It is easy to say how we love new friends, and what we think of them, but words can never trace out all the fibres that knit us to the old.
In early 2013 hundreds of pom poms and knitted items were strung from trees and lamp posts in Bede Park and Great Central Way in Leicester. Police hoped this would soften and humanise the area and so deter crime. This is a manifestation of a growing global craze of ‘guerrilla knitting’ or ‘yarnbombing’ in which people knit ‘cosies’ for tree trunks, parking meters and even buses and tanks.
The Leicester experiment had mixed results. Criminologists believed that people's fear of crime was one of the main problems, and that by making the area seem cosier, with an element of silliness, people would feel safer there. Local residents were less convinced: ‘I don't understand why woollen balls are going to fix crime.’
Guerrilla knitting is not to be confused with ‘extreme knitting’. Extreme knitters knit while doing other things like running or riding a tandem. The world record for knitting a scarf while running a marathon is held by 55-year-old Susie Hewer; she also holds the crotchet marathon record, and the one for knitting on the back of a tandem. Hewer’s stunts raise money for Alzheimer’s research.
During the Second World War, British censors banned anything which might be used to convey secret messages from being sent through the international mail. This included knitting patterns, postal chess, the kisses (xxx) at the bottom of love letters and school reports
The most famous example of knitting being used to record information is Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, who sits by the guillotine, watching the enemies of the French Revolution being beheaded, and encodes their names into her knitting. Defarge and her bloodthirsty sisters were known as tricoteuses - knitting women - and were supposed to sit around the guillotine calmly knitting while the heads fell into the basket. But there’s no contemporary evidence that this really happened.
One of the first actions of the Revolution was a demonstration against food shortages by working-class women. Venerated as the ‘mothers of the revolution’, these ‘bonnes citoyennes’ fell from favour during the Terror (1793-94), and it seems likely that ‘knitters’ was a contemptuous nickname given to militant female revolutionaries in general at that time. Later writers, like Carlyle and Dickens, looking for a bit of colour, interpreted it literally.
However, there is some evidence that knitting really can be used for code. During the Second World War, the Belgian resistance recruited old women whose windows overlooked railway marshalling yards to note the trains by knitting different stitches for different trains.
Nobody knows where knitting originated, but it seems likely that it came out of the making of fishing nets. The earliest extant knitted objects are a pair of red socks in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from around ad 300. Knitting grew in popularity in Europe through the Middle Ages. There is even a painting - The Visit of the Angels - from around 1390, by the German painter, Master Bertram, which depicts the Virgin Mary knitting.
The knitting of Guernsey jumpers used to be illegal on Guernsey. It was so popular and profitable that the seaweed harvest was neglected. It also had to be made illegal during the potato planting and lifting seasons. The seaweed was traditionally spread on the land as fertiliser.
Perhaps the biggest knitted objects are the 45 Uros islands in the bay of Puno on Lake Titicaca in Peru. Knitted from local totoro reeds, they are strong enough to hold several hundred people, buildings and boats. The largest island, Huacavacani, even has a Seventh Day Adventist church. The surface is springy which makes walking on dry land troublesome for the islanders.
Knitting is very conducive to thought. It is nice to knit a while, put down the needles, write a while, then take up the sock again.
One-third of the world's socks are made in a single city in China.
Fair Isle knitwear is said to have been invented by shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada.
In the 16th and 17th centuries Yorkshire men often wore knitting pouches.