Image: Make Give Live knit hats / Ben Mack
Can knitting be considered feminist?
It’s an interesting question, sure. Let’s be real here: when we think of knitting, a lot of us think of little old ladies making scarves and sweaters while waiting for a roast to cook in the oven and for their husband to get back from work or whatever else it is he’s out doing. It’s a stereotype that’s not only offensive, it’s also dead wrong.
But it’s a stereotype I’ll admit I still somewhat thought might be true – until I went to a knitting bee and saw how kickass it can actually be.
It was a sunny spring morning in Auckland. The excitement in the room was palpable. The sun filtered inside through large windows, enough so there was no need for electricity. Two fuzzy dogs – one brown, the other blonde – wagged their tails and paced around the large tables positioned together in a large square, directly underneath two large skylights and exposed wooden beams painted white like the walls.
Enough yarn to stretch from Auckland to Invercargill was spread all over the tables. And around those tables were eight women who were anything but stereotypes.
Towards the far end of the room, a pair of women discussed something called a “magic loop” as their hands moved almost in a blur. Seriously, I don’t know if I’d ever seen human hands move so quickly – regardless of age or gender. Next to them, steam rose from a pair of mugs filled with green tea.
The eight women ranged in age from young adults to grandmothers. They were all laughing, all having fun, and all knitting. And they were all there thanks to Claire Conza.
Conza is the founder of Make Give Live, a social enterprise which makes hand-crafted knitwear to give warmth and support to those in need. For every handmade beanie that her company sells, another beanie is given to an elderly or homeless person or someone else struggling with isolation.
“It’s a perfect platform for inter-generational interaction,” she explained as she attached a label to a hat. “I was just amazed how people took to it. It’s just this ball that’s started rolling, and it’s hard to keep up with.”
Originally from Zimbabwe (“I come from a family and culture where we really look after our elderly”), Conza explained that the idea for Make Give Live came about after her own struggles with depression. “I knew that finding that ‘why?’ and that purpose was what could make me happy. And that ‘why?’ for me is helping others.”
That drive to help others was clearly on display inside the cosy workshop. It was one of several spaces in Auckland where Conza and a group of knitters, known as “makers,” got together. At this site, the Norfolk St Workshop, just a few metres from Ponsonby Road, there was a ukulele class the night before. “We’re a bit quieter,” Conza joked.
Nothing against the ukulele group, but I had a hard time thinking that they could be more badass than these women, who were doing what they loved and having a good time doing it.
One of those women was Louise. Sitting near the sliding-glass doors that served as the main entry to the workshop, her hands deftly went over and under again and again (and again) to make a café hat. I had a feeling I could never possibly remember what seemed like a near-infinite number of steps to make one, but she swore it wasn’t as complicated as it looked. I still don’t believe her.
Louise said she learned to knit from her mother, then restarted as an adult. But there was another reason she enjoyed being involved with Make Give Live, Louise said. “Knitting’s my first passion. And it’s about connecting with people. In this day and age we spend a lot of time connecting with people but we don’t actually see them. So this feels like a revival of the past.”
Not slowing down her knitting at all while she spoke, she elaborated further. “We’re doing something for other people that you get something out of too.”
Getting something out of doing something for others is also something Conza has recent experience in. In August, Make Give Live won the first Idealog/Cointreau Creative Kickstart Competition. A nationwide competition in which she beat out three other women-run social enterprises, Conza won a $3,000 prize pack including a $1,000 cash prize and one hour of business mentorship. “We want to look deeper where we can have more impact towards our purpose,” she said of what she planned to do with the money. “You don’t take material things to your grave.”
The sound of birds chirping could be heard clearly outside. For some reason, the whole scene was reminiscent of an animated Disney movie – but one where women had their own agency and made their own choices. Conza added that her inspirations and influences were very real. One of them, she said, was her sister, Michelle Euinton. Euinton’s own social enterprise, Colour Our Story, creates colouring books that supports a charity that helps orphans living in Uganda. And Conza said her own past helped provide inspiration as well. “Steve Jobs said, ‘you can’t connect the dots going forward, you connect the dots looking backward.’”
Aside from tea and coffee, a dizzying array of sweets were also laid out on the table to snack on. Conza admitted business was usually busier around winter, but the rest of the year was a perfect time to build up inventory. And simply having regular sessions for makers to get together was just as important as making sales, she said. “It’s powerful in a lot of ways. It’s making sure the good can reach more people.”
In November, Conza said she plans on travelling around New Zealand in a campervan in an effort to start new maker groups throughout the country. To be able to do that financially, she said she would be crowdfunding – and also selling her house. Extreme as the idea sounded, it fit into the ethos of a good social enterprise, she explained. “It’s about having the head of a business, the heart of a charity, and the hands of a community.”
The two dogs began to roughhouse a bit with each other, momentarily distracting Conza. The words “magic loop” were heard again, followed by more laughter. Barely even looking at her hands, Conza burst into laughter herself. “I love the sessions. They’re such a happy place.”
Back to the original question: can knitting be feminist? When it involves letting women be themselves in a judgment-free environment while also having a good time and sharing knowledge and experience and helping others… Absolutely.