Grandmothers & Academic Study

Flekkefjord, c. 1935For many of us, our love of fiber arts has been passed down through generations.  In particular, it seems, our grandmothers have sparked, encouraged and/or nourished our interest.

The picture to the right is of my grandmother and mother (circa 1933), in Flekkefjord, Norway.  My grandmother, taught by her grandmother, taught my mother to knit.  My mother did not like to knit and taught me only the basics; it was my grandmother who encouraged and nourished my love of it and of many other traditional hand crafts.

To me, knitting is personal and rather familial.  So it was with a bit of a surprise – despite my education and having been a college professor – that I read “Ivory Tower Fiber Freak Comes Clean,” by Jennifer Burek Pierce (The Chronicle of Higher Education 4/1/13).  An associate professor at University of Iowa, Dr. Pierce holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture, and her research area is publication as a means of sharing new ideas and creating the cultural record.  My doctorate is in political science and my research area was domestic public policy.  So I am almost embarrassed to say I never considered the potential for knitting as a research area beyond the fields of history or art.

The article recounts how Dr. Pierce recently discovered knitting (and her passion therefor) and, even more important for an academic, how the craft fits in her research field.  She notes:  “Having already studied the way information is translated, appropriated, and republished once demand develops, I was struck by the myriad outlets conveying knitting information … That practitioners of a decidedly retro handcraft adopted new technologies to share and preserve information seemed to add a new dimension to media researchers’ contention that new technologies don’t automatically or absolutely displace older ones.”

Dr. Pierce discovered Ralvery and notes what we seasoned knitters have long known:  “As I watched knitters communicating online, I became convinced that knitting was far more complex than the private, quaintly domestic activity of lore and stereotype.”

Dr. Pierce ultimately drafted a research proposal titled “Do 21st-Century Knitters Dream of Electronic Sheep? Constructing Theoretical Frameworks for the Study of Contemporary Fiber Arts Practices and Related Online Communities” (love the title!), but was dissuaded from pursuing her research.  The response of one of her mentors was discouraging for an untenured faculty member: “I’d rather be shot through the kneecaps than read about knitting.”

While she shelved the project temporarily, it never left Dr. Pierce’s mind.  Discussing her interest with a colleague, his more encouraging response was, “Are you kidding? I write about video games.”

(Curious, I think, is the fact that video games cater to male gamers and knitting caters to females.  Could gender be the crux of the discouragement she received from many of her colleagues?  But I digress.)

Eventually Dr. Pierce was able to return to her research interest in “the way information about knitting is published and shared.”  She concludes:  “I’d like to think that my grandmother, who started saving for my college education as soon as I was born, and who knitted garments I wore as I child, would be pleased.”

MormorTiffYes indeed, I find it interesting that so often, when recounting stories of knitting or crocheting, crafters and fiber artists mention their grandmothers.

To the left is a picture of my grandmother with her great-granddaughter (my daughter), in Stavanger, Norway, taken in the early 1980s.

The knitting tradition in our family continues.  🙂


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Crocheting, Fibers, Knitting, Norwegian Knitting and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Grandmothers & Academic Study

  1. Let me know when you publish your related research – or have a conference presentation to share!


  2. JB Pierce says:

    Belatedly found this post following a research trip to a specialized archive where, yes, I was able to look at some lovely historical examples of knitting texts and textiles. Thanks to all for your kind and interesting commentary. Just added taking a look at the NYT article to my list of things to do.


  3. Thanks! I just finished reading the review!


  4. The “oddity” of being a young fiber enthusiast can sometimes weigh in one’s favor? Several decades ago (!) riding on a ferry somewhere I northern Europe, I met a charming young man who came up and introduced himself after breaking the ice with, “I didn’t know young women did that sort of hand art! I’ve seen my grannie do that many times!”


  5. I had two great-aunts, sisters who never married, had no children and ran the family farm by themselves. They knit for three generations of nieces and nephews. I asked one of my aunts why she never married, and her response was “I have enough trouble with the cows. What would I do with a man?” 🙂


  6. Yes, and not just grandmotherly but a sort of “women’s thing” like organizing kitchen drawers or something. When I was in grad school I worked in a great yarn store. A customer asked for my assistance in choosing yarn for her project. She was a good knitter with a great pattern was looking at some acrylic blend stuff. I showed her some nice natural fiber yarn, and she was delighted! As I ran up her purchase (which was around $80 or so if I remember), she pulled out her checkbook and started writing a check. As she was about to sign her name, she stopped and said, “Oh gee, I have never spent so much on my hobby!” I noticed she had a wedding ring, so I asked if her husband had hobbies – golf, tennis, hunting, fishing – and if so, how much did he spend on his “hobbies.” She looked up at me, her brows pulled down in a V toward her nose and said, “You’re right!” and signed her check with a flourish. 🙂

