Knitting with meaning: spinning a yarn. A guest blog post by Nicki Clarkson

The act of knitting can be just as important as the physical product of that act. Each stitch has meaning and can convey a narrative; raising voices that might otherwise not be heard.

In this blog post, Nicki Clarkson (Research Engagement Librarian and talented knitter!) explores the different meanings created by the act of knitting and through knitted textiles. She also explains how this led her to collaborate with our Site Engagement Librarian Donna Ballan to curate an exhibition inspired by this concept.



Image 1: Knitted tweet by Nicki Clarkson (2019). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


The exhibition was inspired by the twin concepts of telling a story and being part of a community. I created the original piece, a knitted tweet, as part of the WISET+ creativity competition celebrating women in academia. It was displayed with the following information:

“This piece is inspired by Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at the University of Southampton. It is 140 stitches long (the original Tweet character length), contains a quote from Dr Riley (on Twitter as @lottelydia), has a #pussyhat and space left blank for #mansplaining.

About me: By day I am a Research Engagement Librarian helping researchers make their journal articles open access. By night I am an embarrassing parent, lover of baking, Cubs leader and foster carer for small furries. Find me on Twitter @Nicki_SotonLib

The knitted tweet led to the opportunity to work with Donna Ballan, Site Engagement Librarian at WSA Library to delve into the Knitting Reference Library and curate this exhibition. I loved the idea of looking at ‘knitting with meaning’ when Donna suggested it; the hard part was narrowing down our focus. We explored the narratives of knitting for charity and for activism (‘craftivism’), selecting examples for each.



Image 2: USS Strike hat, knitted by Nicki Clarkson (2018). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


The blue hat came about during the UCU (University and College Union) strikes triggered by changes to the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pension in early 2018. It was cold at the time and one of my colleagues wore a fetching array of winter hats which got me thinking. The picket line was home to the Dinosaur of Solidarity, recorded pictorially in a play on the old University of Southampton dolphin logo. I used a similar dinosaur image and the hashtag #USSstrike to knit a hat. Images were shared on Twitter, inspiring others to knit their own versions of the hat (including @EManktelow, @thehistorygirl11 and @LoomesGill). The strike also resulted in other examples of craftivism, including an amazing Blanket of Solidarity from the Exeter branch of UCU. The strikes demonstrated an incredible feeling of solidarity and community and I am honoured that the hat will be archived by the Bishopsgate Institute.

The miniature ‘pussyhat’ featured on the knitted tweet and also created as a full sized hat join a real life gallery of thousands of similar hats knitted all around the world since late 2016.



Image 3: Miniature ‘pussy hat’, knitted by Nicki Clarkson (2019). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


The original creators the artist Jayna Zweiman and screenwriter Krista Suh conceived the idea of creating a sea of pink hats at Women’s Marches everywhere that would make both a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity, and also allow people who could not participate themselves – whether for medical, financial, or scheduling reasons — a visible way to demonstrate their support for women’s rights… Leveraging social media and the close-knit nature of the global knitting community, word was spread and the fuse was lit.”

“What started as a simple means of protest, participation and solidarity, has become an iconic global symbol of political activism.”

If you would like to find out more about the Pussyhat project I recommend making a cup of tea or coffee, maybe having a slice of cake to hand then reading Literat and Markus (2019) and Black (2017) as starting points that will draw you into an engrossing body of work. If you like the idea but would prefer something a bit different, how about this Fierce Feminist hat pattern or this ‘Smash the Patriarchy’ sock pattern?



Image 4: Spare Rib (March 1985) no. 152., plus a knitted sample taken from the original pattern. Knitted by Nicki Clarkson (2019). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


The pattern from the feminist magazine Spare Rib that we feature in this exhibition offers knitting as a statement with a ‘knit yourself a woman’s woolly’ jumper pattern designed exclusively for Spare Rib. As an aside, I am sad to see that online access to Spare Rib via the British Library will no longer be available if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead. Donna found the pattern and explains why it struck a chord with her:

“I love that the pattern uses knitting and the creation of clothing (two mediums traditionally associated with females) and, like 21st Century ‘pussy hats’, turns them into a means of fighting for female liberation. The jumper itself is warm and practical – subverting gender stereotypes of ‘feminine clothing’ and challenging the common sexualization of the female body. It is also, through the use of the Venus symbol, a declaration of pride in being female and therefore an act of defiance against a patriarchal society which frames women as the weaker sex.

Although this pattern was created in the 1980s, it is also a sad reminder than women are still an oppressed sex class, and we are still battling for rights – or against our hard-won rights being taken away.”



