Monday, 1 September 2008


Knitting, as we know, has become "cooler" over the last few years (five maybe? more?) and inevitably popular culture has caught on, to a degree. I thought it was about time I commented on a couple of manifestations of this and how I feel they represent my chosen hobby/lifestyle, and, of course, just plain whether or not I enjoyed them.  This will be long, I'm afraid, with no pretty sock pictures.

Books first. There are, as far as I'm aware, two fairly well-known novels with knitting as a central theme: The Friday Night Knitting Club and Divas Don't Knit. I must admit upfront that I am prejudiced against chick-lit, and I perceive both of those as being firmly within that genre. Aside from preferring a fairly serious read to fluff, I find the whole concept of gender-specific literature just unbelievably patronising. A good book should not need to pander to trite assumptions of what a "chick", presumably short for a "young, strong-minded female" should read - and god forbid she should be strong-minded enough not to obsess about shoes and men... But that's a whole post full of rant for another day. I really did try to set that aside and take the novels for what they were, so let's get down to business.

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

Shall I be frank from the start? I hated this book. There, I said it. Hated it. This did actually make for quite a compulsive read, in a "how bad can this get" way, and yes, every time, it managed to get worse, culminating in one of the most dreadful "plot" twists in modern writing. But, oh, it's faults are not limited to that. For a full run-down, I turn to a rather vitriolic e-mail I send to Gail and Ting at the time, with a blow-by-blow account of exactly why I hated this book. Those of sensitive dispositions, or anyone who enjoyed the damn thing, may wish to look away now.

My first objection: has the author ever picked up a pair of knitting needles? Perhaps, and perhaps I do her a great disservice, but I really don't think she has. To me it comes across as that she may have once set foot in a yarn store for research purposes, she may even have interviewed a knitter, she's probably nicked some vaguely philosophical concepts about it from somewhere, but no more than that. I get no particular sense of reality from the knitting. All that has essentially been established about knitting, per her universe, is:
  • Knitters occasionally knit together, but mainly want to eat cake instead. Whilst this may in fact be true, for me, there is some desire to actually do some knitting too.
  • All knitters, without exception, loathe purling with a passion normally reserved only for the Nazis, and would do anything to avoid it.
  • Cashmere is somewhat desirable in an undefined way.
  • Knitting needles come in several materials, namely bamboo or rosewood (this is why I think she might have spoken to a knitter once) but also in types known as "round" or "bendy", by which I can only assume she means circs rather than the ones I've heard of made of a slightly flexible plastic compound, to be easier on the hands if you have arthritis or RSI.
  • A knitter who is capable of making a jumper would choose to jack all that in and only ever do garter stitch squares, and that knitter would then jack the whole lot in to study for law school.
  • Knitters knit jumpers, cardigans and scarves, with no desire to knit or mention socks or lace. Whereas these things seem to be the twin obsessions of the real on-line knitting community.
  • A jumper is a suitable KAL project for beginners and experts alike, and no-one complains or has trouble at all, they just get on with it industriously, because knitting makes you calm and serene.
  • None of them use the internet because knitting absolutely is the only thing they do.
  • All knitters are taught by their grandmas at a formative age and never stop in between.
  • We would never buy more yarn than we needed for that specific project. Ha!
Secondly, it seems to be possible to design and knit a full length dress in tiny gauge from scratch in about a week, then redo it because your client wants a different colour, all whilst running the LYS and being a single parent. Oh yeah, and whilst she also does her own accounts. Every night. I can comprehend, given my own background, that a knitter can also do accounts, but if I were running a business even I wouldn't bloody well do my double entry bookkeeping, in pencil, in a ledger for god's sake, nightly, it would seem not even with the benefit of a calculator. I was dying for the scene where she does her own state and federal, personal and corporate tax returns, in her own blood, on time, without having to queue at the IRS at midnight to hand them in before the deadline, and without crying or eating her own head. Sadly that scene was missing from my copy.

Thirdly, the Julia Roberts thing. For those who haven't read the book (and I'm probably not selling it to you), Ms Roberts is mentioned several times - once when a superfan/stalker randomly turns up at the shop shrieking incoherently, and I think (my memory is fading) again when the starlet herself comes in. But would a cameo by her Julia-ness be enough for the inevitable movie tie-in? Of course not! So our heroine is described in a manner which seems eerily reminiscent of... guess who? So of course JR is playing her in the forthcoming film. I know JR is a "famous knitter", but really, couldn't they have been a bit more subtle? Clearly not. Given the presence of Julia Roberts in a film usually guarantees that I'll hate it, I won't be going along to the premiere or anything.

Fourthly, I hated all the characters, even more than I hated the plot, such as it or they were. Everyone's breeding, or hopelessly romantic (ie empty without a man), or slightly kooky, and all ever so slightly religious - they all go off to consult god at one point. Ick. And it's just one "issue" after another, ending with the big one, although I wasn't exactly sad when our heroine (spoiler!) carked it. Good bloody riddance although it did give the child even more of an opportunity to be precocious and nauseating. The dialogue was bad beyond description, so I won't even try.

And who has knit night on a Friday?  Don't you have anything better to do for the weekend?

I know it's a piece of popular fiction and not specifically a book for knitters, and probably if any of us were to write this book, it would be incomprehensible to one not "of the fold", but still... It is entirely the view of a non-knitter of what they presume us to be doing. And that's fine, but I am disturbed that the author of a novel about knitting would not have gone beyond that viewpoint. If you are going to make a certain topic the centre of your book, do some proper research. You don't have to be an expert, but bear in mind people who are will be reading, and criticising. Heavily.

