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Karida Collins, owner and founder of Neighborhood Fiber Co., said she was shocked that the conversation was happening, but added that it was inevitable.
“The first trade show I went to was in 2007 and from what I could tell I was the only black person there. I was also one of the youngest people there,” Collins said. “It was definitely a space that was older and whiter than my life normally included.”
She attributes it to people being more comfortable with expressing their political opinions in public spaces.
“I might have a black friend and we might say something about a shop, like, ‘Oh yeah, I went in there and the person ignored me, of course.’ But we wouldn’t necessarily share that information with a white person who asked about that store,” Collins said. “It’s like Pandora’s Box. All of a sudden all of these feelings and experiences that have been there for years, it’s not new. It’s not like just now people started being a little racist. Now I think the main difference is that … knitting has a much younger constituency. Younger in their 20s and 30s. These are people who statistically are much more progressive than the group that preceded them. So this is a group of people who has grown up with the idea that they are the ones who challenge the status quo.”
Another thing that makes it easier is that there are more women of color visible as knitters, designers and dyers, Collins included.
“It’s easier to raise your voice when you know that you’re not the only one,” she said. “I definitely feel like it’s not my responsibility to educate white people about racism. White people created it; white people can fix it.”
“I felt like it was upsetting the status quo a little bit … because the knitting community, especially when I was living in DC, the knitting community was almost entirely white. So I felt like just being who I was, was entirely unexpected,” she said. “I wanted to convey a distinctly urban aesthetic and idea — urban meaning ‘city’ and also meaning that like, with the connotation of being black.”
Sometimes the color names are based on aspects of a neighborhood, like the aforementioned Roland Park. And Canton is a Baltimore neighborhood with a lot of waterfront property, so the name fit a blue-green colorway. Other times they’re based on inside jokes, like a friend of Collins’ who suggested they needed a bright yellow — so they named their yellow after the neighborhood that friend lived in.
“My favorite is one that we’ve actually discontinued. It was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and I came up with it sort of inspired by Michelle Obama,” Collins said. “In the beginning of the Obama presidency everyone was really excited and hopeful. I was really kind of amped up of the idea of reaching across the aisle and collaborating to make America better for everyone. That color is a purple — it’s kind of an eggplant — but it’s got spots of red and spots of blue. There’s a lot of feeling in that yarn.”
Collins said she doesn’t expect every knitter or designer of color to take part in the discussion.
“Everyone has to act at their own comfort level, because it is emotional labor to engage in conversations and educate people about diversity and being inclusive and not even about overt racism, this is just about things that most people don’t notice or think about,” she said. “I would encourage everyone to own or embrace their identity, but whether or not you want to make your voice heard, that’s your business.”
and felt called to do something in the wake of Gray’s death. So they created a color and donated all of the money collected from the sale of those skeins.
“We were able to raise $10,000. It was the first time we did it and it far exceeded my expectation,” Collins said. “We donated it to a Baltimore charity foundation. I felt like it was something that no matter your politics, you could get behind rebuilding a city. … I was very careful to pick a fund that would be palatable to everyone. I didn’t donate the money to Black Lives Matter … and then eventually as time went on, our voice got a little louder. I started letting more of my own politics show through and it’s just part of who I am and it’s part of the ethos of this company.”
They’ve donated to causes of all sizes, but it’s the smaller or local ones where she feels the most good has been done.
“I really want to focus on helping the community in a really tangible way. When we donated $10,000 to Doctors Without Borders, that was amazing, but they’re a huge organization. Whereas we donated $10,000 to one of these gun safety advocate organizations and … they sent us the most gushing email that said, ‘Thank you so much! We can now hire this person we’ve been trying to find the money for.’ It was just really overwhelming,” Collins said.
In a recent issue of Vogue Knitting, there’s a story about how expressing beliefs through art is “as old as civilization,” said Atlanta, Georgia, resident and knitter Jill Vogin. In the US, it’s older than the country itself. According to the story, during the American Revolution British wool was taxed — and the American handspun yarn industry began.
“The American women, what they decided to do was stop using the fine wool that was coming out and using handspuns. There was a whole cottage industry during the Revolution of what women were making out of these scratchy fleeces that they were getting locally. … The American flag? It’s a quilt. Betsy Ross sewed it to express a baby country’s yearning for independence and its own identity,” Vogin said. “To me this is not a new phenomenon. This is as old as the hills. It’s just the materials we have are more sophisticated in some ways.”
For Vogin, those materials are a pair of knitting needles and a skein or 17 of yarn. Though she’s been knitting on behalf of causes she supports for several years, in late 2018 she debuted the next phase of her creativity.
“I said, ‘Find a knitter and buy the pattern,’” Vogin said. “We’ve sold a handful of them, a few hats and a few patterns. My goal is to just keep developing that over time. It really seemed to me that there is a niche there for people who want to be able to express themselves in these ways because so many women are going to the Capitol now to protest or to lobby. I can take that same basic hat pattern and put a powerful message on it.”
She’s developing a follow-up pattern in time for the 2019 Women’s Marches, inspired by people who share her political views being called snowflakes. Though she wouldn’t share all the details yet, Vogin did say that the phrase will be “I am the storm.”
“I think about this whole concept of ‘liberal snowflakes’ and feeling like yeah, one snowflake is pretty weak, but a bunch of snowflakes together? Watch out. Winter is coming,” she said.
>> color speaks
One of the first memories I have of Vogin is seeing her stand at the front of the room during the “show and tell” portion of an Atlanta Knitting Guild meeting and talk about her Elvis sweater. She knitted his portrait on a sweater in one of the most fabulous displays of colorwork I’ve ever seen, and it was followed by her John Lennon sweater. That one featured not only a portrait, but song lyrics as well. The techniques she learned making these pieces springboarded her craftivism — colorwork displays of motifs and words pertaining to causes and candidates she’s passionate about.
When Jon Ossoff ran for Georgia’s 6th Congressional district, her sweater encouraged Georgians to “vote your Ossoff.” She knitted an abstract Statue of Liberty with “persist” emblazoned on it in day-glo neons, and recently finished a “speak truth to power” top that was featured in Atlanta Senior Life magazine.
“That’s kind of where I’ve been evolving to instead of, ‘hey, vote for this person,’ and more showing my love of the country and distain for some of the things that are going on,” Vogin said.
Much of her colorwork touches on hotbed topics, but Vogin hesitates to call her patterns and finished apparel political.
“It’s beyond that, it’s more of who I am as a person. What I believe is so challenged right now by what’s going on with the government that it looks political, but it’s deeper than that,” Vogin said. “I’m using color and I’m using design to basically express what I’m feeling about what’s going on.”
Vogin said for much of her life, “nice girls” weren’t supposed to talk politics, much less embed their views and beliefs in their sweaters.
“We knitted plain little sweaters and granny squares, but we didn’t dare speak out or we would lose our jobs,” Vogin said. “I think now for women that is really changing dramatically and so I expect to see more and more of that coming out of me in what I’m doing: not being a sweet, nice girl anymore but being more true to who I am and what I feel and not being afraid to express it anymore.”