WoolNEss

There’s been this weird idea floating about that only white women knit. That only white women spin and crochet and weave. That the knitting tradition is oh, Scottish or Scandinavian or Aran. That this is a universal given in white knitting land is remarkable given how many lush South American hats and jumpers you’ve seen designed and made by indigenous peoples, given we know where “magic” carpets are made, who we have seen sitting on doorsteps in the warm sun with a spinning contraption or with elaborately braided fabrics and a flock of sheep in the background. None of them are white.

Everywhere in the world where there are sheep, goats, llamas, camels, yak or alpaca, resourceful women and men have gathered their wool to make remarkable garments and furnishings. Everywhere. We know this. So hang on, why do we keep thinking of knitting as white?

About six months ago, women, people of colour in various parts of the world started speaking out on social media about their experiences in knitting shops and knit groups and at yarn festivals. And their testimonies make horrible reading. In Australia and Canada, in the US and the UK, black, indigenous, people of colour, minorities everywhere, told of being followed around by security as if they were thieves, repeatedly ignored at Guild meetings, being whispered loudly about in earshot and to their faces. Rude white people, rudely being rude. And lots of it.

Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group. The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans.

Wikipedia

With extremely rare exceptions, yarn and crafty pattern books tend to all feature white models. New designs are pretty much all modelled on thin white sulky women slouching in underfed chic in front of derelict sheds. As more knitters and crocheters began to speak out it became clear that something needed to be done.

Nobody active in the knitting community since people began sharing, uncovering and exposing these multiple micro aggressions and speaking out can possibly have been unaware that changes were coming. And coming fast.

Edinburgh Yarn Festival’s keynote speaker for 2019 was going to be Kate Davies, the well respected Scotland based knitting designer & yarn seller whom we all expected would speak out in support of diversity and change,  and she just, well, didn’t. Instead she deleted a couple of blog posts she’d written defending her all white pattern books, and, declaring that she had all her life fought against racism, deleted her Instagram account, apparently unable to handle the deluge of requests to do better and unwilling to moderate some of the pretty gruesome words from many of her most vocal supporters. Hmm.

The organisers of Edinburgh Yarn Festival now had a vacancy and had a choice. We waited to see if they would step up. And good for them – at the last minute they made a public statement, set up a diversity panel of BAME (black and ethnic minority) knitwear designers and makers, including Jeanette Sloan, author of the article Black People Do Knit (link). Search Edinburgh Yarn Festival to see their invited panel and their statement.

It is clear that we all have an awful lot more to do but the discussions are happening pretty much everywhere. If you are a white knitter in an all white Guild or knitting group, if you are a yarn shop or are planning a festival, you will definitely know about this.

So it was with great interest that we in the North East heard that a little local yarn shop (LYS) in Sunderland, was in the planning stages of a high profile event in a prestigious venue in our largest city. Obviously we assumed they’d have this covered. You would, right? With exhortations resonating across all our communities to do the work, to do better, to become actively inclusive, to insist on diversity in all our public events, to begin to work on anti racism in our work and in our lives, many people in our north east yarn communities did indeed begin, some of them for the very first time.

So we fully expected the organisers of WoolNEss to be making sure that, with several months to go, and with all the controversy and frankly much bullshit from white knitters, that yes, it’s a no brainer. We want diverse spaces. We want BAME (black and ethnic minority) yarnies, knitters & crocheters, to feel safe and supported, we won’t tolerate racist micro aggressions, zero tolerance for any of that. We want to create safe spaces, people to be treated equally and fairly. Not rocket science, is it? Did WoolNEss step up?

Nope.

It is with dismay that we watched on WoolNEss’ Instagram announcements of white face after white face, white vendors, white workshop tutors, white businesses, white yarn dyers, white designers, one after the other.

While this trickle of whiteness was flowing through our feeds – let there be one oh come on, please please let there be one brown speaker, one black designer, two or three, four, please?

