KnitLit group, spring 2011 Haverstraw Middle School, Haverstraw, NY
People are doing it. They are doing it on subways, in restaurants and on airplanes. They are doing it in baseball stadiums, movie theaters and in the park. They are doing Craftivism and everywhere you turn you can find people of all ages, races, creeds and religions participating in what has become a global phenomenon of making the world a better place- one stitch at a time.
The term “craftivism”, hybrid of the words craft + activism, was coined in 2003 by creator and knitter, Betsy Greer. It is a movement based upon the idea that a person’s time and talent can really make a difference in the world. Most craftivists are knitters and crocheters looking to find different and more meaningful ways to share their craft and it is being used to bring attention to a multitude of causes. Craftivists help to bring about positive change in the world through their skills.
Some of the causes targeted in the craftivism movement are environmentalism, anti-capitalism, anti-sweatshop, anti-war a well as various personal causes such as breast cancer awareness, literacy, homelessness, domestic violence and children born into poverty. Knitters and crocheters around the world participate in covert “yarn-bombing” escapades, mimicking graffiti street art only with hand knitted fabrics sewn around trees, light poles and statues using their art to beautify the things around them.
It is here that I introduce you to New Yorker Betsy Rodman, a fellow knitter and craftivist. Betsy is the founder of Project Scarf. Project Scarf is bringing knitters from all over the world to join in creating the world’s longest scarf. Separate sections of knitted scarves are sent in to and assembled by Betsy to form a larger scarf. What does one do with the world’s longest scarf, you might ask? When the project is complete, the sections will be disassembled and the individual scarves are distributed to various organizations to provide to help keep warm those who have little.
Betsy also founded the KnitLit program in her local school. This program teaches kids the skill of knitting. Squares are knitted and sewn together to form blankets which are also distributed to those in need. The kids involved in the program choose where to donate. However, this ain’t your grandma's knitting bee- these kids also listen to great books on audio and discuss them as they are knitting. Betsy has had tremendous success in her school and hopes to one day be able to bring KnitLit to schools across the nation. I got to ask Betsy a few questions about herself and her programs.
OM: When did you learn to knit? BR: I learned to knit from my mother, as a kid. The first real project that I remember was at age 12. I was working on it while my brother and I were backpacking through Europe with my mom and stepfather, on our way to live in a small Greek village for a year (my mother's ancestral village) while they worked on their doctorates in anthropology. I bought the yarn in Italy - it was a beautiful coral colored mohair - of course very fine yarn with tiny needles, as always, an overambitious project which probably took years to finish. (Actually I'm not sure if ever did...I can still visualize the bent knitting needles...) OM: Where did you get the inspiration to start Project Scarf an KnitLit? BR: Believe it or not, a TedTalk video by Benjamin Zander lit a spark and set a world of possibility in motion for me which ultimately led to the formation of KnitLit and Project Scarf. This video, "Classical Music With Shining Eyes" resonated for me on many levels, especially as a musician, a teacher, and a parent. Subsequently I read Zander's book The Art of Possibility and began to think about shining eyes and possibility, both within my students, and myself. It led me to thinking that as teachers and parents, we tend to be so busy with all the necessities of getting through our curriculum or our day, that we don't take the time out to share what we are really passionate about, and what we know how to do and love to do well, with the children in our lives. I asked myself, what do I LOVE to do most (duh) the answer was easy: knit (really many things fiber related, I'm obsessed, but we'll keep it at knitting to keep things simple). I also love to teach reading and writing...so how about combining those things? And while we're at it, why not use the project as a way to contribute to the world around us? In other words, basically I wanted to share knitting with my students. I came up with an outline for my KnitLit idea: teach kids to knit in an after school program, while listening to and discussing a book, "just for fun", then create items to donate to a charity of the group's choosing. The program has become hugely popular: we grew from a group of 7 the first year, to a solid membership of 32 our third year, with girls AND boys, in 5-7 grades. The benefits of KnitLit are almost too numerous to name, but we can hone it down to some of these. First there are the benefits of knitting: students learn a lifelong skill. They learn to make something practical and useful with their own two hands. They build creativity, as well as fine motor skills, focus, and patience. Once learned, knitting is very calming. Knitting has also been linked to intellectual development and improvement in reading skills. Second, there are the benefits of the literacy piece. Students get to explore a book for the sheer pleasure of reading. They build listening, speaking and critical thinking skills, and hopefully their love for good literature. (Additionally, KnitLit builds writing skills, as I always involve the students in writing letters to donors, charities, etc.) While I hate to spew cliches, KnitLit is the perfect example, in my own life, of "Do what you love, and success will follow". Not only do the kids love the club, but we have received a great deal of press coverage, won awards and grants, and received support from the community and local politicians. Most of all: it's FUN! OM: How do you feel about the current ‘Craftivism’ movement? BR: I love the idea of the relationship between craft and activism. Just thinking about it gives me that "I've come home" kind of feeling. Sorry to be all gooey. Let's just say that art that is interactive, hands-on, tactile, and makes people think and question, is all fine in my book. OM: Gooey is good, lol. I have myself found a sense of identity as well as a sense of extended family in the knit and crochet community. Have you found the same? What do you love most about the crafting community? BR: I have been astounded at the sense of community I have discovered in the Knitting Universe. The Internet is a great tool for networking, too. I feel like people from all walks of life are linked through knitting without having to judge each other's personal beliefs or differences. It reminds me of the feeling you have walking through the streets after a huge blizzard - the normal boundaries one puts up around oneself are gone - you are talking to strangers in the street, and helping each other out without question. Knitter's have that "common thread" (hah) between them! OM: Ha! Yes, we are a tight “knit” community. What excites you the most about the future of the knitting community and where do you see it going? BR: Regarding the future of the knitting community, again I see the Internet as a great tool for bringing people together. At this point, I have KnitLit and Project Scarf supporters not only locally, but throughout this country, and even in other countries. That is mostly due to Facebook, and other networking sites like Ravelry. I don't know what I see happening specifically in the future, but it feels like the possibilities are enormous, and it seems to be growing in a positive direction of connection, service, and creativity. OM: How do you think knitting benefits humanity and promotes healing and wellness? BR: My description of KnitLit above captures much of what I feel about how knitting can benefit humanity and promote healing and wellness. Please refer back to that...if KnitLit can impact the life of a child or young adult in the ways I mentioned, I think the ripple effect could be powerful as that person grows into adulthood and finds their way in the world. I see knitting itself as a metaphor for life, self and community...one gorgeous fabric made of a single thread, but many colors, stitches, patterns...all of our experiences go into making us each the unique person that we are, likewise we are all connected in some way. My hope as an educator, parent, and human being is to help people respect each other's differences while building trust, respect and community. Knitting is a natural tool to help me do that. Betsy just learned that KnitLit received the Target Arts and Culture Grant! Congratulations on your hard work! You can find Betsy’s work at the following: Project Scarf: www.projectscarf.org