“Knitting is just so white. Let’s hope it gets better.” I overheard this puzzling remark in my local yarn store in Edinburgh, Scotland, last week. The store is in the affluent area of Marchmont, just outside the city centre. Its Edwardian and Victorian tenement flats, adjacent to huge green spaces, are popular with students and families alike. Two customers were chatting to the store owner: “It’s about time we had the conversation,” one of them offered. Her companion nodded in solemn agreement.
Knitting, which helps lower the blood pressure and keep the mind busy, has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in recent years. The Internet has allowed for the proliferation of new platforms from which to buy yarn and patterns, and has helped connect artisans and hobbyists worldwide. Usually, it’s a calming and creative pastime focussed on aesthetics rather than politics. However, a short browse through the knitting posts on Instagram steered me in the direction of the source of the exchange I had overhead and the “conversation” it had produced.
On January 7, Karen Templer, a knitting designer and owner of the online store Fringe Association, published an innocuous blog post on her website entitled “2019: My Year of Colour,” in which she enthused about her forthcoming trip to India. To most observers, Templer’s post will read like a guileless account of her hopes and aspirations for her upcoming travels:
I’ve wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember. I’ve a lifelong obsession with the literature and history of the continent. Photos of India fill me with longing like no other place. One of my closest friends [when I was 12] and her family had offered back then that if I ever wanted to go with them on one of their trips, I could. To a suburban midwestern teenager with a severe anxiety disorder, that was like being offered a seat on a flight to Mars. … Then about six weeks ago, the opportunity presented itself—a chance to go with a friend who’s been. … I said yes. And I felt like the top of my head was going to fly off, I was so indescribably excited. Within 48 hours, three of those friends of mine who are so much better travelers than me—but who are all equally humbled at the idea of actually going to India—also said yes. There has hardly been a single day since that I haven’t said in disbelief, either in my head or out loud, I’m going to India.
And what on earth could be wrong with any of that? Rather a lot, it turns out. After a series of encouraging posts from well-wishers, the comment thread took an aggressively inquisitorial turn. Templer’s previous posts had typically garnered between three and 30 comments, but “My Year of Color” has 197 at the time of writing.
One of the first people to attack Templer was a user named Alex J. Klein who wrote:
Karen, I’d ask you to re-read what you wrote and think about how your words feed into a colonial/imperialist mindset toward India and other non-Western countries. Multiple times you compare the idea of going to India to the idea of going to another planet—how do you think a person from India would feel to hear that?
Templer politely explained that Mars and India both felt unattainable to her as a child. This comparison did not strike her as imperialist, but she promised to give the matter some thought. “I have had responses from several Indian friends and readers today,” she added, “who had nothing but positive and encouraging responses. I’ll have to see if anything I said offended them.” Evidently unimpressed, Klein retorted:
Instead of asking your Indian friends to perform more emotional labor for you and assuage your white women’s tears, maybe do some reflection on how your equation of India with an alien world reinforces an “other” mindset that is at the core of imperialism and colonialism.
“I want to say this gently,” a comment from a user identified only as Sarah began, “because I can tell your intent is to share your personal evolution and celebrate facing your fear of the unknown, and that’s great. I just need to point out that there’s a lot of “othering” happening in this post.” She went on to explain that, “Your post upset some of my friends who aren’t white [and] who didn’t grow up in America,” and advised Templer to engage in “a little more reflection before you equate India with Mars.”
In an ominous development, previously supportive commenters now began to turn against Templer. Marie Carter, who had originally written, ”You are even more inspiring than I thought,” seemed to have had a change of mind three days later, and returned to correct herself:
I have read through the entire post again, and I am ashamed to say that I failed to consider the impact of this post on all of us non-white people. I skipped over the offensive parts because this space is so important to my well being [sic]. But my heart hurts and I won’t be able to live with myself unless I acknowledge the pain to me and others like me of the words used. I am no longer going to say nothing.
“Same here,” replied “Liz n.” (a “biracial POC”) a day later.
