Monday, May 25, 2009

knitting on the web

I'm in Wired

It's just the UK edition, but I'm in Wired magazine this month. My life as a z-list knit-celeb and that of an academic researching science in popular culture collided, and I was interviewed about why there is so much maths and science themed knitting.

Or rather, we discussed the way 21st century gender and geek identities have collided within various areas of the nerd-knitting subculture, and this ended up as a piece on science themed knitting. I got the impression the journalist was more interested in why there is so much knitting on the web, and was just talking to me for a bit of (likely to be unpublished) background. But clearly other deadline/ interests/ editorial constraints came along. There a pretty graphic of a ball of yarn tangling into a double helix, and I'm quoted with the explanation that 'creating 3D objects out of coded formulae - that's what a knitting pattern is'.

Still, it is a shame that the topic of knitting on the web wasn't taken further - it's an interesting issue. Knitting and the web have gone together for a long time. I remember listening to a Woman's Hour piece on female web-use a couple of years back, and some expert (can't remember who) argued that some of the first female-led podcasts were knitting ones. Now podcasting is so widespread, there are a quite shocking number of knitting ones. Perhaps there is an obvious reason why: you can knit while listening to a podcast (some of us read and even type while knitting, but it is easier just to press play on itunes). However, I wonder if the broader point isn't also true: that knitting is always at the forefront of women's uptake of new media technologies.

(I know lots of men also take part in the online knitting community, but you have to admit it is dominated by women).

Arguably, knitting has been there at the start of all the major new media developments of the last fifteen (more?) years, often producing some of the most polished and innovative products. Even in the largely pre-blog days, there were/are knitting listservs. There were/ are also knitting homepages, complete with patterns, advice and knitting calculators, often members of a bunch of knitting web-rings. There was/is some first-class knitting e-zines, even if the notion of the e-zine has generally been reinterpreted/ dissapeared. Today, many of us play with twitter and flickr, various blogs have come and gone, but really its is all about ravelry.

As I said to the journalist, I think we can read this in the same way we look at science-themed knitting: there are a fair number of knitters out there who like code, so its no surprise that computing abilities and an interest in knitting overlap. This is only part of the story though: the web is a way of communicating and helping to form and strengthen communities, and knitting has always been about communities. Whatever media knitters have taken - from magazine to scrawled handwritten notes lent to a member of our local knitting circle, from television to facebook - they talk, share, discuss and deconstruct whilst they click-click away. We should also remember that knitting is a bit weird, and the web does help special interest freaks find each other. Moreover, knitters like making stuff, whether it is coded or otherwise. Knit-themed blogs often contain references to DIY, baking, sewing or other craft: blog-building is part of this too.

It is these last three (non-geek) reasons why, I think, knitting on the web has exploded in the last five to ten years. Today, you don't need much of a nerdish inclination or any specialist computer knowledge to use most online knitting media. All you really need is a desire to share ideas and nose on what other people are doing, and those are much more widespread characteristics of knitters.

So, in the absence of Wired picking up on the topic, and in the wake of the ravelry twitter trend-bomb last week, I'd be interested to know what the readers of this blog think. I only really got into knitting four or so years ago, so I came to the knit-web reasonably late - I know there are some early adopters out there, what was it like on the knit-web frontier? Similarly, what about the newbies/ non-knitters, were you shocked when you first discovered quite how humongous the online knitting community is?


Team Knit said...

wow, congrats on the shout out in Wired!

- Julie

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the interview! I love the quote about creating 3D objects out of coded formulae. Knitting in its essence is a very simple thing, but knitting as a notion is very complicated - it builds and strengthens emotional attachments and relationships, it serves as a soothing psychological exercise, it can be a freeform medium for endless creative constructions, or the satisfaction of furnishing basic human needs - socks or art? both? It is both social and solitary, mathematical and creative, and very easy to learn. Why wouldn't it be so widespread?

I was an extremely shy knitter until I found the online knitting community. I found out that there was much much more than scarves and mittens, that knitting sweaters wasn't so hard after all, that there are many cool techniques I need to learn, and most importantly, there are all kinds of knitters - weird ones, nerdy ones, hip, sexy, domestic, urban, punk...etc. The web is just a worldwide knitting bee...a million grandmothers with priceless wisdom, and even more people willing to learn, and learn together, share and explore - I'm trying hard to avoid the bad pun "common thread," but you get my point. Dare I say it? - Knitting is the answer to world peace?

hehe. I'd love to do some research on this, particularly the psychological and psycho-social aspects of knitting. I genuinely hope that you continue on this path as well - do you think you could fill a book with it?.... ;)

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the Wired article!

