Friday, April 18, 2008
knit a sweater (,) girl!
I started knitting for the same reason I started smoking at age 16: I wanted to look like a chic bad girl. To this day, I still love the way my wrist moves around the cig dangling off extended fingers. I decided to teach myself how to knit a few years ago, not because there was a plethora of what I find to be kind of inane trendy knitting books (I won’t names or titles, but they seemed to be basically self-help books disguised as hipster guides) but because I learned that Joan Crawford used to knit compulsively on the sets of her movies. Crawford claimed that knitting calmed her nerves, but her friends suggested that she used the click-clacking of the needles as a strategy of bitchery: to annoy and distract co-stars she hated. I love this idea of conceptualizing a craft traditionally associated with grandmothers or grandmother-aged bachelorettes, as an aggro-femme act. Yarn reminds me of the slyness of clawing cats; the needles themselves are blatantly weapon-like. In Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Madame Defarge knits up a hitlist of aristocrats headed for the guillotine. In her story “Devil Finds Work,” the British mystery writer Ruth Rendell creates a character who kills her annoying husband (who is annoyed by her obsessive knitting habit) with a sharpened steel knitting needle—driven straight into his skull. Knitting is a dangerous craft that creates dangerous girls.
When I knit for myself, I imagine that I am creating myself as a sweater girl. This doesn’t just refer to the fact that I am a girl who makes sweaters, but it refers to the specific feminine skin I am knitting for my body. “Sweater Girl” is an American sexual persona of the 1940s and 50s. It named saucy girls who wore tight sweaters that emphasized their breasts. The filmmaker Ed Wood famously fetishized the angora sweater as a major medium of his transvestite identification. The original sweater girl was most likely Lana Turner, who cemented her fame as a Hollywood sexpot and bad girl (Turner developed a penchant for fast and dangerous boys, one of whom was eventually murdered by her lesbian daughter). As a teenager, Turner appeared for a few minutes in the 1937 film, “They Won’t Forget," bouncing across the screen in stiletto heels and a tight sweater, her breasts bouncing up and down. Interestingly enough, “They Won’t Forget” was not a sex-comedy but a serious film about lynching: a girl (Turner’s character) is raped and killed and the suspects and potential lynching victims are...a Jewish teacher and an African-American janitor. The sexuality of the sweater girl originates from a crossroad of race and power.
Then there is my favorite sweater girl of all time: Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
Novak famously plays a double role in the film—as the icy blonde Madeleine, and then, the earthy, raw Judy. Judy is a sweater girl: in contrast to the high-toned Madeleine, she’s a working-class girl who admits to a clueless Jimmy Stewart that she’s been “picked up” before (by guys). But the costume: Novak wears a tight sweater but clearly, no brassiere. It’s kind of amazing to see a film from 1958 in which the nipples of a major Hollywood star is on brave and reckless display—thanks to some blue-green wool. The feminine sexuality enabled by the sweater is a weird one, despite its obvious exploitive effects. Even though it allows male oglers to cop a peek at a woman’s nipples, the sweater itself is always totally opaque. Not only that, it is often opaque and prickly. If the knit is supposed to simulate a second skin for its feminine wearer, and if the sweater is made of angora or mohair (as it often is) then the vulnerability of the nipples have been given a kind of thorny, burry life. The sweater girl sweater is the unsupplicant cousin of the wet t-shirt. If ogling boys want to eroticize the nipples of a sweater girl beyond pure voyeurism, then they must brave a tongueful of itchy wool. The nipples of a sweater girl are simultaneously revealed and armored by the angora-mohair sweater.
So when I knit, I feel like a bad girl in the tradition of Madame Defarge and Kim Novak. Right now, I’m working on a cardigan that I spotted back in January: a Rodarte cardigan that is hand-knit out of multi-colored and tinsel-flanked mohair yarn. To achieve that huge, functionless weave I’ll use very thin yarn with a fat-ass needle (US 17).
This cardigan is actually not a traditional sweater girl sweater: it’s not tight, it’s not a pull-over. But I like that it is made out of mohair, and looks super-itchy: it’s a cross between a cobweb and a porcupine. And its designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy admit that they've been inspired by Japanese kawaii ("cute") culture and horror films. I find Asian cuteness and horror to be appropriate inspiration for a nouvelle-sweater girl. I went through a whole knitting phase of working only with milky cashmere blends, but I think I’m over it now. I’m totally loving the itchy bitchiness of angora and mohair. I imagine that rashy discomfort of the braless 50s sweater girls and would like to replicate it on my body—or at least cite it a bit. I would of course wear the cardigan with my standby t-shirts, but my arms at least would feel the prickly femininity of the yarn. But I’m so lazy: I haven’t actually begun knitting the thing yet. (I’ve made the swatches...) I’m still writing the pattern, which is my favorite activity of knitting: converting measurements of the garments into stitches. It’s rather like lo-fi pixilation. I’ve measured my favorite cardigan, and multiplied them by the stich/inch ratio of the yarn I’ll be using. To figure out the final size of the shoulder seam, I have to recall geometry--how do you figure out the hypontenuse of a triangle? And it’s kind of like reading: breaking down the thing I love, and then converting it into another language, and then building it up again, to be wrapped around my body. I’m going to try to finish the damn pattern this weekend, and hopefully I’ll be done with this sweater and be able to upload some pictures of your Joony Schecter actually wearing the thing...maybe by July? Oh, angora in the summertime...how masochistic is that? Feminine masochism can be romantic—provided that the girl in question is talented in brain, imagination, or handiwork. But because I am not Billie Holiday, Lauryn Hill, Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, or even Amy Winehouse, my level of feminine masochism stays in a very small level: knitting in the summertime. (OK, so it’s not officially summer yet; but the temperature today is as if it wanted to be summer—warm and sunny and threatening balminess.) There is something self-flagellating about constructing a garment out of wooly stuff during a season of show-offy near-nudity. While others are scheming ways to strip off layers, I’ll be scheming ways to add layers on—layers that will give me sweater girl-nipples made out of itchy-witchy angora and mohair.