Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

IRLFebruary 10, 2022

Untangling the knotty social dynamics of online knitting communities

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Knitting’s digital niche illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of finding the community you need online. For IRL, Shanti Mathias explores what happens when knitting and social media collide. 

Start simple. Cast on. Take your yarn, slip it around your thumb, twist it onto the needle. This is how you make a stitch. Make as many as you need, and count them. You are ready to begin. 

To knit, you need to know only the two basic stitches, combined in infinitely various patterns, laid out on the page. Once you learn how to read a pattern, you will find that knitting may be intricate, or require concentration. But nothing about it is truly complicated until you go online.

In real life, knitting is something you make with your hands. It is totally physical. You need to be in a real place, and use real yarn. Unlike reading newspapers or playing board games or writing letters, there is no way to digitise knitting. What you make is something to wrap around a body where blood flows and nerves glint in silent soft places. Knitting tangles fibres – usually from living things, grown by a real sheep, a real cotton plant, a real goat – in patterns that are controlled and sculptured. Worn on your body, a knitted garment is a layer between you and the real air, preventing the bright heat of your body from escaping through your skin. 

@hungryandfrozen

finished knitting project 🧶 another practical business casual garment lmao #knitting #handmade #orange #bubbletop #y2k #slowfashion #knittok #crochet

♬ Spaceman – Babylon Zoo

But as tangled as their fingers are in the fibres of the real world, knitters, like most people, use social media. Technology companies have created platforms used ubiquitously for everything from organising surprise parties to reporting neighbourhood thefts to selling a shirt that doesn’t fit. In the ordinariness of these communication forms, it is difficult to attend to the ways that these platforms shape interactions.

To understand some of the ways social media teaches us to behave, the knitting community – grounded in the physical world, but still online – is a way in. Specific aspects of knitting require attention: the controversies the community is reckoning with, to do with vaccines and allegations of racism, and the ways that individuals are invested in maintaining relationships after the fallout to these events.

When Renee Paku started learning to knit, she wasn’t thinking about social media: she just needed something to keep her hands busy. She was a single, pregnant mother with a seven-month-old baby. She’d left a life in Australia and moved back to Aotearoa to be closer to her whānau. Knitting captivated her. “It was the start of a beautiful thing and the end of the world as I knew it,” she says. 

Renee Paku sees knitting as a way to connect with those who came before, knitting within a te ao Māori framework. (Photo: supplied)

When her family members started complaining that her Instagram had too many pictures of luscious knitted sweaters and zig-zagging hats and not enough of her children, Paku started Auahatia, her Instagram account and pattern and yarn business. She has nearly 1,600 followers, and uses her platform to make a space for te ao Māori on Instagram that she couldn’t find when she started knitting. On Instagram, Paku wears bright pink lipstick, her moko kauae clear and dark on her chin, and posts videos explaining the connection between microaggressions and broader systems of racism. “There are some amazing people in our [knitting] community,” she tells me. But this is not universally true. “That space can get real racist real fast.” 

While there are big-scale issues in the knitting community that Paku is referring to, it’s useful to explain two of the most divisive recent moments in Aotearoa’s knitting universe. 

The first of these involves Maree Buscke, a shareholder of Skeinz, one of New Zealand’s only two wool mills that produce consumer-grade yarn (as opposed to, say, wool for carpets). In March 2020, the Skeinz company was accused of racism after a member of the private Skeinz Facebook group posted a picture of a golliwog they had knitted (an enduring issue in New Zealand). Though the picture was deleted by moderators, it was promptly reposted by the individual, creating an enormous backlash of individuals telling Skeinz that their Facebook group was perpetuating racist images.

Buscke later appeared on an American podcast called Unsafe Space, saying that golliwogs were not racial stereotypes but a tradition from Turkey, and that “social justice bullies” had destroyed her Facebook community. The saga was documented on an anonymous Instagram account. The lack of apology has led many knitters to decide that Skeinz is a racist organisation; yarn dyers scrambled for another source of undyed wool. (Skeinz did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) 

One reason Renee Paku started her Instagram is because her family was complaining they didn’t see enough of her kids. (Photo: supplied)

The second involves Libby Jonson (a friend of Buscke) and Alia Bland, two prominent New Zealand designers of knitwear and crochet. After it became clear that they were two of the three founders of Voices for Freedom, an organisation that opposes the government’s Covid response, many knitters tried to distance themselves from their patterns. (Jonson, too, did not answer requests for comment.) 