Like most people, the scale of the online knitting community has taken me by surprise... I don't think I have ever logged into Ravelry without seeing thousands of others logged in at the same time. That and the millions of blogs... who knew that knitting and the internet would turn out to be such happy bedfellows?

There is definitely a link between knitting and geekery, perhaps for the reasons you suggest. Like programming, it bridges the gap between logic and creativity.

As for the knitnerd subculture, the unabashed geekery of the 'fangirl' patterns on the internet is hilarious... (last week I spotted a knitted "Mr Pointy" which just about finished me off!)

Julie said...

I've got kind of an unusual intro to the on-line world of knitters. I've been knitting since 1987, but my first internet involvement came in 2004 when I started writing articles for Knitty. I got so much e-mail, asking if I had a blog, I finally started one in 2006, mostly with the idea of using it to sell hand-dyes and patterns. While I DO use it for that, it's become a lot more about the people. While I don't turn out a lot of 'science knitting', as I think of it, I do discuss a lot of topics other than knitting (art history, fashion, science, tech, anthro, archeology), so I've got readers who don't knit. Which is pretty cool.

Of course I'm also on Ravelry, and it's an unbelievable resource.

I think the internet has revolutionized knitting the same way it's revolutionized everything else, namely, by facilitating international communications. Everything else we've done comes from that.

Congratulations on getting into Wired. You've arrived. You're really a geek now. :)

rubbishknitter said...

congratulations - how exciting to be quoted in Wired!

I'm a programmer and i've often pondered on the similarities between knitting and programming. A knitting pattern is such a concise, precisely expressed set of instructions, that it is easily shareable in a relatively small chunk of text. This, I think, is the main reason why knitting got so popular on the internet. One person posts up a pattern onto a messageboard and people around the world can make the same thing. Which is pretty awesome really. It reminds me of in the 80s, when computer games were a lot simpler and game programs were short enough that they could be printed as listings in nerdy magazines. You would excitedly type one in, a process a bit like knitting that required a lot of patience but was enthralling as you marvelled at its construction. Then when you got to the end you would wonder why your game wasn't quite like the one in the picture, and tinker around to try and fix it :)

off to debug my jumper now...

Felix said...

Congrats on the WIRED shout out! I love the quote too.

I got into knitting briefly during a phase when I lived in Ireland years ago. I read a book by Judith Hoad called 'This is Donegal Tweed' and thus my fascination with local traditions, materials and processes was seeded. I dyed very badly spun handspun with onion skins and dreamt of self-sufficiency. It was a rustic beginning. Fast forward a couple of years to my fine art degree, by which time I had sort of forgotten about The Knitting (old-skool, hippy, rustic knitting) and gotten fascinated by The Internet (new-school, technological, shiny shiny.) During my second year of studies I was focussing on digital art and I read 'Zeroes and Ones: Digital women and the new technoculture' by Sadie Plant. It was an epic read and really educating to read; it talked about technology, womens' relationship to technology, and binary systems in a giant, extremely well-researched, academic cyber-feminist rant. Going from Ada Lovelace's contribution to the Analytic Engine right through the technologies involved in communications during the second world war, to the development of Jacquard looms etc. I loved this book, but didn't know what to do with anything I'd learned in it!

Fast forward again to the point in 2006 when I realised I needed some friends and idly searched The Internet to see if a local knitting group existed. And voila, I found the Bluestockings website, went to a meet and heard everyone talking about 'knitty' and about 'magknits' and various blogs and podcasts and I went home to see if it was really true: and I was amazed. The breadth, depth, enormity and technical-ness of the online knitting world was one of the most exciting thing I discovered in this decade of my life. I was/am fascinated by the adoption of the Internet by knitters to enhance craft and - as you say - to build communities both in real life and online.

Ravelry I think is one of the most interesting websites I've ever used because by the time It Happened, many people were already already blogging and using flickr etc. and it just seems to me that the info-sharing and community-building potential of these activities was multiplied infinitely by the powerful software/databases used on Ravelry and that the capabilities of Ravelry were 100% defined by the practised and experienced team who put it together. Nobody outside of the knitting world could anticipate the uses a knitter would put such a site to and the way that information is shared across forums, profile pages, friend-pages etc. is ingenious.

At this point The Internet is an extension of my real-life knitting workspace and yes, I was amazed at the vast quantity of online knitting when I came on board only 3 or so years ago... but I've been thinking a lot lately about how ingenious Ravelry is from a CODE point of view and it might be time to drag out that Sadie Plant book for a refresher course in understanding the social/logistical imperative behind our collective, enthusiastic and extremely empowered approach to The Internet and Knitting.

As you see, I agree with you that this whole conversation could be taken a lot further.

Rachel said...

