I love knitting. There I’ve said it. I don’t care if it’s cool or not. I love wool (and fabric, and embroidery thread), I love creating something lovely/useful/individual out of a not-very-exciting-looking pile of wool. If that creation can be specifically for someone else, then I’m happy. My gran taught me to knit on yellow plastic needles when I was six years old and I’ve knitted for most of my life. I wish she had taught me to crochet though as I just can’t get interested now. I’ve made countless cardis and baby clothes, several Shetland shawls, lots of Arans, one Gansey (which was nearly too much even for my patience). It’s a slow, painstaking procedure that is immensely satisfying. It allows space to think, or to switch off from thinking, to be creative, to play with colour and texture. And you get something warm to wear at the end.
Why all this gushing about wool? Well it’s a movie connection: last week the community cinema I help organise showed Les Diaboliques (1955, directed by Henri-Georges Couzet) and not far into the film, there was the supercool Simone Signoret knitting! Oh yes she was, with her wool tucked under her arm like anyone’s mum might, or sitting curled up in the corner knitting away while she plotted murder, sparks flying off the needles as her fingers sped along the rows. Was it just something for her to do (unlikely – she could smoke with equal style), or does her character Nicole’s knitting represent something more calculated and mysterious?
Was it a deliberate reference to Dickens’ Madame Defarge, whose endless knitting in A Tale Of Two Cities (book and films) seems to control the fate of men. She is one of the great villainesses of Dickens’ world but here she is doing something that’s usually reserved for caring women, those who make warm clothing or covers for their nearest and dearest, or to earn money? Madame’s knitting is an interesting metaphor, pitched between softness and cruelty, playing against our deepest instincts to protect. Is her scheming so wrapped up in her wool that knitting represents something unwholesome, subversive or dangerous?
But hold on a minute, isn’t knitting meant to be for girls? Not murderesses or revolutionaries; what can it mean? Does the act of knitting stand for creating a society or a family, or perhaps preventing those things from unravelling? If knitting is equated with caring, maternal roles, what does a ‘bad’ knitter represent? Might it suggest the subversion of creativity or even the magical craft of turning one thing into something else? What did a woman think about during those long hours crafting a cardigan or a pullover? No one can deny that a knitting needle is probably quite a ‘good’ weapon, especially for film or book purposes; it’s a slender, pointy bit of metal capable of terrible damage in the wrong hands. Wool is tough and strong, yet soft and fluffy; take whatever meaning you like from that! The Fates measured out the life of a man in lengths of yarn – death was merely a snip of the scissors. Then of course there’s Miss Marple, a good woman through and through, knitting for her is maybe more of a meditation as she wages war on crime.
Knitting has been around for centuries; the oldest ‘knitted’ item dates from ancient Egypt. It was more like knotting to begin with, needles and fine stitches came much later. European men and women knitted (probably) equally, although in Renaissance Europe only men could join the craft guilds. Sailors and shepherds knitted during their long watches, while women knitted at home – the materials were affordable and readily available and the end products useful. Knitted clothing featured heavily in several 20th century fashion trends and the ‘make do and mend’ mentality of wartime ensured that knitting remained very popular. I think its fair to say that until recently knitting had become a bit of a laughing stock: in the late 1980s-1990s cheap, fairly stylish, ready-made clothes flooded the market and hand-made became just too …. hand made; the knitted jumper became deeply undesirable, even a joke (Mr Darcy’s Christmas wooly in Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2001 for example). However, now it’s one of THE coolest things to do, even as a rebellion – yarn bombing, or guerrilla knitting, is perhaps the wittiest example of that.
But here is glamour in all its Bette Davis glory in Now Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942): pretty damn cool huh?
Celluloid knitting is everywhere! From Rosemary’s Baby to Mrs Miniver; from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory to Witness. And even some men get involved – Cary Grant learns in the 1943 film Mr Lucky, youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xL_AS0oHzto, Syvester Stallone gives it a go in Demolition Man, making a red jumper for Sandra Bullock (whaaaat??) youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhPn1FstfQI.
So where else can the closet knitter find yarn on screen?
The Women (George Cukor, 1939). The original stitch and bitch Joan Crawford clashes needles with Norma Shearer – there was tension between them on and off set, wound up by Joanie’s endless clicketty clacking knitting projects.
Straight Jacket (William Castle, 1964) in which Joan Crawford’s character had knitted as therapy while she was locked away in an institution: mad woman knits her crimes away? Or does she use her knitting time to plot revenge?
Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992). Tita’s giant knitted shawl represents her never-ending grief.
In Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) knits a big red ‘thing’ as she learns Portuguese – will it turn out to be a ranch house?
Preparez vos Mouchoirs or Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Bertrand Blier, 1978). Knitting is at the heart of this love triangle rom-com as unhappy Solange (Carole Laure) makes jumpers for the various men in her life.
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Laura knits while babysitting to distract herself from the sexual shenanigans of her friends, later those same needles come to be a real pain in the neck for one corpse.
Gone With The Wind (1938). Awaiting the return of their men from a raid the ladies knit for all they’re worth. In silence.
Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave: Gromit knits!
Couldn’t help adding a few extra pics just found: Cary Grant in Mr Lucky, Katherine Hepburn and Ms Munro.