therapeutic nature of the process of knitting, and sense of achievement in the end products, enabled me to cope with depression and anxiety more than any ‘spiritual’ practices. It was making things that gave me a sense of meaning, and oriented how I approached the world.

Being part of the knitting community, I knew my experience of craft as transformative and sustaining was far from unusual. So after finishing my doctorate I wanted to engage with research with other people about the significance of knitting in their lives, and see if I was right in my hunch this was related to religion in some way.

This meant thinking about the very definition of ‘religion’. I got interested in contemporary scholarship on ‘lived’ religion, which is about everyday practices, material things, and the stories that give us meaning and help us to cope, rather than a set of beliefs about higher powers or abstract doctrines. I also read up on the secularization debates, which ask whether religion is disappearing altogether or instead morphing into new forms. These range from holistic mind-body-spirit practices to environmental activism; or the civil religion of nationalism, family values, capitalism, and human rights discourse.

I started researching other people’s knitting practice, firstly through participant observation of two knitting groups in Glasgow. I noticed the groups (as well as yarn festivals, Ravelry, podcasts…) worked in a similar way to religious institutions. People who’d just moved to the city would join a knitting group to make friends; attending regularly provided routine and support, and helped people feel less isolated. We knitters also have a shared identity and language (‘stash’, ‘squishing’ yarn, etc.). So the first theme of my research is how knitting as a subculture, providing belonging and identity, can work as an implicit religion.

The second major theme came out more in a focus group session and individual interviews with knitters across central Scotland. These were recorded on my trusty dictaphone, leaving my hands free for knitting while I talked to the participants, who were also knitting.

Through these conversations it became clearer to me that the effects of knitting on wellbeing have parallels with holistic spiritual practices such as yoga or mindfulness meditation. Many of my participants described knitting as ‘therapeutic’ and a way of getting through difficult times and situations. Some had deliberately started knitting because of these benefits.

The theme I’m most interested is what I call sacred connections. As a knitter, I mark really important life events and relationships by knitting them. As do many other knitters, from graduation shawls, booties for grandchildren, to braving that sweater curse for your significant other. This includes the craftivism of yarnbombing and pussy hats; charity knitting after major disasters (when you know that just sending money would probably be more effective, but in knitting penguin sweaters or blankets for the homeless you’re really doing something). This is one aspect of how we use knitting as way of connecting with—ritualising and materialising—the things that are most important (or ‘sacred’) to us.

The other aspect relates to this urge I have, whenever I find something that I love or am fascinated by, to render it in wool, to knit it. I see this throughout our knitting world, including in the work of designers like Karie, whose patterns are inspired by Glasgow tenement tiles and best-loved artists and novelists; who creates whole pattern collections based on her historical specialisms, not just as an intellectual exercise but also about connecting with landscape, heritage, and materiality.

Beyond what this tells us about knitters (who are interesting enough!), I also think it tells us something about the kinds of things that are most important—sacred—for people in the (post)secular, late-modern world: love and family, cultural tradition, political commitments, the natural and built environment, our bodies.

I’m interested in how conversations around knitting—and craft more generally—are part of the cultural trend (beginning with Romanticism) of attempting to reconnect with what we feel we’ve lost in modern life, from a sense of place, to taking it slow, to being truly part of the material world around us. Making things with our own hands, paying attention to the whole process, out of materials we know the provenance of, gives a profound satisfaction and sense of connection that for many of us is indeed sacred.

(I knitted the Biophilia shawl (which is about ‘hypothetically innate human tendency to feel an emotional attachment to the natural world’)
while I was conducting the interviews.)

I have a couple of articles from this research coming out soon, but I want to write a whole book on the topic eventually. So the work is very much ongoing. If you’d like to share your stories with me, I would love to hear from potential participants, particularly on the sacred connections theme. Even if you’d just like to hear more about this research, do please get in touch!

7 Thoughts on “Researching Knitting & Religion: A Guest Post by Anna Fisk

  1. Meredith MC on July 10, 2017 at 4:46 pm said:

    The sense of identity that being a Knitter provides is so important to me. I’m not a part of organized religion. As you write about sacred connections, I certainly feel them when I use inspiration from the natural world in my knitting, whether it’s influencing a design or, more commonly, color choices. I also find that I can knit experiences into a fabric, so that wearing that item later immediately evokes where it was knitted. Once I realized this magic, I started intentionally creating knitting experiences that I would want to relive later. So I knit at the coast to feel that sense of place, and I knit at family gatherings and on vacations with my partner to feel those experiences later. I wonder if that is a common knitting magic that people make use of, or a less common experience. Is this maybe another branch of the prayer shawl idea- that we can knit intentions into a material object? Perhaps that magic can offer another avenue of researching sacred connections in knitting?
    I’m signing up to follow your blog so I can hear more about your work in this area. Thank you for sharing your ideas here.

    • narnie83 on July 11, 2017 at 11:59 am said:

      Thank you so much for this – that’s so interesting, especially the deliberate choice to knit during particular events as a way of preserving them. And I’m fascinated by your use of the word ‘magic’! I’d like to quote this comment (anonymously) in an article I’m writing: please email me at anna.fisk@glasgow.ac.uk to let me know that’s ok with you. Thanks again!

  2. Pat Laing on July 10, 2017 at 6:32 pm said:

    There is certainly a connection to things that have been made under certain circumstances. I crocheted a shawl (in two ply wool with the old shale pattern on the edge as we come from Shetland) for my mother to wear in bed as she got cold at night. She loved it and wore it every night. When she died in May this year I took back the shawl and have it as a connection between me and my mother. It is now a much treasured possession.

    • narnie83 on July 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm said:

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing this about your mother and the shawl you made her. I love that there’s also the connection to where you come from. With your permission, I would like to include this story in an article I’m writing. It would be anonymous. If that’s ok with you, please email anna.fisk@glasgow.ac.uk to confirm – but of course it’s completely up to you! Thank you.

  3. Nicola Bartholomew on July 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm said:

    A thought provoking article. Teaching me to knit was the greatest gift my nan gave me. The time I spent next to her on the sofa as she patiently picked up my dropped stitches and magically made my knitting ‘all better’are still priceless. I do not believe that there is life after death in the biblical sense, sadly I will not see my nan again in the ‘afterlife’. My sacred connection to my nan happens every time I pick up my needles to knit and – I treasure those moments, because through those moments my nan is immortal.

    I too am interested in what religion was, is and what it will become as part of my own art practice and look forward to reading your future research and thoughts.

    • narnie83 on July 11, 2017 at 12:07 pm said:

      Thank you Nicola – this is really beautiful as well as helpful for my research. I would love to quote it (anonymously) in an article I’m writing – if this is ok with you please email anna.fisk@glasgow.ac.uk to confirm your consent. But no problem if not! Thanks again.

  4. Toffeeapple on July 21, 2017 at 9:17 pm said:

    What an interesting post, it has given me pause for thought, to think about things that I have knitted over the last 65 years. I learned to knit when I was five years old and as for making something that resounds in my life I suspect that it will be the place where I bought the yarn that would have more significance. For example, I bought some wool from a shop in Monte Estoril in Portugal which still survives though it has yet to be transformed. Others bought from Sweden and Finland; France and Malta have been knitted and some still exist. I have a mitten from a pair made with wool from my native Wales, possibly fifty years old. Wool is amazing.

    I saw your shawl picture from a distance, initially, and I thought it was a person standing at the edge of the sea. I enjoyed that image for a while.

    I shall read some of your blog, tomorrow.

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