Is everything really political these days? Or has it always been that way?
To answer that, let’s look at the story of knitting. Can anything get simpler than knitting? Balls of yarn! Comfy socks! So when the knitting community began reckoning with racism recently, many people complained that it ruined their simple pleasure.
But the history of knitting is long and controversial — and includes many of today’s most hotly debated topics. (Sexism! Conspiracy theories! Fears of automation!) On this episode: Knitting’s surprising past, and what happens when one knitter tries to make change today.
Jason Feifer: This is built for tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer, and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today. And I figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing and how to be more optimistic about tomorrow. To any outsider, knitting would seem as simple and serene as anything in our loud and chaotic world could possibly be. I mean, you've got balls of yarn, comfy socks, maybe some rocking chairs, but not all was right in the world of knitting. And that started to become very clear in January 2019. Here is how it began for one knitter.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: I'm very much into listening to my fan base, my followers, my fiber family.
Jason Feifer: This is a woman known in the knitting world, affectionately as GG. I'll give her a proper introduction later, but for now, all you need to know is that GG has fans.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: And they kept asking me, what do you think? What are you thinking? I'm like, what do I think about what? And they're like, you're not talking about it, talking about what? The blog post that everybody's fighting about.
Jason Feifer: It did not take long for GG to find the blog post. It was titled my year of color and it was written by a white woman who talked about how she had always wanted to visit India and now she was finally doing it. She wrote in detail about how India seemed so far away and magical and mysterious. She wrote. "If I can go to India, I can do anything. I'm pretty sure." It doesn't seem like she meant to upset anyone with this. If anything, I think she thought she was paying India a compliment, but of course the post contains all those stereotypes of a white person romanticizing a culture that isn't theirs and that cracked open something in the world of knitting. People of color who had long felt excluded or unseen in knitting started sharing their stories and frustrations. And that included GG who is black.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: We were never in the picture. And I will go even further to say you have makers, Jason, that for fear of losing followers, will never post pictures of themselves because they was a person of color.
Jason Feifer: So GG got involved and then everyone, it seemed, got involved. Knitting blogs, knitting forums, soon it was a dominant, if not the dominant conversation in the knitting world. Then the wider world took notice. Vox ran a story headlined, the knitting community is reckoning with racism. Bloomberg Business Week and others covered it too. And then of course the backlash began. People started sending messages to GG and others telling them to "just knit" as in stop talking about race and stick to knitting. Larger right wing media outlets got involved like this video released from Prager University.
Audio Clip (Prager U): I knit to relax to escape the drama of real life, but almost everything nowadays, even knitting has become political. The online knitting mob is real.
Jason Feifer: And that reaction right there is the reason I want to tell you this story. I mean, none of us should care about trolley political videos designed to get a reaction. The less we care about that the less they'll make the videos. But that Prager University video represents a broader story that we tell ourselves about how the world works. And that, I think, is worth examining because the story goes like this. There are simple things in this world and today's politics and social issues have infected these simple things and that is a symptom of something deeply and uniquely wrong with our time that we are the ones ruining the simple things, and this must be stopped. Simple things must be protected. They must remain simple. You've heard this debate play out in sports and entertainment and literature, but knitting, the very idea of it made me stop because knitting really does seem like the simplest of all simple pleasures until you really get to know it.
Liz Kristan: Because knitting is something old ladies. It isn't supposed to be sweet and nice, but knitting hasn't always been something old ladies do. That's a new idea. And the idea that it's not political is absolutely not true.
Jason Feifer: That is knitting historian, Liz Kristan, because, oh yes, there are knitting historians and knitting historians will tell you knitting is not simple at all. Not today, not yesterday, not centuries ago when knitting gave women a way to make money, which upset men like Reverend William Maitland, who wrote in 1793, that-
Liz Kristan: These women were not making good servants because why would they come work for him and clean his chap pot when they could just knit and make just as much money.
Jason Feifer: To paraphrase a Weezer song about knitting, if you want to destroy my argument, pull this thread while I walk away.
Audio Clip (Weezer): While I walk away.
Jason Feifer: And that thread, the loose thread that dangles out of the argument of the person who wants to protect the simple things is the word, nowadays.
Liz Kristan: But almost everything nowadays.