Divas Don't Knit by Gil McNeil

Given my, ahem, strong feelings on the above, I embarked upon this read with some trepidation. Was I going to raise my blood pressure again?

Actually, no. It wasn't that bad. Not great literature, but not execrable. Fairly dull, but tolerable. So what's the difference?

Well, I get the impression that Gil McNeil can actually knit. There are even some (very basic) patterns on-line to go with the book, although not very exciting and not credited to McNeil. The reason why I think she actually knows what she's talking about? Because when the film star character in this one (they seem to be mandatory) is discussing colourways of a particular mohair yarn, she mentions particular colour names including Jelly, Marmalade, Candy Girl and some others; real colours of Rowan Kidsilk Haze, as we know (and no, I don't blame her for not naming KSH per se - even I don't require that all details be there to the detriment of non-knitterly readers). I'm pretty sure there is less actual discussion of knitting in this one compared to TFKKC, but it's a damn sight more realistic. Therefore I found it easier to accept the knit shop premise, and actually read the story without being continually pulled up, spluttering with indignation.

It also has a sense of humour, sadly lacking in TFKKC. Moreover it actually deals with a fairly interesting central issue (and only one or two others, mundane ones at that, rather than an endless litany of life-stopping woes) in that the heroine's cheating bastard of a husband is killed in an accident before they can divorce, so she is forced to maintain a saint-like image of him to their two children.

Ah, the children. Admittedly I only have a sample size of two, which is far from statistically significant, but why are both heroines single mothers? I shall hazard a guess. A chick-lit novel must have a single female lead, allowing for romantic happenings (amazingly, blessedly infrequent in DDK). However, knitting is inherently mumsy, so children must be present. The result: a single mother. Perhaps I'm reading too much into these, but if I find another example, I shall feel vindicated.  I'm child-free, I can't relate.

I can't say I actually enjoyed DDK - I'm just not in the market for this kind of book - but I didn't hate it. If you had to read one of these, read this one.

The Diary by Matthew Pollard

Enough of the books. In early August Purl Pirate and I went to something rather more radical - a knitting opera. Well, sort of. We went to see The Diary, a short performance as part of the Tête à Tête independent opera festival at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Here's the synopsis:

"Set in the 1960s, our anti-heroine, Vanessa, sits alone in her bedsit, knitting and thinking. Her diary tells us the story of her isolation from the changing West End around her. Drug-fuelled orgies to which she isn’t invited, music that she can’t groove to, fashions that she can’t afford; all conspire to cross her stitches. Knit one... Purl one… With a needle in one hand, yarn in the other, there is only one way to cast off this confusing world."

Intrigued by the mention of fibre arts, we thought we'd give it a go. You should, by the way, try out the phrase, "I'm going to a knitting opera tonight," on your colleagues - it results in much hilarity.

So, unintendedly, did the opera.

Picture a tiny dark stage with a sofa and a telly. A frumpy girl sits knitting garter stitch out of some hideous acrylic on big needles. There is a piano and a glockenspiel and a male and female singer (I thought the point of opera was for the actors to sing, but whatever). Scene/song 1 revolves around work a watercooler conversation whereby our heroine reveals that she only sits at home and knits all weekend, every weekend, morosely. Her male colleague thinks that this is a sad, boring way to spend your time, which seems to be true in this character's case. Clearly she is unpopular at work and friendless. She needs to change her life but cannot see a way to do so. Scene 2 has her commuting on the tube. Some bloke pinches her arse and she is not sure whether or not she likes it or should be offended, or should ask him out (she doesn't and he gets off) and whether or not her even considering this makes her a slag. She goes home and sinks into a deep depression. She considers trying to kill herself by (and this is where disbelief took over) somehow managing to slit her wrists with her knitting needle. Right... Scene 3 has her suddenly deciding to make an effort. She dolls herself up and heads out to the "disco". She enjoys flirting with men. She invites one back to hers, ties him up with her yarn, then stabs him through the heart with her needle. Fin.

At least it was extremely short - probably less than 15 minutes. Apparently this was a cut down version of a longer piece, hence the references to the 60's, drugs etc in the synopsis, none of which were included here. I can't imagine the longer version has any more coherence though.

Just how sharp do they think knitting needles are? I suppose with some effort (and possibly a run-up) one could stab somebody through the heart with one (bear in mind these were big plastic ones, not thin metal) but you'd have to have them pretty well immobilised, I would imagine, not just tied up. I won't experiment though, or even speculate about how a metal DPN through the ear might be more effective...

Anyway, we were speechless. Flabbergasted. Laughing our arses off. Seriously, Mr Pollard, what the fuck?

I think I will have to stop there to give my overused spleen a rest for the night. Suffice to say I am still waiting for that insightful look into knitting in the mainstream media - I'll stick to reading people's blogs instead.

Later: I've had a chance overnight to think about what's missing here, for me. What I would like to see, and what I haven't seen yet, is a strong female (or male for that matter) character who just happens to knit, just because she enjoys it. Not because life has thrown her into running a yarn shop. Not because she has to be supermum. Not because she wants to hang out with film stars as an occupational hazard.  Not because she's sad and lonely.  Not because she's quirkily creative (although that would be an improvement on the other things). Just because it's what she happens to do in her spare time, like another character would enjoy cycling, or playing squash, or reading. Is that too much to ask?


Original Ting said...

Fab post!! Watched a movie adaptation of an Armistead Maupin book'The Night Whisperer' the other day and Toni Collette's psycho character is a knitter. Why can't the mainstream world just see us as normal people....!!

KnittingJenny said...

Lucy, you took the words right out of my mouth! I too hated The Friday Night Knitting Club: