Q & A with Larissa Brown and Martin John Brown: authors of Knitalong: Celebrating the Tradition of Knitting Together
What is a knitalong and how did the term originate?
Martin: A knitalong is any event where people knit together for a common purpose. That might be as casual as three friends who meet every week and chat while they knit, or as complex as a collaboration of hundreds around the world for charity or art.
Larissa: While the word knitalong is new—it seems to have emerged out of the knitting blog scene just a few years ago—the activity is not. People have probably been knitting together for as long as they’ve had two sticks and a string. We start our book somewhat more recently, with 18th-century cottage-industry sock-knitting circles, and lead the reader up to today’s online communities and virtual knitalongs.
Why do you think knitting inspires such community?
Larissa: It’s a human need to join, to be together, to show and tell, to compete, and to pitch in and help. All those needs are met by knitalongs of one kind or another. Knitters invest a great deal of themselves in their projects: their time, their resources, the hard work of their hands. They don’t want to do this in a vacuum. They want someone else to care, and they want to connect with other people who do this same, rather specialized thing with their hands.
In our book, we look at knitalongs from all these angles, profiling knitalongs where people simply hang out together at cafes, and knitalongs that are about friendly competition or a place to show off your work. We devote a whole chapter to giving, and focus on the knitted afghan square—perhaps the most versatile and outgoing piece of knitting ever invented.
Was there a specific knitalong or personal experience that inspired you to write Knitalong: Celebrating the Tradition of Knitting Together?
Martin: An art project that Larissa did a few years ago definitely inspired our take on the subject of the book. She was doing a gallery installation consisting of 100 knitted hats, and asked for help from fellow knitters, giving them a pattern and materials. We expected the hats they sent back to be identical, but instead they were wildly different. You could really see the hand of the maker in each one. It was fascinating to see the variation within the repetition.
Larissa: For the book, I changed the pattern to make a more wearable version of that same hat, and encouraged knitters to express themselves with color and embellishment. Hundreds of knitters responded with hats, and it really showed how one pattern could be a springboard for a lot of true creativity. You can see some of those hats—and the story of that inspirational art piece—in our book.
While you were writing the book you hosted six knitalongs. Did you have a favorite?
Larissa: This was one of the most unique parts of Knitalong—that we actually hosted half a dozen knitalongs and got to write about the experience. Some were for actual projects from the book, such as Socks 101 and the Meathead Hat. Others were paired with themes in our book, such as a Recycle Along and a State Fair Knitalong.
We learned so much about what works and doesn’t work when hosting a knitalong, and we got to admire the creations of hundreds of people. Our experiences ended up as a feature called “Larissa’s Knitalong Diaries.” I write in first person about all the pitfalls and ultimately the wonderful results.
The Barn-Raising Quilt is a favorite of mine. I loved receiving the hundreds of squares that came to my mailbox, each with a sweet note from the knitter.
There’s something very special, almost sacred, about a handmade object. We forget that sometimes, when socks or hats are so easy to grab at a store. But I got to hold in my hands the actual knitting of so many people whom I admire online because of their blogs. It was like meeting them in person, but even more intimate. They made each stitch of that square, and then I got to include that square in a blanket for our book. It was a real honor.
You also wrote about dozens of knitalongs around the world, both past and present, with themes that run the gamut from wartime sock drives to a contemporary project about global clean water. Which ones fascinated you most?
Martin: We write about an entirely knitted wedding, where knitters came together to create everything from the gown to the cupcakes. It was supposed to be a performance art event, but it turned out to be more real and heartfelt than anyone expected. In reality the couple was already married, but the event turned into a kind of super-romantic second wedding—especially since their first one had been in a government office. I liked that twist, how the knitalong helped inspire a real life event.
Larissa: I was fascinated by the Victorian knitalongs. In England and the U.S. at that time, people thought knitting was good for you, a virtuous activity, and they made children such as orphans knit together to improve themselves. I was inspired to design a Victorian Baby Bonnet to go with these stories.