Jason Feifer: As if knitting, as if anything was once simple before nowadays. The history of knitting is in a history of scandal and power struggles. And a lot of it will sound eerily similar to other things that we debate today. I mean the greatest social and economic debates of our time have already played out in knitting. Gender inequality, machines taking our jobs, conspiracy theories and misinformation. So of course, why would knitting's complex history stop now? Why should it stop now?
Jason Feifer: On this episode of, Build for Tomorrow, I would like to propose a theory to you and then play that theory out in the world of knitting. The theory is this, what if we stopped believing that simple things are simple? What if instead, we assume that everything, and especially the things that we do not understand or participate in ourselves or the people we do not know or interact with are in fact, rich and complex.
Jason Feifer: I believe that this complexity would in fact make our lives simpler. Why? Well to start, we would spare ourselves the shock of discovering that simple pleasures aren't simple. And we'd also spare ourselves the debate over who ruined what. And instead we could acclimate to the idea that multiple things can be true at the same time. That something can be enjoyable and still in need of fixing. That someone can love something and want it to change. This is an episode about knitting, but it is frankly not really an episode about knitting. It is an episode about how not simple, even the most supposedly simple things are and how we are all better off by knowing that. Coming up, the shocking history of knitting and what happens when one woman tries to make change today. All after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right. We're back. So here's how this episode is going to go. First, I want to tell you a little more about GG, then we'll get into the scandalous history of knitting, and then we will grapple with this big question that I laid out about the complexity of simple things. So now it is time for a more formal introduction to GG.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: My name is Gaye Glasby, i.e the GG, and GG made it. And I often tell folks that has dual purpose, if you see me wearing something, yes, I made it. And I also made it through some of the darkest times in my life.
Jason Feifer: Today GG is known as the iconic orange lady, because everything she makes is beautiful and bright orange. But back when she was a kid, she learned to crochet, but thought knitting looked too complicated. Then as she got older, she gave it another shot.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: Once I learned how to knit, I taught myself how to knit on YouTube. And when I decided that I wanted to be in this industry, it was very obvious that you didn't see people that looked like me, right?
Jason Feifer: To be blunt about it, the world of knitting is very white, but still GG felt initially welcome. The first yarn store she ever went into was owned by a woman of color and the clientele was diverse. But as time went on, she was having negative experiences. There were the yarn stores where store clerks ignored her while waiting on white customers, the people who didn't take her work seriously. And then there was this moment in 2016 which really impact did her. GG was traveling a lot for work back then and was downstairs at a hotel getting some tea.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: And I had on a piece that I had just finished making literally the strings were hanging from it, because I hadn't finished that part. And it was an older woman and a woman that was slightly younger than me coming towards me. And they both were like, "Oh my God, where'd you get that from?" And I smiled. And I said, I made it and I kept walking. The older woman stopped me, put her hand on me. She said, no, I'm talking about this.
Jason Feifer: The woman was pointing to GG's clothing.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: I said, yes, I made it. She said, no, this. And she asked... I said, I made it. She said, but that's knit. "I'm aware. I just finished making it." So I hold my arms up so she can see the strings hanging. And she was like, "Oh, because I didn't think you people are doing," and her daughter grabbed her. It's like, it's very nice. And she went away, so the major D with his silly stuff. And she made those socks on her feet because I saw those too. And he was like, I'm so sorry. Like he was offended. And he was a white man. He said, I'm sorry. And I said, did that just happen? He said it did. I said, and did she say you people? He said she did. I said, okay. I got my tea. I went upstairs and that day I created the hashtag we knit too.
Jason Feifer: But hashtag we knit too did not take off in a significant way. Back in 2016, GG was still relatively unknown in the knitting world. And sure, in the years that followed, she attracted more of a loyal following, but most were reacting to her orange knitting not her social commentary. And then came January 2019 and the blog post about the magical land of India. Now you can see why GG's followers immediately DMed her saying, "Did you see it? Did you see it?" They knew that she wrote about race and knitting. Now they expected her to say something. So GG read the post and then read the comments underneath the post. That is where she felt like the situation had really gone wrong because the comments were full of people expressing their pain over the post. And the blogger was replying to defend herself. The woman didn't seem to understand where the commenters were coming from.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: So I have a training background. I like to use analogies. And I said, listen, if you step on my toe, whether that was your intent or not, you don't get to tell me that it didn't hurt because you didn't intend to step on my toe. I said, it's my toe and it's my pain. And that's where, in my opinion, this went wrong. She wasn't acknowledging that she stepped on a whole bunch of feet at once.
