No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. MacDonald

Knitting is an integral part of my identity, as it has been for many women in this country since the first European settlers arrived. While the early settlers knit out of necessity, I have the luxury of knitting for pleasure.

Some things have changed for knitters over the centuries, much remains the same, as you’ll quickly discover if you read Anne Macdonald’s classic study of the social history of knitting in America.

First published in 1988 and recently reissued, this book shows how knitting served as a political, economic, religious, moral, and social tool from the Colonial days through westward expansion, the Civil War, World Wars I and II (the knitting craze of the 1930s is frighteningly similar to the one today), the knitting draught of the 1960s, and our slow but steady reemergence from obscurity ever since.

Some chapters focus more on the changing fashions—and how knitters adjusted their habits to meet them—while others focus on more politically and economically driven knitting influences (such as knitting during the Great Depression and for troops at wartime).

History Primer

This is first and foremost a social history that walks us through the knitting experience in this country as it relates to our political, economic, and social evolution. That means you won’t find tips, techniques, or patterns.

Occasionally the chapters run a bit long, with Macdonald laboring to make her point several times when just one would have sufficed.

Her tone is at times conversational, at times formal and academic. My best advice would be to take a quick knitting break every time you feel your eyes start to gloss over.

Helpful for Book Collectors

If you like collecting old knitting-related information resources, the bibliography will be your treasure map. It contains 38 pages of invaluable sources of information, from diaries to newspaper articles, instruction books and leaflets, letters, speeches, and more.

Gender Balance?

Although Macdonald does an admirable job of identifying men who gave knit throughout history (with marvelous photos to illustrate her point, especially in the wartime chapters), the book focuses primarily on the evolving role women (and those who knit) have played in society.

Connecting with the Past

For American knitters, Macdonald’s book lays a much-needed historical foundation that helps keep the current knitting craze in perspective. It also helps explain the complex genesis of our arch nemesis, the “knitting is for grannies” stereotype, and why it was so important for the generation that spawned it.

Moreover, the book gives a sense of continuity and connectedness with those who knit before us, not just our knitting mothers or grandmothers (or lack thereof, in many cases) but all the way back to those early Colonial settlers who brought their knitting on the boats from Europe and relied on their handknits for survival.

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