    Sent from my iPad


  7. I leave the pop culture analysis to folks like you! And don’t remind me about the deliberately flippant comments! I was once invited to give a presentation to a group of faculty on my research on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). After the 40 minute presentation, there was a 20 minute Q&A. The first hand that shot up belonged to some older prof (not PhD, only MA) from the language dept, who posited (sounding extremely pompous): “I think the reason the act did not get much attention over the reauthorization is because VAWA is an awkward acronym. Had it been called something else, say, VULVA, then it would have gotten more attention.” I kid you not.

    Sent from my iPad


  8. Socioknit says:

    I forgot to mention, I thought it was interesting also, your thoughts on gendered activities -knitting vs. video gaming. Besides the gendered aspect, from my own questions to others about their opinions on knitting, I found that many just consider knitting to be old, outdated and grandmother-y (well, there’s gender again). I think that perceptions about contemporary relevance of both activities really add to the way they are valued in research. I mean, video games are a strong industry today…who knows about knitting, right? 🙂 Of course, this can come back to gender too; gaming is primarily a male activity (at least in the U.S., in South Korea it is quite equal) which has a stronger economic component to the feminized knitting community. Well here is just a great example of the interconnectedness of social institutions. 🙂


  9. Socioknit says:

    Awesome thoughts on that article which I also thought was very interesting. While I was a part of the sociology department in university, my topic of interest was anime and manga (Japanese animated films/series and comics). I had to spend the first half of my work and my presentations about it convincing the audience why research on this is important. It reminded me of the video game comment. That kind of deliberately flippant attitude about certain areas of research really irritates me about higher education. Its as if everyone gets so defensive about their own work and their own framework that they forget that everything in a culture is part of that culture. Nothing happens in a vacuum. All aspects of culture and pop culture can yield insights on society and those insights are valuable and deserve support.


  10. jenyjenny says:

    Thought provoking!

    I think I follow my maternal (the American of Irish descent) grandmother’s knitting profile: I’m retired and I have time to explore crafting of all sorts….rather than my paternal (born in England) gran’s; she was more into classic patterns and correct procedure.

    Funny how you don’t have to dig very deep to find knitting references in all sorts of places. The Harry Potter novels, Wallander TV shows, old Woody Woodpecker cartoons…and in lots of the jokes and references, “knitting” and “old lady” are synonymous.

    I started my knitting group on a particular night of the week because that was “gaming night” for some potential members’ husbands.


  11. Connie says:

    I am another knitter who learned the craft from her mother – but my (now 85 year old) aunt is THE knitter in the family. Having no children of her own, she would knit sweaters and cardigans and skirts for my sister and myself. The knitting bug has bitten me severely, and she loves to see that I continue to knit. My aunt only knits socks nowadays, but she is still knitting.
    My sister can knit as well, but she the bug has not bitten yet…

    I am an academic as well – but in the fields of zoology and biodiversity science – I’d be hard-pressed to find research topic that involves knitting. But maths and knitting goes incredibly well together – see here: The researcher Sarah-Marie Belcastro uses knitting to demonstrate complex geometry. Funky stuff.

    Unfortunately, I cannot access Jennifer Pierce’s article – I would love to have read it. The mentor did not get the topic at all – it was not about knitting, but on how it is communicated. Maybe he would have been a bit more impressed with crochet? But then, most people still seem to regard knitting (and needlework in general) as something that grannies do because they have nothing else to do…


  12. I think the rise of crafting is a massive subject, related to so many things. Sometimes I think it’s a need to create something physical, because so much of our work takes place on screen, sometimes I think it’s a need to start and finish things, because so many professions involve work that is never actually completed (there’s always more to do, more customers, new ways of doing things. Even when you leave a job, it’ll still carry on without you). There’s also the chance to exert full control over your own work, which again is something we rarely get in a day job, and to make our own mistakes. Did you read the book ‘Shopwork as soulcraft’? There’s some interesting takes on it in there – became a best seller, but of course is about manly things, like fixing bikes, not frivolous things like ‘women’s work’ and knitting 😉 not a bad read though. There’s some stuff about the first factories and production lines for Ford, which caught my attention most I think. I must admit, I’ve thought about this a lot, because there’s also a rise in ‘makers’ which is now what everyone who works in digital aspires to be. It’s the crafting equivalent, but with electronics.