These controversies have international precedent: overseas, digital knitting communities have become significant flashpoints, with groups divided over topics of politics, racism, and diversity – and those are just the ones that get reported outside of the knitting community. 

These altercations take place online and grow in significance in part because digital disagreements are (at least semi) permanent; comments and arguments are cemented in place, somewhere down the feed. “In the digital world [tension] stays there,” says Philippa Smith, an associate professor of English and new media at AUT who has studied social interactions online. “In a conversation face to face, you might say something and that comment disappears. Online, other people can see and join in with those comments at any time.” 

These controversies aren’t unique to knitting. Instead, they are a marker of how a digital community is porous, a niche entwined with the attitudes and values negotiated beyond their edges. This contention – how to carry your beliefs about what is moral into all the spaces you occupy without diminishing the focus of a particular group – is rendered in particular patterns by the features of online platforms.

Given this, it’s worthwhile to examine how the internet creates, and feeds, certain kinds of group identity. The technical capacity of the internet – things like comments, Stories, direct messages, likes – creates modes of communication that produce a sense of belonging, says Smith. “It’s about self-identification and being part of an in-group, not an out-group. … We want to belong to groups, but we can have many different identities. Your family, culture, political beliefs – those are identities, and when you join the community of a hobby [like knitting] you are bringing your other identities along as well.” 

But how does social media become a space that encapsulates those many identities? For the knitting community – and the billions of other people who use these platforms to communicate every day – that story begins with how social media creates relationships. 

Jo Campbell runs a yarn dying business, which involves multiple applications of colour to raw wool. (Photo: supplied)

Knitters use social media because it is social – Instagram and Facebook are a way to connect with others and maintain friendships. “I’ve met some of my closest friends, my top-five humans, through commenting on Instagram posts,” says Jo Campbell, a yarn dyer based in Taitoko who runs the popular online shop YarnTherapy. These social relationships become a source of deep connection, reinforcing commitment to the community. 

Knitter Laura Vincent, who lives in rural South Auckland, has found the knitting community vital through lonely lockdowns. “Following other knitters on Instagram and TikTok helps me feel more connected in these isolated times,” she says. 

Friendships within the knitting community are a valuable source of connection and esteem. There’s a distinct knitting identity, rendered in a dialect that is hard for outsiders to understand – needle gauges, makes, second sock syndrome, and KALs (knit-alongs). With this comes a particular visual language, too: knitted pieces are photographed in a way to emphasise the drape and colour of a garment, and yarn is twisted into vivid bundles, ready to be purchased from a link in bio.  

This knitting identity is fortified by the encouragement and validation in digital spaces, providing support that knitters may not always find in the physical world. A progress photo of a sinuous shawl prompts reassuring comments – “I found changing colours in that pattern hard too!” – and a Story with a new colourway of sock yarn gets replies of fire and heart emojis from knitters eager to use it. “There’s so much evidence of encouragement in these forums – it’s a safe place to encourage participation and share results with each other,” says Angela Desmarais, a researcher whose masters thesis at AUT focused on digital knitting communities on Reddit. 

Knitter Laura Vincent enjoys the possibility of knitting to make garments like this loopy jacket, perfectly customised and unable to be found commercially. (Photo: supplied)

Knitters are overwhelmingly female, and the creativity of the craft is often dismissed as “women’s work,” says Paku. “Our work as knitters and dyers isn’t valued,” she continues; the obsessiveness and artisanship that knitting requires is underappreciated by those beyond the community. The association of knitting as a domestic task undertaken by women means that online spaces are crucial for many knitters to feel that their hobby or livelihood is given the consequence it deserves.

For knitters who don’t fit the standard mould – little old ladies creating tea cosies, let’s say – the capability of social media to link people who would otherwise be separated by geography is particularly powerful. In-person knitting groups are not always accessible. Campbell, the yarn dyer and knitter, points out that meetings during the day are out of reach for knitters who work full-time or have small children, as well as those with disabilities or chronic health problems.

