(Instagram user @knityorkcity. Edited.)
Pussy hats are a nation-wide collaborative project started by LA artists Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman. Their mission is to “provide the people of the Women’s March on Washington D.C. a means to make a unique collective visual statement”. Participants are invited to knit simple, pink hats that give the wearer cat ears in direct reference to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s deeply disturbing comments about his own history of grabbing women “by the pussy”. Conceived of as a way for those unable to make it to Washington DC to participate by proxy, the project is now so popular that stores are reporting an inability to keep pink yarn on the shelves.
As these shortages sweep the nation, I think it’s important – AND COOL – to understand how the specifics of this particular project fit snugly in with the history of what craft theorist Glenn Adamson once called “the pink yarn paradigm” and also to consider the collective power behind this kind of artisanal protest.
Color is a powerful visual shorthand: effectively communicating not only general cultural concepts, but extremely specific meanings. I recently did a classroom version of this online test with my middle school students and every single one of them accurately identified Starbucks, Coke-a-Cola and McDonalds simply from a solid color on my computer screen. Even a spread of all the colors scientifically comprising the visual spectrum – y’know, a rainbow – has unequivocally come to represent gay culture, The fluency of this language has been especially handy when it comes to selling products or allying oneself with a movement, even superficially. For example, pink has corporate associations with Komen for the Cure, an organization that raises funds for breast cancer research but is not without scandal or criticism for it’s blatant over-branding. (Remember “pinkwashing? And even the pink drill bits? Problematic to say the least.) Pink is the color of ladies. It’s link to breast cancer research has literally associated it with breasts. Light or pastel pink evokes the softness of baby girls (inserts shade here). Deep pink is the color of Valentines, romance and sexuality. Pink has also come to represent queerness; see the Pink triangle of the Silence = Death AIDS era icon and the general fact that most straight men wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the color without expectation- either positive or negative. (If you’re a straight dude bristling at that, take a moment to ask yourself if you honestly don’t feel at least a bit of self-congratulatory radicalism when you don that short-sleeved light pink button up on your way to the office.) Hot pink, specifically, has become a reclamation: a way of making “cute”, “feminine” and “queer” into something fierce, powerful, eye-catching and unavoidable.
While a bit disconcerting in regards to corporate power and the potential brainwashing of our youth, the use of color shorthand is inevitable and essentially democratic. No matter what Coke wants, they can’t own a whole slice of the color wheel.
(The Center for Reproductive Rights Supreme Court decision day, photographed in Washington DC, 27 June 2016. Part of the 5.4 Million Stitch Project by Chi Nguyen.)
Coined by writer Besty Greer in 2003, Craftivism is a form of political speech or action that incorporates hand-making. Strongly aligned with feminism and anti-capitalism, participants in this movement strive to challenge concepts of gender conformity and systems of value by bringing traditionally domestic (ie feminine/low-value) practices into public (ie masculine/high-value) spaces in outspokenly political ways. Knitting, for example, has been a prolific and powerful agent for craftivism, with groups like Knitta, Please (Texas) and The Circle Group (UK) and individuals like Cat Mazza and Lisa Anne Auerbach at the helm. Craftivist projects can also be collaborative in nature, such as the AIDS quilt – otherwise known as the Names Project – which collected enough hand-sewn fabric squares in honor of individuals/families affected by the AIDS crisis to cover the national mall in 1987. Locally and recently, Rachel Wallis and We Charge Genicide created the Gone But Not Forgotten quilt which memorialized the names of those killed by police in the city of Chicago through hand-embroidered patches created in public sewing circles held over 2015 and 2016. (And so many more!)
And, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this increasingly verbose blog entry, Pussy Hats aren’t the first sighting of pink yarn in Craftivist legacy. LJ Roberts covered a barbed-wire fence in hot pink yarn almost a decade ago and Danish artists Marianne Jørgensen commissioned small squares of pink knitting to create a cozy for a tank to protest Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war. Both of these projects aimed to literally soften a physical threat and visually ally itself with femininity and feminism.
Glenn Adamson describes the Pink Yarn Paradigm as a “craft idiom that thrives under the conditions of attention deficit disorder; a fast way to transmit the ideals of slow culture.”* The Pussy Hat project’s end goal is to create a visual punch that can’t be ignored. The visual is, in my opinion, a worthy goal but it’s not the only positive outcome of the project. The action of making the hats is, I believe, where the true power can be found.
Women are coming together and we are talking. We are sharing our experiences and learning about the experiences of others. We’re developing new skills and new ways of thinking. We’re feeling connected and I think this is what scares them (men? conservatives? the patriarchy?) the most; what drives them to mock our methods as even more pathetic than even everyday handicraft. They are terrified that we’ll band together. Sure, knitting is about meditation, repetitive action and comforting ourselves with soft and cozy garments. But it’s also about getting together and getting mad.
They can accuse us of being pith and pitiable but we are anything but flippant. We are real. We have a history behind us. We have a movement and we are – and will continue to be – a force to be reckoned with. So, ladies: let’s knit.
(*Glenn Adamson, CraftPerspective Lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Craft. March 5, 2009.)
(CORRECTION 1/25/17: This post has been edited to reflect LJ Robert’s correct name.)
-Nora Renick Rinehart
Want to get involved? You can download sewing, knitting and crochet patterns from the Pussy Hat Project Website! Search in your area for local meet-ups!
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