Jason Feifer: GG wrote that and post it online and the response was much more than she expected.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: The trajectory, like it was a nosebleed.
Jason Feifer: Thousands and eventually tens of thousands of knitters started following her on Instagram. Blog posts that she had written years ago that were not widely read at the time were now getting praised across the knitting world. When GG went to events where she was once just another attendee, now she was like a celebrity.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: To the point where if I stopped for five seconds, I was surrounded by people that wanted to share their feelings about diversity. They wanted to either apologize because they felt a certain way and they assumed that black people didn't. You got people started crying in my arms. It was just very overwhelming.
Jason Feifer: To be clear, GG was not the only black knitter to be speaking up during all of this, but she did end up in a unique place of prominence and she felt torn about it. Many great opportunities came her way as a result. She attracted genuine new fans. She be came a valued and influential voice in the industry and she was invited to write an article for Vogue Knitting, the premier magazine in the industry. But also people who had once clearly ignored her were now suddenly interested in her and many of her new followers seemed to be there out some kind of guilt or performance.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: Everybody wanted a piece of me. They wanted to write articles. They wanted me to come to their shows. "Can you teach?" "Teach what?" "Can you be a keynote speaker?" "About what?" Now, I was like, back off. So many opportunities I passed up on because, one, I don't know you. I don't know if you're legit to not. I went through your feet. The only thing black on your feet is the ink. No, thank you.
Jason Feifer: So that Is how her year went, dominated by this question of what these people really wanted and what part of what she had to say they really cared about.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: Then 2020 happened, George Floyd happened and the heads were reared again. "I follow you for knitting. If you're not going to talk about knitting, I'm not going to..." Okay. First of all, unfollowing me is not a threat. You didn't announce when you followed me. There's no need for you to announce when you decide to unfollow me, the X I checked on the iPhone on an Android, on your laptop, on your iPad, X is in the same spot. Just hit it and be well. So when people kept saying, I'm just here for the knitting, guys, I can't just knit.
Jason Feifer: Why were these people following her in the first place? Were they ever paying attention to what she had been saying before? It is unclear, but whatever the reason we have reached that moment that I talked about earlier, the moment when people believe that at a simple thing...
Audio Clip (Prager U): I need to relax to escape the drama of real life.
Jason Feifer: ... has become corrupted by certain people who represent our terrible and unusual nowadays.
Audio Clip (Prager U): Almost everything nowadays, even knitting has become political.
Jason Feifer: Which means that this is a good time to hit pause on GG's story. We'll come back to her later. Let's now rewind from nowadays to then a days, yesterday a days. Anyway, you get the idea. I promised earlier to reveal how the history of knitting reflects some of the greatest and most contentious issues of our time. So let's get to it. And here is our guide.
Liz Kristan: My name is Liz Kristan and I am a knitting historian and also a book mobile librarian from the north suburbs of Chicago.
Jason Feifer: Liz has been knitting since she was seven years old. And when she was 10, she was gifted a copy of a knitting pattern book from 1917.
Liz Kristan: It just blew my little kid mind that I can take a pattern that was published so many decades ago and I can make something and have this commonality with my ancestors, with people who had gone before me.
Jason Feifer: And she's been studying the history of knitting ever since, which is good. Knitting needs historians, because as it turns out, this is the longtime academic attitude towards the subject.
Liz Kristan: Knitting is considered women's work and not really worth serious academic thought.
Jason Feifer: In other words, it's our familiar refrain, just a simple pleasure for simple people, which is a convenient way of not bothering to look for complexity. Historians did start taking knitting more seriously in the '90s, but Liz says there's still lots of work to be done. And as a result, we don't know exactly when knitting began, but so far it has been traced back to Africa in the 11th century. Then knitting made its way along trade routes into Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. And for a few hundred years, it's mostly rich people knitting nice things for other rich people or for the church.
Jason Feifer: Then in the 14th century, paintings in Italy and Germany start to show the Virgin Mary knitting, which is a good sign that knitting was commonplace among upper class women. And then over the centuries, knitting became more and more common worn by more and more people. But who was doing all the knitting? Here is where we encounter our first complexity.