Online though, the knitting community is more flexible: friendships are built through commenting on a post, or sharing a picture of a project – a form of connection that can fit into a child’s nap time, or while waiting for dinner to cook after work. Social media broadens the pool of people to connect with, and makes it easier to determine shared identities: you might be the only queer socialist knitter you know in real life, but online, there are people just like you. 

And a friendship formed online often becomes a friendship in person, or vice-versa. At yarn events like markets and retreats, there are opportunities to meet other knitters who you’ve been following. “I can think of 20 or 30 people who have met for the first time in person at a yarn event and it’s this instant beautiful relationship,” says Campbell. It works the other way, too – Campbell points out to me that after meeting people in person at knitting events, the relationship continues online. 

Social relationships help keep knitters online and connected to each other; strands weaving around many people and pulling them tight. But these communities are also fuelled by the intense care knitters have for their craft – the individual stories of why a person started to knit. 

“Our firstborn died during birth, and it was just awful,” says Campbell. That was nearly 18 years ago, and while she’d always loved making things with her hands – she taught knitting and embroidery classes throughout her law and arts degrees – she threw herself into it after her loss, not ready to go back to a “high-powered policy job”. She started making silly hats for babies, brightly coloured bananas to perch on small heads, and learned how to dye because organic pure wool suitable for babies was not available in the bold colours she wanted. Slowly, that business evolved into her yarn store, the story of her family tinting the fibres. 

For Paku, knitting is a way to connect to her whakapapa. “My great grandmother and her family ran the biggest [shearing] gang from the Mahia down to Masterton for three generations,” she says. “There’s stories of nannies taking the raw fleece and knitting it with some sticks they’d found from a tree outside, they make these big beautiful woollen jerseys famous up the East Coast.” She brings that history to her Instagram feed. 

Elizabeth Nihoniho’s small pattern business relies on the generosity of loved ones who test and model patterns. (Photo: supplied)

Social and personal ties add consequence to digital knitting communities. So does something else: the fact that many knitters rely on digital platforms for their livelihoods. 

“Six years ago, [yarn dying] became my full-time gig,” says Campbell. While she attends yarn markets in-person, the bulk of her sales and marketing are online, via Instagram and her website. This is labour-intensive, small-scale production, completely entangled with the rest of her life. “There’s not a month where my kids or husband haven’t helped out,” she says. And each skein of bright yarn she sends out, potent with possibility, was enabled by the internet. 

Running a small business that depends on a niche audience makes digital platforms all the more essential. “Being online is vital,” says Elizabeth Nihoniho of Amikihia Knits, a pattern maker. She largely relies on Instagram for marketing. To differentiate her patterns, and to connect the act of knitting to the whenua, she and her husband give each pattern they sell a te reo name, and write a story to explain where it comes from. The hours of careful labour that go into producing each pattern, which are sold via knitting website Ravelry, also require test knitters who Nihoniho usually finds online. 

The nature of these small businesses, with yarn made by knitters’ own hands and patterns modelled on their own bodies, makes them intensely personal. That sense of individuality is carried online, especially because the digital presence of the business and its owner are often the same. For knitters, this means that friendships, identities, and often livelihoods all occupy the same spaces online. This makes it important to knitters to use their businesses as a place to bring the political causes that matter to them.

For instance, Renee Paku, the knitter who is making a space for Māori in the digital fibre community, gives a portion of the proceeds from the patterns she sells as a koha to causes that matter to her. The first hat she designed was for Ihumātao. “I had visions of nannies sitting there with their mokos and teaching them to knit this hat that had meaning to the kaupapa they were doing,” she says. Every skein of yarn she sells is wrapped in a sleeve of paper containing her logo, a stylised tino rangatiratanga flag and the words ‘Land Back’. 

The capability of social media to erase the boundaries between social, financial, and personal identities makes the reaction to controversies swift and emotive. In their potent, coiled digital community, knitters have the potential to be no different than book bloggers attacking the author of a book deemed racist, Facebook users encouraging each other to “mow down” cyclists, or TikTok users doxxing a man for being bad at dating. Patterns of frustration, anger, and controversy can be quantified throughout the social internet. Because social media companies profit from both positive and negative engagement – any form of attention, after all, can be monetised – the design of these platforms themselves enhance controversy

The effects of online controversy in the knitting community have rapid, real-life implications. After learning via a private shoulder tap from a friend that Libby Jonson, the knitwear designer, was involved in Voices for Freedom, Campbell stopped bringing samples of Jonson’s patterns to in-person yarn events. As Jonson’s involvement in VFF became more widely known, the effect on the knitting community was splintering. Yarn makers who had ensured that their yarn could be used for Jonson’s patterns had to decide whether continuing to do so was an endorsement of her political position.

