Posted by Moira Finnie on January 5, 2011
Happy New Year!
You may wish to begin the year by vowing to lose weight, (how original!…and welcome to the club), mastering the arcane intricacies of Farmville, (is it a game or a cult?), spending more quality time with your pet iguana, or finishing War and Peace–or at least cracking open the first, mischievous volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain that Santa left behind for you. My personal mountain to climb in 2011 will be the nagging desire to finally conquer my mental block when it comes to knitting. Yes, “knit one, purl two” is a phrase that conjures up feelings of frustration, self-contempt and the urge to fling the needles and gnarled yarn across the room. Persistence, of course usually pays off. Unfortunately, for this chronically challenged crafter, the glamorous world of interweaving lamb’s wool into something useful and colorful has been a bust…so far.
My decision to follow the stony, humbling path of learning to knit began again at a recent trip to the movies when I spied a fellow theater goer knitting merrily away–in the dark! Impressive, especially since the movie was the rather loud (at times) and visually amusing Gulliver’s Travels (2010), though the intricate work of this knitting fiend in the next row never seemed to falter. After this, I decided to make a greater effort to psyche myself up, gird my loins and bite the bullet while admitting my many shortcomings face-to-face with the accomplished instructors at a local yarn shop. I’ve also begun to notice that some of the glamourpusses of the silver screen were demon knitters, and they don’t get more dazzling than Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky , do they?
I don’t seem to be alone in reaching adulthood without learning this ancient skill, (knitting can only really be dated accurately back to about 1000 A.D. based on the fragments of some knitted socks that exist–though can you imagine life without socks in the winter?). For my generation, who grew up surfing along in the wake of a feminist wave–the art of knitting–a skill my determined, career-minded Mom could do in her sleep thanks to a little event called World War II, was not learned at mother’s knee. As Mary Colucci, executive director of the Craft Yarn Council of America, once told The New York Times, the attitude was, “If it was something that smacked of homemade women’s work, no one wanted anything to do with it.”
Well, times change. Knitting first appeared to fall out of fashion during the Jazz Age when mass manufacturing of knitted goods helped our grandmamas get busy imbibing bathtub gin, going to Harvard-Yale games, and learning to smoke, though it has since resurged each time the Western world’s economy hit a speed bump. It made a comeback big-time in the ‘30s thanks to the Depression, when people actually needed to knit things to keep the clothes on their backs and when fashion forward types found that the geometric patterns of ’30s fashions could be re-created at home. Every major newspaper and magazine published knitting patterns on a daily or monthly basis, often featuring a picture of some new starlet wearing the latest creation that was cheaper to make rather than buy. (Btw, struggling actors who also happened to be men posed in these pattern advertisements too. In the late ’40s future Saint and Bond actor Roger Moore modeled so often in various sweaters, his waggish friend Michael Caine used to address him as “The Big Knit” with a thumbnail at the upper right showing a sample of Moore’s worsted wares).
The vintage knitting patterns for men, women and children produced in the period ranged from homey to seriously fashionable, and occasionally absurd. I realize that people dressed more formally in that period, but did anyone really think to knit the bon vivant at left his own monogrammed scarf and gloves as this 1930s pattern cover suggests? Let’s not speculate on what that “A” stood for either…(arrogant? affected? above-it-all?)
The renaissance of interest in knitting in that period engulfed everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt (even Franklin was caught trying to pick up a few stitches during the early days of his marriage to the future first lady) and eventually was taken up by movie stars as well. With the outbreak of the Second World War, well-intentioned stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon actively organized Hollywood hands in knitting circles to make warm and durable woolies for those in the war before Pearl Harbor in December of ’41. Claudette Colbert, according to news stories from late December of that pivotal year, was organizing classes to teach the casts, crew and clerical workers at Paramount how to translate their urge to be good citizens into woolen goods, supplying them with the wool and needles along with the lessons. In a 1942 column, Jimmy Fiedler reported that actor Pat O’Brien and former boxer Max Baer had both learned to knit in support of such efforts (though no pictures seem to be available of this event). Evelyn Keyes, “an old hand at knitting” was honest enough to reject what she characterized as the Red Cross’ allegedly “incomprehensible” instructions in favor of her own old fashioned fly by the seat of her pants patterns when knitting something for soldiers and sailors. In Britain knitting became synonymous with patriotism, with men, boys and females of every age making an effort to knit up the raveled sleeve of care for soldiers and home front folk as well , using old and worn woolens that had been unraveled and remade into new clothing when virgin wool was no longer available. For such a rudimentary, everyday activity, it almost took on the gloss of an act of defiance against fate for some, in Hollywood and especially beyond.
