Call for Comments: unRavelrying Social Justice Networks

From Katya: So this one is off the beaten path for the podcast but very much in my wheelhouse. Regular listeners have heard me plug my instagram feed with the caveat that it’s mainly sewing and knitting-centric. One of the biggest parts of the online knitting world is a website called Ravelry. Ravelry is a knitting website that hosts a pattern marketplace, forums, user profiles with project information and over 8,000,000 members globally. And on Sunday , June 23rd they announced a ban on content supporting white supremacy and President Trump. 

Ravelry centers around knitters documenting and sharing their projects. It also hosts yard and pattern databases as well as groups and forums.

Unsurprisingly, the knitting world blew up. Somewhat surprisingly, so has the rest of the world. This is mainly because this craft website has done what many have called on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to do: oust hate speech from their platform. While I appreciate the “hold my beer” err, knitting needles, jokes circulating I think it’s important to remember that Ravelry’s purpose is to allow users to share their love of a specific craft, not serve as a platform for communication or speech the way that other media sites do. (We can— and will— discuss whether this is really a meaningful distinction on the episode!)

Ravelry’s stated reason for the ban is 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 undeniably support for white supremacy.”

You can read the full statement with implementation details here. The short version is that knitting  projects that openly express support of white supremacy and/or Donald Trump will be removed from searches within the site and any such patterns cannot be sold on the platform. While forum posts in violation of this new policy will be removed, no user’s information will actually be deleted. Users’s project notes, for example, on a MAGA scarf will stay in their project library but they won’t be visible to other members. Ravelry is not the first to implement such a ban either, their statement is actually based upon a similar policy at RPG.net, whom they credit.

Many of the mainstream reports have said that it’s unclear why Ravelry made their decision. Although they haven’t shared the exact reasoning behind their decision, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out— you just have to be a knitter to find it. And I think this is important: unlike FB or other sites, Ravelry doesn’t function as a digital public square. It’s a private online space. You have to be a registered member to access most of the site and the content is, obviously, pretty niche even if users bring outside topics up in forums. 

Throughout 2019 there has been a growing discussion about racism in the online knitting and sewing communities (these are distinct but often overlapping. There are also issues like homophobia, whitewashing, and fat-shaming which I won’t address here but are important to the overall climate here.) Makers have been sharing their experiences of everything from the daily micro-aggressions to direct harassment and even death threats. Some of this has been public with bi-poc activists bringing this before the community and Ravelry for years. Other information has been shared between private accounts or in places so niche it seems that even investigative journalists are struggling to find much of it. Much of this is being kept within the activist and knitting community to protect people that have already been victimized and other vulnerable makers from retaliation. I won’t share details for this reason— and I don’t claim to have them all— but it seems that the final tipping point was when a Ravelry user reported an openly racist pattern and was subsequently doxxed by a white supremacist group through information available on Ravelry. This was likely not the only reason Ravelry initiated the ban given the ongoing reports of harassment many users have experienced.  I’m also guessing that the decision was made, in part, because Ravelry is run by a team of five people without the resources that, say, Facebook or Twitter has to moderate content. 

Proof that Katya knits, featuring Zeno, Void Cat

Much of the backlash has been that Ravelry is making knitting political. Now, the claim that Ravelry is politically unbiased is intriguing to me when they’ve have a Pride flag on the website header for the last month and, since I’ve been a member beginning in 2007, always seemed to have left-y tendencies whenever it was addressed directly. But setting that to the side, the claim that knitting itself is apolitical is simply wrong. Knitting was always political. If you didn’t feel it, you aren’t paying attention.

