(Summarized from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/stitch-stitch-history-knitting-activism)
The recent women’s marches and their symbolic knitted hats are not the first, or last, time women have used knitting and other needle crafts as a means of political participation. In the USA, there is a long history of women taking up their needles to further a political agenda.
The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, the temperance movement and the women’s suffrage movements all included needle-arts!
Revolutionary War: We all know the story of the Boston Tea Party which was executed to protest British taxes on tea. But, did you know that the women of the time had their own campaign going against the tariffs being collected on cloth and textiles? In defiance of these taxes, women began creating homespun cloth and boycotting the imported goods. Some of the fabric created was then used to make uniforms for the soldiers.
One industrious woman, Molly “Old Mom” Rinker, reportedly “hid information about their troop movements in balls of yarn. She would pretend to knit on a rock overlooking Wissahickon Valley and drop them to Gen. George Washington’s troops below.” (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/stitch-stitch-history-knitting-activism)
Abolitionists and the Civil War: During the abolition movement, sewing circles served as a place for women to share ideas and discuss what actions they could take. The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper wrote on Dec. 3, 1847:
“Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery. … A friend in a neighboring town recently said to us, Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle.”
On the flip side of the issue of slavery, women in the Confederacy supported their troops by knitting socks and other garments for their soldiers. Georgia-born poet Carrie Bell Sinclair wrote:
“Oh women of the sunny South
We want you in the field;
Not with a soldier’s uniform,
Nor sword, nor spear, nor shield;
But with a weapon quite as keen—
The knitting needle bright—
And willing hands to knit for those
Who for our country fight.”
Women’s Suffrage: Knitting and needle-crafts were leveraged in both sides of the suffrage movement as well. While some in the suffrage movement used the image of the “docile woman engaging in needle-arts” to appear less threatening to anti-suffragists, those against suffrage depicted “real women” as those who continued to fulfill the “traditional woman’s role” as home maker.
Recent Past and Present: In the 1990s the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement encouraged feminists to take up crafting in order to resist corporations and mass production, which often is done by underpaid women. Instead, they encouraged small-scale production, women-owned local yarn shops and indie designers.
And, just last year, Project Thinking Cap was organized and a hat designed for the Science March held on April 22.
There are many more interesting stories and ways in which knitting and other needle crafts have been used by women throughout history to influence change. You can even join their Facebook group.
Read the entire article summarized in this post at pbs.org/newshour/arts/stitch-stitch-history-knitting-activism.
To learn more about how homespun helped fuel the American Revolution, visit amrevmuseum.org/read-the-revolution/history/age-homespun and buy the book if you want to learn more.