Elizabeth Zimmermann

A few days ago I saw an Elizabeth Zimmermann quote used to push the idea that the online knitting community should be talking about knitting and only knitting, not racism. It made my heart sink, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot (my reaction- not the bull-thistle belief that knitters should only talk about knitting).

Image found  here

Image found here

My initial response was “How could you! That’s not what she was talking about! Slander!” and I was mad mad mad because I feel such tenderness for EZ- she taught me to knit as much as a dead person can teach a living person to do anything with their hands. But as I mulled it over I realized- I have no idea what Elizabeth Zimmermann thought about racism. I have no idea how she felt about gay people. As she was a white, British born, rural-Wisconsin-dwelling person of my grandparents’ time it is probably safe to assume that she was not taking on any anti-racist work or out advocating for LGBQTIA folks or we would have heard about it (though I do think she may have fallen a little left of the curve, and we know from The Opinionated Knitter that she and her husband were staunchly anti-Hitler). And while she does not specifically dive into her thoughts about racism in the knitting community*, she took a strong stance against the hand knitting industry of her time, standing up to magazines and big names and even yarn suppliers and eventually going her own way and dismantling (or rather- rewiring) the system via typewritten newsletters and PBS and wool yarn shipped out skein by skein.

What I am trying to say is not that I believe EZ was racist, but rather I don’t know. And I realize I have made a mistake, and assumed without much thought that the Opinionated Knitter’s unwritten opinions probably aligned with mine, because I agree with so much of what she has written about knitting, wool, bread, and the beauty of midwestern nature. What I realized when reading that IG post was that other people, people whose beliefs I do not align myself with, assume the same thing.

I have two thoughts here and I am having a hard time spitting them out. The first is that Elizabeth Zimmermann’s example encourages knitters to stand up against what they see as wrong. It in no way limits knitting conversations to yarn and needles. While she did say: “Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubles spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” nowhere did she say that the proper way to practice knitting is to shut up about all other matters- in fact her other famous quotes encourage knitting while listening to the news, knitting while engaging in interesting conversations, etc.

My second thought is a reminder (for myself as well) to practice caution while holding up white people of eras past in admiration. I’ve learned this as a lesbian- idolizing this dead artist or that writer of long ago and then stumbling across their horrible homophobic beliefs is a gut punch every time. I’ve had to parse this out with my own family members. What I’ve learned is to be specific- to admire someone’s prose or fashion or crosshatching rather than blindly lift up the whole unknown identity that comes along with it. So here I am saying I adore Elizabeth Zimmermann’s knitting patterns, I admire her merging of knitting, painting and writing. I agree with her about wool. But I have to stop my praise there, with the known, and cannot in good faith extend it to how she treated the grocery clerk, or how she interacted with knitters of color or how she felt when finding out someone she knew was gay. And no matter how much I wish I could ask her, I can’t.

*If anyone out there knows better than my guesses, please correct me.

P.S. In my researching I found this thesis/dissertation that was interesting!