Then after being invited to speak at Newcastle East Women’s Institute, WoolNEss organiser in chief complained that diversity is ruining yarn festivals.

Sharp intake of breath, right?

Hang on, what? What?

And that anyone questioning her about why her festival was so white was bugging her.

Pic here is from an educational site (link) which properly explains the difference between equity and equality. It is used to explain to children why we need to change our behaviour if we want everyone to have a fair chance at well, anything. My little grandson happily offers a step stool to his baby sister so she can reach the counter at the same height as him.

On the left all the sunflowers stand on the same height table. That is basic equality. If you put out a call for participants and do not do the extra work required in this racist society to make room, to give extra height to people who have always been excluded, they will simply be unable to participate.

Providing the metaphorical extra height needs work. It requires role models, people of colour who are visible participants and vocal supporters. It requires us to know who they might be, where to find them, and be confident that we can persuade them that we know what we’re doing.

In Newcastle upon Tyne we have a high profile black MP and I’m betting that she knits. The UK is full of extremely talented dyers and spinners, people of minority heritage, black and Asian knitwear designers, and hey, if anybody is stuck for a clue, just search #diversknitty on Instagram or have a shufty through Ravelry. It isn’t hard to find people once you step out of your all white comfort zone.

And if you are still no wiser, the venue for WoolNEss is at the bottom of Westgate Road, one of the most mixed areas of the city which is bound to have community groups and support centres who would be more than happy to lend a hand with promotional partnerships or as awareness support.

We have seen no such effort from WoolNEss.

An all white event anywhere is a bit creepy, don’t you think? Publishing an all white lineup is off putting even to white people, or it should be. It is definitely not creating a safe space.

Making an event properly inclusive requires work. It requires people of colour to be confident that they will not face microaggressions and that you will unilaterally support them if they do. It requires local outreach and it requires advice from people who have done it before, perhaps in other contexts.

It is truly not difficult. But you must want to do it.

Putting out a statement saying ‘we are diverse’, however strongly worded and when all our eyes are telling us that your organisers are all white, your stall holders are all white, your workshop leaders are all white, is simply wrong. It is compounding your already racist behaviour.

To date, all of the people involved with running WoolNEss are white. And all of the people, women, involved in struggling to make these organisers see what is plain and obvious, we are all white too.

Personally, I have been doing this thing called ‘white centering’. When everyone in the conversation is white, there is also going to be ‘performance allyship’. Where the big loud white voice is centering themselves, it is attention seeking and the biggest problem with this is that it is ineffective. I have no regrets whatsoever about anything I have said in the discussions so far but while I am one of a number of voices, all of us white, it is time for me to step out and away.

Making a big white noise to all white festival organisers is not only unproductive but it adds to the sense of extreme discomfort for anyone of colour who would otherwise want to join the debate or even attend the event. It’s like seeing a big ball of white dusty Beano comic fighting. Everyone will step away. And more importantly, what if WoolNEss decides to do a couple of tiny things as lip service because of all the noise I’ve made. Will that help minimise the potential for micro aggressions? Nope. We need to stand with people of colour, in all of these incidents, and not go charging off on our own, however well meaning, because if we don’t, we aren’t going to get anywhere. However well intentioned (and outcome always trumps intention, right?), we are going to get stuff badly wrong and possibly even cause harm. I need to learn when centering my whiteness is harmful and to STFU and walk away.

Lots of work needs doing on ourselves, by ourselves, by me, by you, to clear this “diversity is ruining yarn festivals” rubbish. Whiteness is ruining yarn festivals, it has ruined this one before it started.

A good place to start doing the work is ‘Me and White Supremacy’ by Layla Saad, now available on pre-order from her website (link). It is written accessibly and clearly and can be taken in baby steps. It is the perfect resource for everyone in this dialogue, everyone reading this post really will have their eyes and hopefully their hearts opened and I’m about to start on it again.

So for my white centering, I apologise sincerely. For my performative allyship, I apologise sincerely. Unlearning every single day means knowing when to speak up and when to shut up. I am getting a little better at the first one but still rubbish at the second.