I think this is actually a great illustration of something we’ve repeated on many shows: everything is ideological. The mere fact that knitting is a leisure activity (for some) is a consequence of politics. In many cultures, knitting was historically a site of gender conflict; only men could knit items for sale while women— excluded from guilds— could only knit for themselves and their families. Both knitting and sewing have historically been chores, necessary (women’s) work which limited women’s free time. As a result, it’s been devalued and considered drudgery to be put off on others whenever wealth permitted. This contributed to the exploitation of female and POC workers and continues to do so, most garment workers globally are female and non-white. Knitting’s popularity as a leisure activity sometimes called “the new yoga” (imagine Katya eye roll here) is itself an expression of privilege— that people like me have the income and time to spend making hats, scarves, and sweaters for fun. That it’s mostly practiced by white, cis-het women is also the result of its gendered history and the on-going policing of POC, queer, or otherwise “nontraditional” knitters by other white cis-het knitters. 

The “pussy hat,” probably the most visible example of craftivism to most Americans.

Knitting has also been intentionally politicized. It’s the origin of the “Stitch ’n Bitch”— used since at least WW2 to describe a social gathering of knitters. Groups such as these would gather to knit socks and other supplies for the war effort. Scholars of textile history have noted that  groups like these (also quilting and sewing groups, I could go on.) have historically been sites of political discussion, organizing, and resistance— and not always progressive or liberal either. “Craftivism,” as it’s come to be known, tends to reflect center white, cis-het issues. (Also, shameless plug for my favorite example of “craftivism” that I think does an amazing job: The Social Justice Sewing Academy.) 

The political uses of crafting are important to remember and not because it demonstrates that knitting was “always liberal” or “always conservative.” Crafting makes political activity innocuous. Crafting allows groups to come together in ways that appear non-threatening. No one expects the group of yarn and stick wielders at their local coffee shop to be planning an uprising— or doxxing knitters on the internet. Knitting is feminized, de-legitimized, and— as the knitters of Twitter have demonstrated handily— codes as apolitical to many people. This means that people are less likely to scrutinize the political activity that does take place in these communities. While these Twitter users might not know this, I bet Ravelry does— or at least the Ravelry users bringing this to their attention. White supremacist activity isn’t less threatening on a knitting website— if anything it might be more so because it is less likely to be taken seriously and called out. 

11 Replies to “Call for Comments: unRavelrying Social Justice Networks”

  1. I have been less connected with the knitting world and more into quilting and sewing for the last decade, but I have so many thoughts on this subject. This (the makers) is my tribe, and I have turned my back on it for the most part because I have no tolerance for the “can’t we all just get along/no need to be political” bullshit.

    1. Do you know about the shop owner who refused to sell pink yarn ahead of the women’s march because she didn’t want people knitting pussy hats? The deeper dialog about the lack of inclusivity in those hats notwithstanding, this was one trumpist’s line in the sand.

  2. There is arising a need for a true apolitical space. I dont want to discuss Politics , I want to discus the craft. I dont really want to discuss my other hobbies on Ravelry either. Everyone keeps dragging their politics and religion (and yes a consider certain branches of activism religions even if the vehemently hate the word) into everything.

    1. I hear the need for apolitical space, I’m someone who is pretty mindful about how much political news etc however the reality is that many non-white, non-cis individuals are constantly having their existence politicized no matter where they are so they are shut off from the luxury of being able to manage what is and isn’t political in the way that I can. The ban is also in response to people bringing politics into knitting in a way that was harmful, rising to harassment and targeting of BIPOC and other marginalized groups. In other words, people that were trying to live their lives in a knitting space free of harassment where prevented from doing so because of someone’s politics. And as we always take about on the show, politics are inherent in any community (the word is, after all, rooted in the Greek word for the city-state.)

  3. When Ravelry posted notice of the new policy, they linked to the RPG .net policy for reference. And I found it very interesting that theirs had been posted on Oct 29 2018, yet I don’t recall hearing anything about it at the time. But in the past week Ravelry’s has been in news outlets from CNN to Colbert. So was it a big deal at the time but perhaps lost in the news so close to the election? Or is there something different that this made news but that didn’t?

    1. My guess is that it’s a better news stories. Knitters banning white supremacists is more appealing than gamers I guess? I don’t know RPG.org’s membership numbers but I suspect that Ravelry may be larger. But really, I have no idea.

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