On film, the act of knitting had been a visual shorthand in storytelling on screen since the movies began.
Sweet-natured innocent Lillian Gish knits a homespun “hug-me-tight” sweater and presents it to her snobbish cousin in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), only to find the generosity and care woven into its nubby warmth is unappreciated by the selfish philistine, (rather like those snarky 1920 movie critics, who even then thought that the homey virtues and melodramatic turn of the story were a wee bit frayed around the edges). The peace and domestic tranquility implied by the sight of a woman knitting on-screen could signal a surprising variety of messages. A woman knitting in movies may indicate something as benign and ordinary as contented domesticity or the impending arrival of “a little stranger” at a time when the word “pregnant” would never be used on screen. The concluding scene of After the Thin Man (1936) causes the usually perceptive Nick (William Powell) to finally realize that the little sock that Nora (Myrna Loy) is knitting might be an indication of a sequel in the future, (though for me the series started to lose its fizz once “Nickie Junior” was introduced). In other movies the needlework seemed a bit more ominous, becoming a character’s way of distancing herself from reality or appearing to be someone harmless, even when something darker was being hinted at in the story. Matronly character actress Lucile Watson, (seen at right in one of several roles when she wielded the knitting needles) played Norma Shearer’s mother in The Women (1939), and her knitting intensifies as Watson’s character tries to suppress her own urge to advise her soon-to-be-divorced daughter, though she eventually points out the value of looking the other way when it comes to dealing with a little infidelity. In that same movie, Rosalind Russell’s Sylvia Fowler falls into the school of furious knitting (all while sweeping up and dishing the latest dirt on her best gal pals), though something tells me that Roz may be the kind of character who never finishes her projects or her sentences. Her frenzy to stay in motion at all times would make her seem pretty desperate perhaps longing to be a force to be reckoned with–if she wasn’t so funny and likely to inspire contempt.
One of the most serious knitters on screen was played with ferocity by Blanche Yurka, whose intense, seemingly effortless way of knitting became more unsettling as the story unfolded in the David O. Selznick version of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1935). As Madame DeFarge, Yurka seems to be a peaceful character in her wine shop, though she dominates her husband, her fellow revolutionaries and just about all her scenes, (at least until Edna May Oliver‘s Miss Pross shows up). As the Dickens’ story unfolds DeFarge’s ominous qualities emerge and her endless stitching is revealed to be a registry of names that she will see destroyed in revenge for the injustices that her family and the French people have endured–particularly at the hands of the members of the aristocratic Evrèmonde family. Like The Fates in Greek mythology, DeFarge names those who are good or evil, stitching the symbolic destiny of the condemned into her work by incorporating their family crests, (seen at left) and ensuring who will live and die once the Revolution comes. Yurka herself loved to knit, though in her autobiography, she confessed that DeFarge overshadowed her film career, ultimately making it nearly impossible for her to win any role that did not have echoes of the vengeful harridan she played so magnificently in her debut in sound pictures.
