The McGuire Sisters, renowned for their lively performances, earned a curious honor in 1958: “Queens of Hand Knitting,” a title the singing trio received in New York during an event called “Knit it Yourself with Wool Week.” Little record of the occasion exists online, but a wonderful photograph captures the sisters posing with a giant ball of yarn and surrounded by regular-sized ones, clearly pretending to knit merrily for the camera.
That picture comes to light in a book devoted entirely to vintage photographs of knitting, published last year by Princeton Architectural Press. People Knitting is filled with 100 pictures of people with their needles and yarn; most arrive from the collection of its author, Barbara Levine, who has gathered old vernacular photographs for over 25 years.
“To watch people knit is to be invited into their private world of contemplation and innermost creative expression,” Levine writes in the introduction, “but at the same time, they are preoccupied — mapping out a pattern, counting a line, envisioning some future garment that you can’t imagine and may never see.” She notes that she is not a knitter herself, but rather a “knitter watcher.”
With photos arranged largely in chronological order, People Knitting opens with an 1890 tintype of a woman whose cheeks have been hand-tinted a now faded pink; she poses rigidly for the prolonged shutter with her knitting tools. It ends with an image of a much different tone: a 1968 snapshot by Elliott Erwitt of two nudists on a bench, one of whom is steadily stitching — an intriguing act for someone wearing no clothes out in the open. In between are beguiling snapshots of unidentified knitters but also portraits of the famous, from the McGuire Sisters to Sojourner Truth to Eleanor Roosevelt, Joan Crawford, and even Ingrid Bergman weaving wool for her twins.
Why and for whom these people are knitting is an implied question that runs throughout the slim tome, which shatters any stereotype of knitters as lonely spinsters. As Levine’s selection of cartes de visite, personal snapshots, commercial imagery, and more shows, knitting has served in the past to indicate that a woman is a skilled housewife or good mother — but it’s also a popular hobby or means to relax, enjoyed by men as much as women. In the Victorian era, the technique was fashionable among the wealthy; having your portrait done while knitting cemented your status.
Particularly memorable photographs include one of high school boys working on scarves in 1918 and a portrait of a men’s knitting group in Florida, taken the same year. An image of one woman knitting while waiting for her hair to dry and another of Japanese Americans knitting while incarcerated at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center speak to the various situations in which the act has been a means to pass time.
Many of the photographs were taken during wartime, reminding us that knitting has often stood as a display of patriotism. Those high school boys were among the many people throughout history who made garments — often socks — for troops. A telling image of women getting their hair done at a London salon in 1940 includes a note about how the salon provided the yarn and invited patrons to collectively contribute to the wartime effort. During World War I, New Yorkers were so involved in knitting for soldiers that the Philharmonic Society posted a notice in its concert hall about how some patrons had complained about knitting during performances, “which interferes with the artistic employment of the music.” The quote is one of many interspersed with the visuals of People Knitting. It recalls a comical but memorable moment in the history of this old but timeless tradition, one that highlights the camaraderie the act can create, even if it is, at heart, a solo one.