This is my third report for Quillette on the shockingly vicious social-media wars that have erupted in the world of knitting. My first, written in February, described how knitters’ blogs and Instagram accounts have become weaponized over the issue of racial representation after a knitting designer gushed publicly about her forthcoming trip to India. I concluded with the hope that “the world of knitting can return to a focus on designs, colors, and the value of something that’s unique and handmade, rather than the nationality or race of whoever made it.”
This proved to be extremely naïve.
In my second article on the subject, published last month, I described how this subcultural farce had descended into a full-blown tragicomedic soap opera, with knitters seeking to destroy one another’s livelihoods because of arguments about whether certain yarn colors might be racist, or whether yarn-related publications profile enough black women.
I was surprised that such an esoteric subject would stir up so much reader interest. (My editors tell me that both articles went viral.) And I honestly never imagined that I’d be writing about this subject again. Surely, such fury within knitting circles could not sustain itself, right?
And yet, here I am. Over the last seven weeks, things have only become more insane.
Last month, for instance, Ravelry, the world’s largest knitting website, banned any expression of support for Donald Trump—arguing that “we cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is unambiguously support for white supremacy.”
The least that can be said in defense of the Ravelry policy is that Trump is a public figure, who probably will not be much put out by an editorial policy on a knitting site. What was far more unsettling was what happened two weeks later, when knitters who claim to be champions of social justice went after a gay man within the community because he’d written a satirical poem suggesting (correctly) that all the recent anti-racism mobbings might be having a toxic effect on the community.
On Monday, July 8, Nathan Taylor, known as the Sockmatician on social media—a full-time designer, knitting instructor, and web-shop operator (and the author of Guys Knit)—posted the following on his Instagram profile:
With genuine SOLEM-KNITTY
I beg you, stop the
Don’t use the word
To mask your
Is breaking our COMMU-KNITTY
Taylor followed up his poem with a (since deleted) post:
One year on almost to the day, since I sent out the first ever post to use the #diversknitty hashtag—a word I made up—from Helsinki airport, I am, again, at Helsinki airport, and I feel compelled to speak up about this issue once again, but this time from a very different perspective. There are now over 17,000 posts using that hashtag. My word. And it is time to reboot it as a tool for good. Diversity is a beautiful and NECESSARY thing, and SHOULD be FOUGHT FOR…But there is poison out there, too. People who are self-proclaiming to be the arbiters of the whole diversity discussion, and deciding who is “enough” and whose reputation and livelihood they believe they have the right to destroy…Yes, ask people who do openly racist/homophobic/bigoted actions to re-evaluate their standpoint, but please, for the love of all that is good, do not go after people who are already doing what they feel they can to put this necessary situation right.
Predictably, the post brought out the worst of the knitting world’s anti-racism mobs—since the last thing any mob likes to be told is that their mobbings (which they typically regard as necessary and virtuous) do more harm than good.
Social Justice Knitters, SJKs as I call them, weighed in en masse in the comments section. “What did I just read? Respectfully, your words are bigoted. You don’t own the concept of diversity…How is this post doing anything other than protecting white fragility, tone policing, and white silence?” said Helen Kim, who has become a sort of self-appointed spokesperson and inquisitor-in-chief for the SJK community. “Interesting how your voicing of the need for ‘positivity’ in these discussions reminds me a lot of the rhetoric used by white supremacists.”
Within a few hours, there were hundreds of comments, largely negative. A user who goes by Skeinanigans, for instance wrote: “It is a product of privilege to be able to speak gently because you haven’t had your personhood systematically degraded for your entire life”—to which Taylor replied: “Oh, but I have.” And as a gay, HIV-positive man, Taylor would indeed be insulated from allegations of privilege in any normal discussion. But to the intersectionalists who act as SJK enforcers within this shrill subculture, that didn’t matter. As an activist by the username of jessiemae put it: “It is possible to be a member of a marginalized group and participate in oppressive behavior. Your marginalization does not absolve you, and you do not get to speak for those who are marginalized in ways that you are not. A gay white man claiming credit for movements that existed long before he used a cute word for them in an Instagram post one time doesn’t get to dictate how bipoc+ (black, indigenous, people of colour) fight for their lives. This is basic shit, y’all. DO BETTER!”
Many of Taylor’s 20,000 followers tried to offer words of encouragement and appreciation. Notably, Loop London, an iconic yarn shop in Camden, North London, stood by Taylor—which of course generated calls to boycott the shop. Some who originally had been supportive changed their tune as the criticism grew, apologized, thanked the people who called them out, and promised to educate themselves and “do better.”
But the saga didn’t end there. The next day, Taylor’s husband Benjamin Till, a composer (who also happens to be Jewish) posted on Sockmatician’s account: “This is Nathan’s husband, Benjamin. At 3 pm today, Nathan was admitted to [the emergency room at] Barnet Hospital. Your messages of anger have been processed. Please now send love.”