“It was just awful to see people who had worked so hard to build businesses be absolutely wrecked,” Campbell says. 

In the knitting world, complex, wearable patterns – like this cardigan designed by Elizabeth Nihoniho – are prized. (Photo: supplied)

The controversy also had an impact on devoted knitters without business connected to Jonson. “Being anti-vaccine, and then anti-mask and anti-lockdown, is so polarising,” says Jen, a knitter based in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara (Jen’s surname has been withheld at her request). She had met Jonson, peripherally, at some knitting events, though she didn’t know her well. While she doesn’t feel tainted by the previous Jonson designs she’s made, they present a conundrum. “I’m considering unravelling [my Jonson-designed cardigan] … it doesn’t feel good.” 

The Skeinz racism controversy, now more than 18 months old, also continues to ripple offline. Knitters who distanced themselves from the company continue to seek out alternative sources of yarn. Last year, Campbell and a group of friends started a yarn event called “Woolington”, after Capital Fibre Fest, a yarn market in Upper Hutt, invited Maree Buscke and featured the work of Skeinz. Their alternative event, while much smaller, is “unapologetically anti-racist, pro-rainbow, pro-minority, pro-science, pro-inclusion,” Campbell says. Vaccine passports will be mandatory when it’s held this year. 

In wrestling with how to respond to online controversy, knitters are not alone. Many people will have witnessed the aftermath of strife in their digital niches. Did your flat have to make another group chat without one flatmate in it so you could complain about their inability to clean up? Did your community Facebook page get accused of suppressing non-white members? The knitting community and its specific concerns show the way that digital platforms can generate both community and controversy. 

@hungryandfrozen

LOOK AT MY HOLES 🟡 pattern from @jamesnwatts 🟡 can’t wait to make another one 🟡 #knitting #homemade #imadeit #yarntok #yellowaesthetic #DIY

♬ So What’Cha Want – Beastie Boys

Given this, it is easy to wonder why people persist with online communities – and indeed, in the process of reporting this story, knitters told me of others who had stepped back from social media because it was too stressful. 

But in their commitment to staying online, knitters offer a blueprint of how digital communities can respond to controversy. “I make it sound terrible and awful but it’s not,” laughs Tash Barneveld, a knitter who ran independent yarn store Holland Road Yarn Co in Wellington until it closed last year. She’s just detailed how individuals hash out differences when ideological disputes in the knitting community arise. But it’s the power of constructive digital connection that sustains her. “You have to point to the difficult conversations, people are trying to deal with [drama] and look after the community.” 

For some members of the community, calling out issues like racism, loudly and explicitly, is essential to maintain the integrity of those communities, regardless of whether it makes people feel uncomfortable. For Renee Paku, who takes her responsibility as “the only loudmouth Māori on [knitting] Instagram” seriously, this often means photos posted on Instagram with comments about allyship and capitalism, as well as explanations of her latest intricate shawl or stylish sewn skirt. 

In one video, she stirs her coffee, wearing light-up cat ears that do not detract from the serious subject matter. “Deep fucking breath,” she says, before explaining how a comment belittling the Māori language in a Facebook knitting group is a microaggression that signifies broader systems of racism. She tells her followers to be courageous in noticing and calling out racism in their lives. “By not stopping [these microaggressions] in real life, you give people the authority and the fucking cheekiness, to be honest, to be doing it online.” 

 

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A post shared by Renee Paku (wahine/ia) (@auahatia)

Paku’s willingness to call out racism when she sees it comes at a price. “I’ve made some enemies,” she tells me. “I’ve had people at markets refuse to have a stall next to me because I called them out on their cultural appropriation. I don’t care, it’s people like that that don’t show the really beautiful side of the knitting community.”

Making online spaces positive and inclusive sometimes means drawing hard boundaries, knitters say, although the tension between a need for boundaries and a desire for inclusivity is a difficult line to walk. Campbell tells me she’s been part of groups that have imploded over different approaches to vaccinations, for example. “We wanted to make space for everyone but we need to make space for the disabled and vulnerable and we can’t do it if we let [anti-vax] people in.” 

