You'd be forgiven for assuming the knitting community is basically white. The craft conjures images of Jane Austen-era women doing needle art at home, older (white) women in rocking chairs, and, more recently, left-leaning "stitch-and-bitch," pussy-hat knitting women, also mostly white. And then there are the barriers to entry. Aside from the fact that it can be daunting to join a community where no one looks like you, a single skein of high-quality wool can cost $30-60 (if not more), and this doesn't even account for the cost of needles or the time required to complete a project.
On June 23, Ravelry—the "Facebook of knitting," founded in 2007—made a move to make the knitting community a safer space for people of color, by banning public support of the Trump administration on their platform. "We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy," the online statement reads. "Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy." The statement takes care to specify that conservative politics are not banned, saying: "Hate groups and intolerance are different from other types of political positions."
The decision comes after months of marginalized knitters asking white community members to listen. It started on January 7, after Karen Templer wrote a blog post for Fringe Association comparing traveling to India to "being offered a seat on a flight to Mars." The writer penned an apology, after POCs in the knitting community pointed to the post's othering and exotification of Indian culture. As a result, other white knitters began to confront their own white fragility and racism within the knitting community, with one writing: "Try to slip into another point of view, try to be more inclusive and widen your horizon. This is not easy to do, it feels uncomfortable and we usually want to avoid uncomfortable situations. But our words and actions have impact on others, far more than we might think, and it's important to reflect on this."
Knitting has long been a cornerstone of "craftivism," the blanket term for crafting as a form of political resistance. Women, historically stuck in the home, have used sewing and knitting as a form of political resistance, dating back to the Revolutionary War, when they gathered to spin their own fabrics and create their own garments to help the US boycott British wool after its spike in price from the Wool Tax. It played a critical role in the suffragette movement—as women became more politically active, many of them continued to work in needlecraft to maintain an image of unthreatening domesticity, in order to gain support for the cause. Knitting has also served as a tool of Civil Rights activism, as abolitionists like Sojourner Truth helped freed slaves find jobs, teaching trades like sewing and knitting.
What is surprising is that a platform of this size is taking such a strong stand in service of marginalized people, given that the recent history of knitting craftivism in America has been mostly centered on white cishet women. There are, of course, conservative white women who consistently center the conversation around whiteness. But even the liberal-leaning white women who use knitting as a transgressive form of political resistance—protesting the legislation of reproductive rights by knitting vaginas to send to Capitol Hill, or crafting the Women's March Pussy Hat project (which Ravelry itself started)— don't always make their projects inclusive. Just think about the color of the pussy hat, or the fact that not all women have vaginas, and that much is clear. Even something that feels small, like the fact that the images of knit breasts (from a viral Ravelry pattern called Tit Bit) in support of mastectomy patients are in pink and white thread colors, can reinforce a feeling of being on the outs to a person of color.
"The biggest challenge to a safe community comes from white people who see themselves as intrinsically good," Sukrita, one of the members of the POC fiber art collective Unfinished Objects, told VICE via email. "Their ignorance causes great harm all the time, and most are oblivious to it. Many will defend themselves to the extent of claiming victimhood saying, 'I didn't intend to cause harm,' while never fully understanding why the actions were harmful, nor changing their behavior in the future. There has been a lot of fragility from white people in the community lately, especially from those trying to be 'allies'. The tendency is to get caught up in white feelings rather than to understand why we are all doing this work."
While more and more POC-centered knitting organizations—like the Black-run Yarn Mission—are emerging, it’s clear that non-white cishet knitters have generally felt isolated from the larger community. "As a POC knitter, I have noticed that it is alienating among the older crowd," the user u/GiantKiller130, commented on one extremely active Reddit megathread that cropped up in the wake of the Ravelry statement. "I notice it more offline, like when I go to visit a LYS [local yarn store] and get looked at strangely like, 'you don’t belong here.' I’ll never forget the way the owner of one in particular looked at me."
Blogs reveal similar stories. "When I think back, anytime I wear my T-shirts with my logo (a natural haired black woman knitting) I ALWAYS get stopped," Black knitter Gaye Glasspie wrote, in a post titled "We Knit Too: Diversity in Knitting" for the popular knitting blog Sheep to Shawl. "Heck I was just happy that folks like the shirt, and prayed they purchase. I never ever thought they liked it because it represented a POC knitting. Then I remember when I was looking for pictures for my Knitting in Black History board on Pinterest. I struggled finding many pics."
Despite all this, marginalized knitters and fiber artists have been using Instagram to educate followers on white supremacy, even as the platform has made it clear that most people think of knitters as white. A Vox story about racism in knitting points out the way Instagram has trended towards stylish, minimalist photos of just knitting work, rather than photos of the knitter with their work. “When I didn’t show myself, people would assume that the picture was from a white person," Instagrammer and knitter Ocean Rose (who is also a member of Unfinished Objects) told Vox, "That’s when I knew it was really whitewashed.” In an Instagram story, Sukrita asked BIPOC knitters to share instances of racism they'd experienced in the community. Here are a few of their answers:
"Being shut out of certain conversations in Ravelry forums as the only POC of the group."
"Is knitting common among black people or is this just something in your family?"
"I was asked if I was selling drugs based on the amount of yarn I was buying."
"Being told I have beautiful Oriental eyes by a LYS owner and then them getting upset when I take it as offense."
"Feeling uncomfortable at white-majority knitting groups."
"I worked for a large yarn company. Cast models. Got hate mail about mixed race children."
"Comments by white women about how yarn colors will look against my complexion."
"How about [the racism I've experienced] here on IG? The deafening silence on the subject from prominent names."
Sukrita suggests the first step to de-centering whiteness in a community like this one involves white knitters interrogating the ways they benefit from white supremacy and speaking up against it—rather than relying on marginalized creators to educate them. "We can only hope that white business owners and those with a platform take concrete steps to address it in their spaces, without bringing more harm to BIPOC, making sure to properly compensate them, being open to feedback and criticism, and simply appreciating and valuing all that this community has to offer," they clarified.
Ravelry taking a stand against white supremacy in their formal policies is a firm move towards creating a more inclusive community. Their user base of more than 8,000,000—along with thousands of active forum threads—plays a huge role in influencing online knitting culture, and their decision to speak up puts craftivism back in touch with its greater legacy of resistance and political activism. But there is still a lot of work to be done, beyond just this ban, to make the knitting community more inclusive for marginalized creators.
"We hesitate to call it a good first step; only time will tell if it really is," Sukrita said. "Banning Trump supporters does not address white supremacy in its all-pervasive form. Allowing room for conservative politics does not protect many of the most vulnerable members of the community: Immigrants and LGBT+ people, for example. The truth is that a lot of our (global) politics legitimizes hatred, bigotry, and violence. Trump is only a symptom of greater underlying issues."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.