At odds with tend and befriend?

We recently received a request from the lovely people at Control Shift (who have supported Knitwitter from the start) for pictures of knitting produced as part of Knitwitter. This led us to the rather awkward conclusion that we had already published everything we’d received and there was nothing more (see the Instagram account for proof).

Why might that be? Yeah, well, nobody’s really asking that because, well, pandemic innit. But given that there were several features inherent in the project that made it completely lockdown-friendly, it still struggled to get going. You could access Knitwitter via the internet, it was centred on the idea of sending messages, you could legitimately spend hours doing nothing but knitting if you wanted to… so why such poor engagement?

Obviously there were internal issues (see this post if you need to know more, TW: death and bereavement and general misery) however we did manage to get the project up and running in the summer of 2020 ready for the Control Shift festival in the autumn. So grief can’t be the only reason Knitwitter didn’t fly at this time.

Thinking about the human response to COVID-19 and lockdowns, we might gain some insight in to why, despite initial appearances, Knitwitter perhaps wasn’t the right project at the right time. There were (and continue to be) essential and radical consequences that stem from us all trying escape the potential harm caused by an unpredictable disease transmitted by an unseen virus, and these consequences run right through the whole of society. One theory that drew my attention is that, in times of crisis, the human stress response can be characterised not just by the classic fight-or-flight response but by another, much more benevolent reaction: tend and befriend

Tend – During a pandemic, people want to be useful

During the initial coronavirus lockdown, particularly here in the UK, there was an outpouring of support for those who for one reason or another found themselves on the frontline of the fight against the disease. Thousands of people signed up to volunteer to help in any way they could, and quite often there was more offers of help than the system could cope with. People were voluntarily shopping for neighbours, delivering medication, transporting patients, and people who could make – sew, knit, crochet, 3D print, etc – pressed themselves into action looking for ways to put their manufacturing skills to good use. Thousands upon thousands of items were made, all with the intention of helping people like healthcare workers and showing them they were appreciated and not forgotten. My own WI led the way in converting old and unused linen into laundry bags – over 7000 were made in just a few weeks to help keyworkers manage the sudden increase in laundry caused by increased coronavirus protection measures.

This had a profound impact on what people who would normally knit or crochet for pleasure were doing, or at least on what they felt that they should be doing. For example, there is a simple item called an ear saver, usually crocheted or sewn from material, that can be used to extend the elastic straps of a standard surgical facemask in order to fasten the mask behind that head rather than have it hanging from the ears, thereby saving the ears from hours of chaffing from the elastic. These extenders are quick and easy to make up with basic crochet skills, and during the early part of the pandemic people were asking for something to help them deal with low quality or poorly fitted PPE. This gave knitters and crocheters a perfect project to use their skills on, a project that could make a tangible difference to someone in the front line of the fight against coronavirus.

In these circumstances, why would someone spend their time and resources making anything that wasn’t quick and wasn’t useful? What use was Knitwitter?

Befriend – During a pandemic, people want to connect

It would seem that during a pandemic, lack of connection becomes a public health issue. To be fair, for some time issues such a social isolation and loneliness had been making their way in to discussions about healthy living, but 2020 really was a breakthrough year. The sudden and collective realisation that there were lonely and vulnerable people all around us was accompanied with the feeling that those in a position to do something about it could and should be doing it. Small acts of socially distanced communication (surely the type the English do best?!) popped up everywhere – rainbow posters, clapping for the NHS, street WhatsApp groups, Zoom quizzes – all of it deliberate engagement in sharing a common understanding.

During the summer of 2020, this deeply human need to connect was harnessed with great impact by social justice causes – highly visible, highly audible communication with no hidden messages, just powerfully unifying ones. Think Black Lives Matter. Think Climate Emergency. These kind of messages make us feel deeply connected with “our” people and can stir us into action. They can also making us feel deeply disconnected with those who do not share our view, who may react with fear that their view, possibly the established, prevailing view, is being marginalised.

In these circumstances, why would a someone spend their time and resources making anything that wasn’t communicating something immediately and clearly? Who needs a slow and obscure messaging during a pandemic? Again, what use Knitwitter?

We like to think the Knitwitter does have something to offer the world, in the way that it offers the potential for people to retain control over their data and generate patterns from it using the underlying code that governs all electronic communication. The idea of generating graphical knitting / crochet patterns that can encode a message is just one idea of hopefully many that can be developed – in this regard it might be better to consider Knitwitter as a platform for creative expression of textual data, a form of calligraphy, a kind of binary font.

Meanwhile, I’ve got the yarn, I’ve got the pattern, maybe I should just bloody well finish that blanket I started?!