Hey Alice
COMPLETELY off topic...I am over here in New Zealand and saw one of your gorgeous sock patterns in a magazine over here it had sort of vines and bobbles running down them. (thats how I came by your blog by the way), but the magazine is really expensive over here, is there any other way to access that pattern - do you sell it? ;-)
Thanks Rachel

Alice said...

Wow - some of the longest replies I've ever had on this blog. All for long blog replies! I love the idea of the web as a 'worldwide knitting bee' and debugging jumpers...

To Rachel re: Socks. Sorry, they are only sold via the magazine, you could try emailing Interweave Press to see if they are going to be sold as a single pattern online, but I can't sell it to you.

Pig wot flies said...

Ooh, Wired, how cool!

I got into knitting mostly because of the internet knitting community. One of the bloggers I read got into knitting, I followed a few links, found a world of funky modern patterns and was hooked.

I think crafts like knitting have always had some sense of community - think of quilting circles or, actually I can't think of another example. But knitting has an extra dimension, because the main things people exchange are knitting patterns - code, not physical objects.

I find the scope of knitting on the web useful when trying to explain to a non-knitter why I do something so 'old-fashioned' or inefficient. Knitting blogs demonstrate that knitting intersects with so many other things, some of them otherwise at odds with each other, like science and geekery AND weave your own yoghurt organic living, radical feminism AND traditional home-making, the reinvention of crafts AND the rediscovery of lost arts. Of course, most muggles still don't get it, but at least I can show there's more to knitting than acrylic baby layettes.

Anonymous said...

I learned how to knit as a child, but I really got into it in 2002, when I was 19. I was at a women's college, and there were many knitters there. We would watch TV in the evenings, knit together, and compare projects. I was aware of some aspects of the knitting universe online - the second sweater I knit was Sitcom Chic from a relatively early issue of Knitty. Between being in college and living within walking distance to WEBS, I had so many knitters around me "in real life" that it didn't occur to me to look online.

In 2005 I graduated and moved to Boston. I was working long hours, so I couldn't really join an SnB. Instead, I DID begin to look online. I remember the first knitting blog I ever read. I was looking at the pattern for Clapotis, and followed the link back to Kate Gilbert's blog. From there I found Grumperina, Panopticon, Yarn Harlot and all the rest of the biggies from circa December 2005.

I started my own knitting blog in 2006, fully four years after I took up knitting in earnest. I don't knit any more than I used to before I discovered the online knitting world, because I knit quite a bit anyway. Knitting blogs and especially ravelry have certainly enhanced the experience, though.

The A.D.D. Knitter said...

Hey Alice, congrats on the article. I agree, knitting is weird! That's maybe why I love it so much. I see the online knitting community as a further extension of previous irl communities that are no longer feasible (we grow up, move, don't live with extended family, work). These communities used to be a support system that provided knowledge and expertise.

Claudy said...

Congratulations on the interview! That's so cool.

I was taught to knit as a child, aged about 9, and about 10 years later, I was taught how to purl. I tend to keep my knitting habits fairly personal and to me the relationship between knitting and web was a big surprise when I first got into knitting slightly more seriously. As was the interest my non-knitting friends took in my knitting! From the other comments ahead of me, it is understandable as to why it is so popular, and in the same instance, surprising that it isn't more popular!

Knitika said...

Interesting topic!

I'm going to say I was not surprised at the knitting presence on the web. But then, I've been using the internet since 1993 and have been highly involved in internet communities all along. When my daughter was born in the late 90s, I was highly involved in a very active online cloth diapering community. My involvement waned soon after she potty trained at a very young age.

So when I rediscovered knitting five years ago, I fully expected to find knitting support online. I immediately found the enormous sock knitter's mailing list on yahoo and became involved. My involvement with the online knitting community has only increased since then.

I know Ravelry-love is nothing new, but I gotta say, it's da bomb. Was it really only two years ago I was doing a google images search on "tofutsies monkeys", trying to see how tofutsies knit up in that pattern? The results were so spotty. Ravely has revolutionized how I buy yarn and plan patterns. I've also had the impulse to go to Ravelry and check a sewing pattern, only to recall that ravelry for sewing doesn't exist. We Ravelers are lucky, lucky folks.

beanz said...

Came across the article in wired and have stalked you to here from Ravelry.
I certainly think that if your brain is wired for pattern spotting and coding there are aspects of knitting which make so much more sense.
There are knitters whose work is much neater than mine who prefer an intarsia chart to a complicated lace patter - I prefer the lace because I can see where I am but the intarsia needs so much more precision in tension. said...

Alice very impressive site and love the knitting...

John Kennedy

Anonymous said...

Like most i'm also knitting lover. I need some more on web.


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