Seams Legit: Margaret Atwood and the Crafty Lives of Modern Writers

Many writers find creative flow away from the keyboard, too …


Once upon a time, writer Margaret Atwood sat aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic Circle knitting, with some difficulty, a great auk in shades of black, mauve and blue. The bird became extinct in the mid-1800s and Atwood was (with some difficulty) memorialising the species in yarn for an exhibition on long-lost species.

Atwood fans may not find this information terribly surprising. Atwood is quite the environmentalist adventurer and knitting ­– and indeed craft in general – have been woven into her life since childhood.

Craft has also found its way into a number of features on Atwood, onto her Twitter account – “I knitted that sweater” she tweeted in 2018, tagging online craft community Ravelry – and into her written work.

Her most recent book The Testaments mentions crochet, sewing, embroidery and paper flower-making. The quilt patterns featured in the TV adaptation of her sewing-heavy book Alias Grace have developed a cult following online, and In The Handmaid’s Tale – which was also adapted for TV – dutiful, dystopian wives spend countless hours knitting. (Atwood has writing credits on both adaptations.)

Atwood is not the only revered writer to champion handwork. Rewind 60 years from 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale release and you may happen upon Virginia Woolf’s character Clarissa Dalloway steadying herself in the rhythm of mending a dress.

It is “getting the rhythm in writing that matters,” Woolf wrote in her diary in 1924, the year she penned Mrs Dalloway. In To The Lighthouse we meet the needle-flashing knitter Mrs Ramsay and in A Room of One’s Own, she writes of women “making puddings and knitting stockings” derisively. But by 1912 after falling ill, Woolf wrote to her future husband Leonard from the rest home she was recovering in that “knitting is the saving of life.”

Image: Bernadette Miqqusaaq Dean

A twin tradition

Writers have a long history of putting down the pen and taking up various needles, hooks or ‘knitting sticks’ with Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen among their ranks. It’s a ‘twin tradition’ that many contemporary writers are embracing for a range of interconnected reasons. Diverting a busy ‘writer’s brain’ appears to be a popular motivation.

“I find downtime quite difficult,” young adult fiction author and knitter Lili Wilkinson confirms. “I’m always planning in my head. The way that my anxiety manifests is planning. Being able to channel that into a creative project is a great way to switch off. Craft satisfies my need to make, while giving my brain a break.”

Miles Franklin Award short-listed novelist Favel Parrett, who donated a blanket that she’d made for the Authors for Fireys appeal earlier this year, helping to raise over $500 000 for bushfire relief efforts – agrees.

“Craft is a really good way to wind down after a day at work,” Parrett, who learned to crochet from her grandmother, says. “I can crochet on auto-pilot, so I often crochet while watching a movie or listening to music.”

Meditative making

The University of Wollongong’s Dr Pippa Burns (a researcher and crocheter) has spent years researching craft and wellbeing. She compares the switching-off process many crafters experience to a mindfulness meditation

“It’s about being in the moment,” Dr Burns says, “being absorbed with what you do, whether it’s gardening or baking or crochet or knitting.”

Many of her 2020 study respondents enjoyed the rhythmic and repetitive nature of crochet and spoke of its meditative benefits. A 2013 study on knitting and wellbeing, co-authored by therapeutic knitting advocate Betsan Corkhill, had similar findings.

Melbourne-based writer and editor Elizabeth Flux is familiar with this feeling of immersion.

“I find sewing very meditative because you completely throw yourself into what you’re doing,” Flux explains. “You can’t be thinking about a deadline or maybe I should be working on that story. It’s a way for me to shut my mind down completely from those areas, which is rare.”

For bestselling Australian author Hannah Kent, this flow has the opposite effect.

“I have found that making things can provide a flow state that feeds back into my writing”, Hannah says.

“That lovely, unstressed focus that comes when crafting is often conducive to problem-solving. I find that I often think about my writing when making things. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Cooking, walking, crafting – all my hobbies allow me to simultaneously meditate on my writing.”

Slowing things down

The measured nature of writing stories may also prime writers for the slow, process-driven undertaking that many craft projects can be.

“We, as a society, don’t value the process of activities, we just value the outputs. Maybe it’s the process that is the crossover between writing and craft,” Dr Burns suggests.

There are other crossovers too, with craft incorporating story-telling elements for centuries. They may be overtly stitched into quilt motifs or in the more secret form of fabrics imbued with the events and experiences they were selected for and the journey from raw material to finished piece.

“Everything has a story,” Flux says of the craft projects that quietly document many writers’ lives. “People will see the short story, but [writers] will see the novel.”

It’s likely the quite-tricky-auk-crafting Margaret Atwood would wholeheartedly agree.


Note: I wrote this story for a University assessment. I then tried to get it published in local media, but things are topsy turvy at the moment and freelance budgets are tight. PLUS? I’m a fledgling feature writer. In other words … I had no luck! I’m sharing it here, with a huge thanks to the writers and Dr Pippa Burns for giving up their time to chat to this (nervous newbie) interviewer. I appreciate it so much! 

Alias Grace Netflix

 

2 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful piece, Pip. As a writer and knitter I’m with Hannah Kent, it’s the ‘lovely unstressed focus’ of needles and yarn that’s conducive to problem solving. The mind is allowed to rest, in a way, and can relaxedly nut out issues without you asking it to, if that makes sense.

    I just wrote something on this topic for an RMIT writing assignment actually. About knitting in a hotel room after a long day of work in Papua New Guinea. Something’s in the air! I might try to get it published in local media, like you did, but if no luck will pop it on my blog 🙂

    And now, back to my needles…

  2. I was thinking as I read “Pip’s writing style is so academic & this has such a different flow to her usual chatty style. Uni is really paying off for her!” And then I got to the bottom & read it was originally a uni assessment! I hope you got great marks for it. And what a bloody bummer it wasn’t picked up. This is totally the kind of article I would read.

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