Knit, purl... vote? Montpelier artist stitches democracy into knitting circles
Ahead of midterm elections this November, you could lean in to Vermont Public's Voter Guide to brush up or you could Knit Democracy Together.
Vermont-based Knit Democracy Together organizes maker circles to bring folks together, hone their crafting skills — and get them up to speed on the democratic process.
Eve Jacobs-Carnahan is an artist from Montpelier who founded the group in 2019. She also served as an assistant attorney general for the state of Vermont from 1990 to 2018, specializing in election law litigation.
Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch caught up with Jacobs-Carnahan to talk about her motivation for starting Knit Democracy Together, and how craft circles have played a role in big historical moments over time. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: Well, let's set the scene for folks who are listening. You invite people together to knit and to craft, and then the end result is an actual thing: a 3D sculpture of sorts. Talk more about what happens at Knit Democracy Together.
Eve Jacobs-Carnahan: Knit Democracy Together is an art project, a community art project that teaches people about democracy. So I hold knitting circles that bring people together to knit, crochet or stitch pieces of a collaborative sculpture of a state capitol. And while they're working on these pieces, during the hour, hour and a half session, I talk to them about the electoral process. And we have some discussion. I'd like to say this is a modern "craft-ivist's" take on historical knitting circles.
Why yarn? Why knitting? Why choose those things?
On one level, the yarn and the knitting comes from my visual art practice, which is making knitted sculpture, mixed media sculpture that includes knitting. But it also comes from the idea that a knitting circle is a very friendly space where people can come together. And really, the only thing they might have in common is that they love to knit. And so you can come into this setting, and you're not necessarily expected to talk a lot; you could come and just listen. And you could come and just share the common activity and talk about and compare what you're working on and help each other.
But to me that made this perfect setting to then have this quiet space where we could talk about difficult issues and, demonstrate that we could work together on something collaborative — just like democracy. When it works well, it's a lot of people coming together and creating something bigger than themselves.
What is it about gathering a knitting circles that creates these safe containers for political discussion? Can you also talk about knitting circles' connection to other social movements, other historic events?
So you could go back to the American Revolution and look at knitting circles, and there were knitting competitions that were very patriotic to get people excited about homespun textiles. Because if we were going to be boycotting British textiles, we were going to have to be making them at home. So that's one example. Another example is during the abolitionist movement, women would make fancy knitted objects and sell them at abolitionist fairs to raise money for the abolitionist cause.
And then you can bring it even more forward and connect it even more directly to voting, though each of those things had to do with representation and the way government works. But you can bring it to the suffrage movement, and during World War I when the suffragists were really trying to get the 19th Amendment passed. There were examples of women gathering to knit for the troops, but they would have their banner for their suffrage committee, front and center and be saying, "Look, we're patriotic. We're needling for the troops. But don't forget, we want the vote and we're demonstrating that we can be a powerful force."
Let's kind of go through what folks might find at a Knit Democracy Together event. Some of the things that you're addressing are the methods of voting, like mail voting or in-person voting, or using voting machines. What are some other topics that you talk about in these knitting circles?
The topics I talked about in the circles include methods of voting, the process of counting the vote, auditing, elections, certifying elections, how the Electoral College works. I also talk about gerrymandering, and ranked-choice voting — those are two things which affect who's represented in the end result of elections. And I've also talked about the role of the Supreme Court.
And the reason I have so many topics is because this has been a moving target. So I started this, and I came up with the idea in 2019. And at that point, I was going to talk about campaign finance issues, because that was what my background had been when I worked for the state in election work. Well, the fall of 2020 demonstrated how misinformation was just rampant. And then we've had all the ramifications of that, so I have adjusted the topics as the conversation in our communities has evolved. Because what I'm really trying to do is help people understand and have a solid grounding in the way elections really work. So that they can recognize misinformation, and be stimulated to get involved and protect the way the system works.
And the end result are these sculptures that you've knit — actual state capitols. Describe to us what one actually looks like, and what the process is to make it.
During the knitting circles, people make small knitted or crocheted or stitched blocks that I then put together. From many knitting circles, I put all of those pieces together to make a five foot long, three-and-a-half foot tall, three-foot deep sculpture of the state capitol building. It's loosely based on the Vermont Statehouse.
I think knitting has a connotation of being a very innocent, friendly activity. Specifically, the yarn is physically warm and squishy. And you often use it to make a comforting blanket or a scarf or a warm sweater. So it has all of these soft, positive connotations. And I think it's a it's a safe place.
People are a really appreciative to learn more and deepen their knowledge — especially with gerrymandering. That's the topic that most people have said to me afterwards that they finally understood when I gave them some graphics to explain it.
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