Meghan Udell: TOP TEN BOOKS

meghan udell

“I came to knitting — and by extension fiber arts — as a teenager when I stumbled across a tattered copy of a Learn to Knit booklet at the local Salvation Army. I was drawn to the idea of creating something with my hands, but the practical aspect of creating clothes, seemed in sharp contrast to my burgeoning feminist ideals. Publically, I eschewed the idea of traditional women’s work, while privately I sweated and swore over every dropped stitch, and misshapen garment. 

It wasn’t until I read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities that I was able to reconcile the two. I found a feminist hero in the villianous knitter Madame Defarge. The ringleader of the tricoteuses, she spends the French Revolution perched by the side of the guillotine, tirelessly knitting the names of aristocrats to be executed. It was at that moment I fell in love with steganographic textiles, and the long history of women using traditional crafts as means of subversive rebellion.”

Below are Meghan Udell’s favorite books that inspire her work, available to purchase individually or as a set.


A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens
This was the book that started me on the path of steganographic textiles. While many find Madame Defarge a villainous bitter woman, callously knitting between executions, for me she represents a feminist hero, channeling her rage at sexual violence against women as fuel for the French Revolution.
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The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater

Alanna Okun
The second piece in this heartfelt and raw book of essays is titled “Not Just for Grandmas.” Okun means it facetiously, but the title really hit home for me. Knitting wasn’t something the cool kids were doing in high-school. Knitting was an activity reserved for Grandmothers and the like, but suddenly here was a book of essays that spoke to the anxiety prone — myself included — looking to exert a little control over the crazy world around us.
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The Odyssey

On the surface the Odyssey is a hero’s book about journey and adventure, but just beneath the main storyline rests a feminist arc of subtly navigating a man’s world without sacrificing your ideals. For me, Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife, is my favorite character. A skilled manipulator, Penelope cunningly evades unwanted suitors by claiming to knit or weave (depending on the translation you read) a funeral shroud for her elderly Father-in-Law. She pledges that upon completion of the shroud, she will remarry, but as a stall tactic she secretly undoes her work at night.
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Stitch ’n Bitch

Debbie Stoller
Over the years I’ve collected dozens of how-to and instruction manuals for knitting techniques, but Stitch ‘n Bitch is the one knitting book I come back to time-and-time again. Written by the cofounder of the third-wave feminist magazine BUST, the pages are filled with puns and simple to follow patterns including a skull and crossbone sweater, and the original pussy hat. This was the book that finally helped me learn to fix my mistakes, instead of frantically undoing hours of work. A must have for any practical knitting library.
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To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf
The novel is set in three parts in the Ramsays' summer home, on the Isle of Skye. On the surface, Mrs. Ramsay — the devoted mother and matriarch of the family, and Lily Briscoe — a female artist committed to personal autonomy, stand in stark contrast of each other. Mrs Ramsay appears to have it all, but underneath, the responsibilities of being an ideal woman — a wife and mother — is slowly killing her. Throughout the first part of the book, Mrs. Ramsay is almost never without her knitting, a fact that becomes even more prominent in her absence, when the remaining characters return to the summer house after Mrs Ramsay’s death.
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The Golden Thread

Kassia St. Clair 
For centuries, the making of textiles has traditionally fallen to women. And, the subsequent fabrics they create are often regarded as frivolous objects. But from birth to death, fabric is a constant in our lives, and has been for centuries. In The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History Kassia St. Clair deftly, and exhaustively tackles the 30,000 year history of fabric. This isn’t a book I devoured from start to finish, but I keep returning to whenever I start to take fibers for granted.
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Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting

Ann Hood
As anyone who has ever picked up a pair of knitting needles can attest to, knitting is a laborious love. When a pair of socks can take weeks to knit, and a blanket months (or even years), there’s something slightly sacrilegious about a book of shorts about knitting. But somehow these writers capture the essence of hours spent stitching, without the expected verbose prose. The third story written by Andre Dubus III is a particular favorite of mine — capturing both the historical and personal legacy of knitting in a short heartfelt gem.
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Jane Austen
It’s hard to think about literature and knitting without referencing Jane Austen. Sure knitting was a by-product of the time — a task to keep women’s idle hands busy while creating practical garments — but Jane Austen was never one to abide by traditional gender roles. The title character Emma is a self-assured, and self-sufficient young woman — an anomaly of the time. Prone to hubris, the only character Emma admires is the continually knitting Jane Fairfax.
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Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

Nancy Princenthal
This is the lone book that doesn’t touch upon textile arts, but I would be remiss to not mention Princenthal’s exploration of the rise of gender-based art, born of an era of increased sexual violence against women. From Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece to Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014 piece Carry That Weight, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s looks at how women artists create work in response to living with the constant threat of sexual violence.
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The Moving Finger

Agatha Christie
There’s arguably no more famous knitter in literature than the crafty Mrs. Marple (pun intended). She’s a sly old lady who endlessly solves crimes while simultaneously knitting sweaters, and crocheting socks. The Moving Finger could stand to feature more of her, but it stands as one of my favorites for the simple fact that a cast aside old woman, outwits an investigator from the Scotland Yard and concocts an elaborate plan to catch the elusive murderer. 
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