Liz Kristan: For much of the history of knitting, it has been something that everybody does equally, men, women, and children. So there have been some points in some places in history where it actually has been illegal for women to knit.
Jason Feifer: Knitting became big business. And in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, it was dominated by guilds. Guilds that as guilds are want to do, decided who was in and who was out. The guilds demanded that in order to knit, you had to become a master knitter and master knitters could only be men. There was a small workaround, which is that a male master knitter could hire a female relative to help him, but that had its limits. In 1689, for example, a law passed in Vienna limited what exact a woman could knit.
Liz Kristan: If there was a complicated aspect of a knit, the female knitter, like let's say, you're the master knitter sister or mother or something would have to stop and then hand it over to a man to finish the complicated aspect and then take it back. So if you're knitting a sock and you're knitting the leg, that's really simple. You're just going than around and around. But the heel, you got to turn it. That's too complicated for a woman, can't handle that. So you have to hand that over to the master knitter for him to do, and then you can resume.
Jason Feifer: Throughout time, one group has maintained control over another group by limiting access to education and knitting was no exception. In other times, in other areas of the world, the gender would come to play a different role in knitting. In early modern England, pastors openly worried about how knitting gave men and women too much time to talk with each other. Others worried, as you heard earlier, that if women got too comfortable making a living off of knitting, they wouldn't want to be servants anymore.
Jason Feifer: Gender also plays a role in one of the most significant turning points in the history of knitting. And for that matter, the history of worries about jobs lost to machines, or at least gender plays a central role in the legend of how that turning point came to be. It's unclear of how true it is. But here is the story as it's been told for hundreds of years. The year is 1589 and a British Reverend named William Lee is courting a young lady, but at every time he visited her, she was too busy knitting to pay attention to him. A book published in 1831 written by a man who claimed to have gotten the story directly from old people who'd heard it themselves, goes like this.
Jason Feifer: Whenever he paid his visits, she always took care to be busily employed in knitting and would pay no attention to his addresses. This conduct, she pursued to such a harsh extent and he vowed to devote his future leisure. Instead of dancing attendance on a capricious woman who treated his attention with cold neglect in devising and invention, that should supersede her favorite employment of knitting.
Jason Feifer: So wait a second. Let's make sure we've got the story correct. This Reverend visits a woman he likes, but she's always like, "Sorry, Rev, too busy knitting." And of course, because men throughout time cannot take a hint, the good Reverend vows to somehow invent something that would stop her from knitting so she'd pay attention to him. Now, is any of this true? Historians debate and doubt it, but a version of the legend dates back to 1677. So it's been around a while.
Jason Feifer: In anyway, what matters most is that William Lee, whoever exactly he was and for whatever exact reasons he did it, did in fact, invent something that made knitting a lot more efficient. It was called the stocking frame and it was the first machine to automate a lot of the knitting process. Now the object of William Lee's affection would have no choice, but to pay attention to him. And as it turns out, the knitters of the world could be much more efficient too. This, as you might imagine, did not exactly go over well with the knitting industry at the time. As legend has it, when William Lee tried to apply for a patent for his machine, Queen Elizabeth said no, because she feared the impact that it would have on the knitting industry. And whether or not that's true, what is definitely true is that England at the time was already in the business of regulatory capture, the proud tradition of government passing laws to protect their favorite industries. And knitting was definitely protected.
Liz Kristan: The knit you unions in England were very powerful and could petition the queen to say, pass a law saying you have to buy our products and use them.
Jason Feifer: There was, for example, the wool cap act of 1571.
Liz Kristan: Men who owned less than 20 marks land, I believe it was, were legally required to wear this sort of silly floppy hat that had to have been knit and finished and made in everything in England, by English skilled knitters.
Jason Feifer: A law literally mandating that poor people buy silly hats to benefit the local knitters. Wealthy people were exempted from this of course. And you might think that sounds crazy, but also, have you ever bought a car at a car dealership in America and wondered why you must endure this insane and completely unpleasant experience? It is because in nearly every state in the country, there is a law against car manufacturers selling you their cars directly. One can only imagine the amount of campaign donations that led to that. So regulatory capture is alive and well in Elizabeth and England, but even that wasn't enough to stop the rise of automation,
Jason Feifer: William Lee's invention, which automated part of the knitting process did eventually make its way out into the world. And as a result, knitting became much more efficient, which meant a knitting company could make the same amount of clothing with far fewer people, which meant that the thing everyone very reasonably and rightly fears about automation now had to be confronted. What would happen to the jobs. And now different laws had to be considered.