I’m also fascinated by some of the recycled projects Martin researched and wrote about, and the concept of a knitalong with a past knitter whom you may never meet—someone who made a sweater and then gave it away to Goodwill, where you find it, unwind it or felt it, and make it into something new. There is a sense of history and connection in doing this, and we write about that and about the results of our Recycle Along. We also include one of my favorite projects—a Recycled Sweater Pincushion—that is adorable and useful—so the reader can have the same experience.
In the last chapter you provide a DIY guide for readers interested in starting up their own knitalong. What are your top tips for anyone wanting to launch a knitalong?
Larissa: Use technology to your advantage when hosting a knitalong. For my first knitalong I should have asked members to post pictures of their finished items onto a website, like Flickr.com, but instead I posted dozens of their photos all myself and ended up doing a ton of work.
You also need to learn to be a good promoter, whether your knitalong is online or in person at a yarn shop. You may need to recruit the first few people one by one, then ask them to spread the word. In our book, my “knitalong diaries” reveal a lot about these experiences.
Martin: Simply participating in a few knitalongs before launching your own is a good idea. I joined a few myself while writing this book and they are all different from one another. You can take what works for you from each experience when you start to launch your own.
What makes a good project for a knitalong? Any do’s or don’ts?
Martin: The best knitalong pattern is something that offers opportunity for variations where people can express themselves. For our book we included 20 projects that all offer this in one way or another—from the simple variations afforded by yarn choice in the Pinwheel Blanket to the more advanced variations you can achieve by creating your own charts for the Velo Cycling Sweater.
Larissa: There are some simple patterns out there that I consider “pure”: Those that are elegant, without fussy detail, and leave a lot of room for self-expression through yarn choice, embellishment, and more. Olive’s Afghan and the Felted Nests are good examples, where each knitter’s choices make all the difference, but the simple structure remains.
Why do you personally enjoy the knitalong experience?
Larissa: I love online knitalongs because I’m an artist and visual learner—I also love color and repetition. Looking at all the examples of knitted items people have made is moving and inspiring. Our book includes a hundred or so photographs from knitters around the world. The images just spill out when you open the book, just in the way they might if you opened a web page to see all the examples of a certain sock or shawl. We worked to bring that visual sensation of an online knitalong to the book.
Martin: I think the most unique and positive thing I've learned about knitalongs, especially in-person knitalongs, is that they are places where you can be both creative and perceptive at the same time. Something about knitting in a group makes it easier to not just talk, but to listen too. That's special. There just aren't that many experiences in today’s world that promote empathy, and a knitalong is one of them.
How has the Internet transformed the tradition of people knitting together?
Martin: I think the Internet is transforming knitting—and a lot of other crafts—because it makes collaboration and comparison and expression so much easier than it used to be. It brings knitters not just raw info, but…each other. Each other’s passion, expertise, and ideas.
It's a true grassroots movement now that differs from other "revivals" of knitting in history. This technology allows a spirit of collaboration to flourish on a newer, larger scale. For instance, our Barn Raising Quilt includes squares from Hawaii, Portugal, Alaska, and Vancouver, BC, right next to those from our hometown. Knitalongs are more global than ever. We profile efforts, such as the Knit A River knitalong, where participants are literally sending knitted squares from around the world to help a cause, and the Knitting Olympics, where thousands of knitters joined from countries around the globe.
Larissa: The tradition of knitting together has often been about small groups of people in close contact—knitting together by the fireplace to finish the day’s socks to sell, or meeting at a yarn shop and working together around the big table in the back of the store.
The Internet has clearly changed this—we can now knit together even though we are not physically close to one another. The tradition is, more than ever, about the act of knitting and the fact of friendship, rather than about being in the same place at the same time.
I think that’s fascinating, that I am knitting together with people who are so far from me, physically, and yet are so close to me as friends. People I’ve never met in person, but with whom I feel such a strong bond around the common experience of our knitting projects.