When My Masters Research Topic Became Headline News

When I told my family that my postgraduate research was on the gendering of knitting over time and the language men who knit use to legitimize their presence in online knitting forums, their response was not ‘that’ll come in handy”. In the last stages of writing up my findings, I began doubting its importance myself. The topic almost felt insignificant in comparison with my day job working in disability research and advocacy.

My undergraduate degree in Linguistics had led me to AUT’s Master of English and New Media Studies programme, where I focussed on critical discourse analysis of social media comments. My research on men who knit involved me taking a deep dive into the gendered past of knitting and the remnants of these gendered ideologies surrounding knitting that are expressed through people’s language today.

After submitting my thesis, the last thing I expected was for the topic of knitting and gender to dominate the day’s news cycle. When National MP Paul Goldsmith stated a week ago that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should ‘stick to her knitting’, social media went into a frenzy. I realised I was that I was in the best position to comment on the matter (especially as some of the media commentary was quite confused), but how? The window closes pretty quickly on political news cycles so if, like me, you had your phone off while it was all unravelling, you may feel like you missed the mark.

I took to Twitter, which was abuzz with contrasting opinions. Some felt that ‘stick to your knitting’ was merely a business metaphor and not at all gendered. Others argued that the phrase was sexist, demanding an apology. So when ACT MP David Seymour expressed his outrage that Goldsmith was being criticised, stating “It’s not just women that knit”, I knew it was my time. But the comment section of a conservative MP’s social media account wasn’t the place for it.

I started my own Twitter thread.

A screenshot of a Twitter post by Angela Desmarais. It reads: I recently wrote a Master's thesis at @AUTuni on 'Men who Knit'. It explored the gendering of knitting over time and the language men use in online knitting forums to counteract any percieved femininity. 'Stick to your knitting', a thread: 1/10

Starting by acknowledging the validity in both sides of the argument, I laid down a brief history of knitting to highlight its link to the ideological assumption that knitting is considered a feminine pursuit.

I gave an account of hand knitting’s early years, when men in the late-1200s trained in the trade for six years before being accepted into prestigious knitting guilds, then contrasted this with the introduction of knitting machines in the late-1800s. Men at this time believed that women did not have the physical strength needed to operate machinery and they were therefore encouraged to pursue knitting as a hobby instead, in the home.

The phrase ‘stick to your knitting’ that got me sharing my research was not a part of the analysis but when the phrase hit the news, I dug around and found that it first appeared in texts around the late-1800s. This was around the same time that society considered knitting as a hobby to be pursued by the ‘weaker’ sex, in the home.

Language evolves and meanings change. While that may have been the view at the time, the phrase is used nowadays as either an insult or advice, usually in a business context, to tell someone they should focus on what they are skilled in. I posted my thread about the gendering of knitting on Twitter  to emphasise the fact that although using the phrase ‘stick to your knitting’ may be intended as a harmless business metaphor, it also carries with it centuries of gendering around what tasks are acceptable for men or women to partake in.

‘Stick to your knitting’ is undeniably more than just a metaphor when used against a female Prime Minister discussing business issues. So, when I woke up the morning after posting this thread and found that my Twitter thread had gained momentum, I felt anxious that my usually quiet account would see a surge in ‘dudebro reckons’. But I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback and general appreciation for an evidence-based perspective.

The feeling that I had missed the opportunity to give my expert opinion early on in the controversy came from listening to a Radio New Zealand interview with a Linguist from another university. He talked about possible interpretations of the phrase and his hesitations in taking it literally, but his suggestion that knitting began in the 1400s got me wishing I had put myself out there earlier. I quickly realised that even though I was ‘only’ a Master’s student, I could have more knowledge on elements of my core topic than more established researchers.

My advice for anyone who finds their area of research hitting the news is not to hesitate in offering your expertise; people want to hear your evidence-based knowledge. Don’t let a delay stop you either. The news cycle may have moved on, but the public still wants to hear from you.

About Angela Desmarais

Angela Desmarais majored in Linguistics as an undergraduate and recently submitted her postgraduate thesis titled Men who Knit: A Social Media Critical Discourse Study (SMCDS) on the Legitimization of Men within Reddit’s r/knitting Community. As well as gender and identity research, she is interested in accessibility. Her research on assistive technology was recently published in The Journal of Technology for People with Disabilities and she now works for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) NZ in the dual roles of Kaituitui and Researcher. Angela sporadically tweets from @AngelaDesmarais.

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