Knitting has a rich history in American politics

Catherine Hollingsworth

Today is the most important American day of all. It's election day. The political candidates have drawn our attention to their virtues, their foibles, and for some, their appearances on Saturday Night Live. But like many other knitters, I want to know if they knit.

Last spring I had a confidential conversation with one of our national politicians who admitted knowing how to knit.

Well I have been thinking about this admission, and it made me realize that many politicians, first ladies and Cabinet heads have practiced the fine art of knitting.

In fact since the days of President George Washington, knitting has seen more days in the White House than any of these politicians ever will.

To get a better look at how knitting made it to the White House, I consulted a good source, "No Idle Hands, The Social History of American Knitting" by Anne L. Macdonald (Ballantine Books, $12.95). I can't recommend this wonderful history book enough, and I think it should be required reading for all knitters to better see themselves as part of an American experience -- the experience of knitting while we shape our country's policies and its unity.

Before the American Revolution it was considered patriotic for one to boycott English-made goods and materials.

Household virtues that included knitting were revived and practiced as a show of liberty. First ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams no doubt knew how to knit. Most refined, young ladies of that period were schooled in needlework that included knitting, crochet, lace, needlepoint, embroidery and fine sewing.

There are records that tell how Martha Washington (1731-1802) helped with a drive to sell knitted socks to raise money for the troops, while Abigail Adams (1744-1818) resented that women were rigidly stereotyped as too trifle to do more than knit.

First lady Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948), an avid knitter, regularly invited friends to the White House for knitting and socializing. Her socials were so famous for the political discourse, that some in Washington feared them for what was said. It was also reported that she sat knitting to calm herself before her daughter's wedding.

First lady Grace Coolidge (1879-1957) was a highly skilled knitter. She once helped to sponsor a knitting competition that was judged by major fashion magazines, including Vogue, and her anonymous entry of a knitted baby carriage robe was awarded an honorable mention.

Like most knitters, she was generous with her work, donating to bazaars and benefit raffles, but she was widely regaled for her expertise at knitting monogrammed silk stockings.

A self-taught knitter, first lady Lou Hoover (1874-1944), was also generous with her knitted pieces.

She often wrote her own patterns, called recipes and when one friend spotted a mistake, Mrs. Hoover chided her not to rip it out, but to repeat it in the next row and make a pattern of it.

Perhaps the most famous White House knitter was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). She was such an avid knitter that she dragged her knitting bag everywhere she went and was once introduced as "first knitter of the land."

Her passion for knitting became her way of unifying American women to knit for the troops during World War II, and she was pictured on the White House Christmas card with her knitting in her hands.

When she began her own work with the United Nations, her penchant for knitting made her appear to some as not very serious, but her legacy proved she was anything but.

White House women don't just include first ladies. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was born in Poland, where knitting is an everyday skill.

Her knitting skills helped her to focus on her work as an international diplomat, teacher and humanitarian.

Join these American knitters who helped shape our country -- one stitch at a time and one vote at a time. Go vote!

Catherine Hollingsworth, interior designer, artist and professional knitwear designer, has lived in Alaska for 18 years. She is interim president of the Alaska State Yarn Council and past president of Knitters of the North. To reach her, e-mail

Correction: A notice for the Knitters of the North Guild that appeared on this column Tuesday, gave the wrong time for the guild meeting. It is Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.

Daily News correspondent