To avoid the stultifying effect of engaging in controversies head-on – not to mention the vitriol and financial cost – others in the knitting community discuss problems in private. “The people in the industry I talk to a lot and consider good friends, we talk in the background, because it’s so exhausting, it’s so draining,” says Barneveld. Research into digital platform design and the fury it generates backs this up: people prefer to respond to arguments in private and smaller groups. 

This decision to withdraw from controversial spaces means that digital identities don’t have to take over people’s whole lives. Nihoniho’s husband Antony, with whom she runs her business, has heard her reactions to contentious events online. “We’re clear about our values … We are passionate about indigenous people, but we’re not exclusive. Those are our values. [The controversies] that have blown up could take a lot of energy – the business is important but [isn’t] the only part of our lives.” 

In trying to embrace inclusivity while keeping some people out, focus on what is positive while responding to divisive political issues, and let their businesses represent their beliefs while not allowing the businesses to take over their entire lives, the knitting community runs up against some inherent contradictions of social media. These ubiquitous platforms are a way to be with people and not be with people at the same time – so of course genuine relationships can be formed, and of course the online world is not free from the values and politics of the physical world, creating controversy. 

On social media, people as real as you exist in the flat boundaries of rectangle screens, and often images and language are enough to feel strongly committed to those you interact with – enough that it stings when you realise that sharing an online space does not mean you have other values in common.  

Given the many stressful elements of being involved in an online community, many knitters try to ensure that their digital worlds are as positive as possible. “If I stay in my happy little bubble I don’t need to see how far we have to go as a knitting society,” says Campbell. While she feels that it’s important to talk openly about her values online, she seeks solidarity in a private weekly knit night, a Zoom with close knitting friends.

Jen, a Wellington-based knitter, is keenly aware of how digital politics affects knitting communities. (Photo: supplied)

And of course, there’s always the option not to bring your hobby and all its political, social, and financial implications online. “It’s easy to get lulled into the sense that the online community is representative of all the people who knit,” says Barneveld, pointing out that this is not the case – there are many others who find joy and community in knitting without needing Instagram accounts and Facebook gossip. 

Is there a way to acknowledge how power, money, and privilege play into the way knitting works, while still letting it be a hobby that is serene and satisfying in and of itself? Jen believes that she can have it both ways. “It’s not an either/or scenario,” she says. “Knitting is a truly relaxing hobby to me and the elements of power, class, privilege, accessibility are inherently present in the ‘craft’ sphere, just as much as they are in every other part of our lives.”

Vincent, the knitter from Auckland, echoes this. She lists the political issues she thinks about when she knits: Who made the yarn? Is it affordable? Who models the pattern? Is it size inclusive? Can she afford to support a small business, or will she choose to use mass-market or secondhand yarn? What are the environmental effects of yarn made from sheep’s wool, or plastic, or cotton? But she doesn’t let these questions paralyse her, or prevent her from knitting.

“There is so much that is churning in the knitting community, and I don’t know what the answer is,” Vincent says. “[But] it’s important that everyone … tries to radically change what they’re doing so that inclusivity is built into it.” It’s her love of knitting and enthusiasm for other people who knit that allow her to keep creating when the conversations get knotty. 

Whether they are processing frustration in a private group chat, explaining allyship on Instagram, starting an alternative yarn event, or writing stories to accompany a pattern, many members of the knitting community are trying to make the space more open to Māori, young people, queer people, and disabled people. They want to change this community because they love knitting, and they believe that it matters. Online, and offline, there is so much hope for. “I want to do some good with knitting, this art that is simple, ancient and fraught as well,” Vincent says. 

Every knitter I spoke to for this piece would agree with her. With some teaching, or the help of a YouTube video, even a total knitting beginner can make something they’re proud of, and wear it on their body or post it on Instagram for some of the world to see. But as easy as it is to knit, it’s also easy to screw up. Fumble the needles and drop a stitch, and your piece will be lumpy. Purl when you’re meant to knit and make the pattern uneven. Stitch an extra row and one side of your jumper will be too long.

But every mistake can be fixed. When something goes wrong, all you have to do is find the mistake, unravel the stitches, and start again. 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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