Liz Kristan: There were several attempts to pass laws to make destruction of a stocking frame, a capital offense, like that you could be put to death for in England, because there were several waves of professional sock knitters who would crash into a factory and start smashing up the frames because they were taking away their work.
Jason Feifer: Think of it with knitting in Elizabeth and England, you have a preview of the question that would come to dominate economies forever more. It happens hundreds of years before the Luddites famously smashed textile machines in the 19th century and hundreds more years before we today, grapple with the automation and factories and the looming impact of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. And the question of course is, what happens when we make work more efficient to the point where machines do the things that humans once did? Do we just lose jobs?
Jason Feifer: As it turns out, knitting would become a centuries case study in answering this question because William Lee's invention was only the first of many, many new machines. By the industrial revolution of the late 1700s, knitting would become even more automated leading to a radical shift in knitting. The powerful knitting guilds would lose their grip on the profession and their desire to protect a small number of jobs was just incompatible with the realities of industrial knitting.
Jason Feifer: So I naturally wondered what was the result? The ultimate result of all of this. And I had a hypothesis that I posed to Liz. I said, well, people at the time would naturally be concerned about job losses because more efficient supply means that you need fewer people to fulfill demand, but that's assuming that the orders are fixed. But if you can be more in producing, well, then the price can go down. And if the price goes down, then the number of orders is probably not fixed. In fact, the number of orders probably exponentially expands at which point you might need actually more people to fulfill those orders than less. That's just a hypothesis. I have no idea if this exists in your head or in the world of records but, do we know anything about that? Is there anything to say?
Liz Kristan: Yeah. Knitting is really also renowned for having a lot of different regional styles. Like, you think of like the Irish sweater with the cables and those twisty stitches all over them and fair aisle sweaters, which are the ones with all the colors on them. Those really only came around the time of the industrial revolution kind of in competition with the machines because they couldn't make those kind of details at first. That's a much more recent invention to be able to do those kind of elaborate sweaters and really elaborate things. So one thing that really could be said is that if your job is no longer just to turn out hundreds of, so that are going to be worn out in a matter of months by a farmer who's trotting around in them and getting them wet and felting them and all that stuff that damages them very quickly, you kind of do have the opportunity then to start exploring.
Jason Feifer: Innovation. Liz is describing innovation. The machines created efficiency, which force knitters to more creatively compete, thereby producing entirely new arguably better products. See? Told you that the history of knitting would seem surprisingly relevant today and it gets even more relevant because next I'm going to tell you about how the history of knitting echoes the conspiracy theories that we have seen around COVID and the vaccines. And oh boy, you think this is unique to our time? Just you wait. Coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So we've already covered knitting's complicated gender roles and how it stands as an object lesson And what happens when industry is disrupted by automation. And now let's talk about knitting fueled conspiracy theories in a time before the internet. The story begins as it so often does with a very real problem.
Liz Kristan: The industrial revolution did not factor in the importance of lump free socks.
Jason Feifer: You know, many things have been said about the industrial revolution, but I have never heard that one before, and yet it is surprisingly important. For centuries from the 1700s until World War I, the industrial sock making process was not sophisticated enough to produce smooth toes and heels. This meant that socks of the time were lumpy and lumpy socks are of course very annoying, but in certain circumstances, they are also dangerous.
Liz Kristan: Lumps on your socks on your heels and on your toes, that's a great opportunity to get a blister. A blister is a great opportunity to get gang green. Gang green is a great opportunity to die. So this suddenly becomes a major issue because they simply could not churn out the right kind of socks soldiers to be wearing. And then, especially once it became obvious that trench warfare was going to be the way the war was going, and you're getting your feet wet and you're in the mud and the rain, you need perfectly smooth socks.