  13. I think crafty people generally do. I just my first (and last) beading class. It was fine but, I though, rather tedious. There were people at the table though who were clearly as enthralled with beading as I am with knitting. (I just wanted to try beading and see what all the fuss was about. 🙂 )


  14. My daughter too! She is a fine basic knitter, but the Knitting Bug simply hasn’t bit her. I am hopeful my granddaughter will continue the tradition though!


  15. That’s a good point – as a grandmother I do not feel the stress and responsibility I did as a parent allowing me ample opportunity to do fun things more spontaneously than I ever could as a mom. I was a single mother, no family around to help, and worked full time. So free time was scarce. My motto was between cleaning house and romping with my daughter, I chose the latter. 🙂


  16. I agree – the internet allows us to connect in whole new ways. It certainly makes us avid knitters feel less an oddity! 🙂


  17. Yes, it too often gets written off as a “woman’s thing” – rather like menstrual cycles, birthing and menopause?! 🙂


  18. Thank you for reading AND for your lively and engaging comments!


  19. Grandmothers can be pretty special, can’t they?!


  20. Tenured professors don’t leave just because they tire of their job, and it’s near impossible to make them leave – no matter how poor teachers they are. 😦 I wonder if the “rise of crafting” is it at all related to a feeling of being disconnected from some of the “basic” things of life (e.g., where your cothes come from). ?


  21. cleo14 says:

    That sounds like something I would like to read. I actually taught myslef to knit, out of a book in junior high. My mother is very crafty though and “gets” my love of knitting.


  22. One grandmother did cross stitch and the other did a of knitting- mostly I learned from my mother who learned from her aunt. I remember my grandmother mending– she’d visit and would do whatever my mother needed. I sure hope to teach my granddaughter. My daughter learned but didn’t take to it the way I have. Alas…


  23. salpal1 says:

    I too learned to knit and sew from my grandmothers. Interestingly, my mother did not – she leaned more to music for her creative expression, although she knows how to knit and sew, both frustrate her completely. In our family, we have figured out that mothers have no time to teach kids “extras” because they are so busy taking care of said kids and working, cleaning, cooking etc. But grandmothers were more available, and glad to teach us what they loved doing, and what they knew would stand us in good stead in the future. My sister, an artist with paints and canvas, has recently rediscovered knitting and sewing, and her little daughter is fascinated. So we may break that mother/grandmother cycle in the next generation, and have a mother and aunt teach a little one how to make art with fiber.


  24. starproms says:

    My mother and auntie taught me to knit and to crochet and I have been thankful ever since. There have been no spinners in my family so I addressed that myself but my memories of mother and auntie endure. I liked your pictures and story very much. I think that blogging has brought we knitter together in a way I could never have imagined years ago.


  25. I love the fact that knitting transcends generations. There is something so beautiful about this connection.

    I definitely agree that gender issues could have contributed to the academics pathetically disparaging remark. I find the knitting gets dismissed as somehow inferior to other crafts/arts and can only assume that this is because of the connection it has to ‘women’s work’…which is – unbelievably- still undervalued in today’s world.

    It infuriates me! ;-?


  26. Video games are an often controversial form of communication/entertainment. Of course it would get more attention.

    Ask the same fuddy-duddy how his clothes are made, and he’d be clueless.

    The fact that women are the basic fabric that keeps communication going, pshaw! Old news. We’ve taken man made tools and adjusted them to fit our own needs for centuries. Men just can’t keep up with all the innovations women force on them. 🙂

    And Grandmothers- they are the ones who help shape us into who and what we are.

    Thank you for a great post.


  27. Fascinating as usual. Harumph! No wonder the non tenured colleague didn’t have tenue! No vision. I didn’t come from an encouraging family but thank goodness my Grandmother showed me how to knit, crochet and sew. It has opened so many wonderful doors. 🙂


  28. Their mentor wasn’t interested in social, cultural and economic change, or new forms of communication, or mental health issues or anything else that could potentially be explored in a thesis about knitting? I would suggest that such a morbid lack of curiousity my be indicative of the fact it’s time to find a new job. That’s appalling! That said, the rise of crafting to its present state feels like quite a recent thing – I’m guessing there’s a lot more dissertations planned around aspects of it now. Actually, a neurological study on recreational video gamers and knitters together would be interesting. Thedifferent ways people choose to relax…


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