Image 5: Knitted Venus symbol, taken from a pattern in Spare Rib (March 1985) no. 152. Knitted by Nicki Clarkson (2019). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


I was fascinated to read more about craftivism, a term coined in 2002 by Betsy Greer. In 2017 she wrote a blog post explaining more:

“I also believe that craftivism is about more than “craft” and “activism” — it’s about making your own creativity a force to be reckoned with. The moment you start thinking about your creative production as more than just a hobby or “women’s work,” and instead as something that has cultural, historical and social value, craft becomes something stronger than a fad or trend.”

I particularly love the idea (expressed in the same blog post) that “Craftivism is about using positive forces to create small joys and a better world.”

Yarnbombing is something that fills me with joy. I take delight in seeing brightly coloured knits on railings, benches, pillars, post boxes and trees and always wonder about the people behind the work. Yarnbombing can also tell a story or carry a message, for example installations of the LGBTQ rainbow flag (you can find some examples in WSA Library during this exhibition).



Image 6: In the loop: knitting now by Jessica Hemmings (2010). Knitted rainbow swatch by Nicki Clarkson (2019). Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


Knitting can be a way for people to join with others, to express an opinion or to feel they are contributing. For example, during World War II ‘Knitting for Victory’ was both an act of patriotism and an opportunity for women and children to believe they were doing something positive to help the war effort and directly show their support for loved ones at the front line. Knitting patterns were made freely available and wool sent to schools and Women’s Institutes, with knitted garments sent to troops and prisoners of war. The patterns were not only for socks; the V&A Museum provides links to free 1940s knitting patterns for hats, balaclavas and mittens as well as a pullover, fishnet stockings, pants and vests and a tea cosy.



Image 7: Knitting for Oxfam (leaflet), Patrons – Oxfam Joint Appeal (leaflet) and Knit for Victory: The Victory “Wonder-Sock” knitting pattern. Knitting Reference Library. Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


Charity knitting can involve making decorative or functional items. Feeling part of a community is part of the reason I knit for charity (the fact that holding needles stops me snacking also plays a role in my partially altruistic charitable exploits!). The first charity project I took part in was the Innocent smoothie hats a few years ago, raising money for Age UK. This year I joined in with making knitted Easter chicks for the Countess Mountbatten Hospice and cannula sleeves to reduce the risk of patients with dementia pulling out their cannulas. This exhibition features a pattern for a tit-bit, a knitted prosthetic that many women who have had mastectomies find more comfortable than traditional silicone prosthetics.

The originator of the idea, Beryl Tsang explained:

“I went to every mastectomy boutique and medical supply store in the city. There were titties of every shape, size and skin color (from beige to dark brown) but none were what I wanted — perky, cute and comfortable. They were too heavy, squishy or ugly…To cheer myself up, I rummaged through my stash looking for something luxurious to knit up. Then it hit me that I could knit myself a new titty; in fact, I had so much yarn I could knit myself a different titty for every day of the week, month, year!” 



Image 8: ‘Beryl Tsang’s Breast Cancer Awareness Tit-Bit’ in Knitknit: profiles & projects from knitting’s new wave by Sabrina Gschwandtner (2007) Photograph by Bren O’Donnell.


Glancing along the book shelves of the Knitting Reference Library (without even looking at the hidden treasures in the journal, magazines and knitting patterns) shows how often knitting is used to tell a story. This could be as simple as adding in a favourite animal to a child’s jumper, or knitting using hair from your pet dog, or making personalised toilet roll covers. I have also seen some lovely examples of mood scarves or mood blankets, where the creator chooses colours to correspond to emotions and knits or crochets a row, section or blanket square to correspond with how they are feeling each day over a set time period. A similar concept is the temperature blanket, knitting a row or set of rows each day to coordinate with the outside temperature.

I am absolutely in awe of this sleep blanket, a visualisation of a baby’s sleep pattern over the first year of his life. The sleep data was collected using an app, then exported to CSV, converted to JSON and used for the data visualisation. There is more information on this unique heirloom in the Twitter thread.

Working with Donna to put this exhibition together was thought-provoking, exciting and inspiring. I would love to hear your comments – I am on Twitter as Nicki_SotonLib or you can post comments on this blog post.


nicky clark knitting poster.jpg

Image 9: Exhibition poster: ‘Knitting with meaning’ (2019). On display at WSA Library July 2019. Poster by Bren O’Donnell.


If you would like to visit our Knitting Reference Library, or learn more about our collections, please see our LibGuides page here: