Sticks & String

A podcast by an Australian bloke who knits.

Doing it in public

Over the past week there’s been a fair bit of talk about the public’s perception of knitting and then some action to follow up on it with the various events that have taken place over the last few days. Public events are all well and good, and they do serve a purpose as they give knitters an excuse to gather around with lots of likeminded people and have a fun time. Now, as much fun as they are, (and this may be controversial) I’m not sure they are the best way to spread the knitting word. The reason: who goes to knitting events? Knitters, and they don’t need to be told.

Large, one-off events attended mainly by knitters aren’t going to really move many of the public to take up knitting or change their minds of any preconceived notions they might have. Now I know we all get caught up with the hype surrounding such events and they certainly make a splash for a short time, but to the non-knitting public, they probably mean very little. If the event makes it into the general media, it might attract a few seconds on the television news, usually in that spot they keep for stories about kittens stuck in trees, or the new lion cubs at the local zoo. I don’t think fifteen seconds of people knitting is going to start the revolution.

Neither, do I think, will celebrity knitters. Now I think it’s nice that some well known people knit, but I also think it’s nice that other people knit. I don’t think it’s likely that people will take up knitting just because some person who appears in movies spends his or her time between takes knitting up clothes, or if it does get them started, they’re likely to drop it again just as quickly. The person who is more likely to get someone new knitting, and sticking with it, is you.
If people know you knit, then you’re going to be asked to knit things for them. When I get asked, the answer I normally give is no, but I’ll teach you how to knit. It’s an answer I’ve heard many other knitters give as well and I think we should all be prepared to do it; I spoke about that a few weeks ago. There is another way you can spread the knitting word. Do it in public.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the World Wide Knit in Public day, a day for knitters to get together outside their specialised knitting enclosures and allow others to stand and gawk. Given that it happens in so many places around the world, and that most of the people involved are just ordinary looking, this event does go a long way to let people know that knitters come in all shapes and sizes, ages and genders; but the World Wide Knit in Public day is just that, a day (this year it is Saturday 9 June) it should be lots of fun, and I’m sure lots of people will see it, but it will only be of limited effect, but it’s a good place to start.

For the other 364 days, why not knit in public anyway. Just because it’s not the official day, doesn’t mean you can’t get out there and amaze people. One of the reasons I like knitting is that I can do it while travelling to and from work. We all know how relaxing it can be, and it’s the perfect antidote to the minor annoyances of travelling with other members of ‘the public’. It makes the time pass more quickly and much more productively.

I had my current job before I moved to the mountains, and many people thought (and still do think) that I’m mad to travel two hours each way each day. I, on the other hand, see it as four hours of guilt-free knitting time. It’s certainly preferable to driving; it’s also nicer for the environment. I’m sure that it more people knitted, more people would catch public transport and that would lead to less pollution, and less traffic.

Now, of course, knitting while travelling involves knitting in public, and there are some knitters who hesitate to do that. They fear that people may look at them strangely, or something unpleasant may happen. I’ve knitted in public a awful lot since taking it back up, and so far I’m yet to have a negative experience, but lots of positive ones.

People do lots of things in public that are potentially more embarrassing than anything that can happen while knitting. People eat in public all the time, with its attendant risks of spills; people get dressed and go out in public, displaying some amazingly individual styles; and many people get in their cars and drive on public streets only to end up looking like nongs. Compared with what people get up to around you every day, knitting is the epitome of grace and style.
Now there are some tips for knitting in public that I’ve learned by trial and error:

1. Circular needles are your friend, especially when on public transport. One of the interesting things you can find on websites is the front to back spacing between seats on various airlines, because you can get fewer or more seats into the same model plane depending on how tightly the airline wants to pack its sardines ah, passengers. The same is true on busses and trains too, Sydney interurban trains have a wider spacing than the suburban ones, but busses and trains have limited room to move when it comes to side to side, after all, they still have to fit the platforms or road lanes. Now a set of sock needles aren’t going to be a problem, but I started my first on-train knitting on 14” needles, that means 28” side to side, and that’s a lot of room in a train seat, meaning that if the person next to me was attempting to read a newspaper, only one of us was going to end up happy. Circulars, on the other hand – not a problem.
2. Cables are not travelling knitting. The problem I have with cables is the cable needle. When I’m not looking it jumps off the knitting and rolls somewhere inaccessible, or under someone’s shoe. I have therefore given up attempting cables while travelling.

