On charities and knitting

I feel like it’s all our fault. Mine is one of the charities that actually do knitting. We’re giving you all a bad name.

I first met community-based knitting as a charity-run activity during the Olympics, when I spent quite a few afternoons with a church in Hackney. In their estate there’s a public square, with benches, flowerbeds etc, and rows of shops around the outside. It was here that they started. Just low-key at first, providing some wool and knitting needles, with a handful of residents who could knit to start people off. Small groups would gather, knit, chat, enjoy the sunshine. But in this context, it worked.

  • Knitting sessions gave the adults (and sometimes the kids) in the community an excuse to sit out on the square in the summer. Reclaim territory, keep an eye on their kids. You can’t sit on a bench alone in public, that’s just odd. But while knitting… well, that’s completely normal.
  • It gave older people a context to teach and to be valued for their skills. In a place where retired women are often vulnerable, seeing younger adults learn from and listen to their elders was beautiful.
  • It reestablished a sense of family. For many on the estate, London isn’t where they grew up, and they’ve lost many extended family in moving. The grandmother who reassures you as a new mum, the uncle who can lend a hand with DIY, all of that is lost when families are upended and have little choice of where housing is provided for them. An activity that helps communities get to know each other and build trust is essential.
  • It taught a new skill. Needlecraft fell off the school syllabus decades ago, so to teach my generation and younger how to care for their clothes opened up choices to them that this throwaway-fashion culture doesn’t afford.
  • It introduced a communal but also individual activity. It’s so easy to spend your free time attached to screens, ignoring those around you. A calming, creative hobby where the mind is engaged does wonders for your mental health.

So yes, we will go back to our knitting. Until our communal spaces are safe, our elders are valued, our families are supported, people have warm clothes and good mental health, we’ll continue. But if you think for a minute that any of those issues aren’t political – policing, welfare, housing, health provision or basic human dignity – then you best think again.

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