Jason Feifer: This is a problem that needed solving and a machine was not up to the task. Then an unlikely monster came up with a solution. He was a decorated British army officer named Lord Hario Herbert Kitchener. And he was previously famous for his prominent role in the second Anglo Boar War, a three year war fought over the British Empire's influence in South Africa. Kitchener oversaw a scorched earth policy there and ran concentration camps that killed more than 26,000 women and children. In the early days of World War I as Kitchener saw British and American soldiers falling ill because of lumpy socks, he put out a call to allies across the world. "If you are at home," he said, "and you know how to knit, then it is your patriotic duty to make socks with seamless heels and seamless toes."
Liz Kristan: He puts out that call. Very quickly, Americans start doing it, Australians started doing it, people all over Europe start doing it. They're knitting for soldiers and they're knitting for war refugees.
Jason Feifer: The technique to do this, to make seamless heels and toes had been around for centuries. It just wasn't something a machine was able to reproduce, but because of the war effort, knitters now gave the technique a name, the Kitchener stitch.
Liz Kristan: So that's why to even today, we call it the Kitchener stitch. Whenever I tell people that it always blows their mind.
Jason Feifer: This wasn't the only thing knitters were asked to make for the war, by the way. They also made millions of sweaters, caps, scars, bandages, but while individual people were being asked to come together to make some kind of very small sacrifice for a greater collective good. There were many people, many loud people who were like a man named Samuel S. Dale who sent a letter to the Chronicle of Brookline, Massachusetts to say, "For God's sake, wake up and stop this hand knitting."
Liz Kristan: There was a lot of rumors going around that I've seen the red cross have to address, like there was one lady who claimed that she thought out the yarn the red cross was giving her was poisoned, and that this was a secret German effort to poison good hearty patriotic American women by poisoning the yarn. Because she said she started to feel really sick after handling this yarn. And there are people who say, oh, if you donate to the red cross, they're just going to rip up your sweater and use the yarn for something else, they're just taking your yarn or whatever you make is going to be so low quality. It's not going to be worth it. It won't hold up to the literal trenches in France. Don't even bother you're wasting your time. So there were a lot of people who tried to naysay really hard and it became kind of charged politically.
Jason Feifer: The Red Cross, which distributed a lot of these knitted items was getting so peppered with questions and concerns from all this disinformation that they had to spend what seems like a considerable amount of time, debunking them. And let us be clear. That is time that is otherwise spent helping people during war.
Liz Kristan: There was this pamphlet published by the St. Louis Red Cross, and it's like 101 answers about the war. And God, I wish I could remember the exact number. I want to say it was like 17 or something close to 17 of those 101 year questions about the war were related to knitting is absurd.
Jason Feifer: And doesn't that sound familiar? I mean, here is our version of it today where CBS is Nora O'Donnell and Bill Gates have to spend time talking about this garbage.
Audio Clip (CBS): To be clear do you want a vaccine so that you can implant microchips into people?
Audio Clip (CBS): No, there's no connection between any of these vaccines and any tracking type thing at all. I don't know where that came from.
Jason Feifer: Two time periods, same result. A nation and the world endeavor to hold together during a moment of great destabilization and ask individuals to make a small, reasonable effort to help and not everyone is up to the task. Today, of course, we have this narrative that our misinformation is entirely the result of social media. That if only we had fewer ways to communicate with each other, we'd be able to act as a more cohesive whole. But you know what? People during World War I, they didn't have Facebook. You know how they spread misinformation? Local newspapers, occasionally carried or even promoted their ideas, but mostly...
Liz Kristan: It seems like what was happening more was they were spreading gossip in neighborhoods.
Jason Feifer: How about that? People talk. So yes, we should aim to stop the spread of misinformation, particularly when that misinformation can lead directly to loss of life. But if we limit ourselves to thinking that the problem lies and the tools that we use to communicate, we will never actually solve the problem because it is not a tool problem, it is an us problem. So there, we have it, gender inequality, resistance to automation and misinformation during war time, three big moments that shaped knitting. And that made it not simple but complicated. And there's more where that came from, of course. Benjamin Franklin weirdly promoted the idea that knitting is only for poor people. Medical report in 1910 claim that knitting is bad for your health because it promotes a sedentary lifestyle. But anyway, you get it, right? This is not a legacy of old ladies in rocking chairs. Knitting like anything else is and always has been complicated.
