Taking viewers on a symbolic tour through the history of knitting, the three-part film depicts women recasting history in order to produce agency in the present, on a personal scale and within a wider, political context.
The film is a travelogue in which I alternately collaborated with, directed and documented the performers. I used Super 8 film, the gauge of yarn, because like knitting it is often considered an amateur, hobby format. The piece also exploits the “aged” quality of Super 8- though it was shot in 2008, the footage sometimes looks as though it was rescued from an old archive.
The title “no idle hands” references Anne MacDonald’s book “No Idle Hands: the Social History of American Knitting” (1990), which describes, through diaries, letters and personal reminiscences, the things that American women knit during times of war. The saying “no idle hands” historically referred to women pitching in to help the war movement; to the act of keeping busy to avoid unease or unrest, and to the actions of those who want to stimulate change. This film evokes the latter meaning, as it depicts women placing textiles within feminist, queer, and collaborative art contexts.
In the first section, Rachael Matthews knits in improbable situations in Lake Windermere. The song used here tells the story of local Lake Windermere women who were such “terrible” (British English for “formidable”) knitters that they could work in the fields, tend to their babies, and knit, all at the same time. The song was originally performed in the 1920s at the Mary Wakefield Festival, named after its founder, who was a contemporary of John Ruskin and a fervent believer in the preservation of local Lake District culture (against the threat of industrialization). Rachael Matthews gathered an audience at Dove Cottage, a Lake District museum converted from the former home of William Wordsworth, to perform the song during a participatory art event that evoked local history. In a moment of revisionist history, the woman conducting the sing-a-long stops at one point to note, “this part was obviously written by a man.” The sequence ends with an evening relaxing and smoking knitted cigarettes at the Colony Room, a members-only drinking club in London frequented by misfits, outsiders, and artists.
In part two, Liz Collins and her team of uniformed knitters work on a gigantic, knitted version of the gay pride flag. Different orators read from an online survey conducted by Liz in which respondents detail their impressions and understandings of the flag. Orator excerpts used in the film include, “I sentimentally remember when I felt so queer and part of a subculture that I felt strengthened by buying and proudly wearing all the rainbow and pink triangle merchandise.” Another section of oration details how watching Gus Van Sant’s Hollywood recreation of the pride flag debut powerfully changed one person’s view of the flag. The last snippet of dialogue reflects the strange temporality of the film: “ …the flag seems a little outdated and silly, but I like that. The outdatedness gives a sense of history.”
In the final section, gallerygoers knit and experiment with knitting needles that have been outfitted with contact microphones. Alternately gloomy, loud, mercurial, and ecstatic, their sounds echo back an abstract, aural sense of community.