Till also wrote on his blog about what had happened:
The situation with the aggressive online trolls grew through the night, as the American knitters got involved and started to leap onto what they perceived as a ripe carcass. Nathan disabled comments when the sheer weight of them became too much, but the following morning, his other Instagram posts, and then his Twitter feed had been hijacked by the haters. The taunts continued. He was a white supremacist, a Nazi apologist…He started obsessively reading the posts but became increasingly worked up, then more and more erratic and then suddenly he snapped, screaming like a terrified animal, smashing boxes and thumping himself. I was forced to wrestle him to the ground and hold onto him for dear life as the waves of pain surged through his body. He made a run for the car keys. He said he wanted to drive at 100 miles per hour until he crashed. I called our doctor and they could hear him screaming in the background and said I was to immediately take him to [the hospital], where he was instantly assessed and put on suicide watch pending a decision about whether or not he needed to be, well, I suppose the word is sectioned.
Taylor was kept in the hospital for six hours, but was later released, although he was still frazzled, according to Till, and subsequently deleted his Instagram and Twitter accounts.
The accusations continued, however. Many said they didn’t wish illness on anyone, but that his breakdown didn’t excuse the “harm” he had caused. A user by the name of “Amy.might” replied to Taylor’s now deleted post as follows: “Let’s be clear here. Holding people accountable for the incredibly harmful words they voluntarily put out to the world is not cruel or bullying…I hope Nathan feels better soon so he can address the harm he caused regardless of what his intentions were. I believe that people are flawed, but redeemable.”
Fast forward a few days to Yarningham, a knitting festival in Birmingham, where Taylor was scheduled to teach some classes. One of the vendors, Almas Khan, who goes by the name Witchcraftylady on Instagram, approached Taylor to tell him what she thought of his blog post. In her own words, Khan describes what happens next as follows:
I watched him receiving hugs and people moving around the space uncomfortable with the fact he hadn’t apologized for the harm he and his husband caused. I saw his stand was empty so I went over. When he saw me standing there he switched on his smile and the minute I said I wasn’t there for a book and wanted to talk about his posts he dropped the façade and actually started shouting at me. He had his fingers in my face, screaming at me to leave his sight, he had his clenched fists in my face…He was totally out of control.
Khan also broadcast a live video on her Instagram profile. While viewers provided words of support for Khan and mocked Taylor, Khan described how the sight of “people hugging him…was too much for me…I’ve never seen a grown man open his eyes so wide when I told him he was a fucking hypocrite. That’s what’s keeping me going—that look on his face.” She also claimed to know that Taylor was going to hit her, and expressed hope that “more people call him out.”
Taylor was approached by one of the organizers and taken outside, according to Khan. Another version of events, documented on Till’s blog by an anonymous poster who said she had been present, went as follows:
A woman went rushing up to Sockmatician as he was doing a book signing today and screamed in his face. He asked her to stop, but she carried on. So he called for her to be removed and then one of the organizers of Yarningham came over and started pushing Sockmatician out of the room whilst the first woman screamed at him “Why are you walking away? You’re a hypocrite, stand here and face up to me like a man.” Sockmatician was clearly very distressed. The woman went at him knowing fully well he’d been in hospital. Very unpleasant. Not too impressed by the Yarningham organizer, either. She pushed the wrong person out of the room.
So far, no video footage has been released of the kerfuffle. Hence the jury is out on the exact nature of the scene. Taylor didn’t return my request for comment. In a post titled Fuck the Tone Police, Helen Kim expressed support for such confrontations, saying it’s time for people of color to express anger: “White people still need reminding: they are not, never were, and never will be the victims of white supremacy. Systemic racism is not positive, pleasant, pretty, feel-good, comfortable. Why should the experience of dismantling it be?”
Unlike some of the previous victims of these campaigns in the knitting world, however, Taylor hasn’t bowed to the demands of his critics—not yet anyway. And so the mob is still hard at work trying to destroy his reputation and business. As a result, he has been removed from the lineup at the Woolness knitting festival in Newcastle in August, claims one Instagram user. And Taylor’s events calendar, which once was displayed on his website, has been deleted—perhaps to prevent more confrontations.
As for Khan, she’s as active as ever on the web—selling her own “luxury yarns and hand made goods.” On her Instagram profile, where she says her mission is to “spread joy” and sparkle, Khan boasts of having created the “Raiseyourhandinsolidarity” hashtag so that she might “share the beauty of all of our hands and unite everyone around the world.”
Early days yet. But so far, it isn’t working.
Kathrine Jebsen Moore grew up in Norway, studied Media and Print Journalism in London, and worked at Bloomberg News until 2009, covering financial news, specialising in oil & gas and fishing. She now lives with her husband and four children in Edinburgh. She is a freelance writer and you can follow her on Twitter @moorjebsen.
Featured image: “Minigrenades,” by Shoshana, 20111.