Jason Feifer: So what do we do with that? It's like, okay, that's a historical fact. Knitting has a complicated legacy. And today you have a world of people who think of knitting as an entirely simple pleasure, a thing that shouldn't be disrupted by, shouldn't bend to accommodate anyone else's more complicated experience, no matter how real it is. We want our simple things to remain simple. And I wondered in the case of knitting, what happened? What actually happened when it did become complicated again today? That, honestly, is the question that I most wanted to ask GG, the knitter whose story we talked about a few minutes ago.
Jason Feifer: She had long seen a problem in knitting. She tried to talk about it for years, but nobody really listened and then suddenly everyone was listening and some people were praising her for it and following her work and treating her like a celebrity, which she was completely unprepared for and other people were hating her for it and leaving nasty comments and turning it into yet another moment in the broader culture war. And so I wanted to ask GG, did she think that anything had changed as a result of all of this or did two sides just square off and hold firm to their own truths? So that's what I asked.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: I'm a firm believer that all things unfold as they should. And I really believe I should have been right where I was and reacting the way that I do.
Jason Feifer: And then GG told me this story, this very complicated story about a time when she was at an event and a woman approached.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: Prior to COVID, I'm a hugger, so I would always tell my people, you see me hug me. If you don't like to hug, don't say nothing to me, because I'm a hugger. So I'm sitting waiting for the fashion show and it's older woman, old enough like she could have been my mother tapped me on my shoulder and she was like, you said if I see you, hug you. I was like, okay, because she didn't seem like she wanted to hug. So I hugged her. She said, and I want to tell you, you was talking about me. She was like, I didn't think black people knit. I didn't think you could afford to go in a yarn store. She said, so when you said your toe and your pain, you really hit home for me.
Jason Feifer: As a reminder, the woman is referencing what GG wrote in response to that blog post about India. You heard her discuss it at the beginning of the show. It's the idea that if you step on my toe, you don't get to tell me that it didn't her just because you didn't intend to step on it.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: And she said, that's my daughter over there. She pointed, she said, I raised a house full of racists. She said with that comment, it's your toe and your pain. Something as simple as that, she said, because I'm the person I'm going to tell you in a minute, I'm proud to be white and it ain't nothing you could tell me that's not going to make me feel different. She was like, I'm very aggressive and that's the way that I've raised my kids. She said, but when I tell you my entire family has read your blog post, my entire family, like you'll put something up and they'll be like, "Ma did you see what GG said today?" She said, because you put it in such a way that it was palatable. Like I could hear you. I wasn't instantly ready to fight you. She said, because my normal reaction is to tell you to shut up.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: I'm white and I'm proud and that's my business. And I'm like, she holding me while she's saying all this because she's saying this in my ear. And I'm saying to myself, I need this woman to let me go because I don't know if I'm going to have to fight her or what's happening. And her daughter was behind me. Like, I'm sorry. She was like, and I don't come to this mess because it's too many people. But I told my daughter, you're going to take me there because I want to meet her. This is not an email, we're going to find her and I want to talk to her. And I'm like, okay. I felt like she was chastising me, but she got it. She heard me. She said, you're not an angry black woman. She said you had a valid point. She said, and I read your blog post and I read things, different things that happened to you.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: She said, and I will honestly tell you in past situations, I would be like, what did she do? That's why they treated her like that. She probably did something. She said, I finally was able to listen. And she said, you don't know how often my family will say my toe and they'll just keep walking. She said, because you are right, nobody gets to measure your pain. She said, I want to thank you for putting it that way. She said, my family has years to unravel. She said, but because of you, we are even considering it. So I was like, thank you. So I've had an impact on people.
Jason Feifer: When I heard that story, I realized that my assumptions about this entire situation were wrong. I mean, honestly, when I called GG and asked if she felt like the last two years worth of conversation had actually changed anything, I expected... Well, I guess I fell into the trap of expecting something simple too, because I expected the answer to be simple. I figured it was either a yes, here are the concrete things that changed or no, it's the same as it always was. But that story she just told. I mean, you probably had the same experience I did, right? Throughout the story, I just didn't know whether I was hearing progress or not. Was this woman being confrontational or thankful? Was her worldview changed or staying the same aim? And the answer is it was a little of everything. And GG says, that is what she's seen. It was change, yes, but unpredictable change. And it went against whatever straight lines somebody might have wanted to draw. And maybe that's what change really looks like anyway. Not like flipping a switch, but rather like adding something new to a mixture.
