TEXTS KNITTERS MADE AUDIBLE
INGRID BIRCE MÜFTÜOGLU
Knitting has been called the friend of the blind, and is certainly the friend of the aged, as it affords the most easy and graceful employment in which they can be engaged. (...) What beautiful purses, bags and bedwork will knitting produce! We are sure of the thanks of all ladies, young as well as old, for calling their attention to this useful and elegant branch of female art,
It sounded a bit like a congregation neatly eating their dinner; soft encounters between tongues, lips and teeth: sounds of wonder; like languages being born. The sound was introvert. It made me think of poor attempts at pronouncing words. It made me think of words imploded in the middle, distorted and sent back to the subject like phonetic percussions. The sounds were sad but no melancholic, like raindrops on your window on a dark autumn morning. This is how they sounded, 40 women sitting knitting.
These clicking sounds, which neither will nor can string together into meaningful words, makes a refined counterpoint to the idea of knitting as a female handicraft. During the struggle for women’s liberation in the 1970s, knitting and other traditional female activities were harnessed to shape the contents of a new women’s culture. This was the decade when the concept of politics was widened. People were looking for new ways to create political agendas. Breaking with conventions was considered important in order to politicize everyday life. New ways of living were discovered, as well as new work-related interests. Art, music, film, theatre and literature were politicized, giving voices to the newborn enthusiasm of the social movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
The craft of knitting was turned into an expression of female values and courses of action suppressed throughout history and made invisible by the established patriarchal culture. Knitting was redefined: this symbol of passive female work was transformed into a political symbol of female otherness, strength and creativity. The politicization of this particular handcraft meant that the person knitting considered the process a liberating activity. This consciousness-raising demanded that the cultural expressions of traditional women's work were redefined totally. In two areas in particular, knitting tools and the craft of knitting was emphasized: in the campaigns for self-chosen abortion in Norway and the Festival for Women's Culture in Oslo in 1979.
In 1978 a united women's movement won the fight for self-chosen abortion. This was a milestone in Norwegian politics. Things previously considered as women's problems, hence irrelevant in the public sphere were now turned into important issues. The battle for self-determination transformed female experiences into an important topois in both political debates and public life. During their abortion campaigns, women's organizations used knitting needles as a powerful symbol of women's sufferings; the needles had throughout history been an alternative, illegal and dangerous abortion tool. The knitting needle alluded to the whole history of unspoken female pain and invisible experience. Knitting needles originally belonged to the strictly personal sphere and were therefore considered private. Experiences linked to women's abdomens, pregnancy and sexuality were in opposition to matters considered as important politically. The right to self-chosen abortion, turned women's corporeal experiences into a political issue. Female lives and dreams became relevant parameters for society and its political processes. Knitting needles made visible the creativity inherent in traditional female handicrafts. The needles managed to articulate a previously silent female experience. The orchestra of knitters might allude to an emotion located in the grey area between lived female lives and the struggle of making these lives visible; a struggle begun in the 1970s. The sound of a language full of phonetics but lacking syntax. An introspective, almost inaudible story infused with meaning by the female knitters.
The Festival for Women’s culture in Oslo, June 1979, was a celebration of women where the act of knitting was on display as a female cultural expression. The week-long festival was inaugurated with a parade on June 4th 1979; women in colourful dresses sang and danced through downtown Oslo. Activists and creative artists from the entire Norwegian women's movement united to create this event, from the opening parade to the closing concert at the island of Kalvøya in the Oslo Fjord. The festival wasn’t organized with a view to any particular political cause, its main purpose was to present a diversity of cultural expressions. The festival poster is a good example, designed by the feminist artistic workshop Sfinxa. This specific group was established by members of the Lesbian movement, who had taken the initiative to establish a forum for creative and artistic women who wanted to make art without being suppressed by the patriarchy of the arts movement in general. Several of the Sphinxa members had given up their art studies due to the limits imposed on artistic creativity by the patriarchal framework. "We wanted to continue producing pictures, draw, paint, sing and make theatre. We wanted to make use of each other's knowledge. Learn from each other. We wanted to create a women’s culture. Create our own reality. Display our dreams, our minds, our everyday world, our strength to each other." Sfinxa considered themselves an alternative to the established culture.
The festival poster shows a naked, short-haired, dragon-like woman knitting. Her head is thrown back. Flames are spewing from her mouth. Her breasts are bare. The woman is gorgeous, slim and drawn with a flattering profile. The flames rising from her mouth reach elegantly toward the poster text. Her nudity might allude to sexual liberation. The combination of dragon and beautiful woman may be seen as an ironic reference to men's idea of the ideal woman. You are either beautiful and cooperative, or you are unbearably uncontrollable. The poster fuses these stereotypes of womanhood into one, possibly suggesting that men can no longer define and dictate women's looks, behaviour and way of life.
The poster's leitmotif – knitting – symbolizes the attention given to traditional female occupation, life and work of women in the 70s. At the festival in 1979, one were to be given the opportunity to be creative. Specific activities were designed to draw attention to women's everyday experiences. Lessons in weaving, as well as seminars on women's history, were held. Knitting was considered revolutionary. As a knitting female activist one could first knit the protest and then wear it. Political ambitions were combined with something very conventional and feminine. "Women have been scared away from their knitting through the presentation of women as being less than pretty when they knit. Is it a prettier sight when women's hands are restless, unemployed or clinging to a cigarette? The ideals we construct are sometimes very empty and soulless." 
The idea of extending and drawing attention to female traditions and experiences was a contrast to the desire to present women's culture as something new, as an expression of modern, liberated women, liberated from repressive historical views of women. Turning to the poster's motif, we notice how the historical suppression of women is being used actively, to shape something new. The dragon and her knitting symbolize how women can engage in something that is conventionally feminine, without having to be subservient. Knitting was most of all an external agitation, a tool for establishing a women's culture within a male-dominated culture. But the knitter as a revolutionary also broke with internal rules of knitting. This could only be realized through breaking the strings of tradition, the rules and demands introduced in craft lessons at school and through the reading of ladies' magazines. Knitting according to one's own ideas, liberated from fashionable patterns, was considered a revolt against the powers that be, the consumer society and the capitalist system. Knitting seen as an exercise in consciousness could make women independent of the patriarchal forces in society.
To a large extent, the women's movement made use of traditional crafts in order to express something unspoken, something women's hands had busied themselves with for centuries. During the 1970s, the revitalization of female traditions focussed on linking stories and actions. A number of books were published during the 70s, presenting an alternative knitting culture. The book Hønsestrik (1973) introduced new patterns and knitting models, the symbols of feminism knitted on sweaters, vests and baby clothes. The opening chapter introduces memorials of knitting:
This story is taken from Yasar Kemal's Turkish novel
"They Burn the Thistles":
Izar and Hatche knitted stockings from morning till late at night,
till they were almost blind with fatigue.
Their stockings were famous in town.
People said, "The stockings are knitted by the girl
who killed her fiancé and the woman
whose son was murdered."
The saddest of patterns were knitted into these stockings.
Hatche and Iraz did not copy familiar patterns,
they invented their own, and the colours were as bitter as their hearts.
The townspeople had never seen such unusual and beautiful stockings.
Such is Yasar Kemal's description of two woman prisoners, and the way they gave vent to their bitterness and fright through patterns and colours.
Elsewhere the author says,
"Those who can speak, won't easily die of sorrow"
– and isn't speaking and knitting just the same –
a kind of self-expression?
Victoria Brännström's knitting concert sings about all of this. The sounds filling the Grieg Hall that Saturday morning made me realize how knitters could orchestrate a whispering song about sadness, a sadness of vision and beauty.