The first time Emily Whitted, ’16, picked up knitting needles, she was 10, maybe 11 years old, and almost immediately stumbling, struggling, and dropping stitches. But she pushed through on her own, finding her rhythm and finishing her first project — a navy blue scarf and hat she gave to her dad for Christmas.
Only then did she finally notice the instructions that came with the kit she’d bought at a local craft store; they were written for right-handers, and she’s a lefty. But it didn’t matter; by that time, she was hooked.
Knitters, like all communities, contain subcultures, but the general public’s perception of them as happily domesticated women at home in 1950s advertising is as anachronistic as the patriarchal culture that spawned it. Three waves of feminism have seen changing perceptions of domestic handicrafts. From an initial rejection, many feminists have come full circle, embracing knitting while redefining and pushing it in new directions.
“Women are realizing just how much knitting and crochet and needlework can be a commentary on the very things they’re trying to accomplish,” Whitted says, who took up the study of knitting’s social contexts at Richmond. “Feminism now has a much more global lens. It’s understanding how the economy works, how certain groups of people can be exploited in the fashion industry, the use of cheap materials, and what sizes are sold in certain stores.”
One of the most visible voices in the modern craft is Vogue Knitting, which offers modern styles, textures, and colors that are right at home on Etsy and Pinterest. It was that perspective that drew Whitted as her skills developed and she launched her own custom knitwear business, Knit Whitted, as a high school student.
Still, if you have trouble picturing Whitted as an 18-year-old, first-year student sitting in D-hall knitting, you’re in good company. She didn’t see it either. Her needles were a hobby, a side business, and she packed them away when she got to Richmond.
But as freshman year struggles began to extend into her sophomore year, she found a helpful mentor in Scott Johnson, her professor in Stories of Work, Life, and Fulfillment — a Sophomore Scholars in Residence program that prompts students to think differently about the lives they want to live.
“He asked what I like to do, and I started to talk about knitting,” she says. “He said, ‘That’s the thing you talk about with more passion and interest than anything else. You should really consider that.’”
“People follow their passions all the time, but I think mine gets stereotyped for being something that grandmothers do. I just needed a push, someone to say, ‘That’s not silly.’”
The conversation led Whitted to explore product design and craftivism — and to apply for an internship with Vogue Knitting. She’s spending her summer at the magazine’s New York City headquarters assisting with readership surveys, product styling and photo shoots, testing patterns, and even contributing her own designs.
She’s not sure where it all will lead, but with each new opportunity, she adds another stitch, and another row, and starts to see patterns coming to light.
“I feel like I’m in the best place because I have so many things I could possibly do,” she says. “But throughout all of these, fiber arts is really grounding me. I may just try out all of them because I’m young and there’s no rule that says I have to stay in a certain field.”
Watch Whitted talk more about knitting in this video produced by SSIR classmate Thomas Davant, '16.