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Moving Past "Not Your Grandmother's Knitting"


Author Joan McGowan-Michael's mother, who taught her how to knit (photo from the book My Grandmother's Knitting)

After I posted It’s Not Your Grandmother’s Crafting (or Is It?), I was prepared to get impassioned responses. But I wasn’t as prepared for the sheer knowledge of history, marketing trends, and feminism that was brought to the table. Yet again, I am amazed at the intellect and insight of crafters—into all aspects of life. My post barely scratched the surface of it all! So, to recap, I thought I’d break down some of the most-discussed issues.

Age and Gender

On the surface, the most offensive thing about “Not Your Grandmother’s Knitting” is its implied ageism and sexism. We often see an “insinuated sneer” towards women’s skills, so denigrating our grandmothers’ knitting is a touchy subject. Couple that with the fact that our culture has a huge obsession with youth, proverbially tossing older women to the side, and this kind of phrase does more harm than good in its intended audience.

Lazy Marketing

Hey, I learned something!  Oldsmobile gets the credit for coining the “Not Your” turn of phrase in the 1980s with “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Since then, it’s become part of our lexicon. And, let’s face it, Don Draper would call this very lazy copywriting. (Remember his reaction to “The cure for the common breakfast cereal”?) For marketers, it’s the easiest way to say “Hey, this this is super hip and cool!” which, when you put it that way, doesn’t sound hip and cool. Some astute readers pointed out that this is basically your father’s marketing campaign, which is as ironic as it gets.


Well, this goes hand in hand with marketing. The whole idea is to sell something as novel, and therefore necessary. An “out with the old, in with the new’’ mentality. But as a culture obsessed with material goods, this mentality just feeds thoughtless consumerism.

Youth Culture

Once again, we return to Mad Men. At this point in the show, the old guard is starting to look a little, well, old. The “Youthquake” of the 60s has corporations turning its eye to what the kids what, i.e, whatever is hip and new. Advertising has never really let go of this youth obsession, hence the perennial popularity of “Not Your Grandma’s . . . .”


Several commenters pointed out that a label of “not your grandma’s knitting” connoted for them risqué, NSFW patterns. Which is again ironic, seeing as many current grandmothers came of age in the “post-pill/pre-AIDS” era (this is my new favorite phrase). Basically, some grandmothers could tell us things that would put our knitted g-strings to shame.


Some readers felt that there was a point in the mid 20th century when knitting did indeed turn ugly. Acrylic tissue box cozies, that sort of thing. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, perhaps this is your impression of knitting, because that’s the type of knitting your grandmother might have done. In defense of “Not Your Grandmother’s Knitting,” maybe the phrase gave knitting the fresh face it needed to interest a new generation. Of course, this is all trend-based: our granddaughters could think the Stitch 'N' Bitch generation of knitting is ugly themselves. And so trends go!

Family Bonds

The overwhelming theme in the responses was personal family history. I loved reading the warm memories of everyone’s Nanas. Yet another reader pointed out that most young knitters she knows learned how to knit from the internet, not from family members. For what it’s worth—I learned to knit from a lady in a yarn shop, and then supplemented my knowledge with the Stitch ‘N’ Bitch books. However, it’s worth noting that the medium for learning (whether in person or through the internet or a book) doesn’t change the skills at hand. Knitting is knitting. The woman at the yarn shop probably learned from her grandmother or mother, and Debbie Stoller (author of Stitch ‘N’ Bitch) writes often of the knitting tradition in her family. So the common bond remains.

The Next Generation of Crafters

To wrap all of this up, I wonder how we should present knitting (and crafting in general) to the next generation. It’s clear that the phrase “Not Your Grandmother’s Knitting” needs to go. But what should replace it? What do you think is the best way to appeal to the next generation?

P.S. While we're here and talking about grandmothers and mothers, go check out our Mother's Day book giveaway (see below)!

Reader Comments (4)

I've loved all this discussion. I almost posted immediately after your previous post on this subject, but experienced some hesitation and deleted my response as I was writing it.

I love to sew and knit...and these past few years, I've been sewing a lot of dolls and toys that are reminiscent of handmade cloth toys from my Grandmother's era. She passed away 5 years ago and was so special to me. I actually feel closest to her when I'm working with these types of sewing projects. I have her picture on the wall above my sewing machine...I listen to a Big Band 1930s/40s radio station while I sew, and I can't help but think of her. I think she'd get a kick out of the things I've been making lately. It's my way of connecting to her. That's part of the reason I sew and knit. And I'm passing on these skills to my daughters. I don't sew or knit because it's "hip" and that whole marketing approach has never appealed to me.

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill

I love making things and always have. My mother taught me most things with some other bits and pieces pucked up while i was a craft magazine editor and now the internet. Sometimes my creations are old designs with a tweak or a fresh approach with colour. I think of it as re-crafting. For me it's about respecting the quality but putting my design spin or using my techniques to create an individual item.

May 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizJane

I have very recently taken up tatting. The women in my family, at least in my mother's generation and older, are all artists in a variety of crafts. Sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, cross-stitching, you name it - except tatting. You have to go back three generations from me to find a tatter. My grandmother always regretted that her aunt couldn't teach her how to do shuttle tatting. My mother tried, probably twenty-five years ago, to figure it out from a book but gave up after a while. (Having learned what I know from videos on the internet, I'm in no way surprised that text and pictures alone failed to convey how it works.)

But those other crafts? Those are things that I learned from my mother, things that my mother and her sisters learned from their mother, who learned from her mother, and so on. My knitting is my grandmother's knitting. I learned from my mother, and she learned from hers. The things I make may not look like what they made, but I make them the same way. I make them because they taught me. And when I have a sewing conundrum, no matter what I'm making, my mother tells me the same thing - "Call your grandmother."

I wonder sometimes while I'm tatting about my great-great-aunt. Her lace adorned much of the clothing that my mother and aunts wore as children. I'm sure there are still some pieces of her work somewhere. I wonder what happened to her shuttles - does someone in the family still have them? I think she'd be pleased that someone in the family has taken up the craft, even if I did have to resort to the internet to learn it.

There's a heritage involved in these things, like a much-loved recipe handed down through generations. Nobody ever says "Oh, my grandmother's tomato sauce is so old-fashioned." It represents something else, comfort and love and care. When it comes to crafts, modernity only comes around the edges. We may have new tools, new materials, or new techniques, but the heart of the activity goes back generations.

My gift to Mom this Mother's Day will be going backwards somewhat. I'm going to try to teach her shuttle tatting. I think we'll have a good time.

May 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

When I shop garage sales or antique shops, I am always on the lookout for "legacy knitting" - patterns and yarn that can be given a new lease on life. It's the ultimate in recycling, and the vintage items mix beautifully with new LYS purchases.

June 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKari

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