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Word from the Chair: Change the world by – knitting –

On Monday 20 March the Times reported that a Russian spy had been unmasked in Greece.* This story was not very unusual in itself, as it fit into a larger pattern of Russian spies having their cover blown since the start of the war in Ukraine. The story was notable, however, for its specifics. The cover of this particular agent was a knitting shop in Athens.

The shop owner had bought a Greek identity in 2018, and from the shop had started her spying operations on Greece, a NATO state. At the same time, she had been very active on social media sharing knitting tips and patterns. 

Knitting is a beneficial activity for relaxation. It can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and the risk of dementia. Moreover, it produces, potentially, nice handicrafts which can give you contentment and even pride. I come from a family of knitters. My grandmother was able to knit with five needles, necessary to make socks, and at the same time watch TV. I wish I had paid better attention to how she did this. Since the pandemic, knitting has become very much an activity embraced by all genders and all ages. **

Knitting also has revolutionary potential; at the time of the French Revolution, the ‘tricoteuses’, the women knitters, were at the forefront of the revolution. On 5 October 1789 the working class women of Paris had made their way to Versailles to protest against rising food prices. Sufficiently intimidated by these women, King Louis XVI gave in to their demands. The women received praise for their daring act, which reinforced their reputation as fearless and politically influential. As part of their contributions to the revolution they adopted a prominent place with their knitting in front of the guillotines, where the hated aristocrats met their bloody fate. The tricoteuses were immortalized in literature among others in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge has a particularly blood-thirsty reputation and in Emma Orczy’s novel The Scarlet Pimpernel.

During the First World War, knitting became a source of national resistance. With the troops bogged down in water-logged trenches, knitting socks became a deed of nationalism. In the summer of 1917, the American Red Cross called on all Americans to help fight the war by knitting. A three-day knitting bee was held in New York’s Central Park to produce warm garments. Children and elderly men and women knitted for their lives and produced over 200 pairs of socks.  

Hiding behind her knitting, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin, mother of six children and committed political activist, wielded her influence inconspicuously. She knitted throughout the Second World War in the ‘Knit for Defense’ campaign. Even at the United Nations, where she was instrumental in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she was often seen with her knitting.

More recently, Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk group used colorful knitted balaclavas in their performances to protest against the treatment of women and the Russian president. During the Women’s March in January 2017, after the accession of Donald Trump to the presidency, women donned hand-crafted pink ‘pussyhats’ with trademark cat ears, turning Trump’s disparaging remark about women into a source of pride.

As scholars of International Affairs, we are good at crafting things with your brains, which we need to be counterbalance from time to time by creating something with your hands. Moreover, some pushback is needed against the dominance of technology and screens, and some critical reflection on the prevalence of consumer culture is welcome. Therefore, let’s knit: yarn bomb, reclaim and personalize public space by leaving colorful traces all the way to International Yarnbombing Day, which will be celebrated on 11 June. I leave you with a pattern for which no needles are necessary: Happy knitting!


* https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russian-spys-knitting-shop-cover-story-unravels-in-greece-h7c8b2zlf
** https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/apr/10/it-was-seen-as-an-elderly-white-lady-thing-to-do-meet-the-new-generation-of-male-knitters

A crochet pattern without the need for needles:

There is also a ChatGPT generated crochet pattern:

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