A bit of a yarn: knitting for the cinephile

Knitting_Perfection

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?

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Nicole Horner, played by Simone Signoret, plotting away, but I couldn’t find a press pic of her knitting in Les Diaboliques.

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?

Madame Defarge’s knitting looking so innocent sitting there on the table….

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.

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Creative crime solving! Miss Marple gets busy.

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.

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The results of a mysterious guerrilla knitting attack on Saltburn in 2012.

But here is glamour in all its Bette Davis glory in Now Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942): pretty damn cool huh?

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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!

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And finally….

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Mostly inherited from my granny, this little stack of needles has seen me through a long knitting history.

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Couldn’t help adding a few extra pics just found: Cary Grant in Mr Lucky, Katherine Hepburn and Ms Munro.

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9 thoughts on “A bit of a yarn: knitting for the cinephile

  1. What a truly excellent post Amanda. I definitely keep a beady eye out for knitting in film – vexing my family while we freeze-frame DVDs for me to examine the pattern more closely – but you’ve certainly made my knitting viewing wish list longer!

  2. Brilliant! (I still have the beautiful baby things you knitted .. well, you know how long ago!) – I am sure I will never overlook a cineknitter again!

  3. I love this! You’ve done a charming job of showing how knitting weaves (no pun intended) through some of my favorite films. I particularly appreciate how you explore the good girl-bad girl side of knitting. This insight made me realized how Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY emphasizes her vulnerability by discussing how she just sits around and knits while her husband ignores her. A delightful post.

    Plus, I just have to ask—have you seen Buster Keaton knitting in THE RAILRODDER?

    • Thank you so much Diva! BK’s knitting is one of my favourite movie scenes, well BK does it every time anyway, wool or not. Keep up the knitting refs and pix please!!

  4. Thank you so much for this! To my shame I had missed so many of the flms/knitters cited here – what a perfect reason to revisit them all! My paticular favourite in your picture list just has to be Gromit – I wonder if I can lure Emmy to do likewise, rather than sabotage my balls of wool!

  5. I saw an article about Call the Midwife. Have you seen the episode when Chummy goes into labour? To make it look real on camera the girls had been learning to knit and practicing off camera, apparently between shots they could be found in a “holy huddle” knitting their fingers off. There’s knitting in literature as well (not just the classics mentioned above). One of my favourites is The Friday Night Knitting Club. It’s one of those books that Kleenex are needed for.

    Knitting isn’t just for girls in the history of knitting there is the idea that a form of knitting was used to make and fix fishing nets. It’s not necessarily something wearable but it’s still practical lol. I read an article yesterday about a guy in the US who nearly got arrested for knitting in his local Starbucks as the cops thought he was actually up to no good.

    Knitting takes a sort of control, a concentration – okay if you’re like my mum you get going on a row and then chat away or watch the TV before turning the project round and heading back the other way. Knitting takes me a bit more concentration but I love crocheting – I often carry it in my hand bag as I can just pull it out and start where I finished.

    Talking about knitting needles being a weapon, I get ID’d in one of the local shops because children’s plastic knitting needles are considered a dangerous weapon according to their store.

    • Thanks for your comment Hannah, much appreciated. I’ve heard those little plastic needles are deadly…. Sadly I struggle with crochet, I just can’t get it. I blame my nan for not teaching me both skills at the same time!

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