Many people have written to me privately on this. I’m happy to have a conversation with any of you unless you are in denial or are doing this white fragility thing. Read Reni Edo Lodge if you don’t get what that this. Do your own research, it’s your life.

Very Very Very Important Note:

I AM NOT AN ANTI RACISM EDUCATOR

Any white person who says they are, needs to be avoided at all costs.

I do humbly refer you to resources generously provided every day by Layla Saad, Rachel Cargle, Aja Barber and many others, all of whom you can find by searching, all of whom post daily on Instagram. Read them. Do not bring your angry white privilege to their doors, learn to read and learn and when to keep quiet. And when you have learned something from them, pay them. Buy them a coffee with that kofi app, send them the price of a ball of yarn via PayPal. If you can afford it, join their Patreon.

For my very last word, I can refer you to the statement on my Ravelry profile, it has been there a long time. To reprise: I will only be buying from people of colour or whites who are doing the work. Follow #buyfrombipoc or #buyfromablackwoman and if you are still confused, Jeanette Sloan compiles a list available on her website (link). Purchase power is important.

We white people, huh? Tsk. Paraphrasing a great quote from Guante this week:

We are not the shark, we are the water.

Thanks.


Apologies to Jeanette Sloan who corrected my inaccuracies about her participation in Edinburgh Yarn Festival. The post has now been edited. She did not deliver a keynote at Edinburgh, but she will be the keynote speaker at Perth Festival of Yarn in Sept 2019. Thank you Jeanette.


On a completely separate matter, but not before time, this is going to be the last post on this blog. It won’t be deleted, there are some very busy links here and a few of our patterns still get lots of attention. But all the contributors here have their own websites & social media now, linked on their Ravelry profiles.

I will be intermittently posting autobiographical stuff about living in my pit village in the north at Along The Line and at @pitvillagelife on Insta.

So it’s goodbye to AA, you were great while you lasted. Thanks for all the fish, the milkshakes and the cake. Love B x

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2 thoughts on “WoolNEss

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that the knitting community, myself included, has a lot to learn about being genuinely inclusive and aware of our blindspots. Whilst some of the lessons we need to learn are really simple, the context in which we are developing and learning is really complex. (I won’t go into how difficult it is to have proper discussions on social media platforms, but that strikes me as hugely problematic). With that complexity in mind I wanted to add a little more context to your comments above.

    You mention your disappointment that Kate Davies did not speak out more clearly about diversity. It is my understanding that Kate has been really unwell this year, and this may have affected her availability to engage and comment both in social media and in real life. Similarly, you express concerns about the upcoming WoolNEss festival. I believe the organisers have been quite clear that the festival vendors and teachers were booked last autumn, well before the yarn community began to explore issues of race quite so publicly. They have been at pains to ensure that they dont engage in tokenism in response to the changing debate.

    I am hopeful that both WoolNEss and Kate Davies will follow up on their public statements against discrimination with positive action when they are in a position to do so. I.e. when Kate is better and when WoolNESs can do so without being tokenistic. And I think we should be prepared to support WoolNEss’s first festival this year as it is so that they can develop and be more inclusive next year.

    • The Woolness organisers have made several claims that appear dubious. However a quick search on Instagram shows that they declared 25 January the last day exhibitors could apply so no, they were not all booked in the autumn. They were announced one by one over the course of March and a final comprehensive list published in April. So even if by some wild chance the organisers had never heard of diversity before the beginning of the year (and although we are talking specifically here about the yarn community let’s not lose sight of the fact that we all engage with the world in many other ways where diversity and inclusion have been hot topics for decades) they certainly had plenty of time to learn about it before they finalised any arrangements.

      I would be more inclined to support this year’s Woolness if the organisers had shown any sign of wanting to engage in the conversation before they were forced to and if they had shown any signs of really listening and learning since then. To be capable of change, one first needs to acknowledge the need for change. If the organisers cannot do this then I for one am unable to support them.

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