On and on it went. Templer patiently fielded these criticisms as best she could, but her inquisitors were not satisfied. “It is really disappointing,” announced Joey, “to see your defensive and dismissive responses to the two thoughtful posts that point out some of the problematic aspects of your writing. As white person to another white person, we NEED to take feedback with respect and integrity. … Instead of your “year of color” being about wearing brighter clothing, why don’t you make 2019 investing in contributing to people of color, buying their art, listening to their podcasts, following them, contributing money to them, buying literature written by POC.”
Comments like these set off a wave of critical voices across knitting communities on sites like Ravelry.com, the biggest source of online knitting patterns by independent designers from around the world and the home of many knitting chat forums. Most of the criticism amounted to sharing words written by knitting activists @su.krita and @thecolormustard, who posted “educational” content on their profiles for others to circulate. Instagram notes scorned Templer’s “peak whiteness,” and reminded her that “the world doesn’t owe you a patient explanation and education” and that as a “coloniser” she ought to “stay in [her] lane.” Su.krita also warned her white knitter friends that if they stayed silent and didn’t speak up against racism then they would be considered “part of the problem.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the jargon of contemporary anti-racism, the criticism of Templer reflects the movement’s more general critique of Western society. Overt racism, which anyone would agree is abhorrent, is not their main focus; rather, they are preoccupied with identifying subtle, implicit, and often unconscious manifestations of bias which, by their nature, are almost impossible to refute. In this fraught climate, writers may be shamed as racists, irrespective of their good intentions which are held to be irrelevant. As Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, observed during a recent conversation with Joe Rogan, “It doesn’t matter what the intent was, all that matters is the impact—how the person felt.” When confronted with accusations of bigotry, white people are expected to confess to their primordial sins, repent by acknowledging their racial privilege, and to resolve to “do better.” Only then may they be granted absolution by the anti-racist clergy.
As outrage spread across Instagram’s knitting community, Templer published a new post on her blog entitled “Words Matter,” in which she prostrated herself before her critics and asked for their forgiveness:
I have hurt, angered and disappointed a lot of people this week with my insensitive post about my upcoming trip to India and my handling of the response, and I am deeply sorry about it. I’ve spent the week listening hard, learning (in part about how much more I have to learn), and thinking about all of the things I can do to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color.
She reassured everyone that she was “shocked at herself” and was now reading The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, as instructed.
* * *
Amid the conformist cacophony of affirming antiracists, however, one knitter decided to object.
Maria Tusken of Tuskenknits.com posted the video above on YouTube in response to criticism she had received in another (now deleted) video. She began by explaining that Instagram had been enormously helpful in growing her business, before announcing that, after nearly four years on the platform, she would be taking an indefinite break. Referring to the mobbing of Karen Templer, Tusken said:
There was a very intense social justice issue that started infiltrating Instagram a few weeks ago. I would say it was very hostile, and people were being attacked and threatened and accused of things—small businesses, like mine, or slightly bigger with a few employees but still very small—all in the name of this social justice issue. And everyone was saying, “It’s a conversation.” But it is not a conversation. It’s a one-sided….belief? And there was no room for discussion. It was just arguments; trolling; bullying.
Tusken dyes wool from her home in the countryside outside of Seattle, and uses wool from small farms in Peru and the UK. For her criticisms of those hounding Templer, Tusken found that she was now also the target of the mob. Having found the majority of her customers through Instagram, she was suddenly losing thousands of followers as she weathered a barrage of criticism, and was forced to make her account private.
“It will be easy to boycott this person,” wrote an Instagram user with the handle @knitterotica. “No amount of reason will change a zealot like Tuskenknits’ mind, but we can make sure they feel their hatred reflected in their bank accounts and their follower counts until they are crying into a void.” Another Instagram user, @webloom, published a post in which she asked: “How does [Tuskenknits] still have 10,000 followers? Hope they keep dwindling. She doesn’t deserve our support.” Another user, @melthengineerknits offered Tuskenknits’s customers the opportunity to offload their “unwanted yarn” in exchange for “yarn art.”