3. Have a container that will sit on your lap that can hold everything. As you know I use fishing tackle containers to carry my knitting around, these are extra useful on the train as they hold everything in one place, on top of my lap so I can reach anything without having to go rummaging around in a bag on the floor. Of course using the seat next to you is not a good idea as part of knitting in public is the fun of having someone sit down next to you.

4. Be careful when approaching the end of the ball of yarn. That large ball that sits nicely on the seat next to you when you start eventually gets small enough to roll down the gap between the back of the seat and the cushion, meaning you’ll have to hope that the person behind doesn’t mind you sticking your hand down to not quite reach it.

5. If you have a project that takes concentration (and hence is perfect for working on while travelling) have a second project that doesn’t. You can almost be guaranteed that if you’re working away on a particularly complex piece of lace that relies on keeping a close count, or a difficult multicolour creation, you’ll have someone sit next to you and want to strike up a conversation so have something simple to switch to. If you really need to concentrate, use an iPod or something else so you don’t get interrupted. If you don’t have an iPod, you can always sit and dribble, that tends to keep people away.

Seriously though, it is the interaction with strangers that is part of the fun of public knitting, often people will sit next to you and tell you stories of their relatives that used to knit, or how they once learned to knit but have given it up. Encourage them to give it a go. We all enjoy it, so they might too.

Of course you can knit with people other than strangers, work is a good place to break out the knitting (unless you’re an airline pilot on approach). Many jobs have times when knitting would be appropriate, and if they don’t, there’s always the lunch breaks. I don’t knit when I’m teaching, but I will take whatever with me if I’m supervising exams or extra classes. In fact I think I do a better job supervising when I’m knitting that otherwise, I stay much more attentive and am happy to keep walking around the room rather than just sitting at the front. Socks go well with exams.
If you’re knitting with people you see regularly, you’re much more likely to influence them to take it up. Keep some spare needles and yarn around for those who ask you to show them, and there will be those people when they see how much you’re enjoying it and how creative it is. And seeing you knitting everyday is much more effective than a 15 second television spot or a large group of people they don’t know colonising a public place.

So give it a go, get out there and show off your skills, help people relive pleasant memories, and perhaps increase the ranks of knitters. And remember to be extra friendly, you’re sitting there with sharpened metal spikes in your hand, so you’re going to be scarier than anyone who sits next to you, unless Wolverine happens to be catching your bus.


  1. Hi David!
    Perhaps I’m a bit of an exhibitionist, but I like to spin on my drop spindle in public; I learned to spin from a young green haired lady who I met in a ceramics class (and now I really can’t bring myself to buy much yarn)!

    Margo Wecksler
    Albany, California

    Comment by Margo Wecksler | 29 May 2007

  2. Hi,a few days ago I had to go to the dr (flue season), and I had to spend HOURS in the waiting room…
    At least I took my knitting, so my time wasn’t completely wasted. People were looking at me like I came from an other planet, not only relatively youbóng and knitting, bit knitting socks!!! With DPNs, even old ladies hardly saw anything like that…As for cables PONY (They make aluminium knitting needles) have this needle thatlooks like a giant safety pin, I use that for cables… even on trains.

    Comment by peony67 | 26 January 2008

  3. Hi David,
    I’d love to know what reaction you got to knitting whilst invigilating exams. I would love to do that and have thought about it, but I dont think it would go down well here. I teach in British curriculum school in Sudan and nobody really knits, though I’ve been seen knitting when on duty at one of the gates. Socks are fab for that. I get to London several times a year, home (Melbourne) only once….but I knit on the tube and get some really strange looks. I have cabled without a needle on a train to north of England, so its possible.I shall have to ask about knitting while supervising…or covering a class…oh that would be heaven….i cant see that being a goer here though. Wish it was.
    I love your cobblestone jumper and shall be buying some tweedy yarn for that in May when I go off for summer holidays.

    Comment by Di James | 23 March 2008

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