One other powerful film implies that a woman’s knitting may be another kind of sublimation came along in an evocative movie from the 1980s. Director Neil Jordan’s visually imaginative adaptation of Angela Carter’s subversive take on fairy tales in The Company of Wolves (1984) featured Angela Lansbury as a granny who knits a vivid red shawl for her pubescent granddaughter from wool that she describes as “so good, so soft” even though she began the project for the girl’s recently deceased sister. While warning her granddaughter Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) that she should “Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrow’s meet in he middle” Lansbury‘s apparently benevolent crone weaves lurid folklore along with the shawl for the girl. Seated rooted next to the hearth, it gradually becomes clearer that the knitting and the fabricating of stories in her closed world may be the only freedom and creativity this woman has known, after a lifetime of following what she believed was the “correct path.” The densely symbolic implications of this film’s images are open to interpretation, though the presence of the color red of the shawl, described as “soft as snow…red as blood” clearly refers to the onset of the girl’s unmentionable menstrual cycle, the arrival of womanhood, and all the complexities of life–some of which can only be understood once it is cast aside. The Company of Wolves (1984) appears to be largely forgotten, though it is available on DVD (and would be a stellar choice for TCM Underground). Anyone interested in myths, fairy tales, and the kind of allegorical filmmaking that is rarely done as well (though director Guillermo del Toro 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, succeeds in a similar way).
Off-screen, one of the Hollywood Hall of Fame Knitters must have been Joan Crawford, who refrained from the compulsive stitching on-camera in The Women. A chronic multi-tasker before that concept was cobbled together, the talented if driven actress kept her knitting projects at hand on the set and off. It was on the set that the habit affected her co-workers the most.
C0-star Margaret Sullavan was reportedly unconcerned about the success or failure of the film The Shining Hour (1938), (a movie about the shifting power struggles of three women in a large country house). However, Sullavan reportedly found the incessant click and clack of the knitting needles in the background as tedious as Joan Crawford‘s earnest efforts to meet the challenges of the story effectively, especially since the MGM star found herself working with Fay Bainter and Sullavan, both of whom were esteemed by most contemporary critics. For the record, though I’m often a sap for Frank Borzage movies, for my two cents, Sullavan‘s underplaying almost made the soapy material work–even in the scene when the blonde actress was almost completely bandaged (except for her limpid blue eyes). Poor Joan had a really thankless, unplayable role as a nightclub performer who was really one of nature’s noblewomen. And don’t ask about Fay! I suspect that Joan really needed that knitting therapy to get through this movie.
According to several reports however, Norma Shearer and Crawford nurtured an antipathy toward one another during the filming of the previously mentioned The Women (1939). This dislike and long-festering rivalry reportedly culminated in Shearer rounding on Joan when she persisted in knitting loudly while Crawford fed her co-star her lines off camera. Whatever the truth of the matter–their arch performances did not suffer due to any tension between them. Crawford was photographed so often knitting while waiting to work or mulling over her lines on movie sets that the actress must have found it a way of working off that surfeit of nervous tension that gave her performances their edge. I haven’t unearthed any deep explanations for the preponderance of knitters on movie sets, though even in my inept hands it does help concentration, and if a rhythm can be created, there is something soothing about the process that may have helped these pressured performers escape from the distractions about them. Some of these men and women were pretty fair at their paying job. Below is a compilation of Ms. Crawford and her contemporaries (some of the them a bit surprising) at work on some bit of knitting (mostly) between shots. Other champion knitters came along in Crawford‘s shadow–though interestingly, a certain Bette Davis appears to have given her a run for her money, (if only Robert Aldrich had known that on the set, things might have gone swimmingly). I’m pretty sure Ms. Crawford finished her projects, no matter what the distraction, but perhaps others just did it to keep from eating, losing their character or perhaps strangling the photographer. Now, with what the media likes to call The New Austerity, isn’t it time to keep this trend going?
To inspire you–but mostly me–and to pursue the muse of needle art more ardently, my New Year’s gift to you is sharing this classic collection of images of our betters pursuing and mastering the art of the knit. If you’d like to look at these images of life on the set more closely during the slideshow, just click on pause.
Hopper, Hedda, “Looking at Hollywood,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 10, 1942.
Lee, Carol, “Meanwhile: I’m hip, I’m young, I knit,” The New York Times, March 31, 2005.
MacDonald, Anne L., No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, Random House, Inc., 1990.
Strawn, Susan, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art, MBI Publishing Company, 2007.
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