It wasn’t long before the knitting establishment weighed in, and not in favour of Tusken. Kate Heppell, the editor of British knitting magazine Knit Now, posted a short tweet-thread about her, part of which read:
Please don’t be sucked in by her and people like her. Challenge them. Don’t give them your money. Report hate speech.
— Kate (@KateHeppell) January 30, 2019
To one of Heppell’s tweets, Dave Fraser (@discodave75) replied: “I‘d love to say I watched the whole video to make an informed decision about her, but I was blinded by her (literally) gleaming white face.” This childish insult was liked by Heppell.
The “whiteness in knitting” debate seems to have arisen from the demands of “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Colour) knitters and their allies for greater representation in terms of knitting designers, models featured in patterns, and well known knitting artists. Rapidly, knitters on Instagram started using hashtags such as #pocknitters and #diversknitty, and there were calls to support POC knitters by buying from them (if they owned a business) and following them, and to “buy them a coffee” by donating money to their Patreon accounts. “Train your feed!” became the new mantra, as users accused Instagram of not showing people of colour in feeds.
At Ravelry, a heavily moderated discussion took place, suggesting ways in which the site should use positive discrimination to show more patterns by non-white designers. Knitting has varied traditions and origins from across the globe, but it is particularly popular in Scandinavia where even small towns typically have a well-stocked wool shop. Arne & Carlos, the Norwegian/Swedish knitting design duo, who have 55,000 followers on Instagram, dipped their toe in the mud with a post in which they thanked the “incredibly courageous women“ such as @su.krita for drawing attention to the issues of diversity and alleged racism. “We all have so much to learn and there is a great deal more we can do, in order to make this world a better and more inclusive one for everyone.”
In an age in which freedom of speech seems to be under attack in many different spheres of society, heretics to the progressive creed find themselves persecuted ad nauseam by a choir of the self-righteous. This kind of vindictive activism has been described by Jordan Peterson as a hunt for people who dare to disagree. “What’s happening on the radical end of the political spectrum is not good. But the conservatives are too afraid. They’re afraid they will be targeted as individuals, mobbed by the social justice warriors, and taken out,” he said in an interview with the Epoch Times. The writer and activist James Lindsay, meanwhile, told me that campaigns like these are simply “a power grab thinly clothed as a civil rights movement.”
Karen Templer surrendered to her accusers and, although some of her critics remain adamant that she has not done enough for diversity, she seems to have been accepted back in the clique of “BIPOC knitter friendly” knitting activists. ”I think perhaps the original intent of this discussion has been hijacked in an effort to attack and accuse people who disagree with the methods of implementing change,” Tusken told me in an email. “This debate has caused a lot of division, but the divide isn’t between racists and non-racists. It is between those who agree and those who disagree with the bullying, harassment, and virtue-signalling tactics currently being used to solve the problem.” She says she has received support from many well-known names in the knitting industry. Of her accusers, Tusken said: “I have known for a long time that the knitting community wasn’t as supportive and loving as everyone claimed. In reality there are strong cliques and it can be difficult to fit in. There have been many times I’ve had to keep my mouth shut due to fear of something like this happening. I have been called a ‘hateful racist POS [piece of shit].’ But this didn’t hurt nearly as bad as being called a horrible person and publicly denounced by ‘friends’ who I have met in person and built relationships with.” She was even accused of being a neo-Nazi because she enjoys drinking Guinness. But as incongruous as cruelty and knitting might seem, this is no laughing matter. People’s livelihoods are being credibly threatened by this kind of behaviour. “You can be bullied and destroyed,” Tusken told me.
Knitting is the simple pleasure of turning a ball of yarn into something practical and beautiful. As Elizabeth Zimmermann, the British born hand knitting teacher and designer once said, “Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” Let’s hope the world of knitting can return to a focus on designs, colours, and the value of something that’s unique and handmade, rather than the nationality or race of whoever made it.