Knitting Out of Line

Soso: We’ll just have to take down the prison administration first, and then we will take over the world.
Poussey: You don’t think that protest is going to work, do you?
Soso: Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?
Poussey: …I know you’re excited to have a project.
Soso: A project? This isn’t…knitting. This is social change and justice. It’s important.

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Orange is the New Black [season 4 episode 12 “The Animals”]

This exchange between two characters–more of a lover’s squabble, isn’t it?–takes a serious bite out of knitting.  I’m interested in how the show pits craft against activism at a point when the two seem more linked than ever.  In addition to prison arts programs (which I’d love to learn more about), craftivists and activist collectives use traditional forms of handicraft and art-making to expose a range of human rights issues, making AIDS quilts, protest signage, zines, etc.  Yarn, in particular, has become the medium of choice for “yarn bombers,” performance artists such as Casey Jenkins, and Afghan War Rug (baluch) weavers.



Casey Jenkins, vaginal knitting, 2013


War Rug








Why do oppressed groups turn to yarn and textile work as a medium for anti-descrimination and anti-violence protest?  I historicize that question in a forthcoming article, but in a more contemporary vein, Beth Ann Pentney celebrates knitting for its unique potential to “attract politically motivated people, including feminists, DIY subcultures, and queer communities.”  In “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?” she argues that,

… contemporary third-wave feminism should be imagined as a practice. By doing so, different cultural practices can be utilized for feminist goals by people who may not readily identify as feminist. The advantage of casting a wider net over what ‘counts’ as feminism is that it recognizes that feminism is part of the contemporary North American social fabric, rather than a necessarily reactive political movement.

Her thesis claims a space for new modes of feminist action while also, in a sense, acknowledging the limits of craft’s activist potential in the political realm.  Expanding on the opening exchange from Orange is the New Black, we might note the show’s ongoing (although not overt) interest in female communication and spaces of feminist collaboration.  These spaces are vexed and fragmented sites of conflict–the prison kitchen, the hair salon, the garden, and the bathrooms.  And yet, we see an increasing desire among the inmates to join forces against injustice, demonstrated by the recent peaceful (well, peaceful on the inmates’ side) cafeteria protest.  How might a craft collective aid in these dialogues, and where has knitting showed up in the past episodes?  I’ll be continuing these thoughts in the coming months and working on what we curious types call “a side project.”