Jason Feifer: I mean earlier in this episode, I told you about how white people started unfollowing GG, because they wanted her to stop talking about race and stick to knitting. But GG says that wasn't all.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: It's important that I include, I lost quite a few black followers as well because they didn't feel like I was angry enough. Okay, and as a person with a training around, I'm very much aware, the lower that you lower your voice. People got to shut up so they can hear what you're saying.
Jason Feifer: The more we expect simplicity, the more we lose track of the complexity. And to GG that complexity, complexity of human experience of the many different paths that led us to the same place is also the opportunity.
Gaye "GG" Glasby: I think we need a world of more and, not or. And I really feel like I've done a better job because I do a lot of... Every now and again, I'll do a post introducing myself, but then my call to action is, not introduce yourself to me. And those posts get so much reaction because people are not used to being asked to tell you. You know what I mean? Especially when they put you up on this high pedestal and that's when I say the magic happens, "Oh wait, I grew up there. I went to that high school. What year were you there?" You know? They started talking to each other and I'm like, you're building a community of people that probably would've never ever said anything to each other. But now they're finding that. I often say that string, the yarn is that string that connects us. Right? And really, I wouldn't change anything. The good and the bad, the hurt feelings. I don't think I would change anything because all of it has made me who I am now.
Jason Feifer: A world of more and instead of a world of more or. Contrast that with the video we heard or earlier the one talking about knitting mobs in the fault of nowadays.
Audio Clip (Prager U): I knit to relax to escape the drama of real life.
Jason Feifer: The thing is a world of and allows for that too, doesn't it? You can still knit to relax and also hear or engage with or just be aware of or tolerate someone else's different experience. A world of and allows for something to be enjoyable and imperfect, to have a history and a present and a still unshaped future. A world of and allows us to have smarter conversations informed by the things we know and the things we have yet to learn.
Jason Feifer: At the beginning of this episode I offered a theory, what if we stopped believing that simple things are simple. What if instead we assume that everything and especially the things that we do not understand or participate in ourselves or the people we do not know or interact with are in fact rich and complex. I said this complexity would in fact make our lives simpler. And I think GG's philosophy is the answer to this.
Jason Feifer: It's because when we can hold complexity in our heads and when we welcome it in, then it pushes us not to just move in one direction, not just to speak at people, but instead as GG says, to bring them together in a world of and, where simple things can be reveal for what they truly are, they are complex pleasures. And that's our episode. But, hey, we talked about some strange wartime conspiracy theories in this episode and I have one more wartime mishap to share with you. This one is more well intended. I'll play it for you in a minute, but first do you want to feel more optimistic about the future? Sign up for my newsletter. It is called also build for tomorrow and will deliver a regular dose of optimism and ways to become more forward thinking. Find it by going to jasonfeifer.bulletin.com. Again, jasonfeifer, J-A-S-O-N-F-E-I-F-E-R.bulletin.com. And if you want to get in touch with me directly, you could up my website, jasonfeifer.com or follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I am at heyfeifer.
Jason Feifer: This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer, sound editing by Alec Bayless. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantmusic.com. Thanks to knitting historian Liz Kristan for initiating this episode. She is a listener of the show and reached out to share her knowledge. And if you, dear listener are also full of something that you think I'd find fascinating, let me know. Also, a huge thanks to Gaye Glasby, also known as GG for sharing her story. You can find all of her beautiful orange work at ggmadeit.com or on Instagram at GGmadeit.
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology of transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria visit cki.org, that's cki.org.
Jason Feifer: All right, one more bit from knitting and World War I. Remember knitters were asked to produce things that could keep soldiers comfortable in the war. And these soldiers of course needed clothing that blended into their surroundings, khaki camouflage, something that did not stand out in a war zone. But well-intentioned patriotic knitters did not always get that message.
Liz Kristan: I've also seen some very funny articles and newspapers of the Red Cross telling people, for of the love of God, please stop knitting American flags into things. We need them to be khaki. People kept like making bright red, white, and blue sweaters and trying to donate them. And they're like, no, we can't give these to them. This is the first war with camouflage and you guys are ruining it.
Jason Feifer: But they meant so well. That's all for this time. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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