Knitting in the
Golden Age of Television

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers

I did not learn to knit at my grandmother’s side. The internet taught me how to cast on a chunky woollen scarf and knit a row of stitches. Along with YouTube, craft blogs and ‘how to’ google searches, the serialised shows of this golden age of television have also been my constant knitting companions. I can’t knit without watching The Wire, Deadwood or Borgen and I can’t seem to watch without doing something with my hands. For me, knits and purls are not so far removed from clicks and streams.

Detective Inspector Sarah Lund and partner in DR's, The Killing

Yet I forget that knitting is often associated with an old-fashioned quaintness, if not a mildly sexist disdain for a craft mostly pursued by women. I dropped a needle during the last season of Game of Thrones when one fur-cloaked character accused the other of dithering in knitting circles while every caped member of the family was out fighting. For one brief moment my world of knitting and my world of television collided—and knitting came out for the worse.

But the collision was no accident. Blood, guts and sex bring in the viewers, but what keeps me watching shows like Game of Thrones is a vision of a pre-electric, pre-plastic world where the internet does not exist and industrial manufacturing is a very distant possibility. You need only glance at the outfits worn by a character like Arya Stark to know that in her world, the art of crafting stuff by hand remains ascendant. Like most almost-millennials, I could totally forgo the show’s old-school gender relations and dodgy ethnic stereotypes, but the promise of a thing made by hand is what I pursue to ever-greater lengths online.

HBO's Game of Thrones characters, throwing thinly veiled knitting barbs.

I know I am not alone in the hours I spend on the internet scouring knitting blogs and beautifully appointed Squarespace sites for a glimmer of hand-made inspiration. There are many of us out there, all dedicated to crafts that come from a world before machines, plastics and computers. Look to Instagram and see our hands dipped in blue indigo, fingers wrapped around newly spun bolts of yarn and wholesome foods served in the gristled cast-iron pans in which they were cooked. Our simple pleasures are the loaf of bread, the cabled hat and linen, we love linen. We make, we eat, we wear, we photograph. Just like wonderfully gloomy shows like the Danish police procedural The Killing, we have perfected the art of dark and mysterious lighting.

You might think of this celebration of the hand-made as a retreat from the pressures of the internet, pressing emails, incessant status updates, Twitter quips and profligate online consumerism. But you would be wrong. Click by click and like by like, the vagaries of the digital world go hand and hand with the romance of the pre-electric past.

Witness my tumble down the internet rabbit hole of image searches when the lights went out on Outlander’s time-travelling heroine. World War II nurse Claire Randall unexpectedly finds herself in pre-Jacobite Scotland where she marries a remarkably buff Scottish rebellion leader. More importantly, she also acquires a Sontag shawl and matching wrist cuffs that set my knitting heart alight. While Outlander quickly dropped off my watching schedule, I spent many minutes online considering how I might make this shawl—a simple knitted triangle crossed at the front and tied at the back—and whether or not I would look like a weirdo wearing it outside the house.

Game of Thrones inspired similarly obsessive internet searches. The show was roundly criticised for the excessive presence of female flesh in its early seasons. But now that winter has come, the camera is just as likely to linger on the eye-candy pleasures of wool, fur and leather. Most people go for John Snow’s broodingly heavy pelts and capes, but it is Arya’s activewear that I hold a pre-industrial torch for. Not a scrap of comfy Lycra to be seen, her clothes consist of deeply practical fightwear: a whipstitch jerkin, a coat of embroidered fur and a simple waste-tied apron dress. The girl understands the importance of layering.

Golden Age TV knitting: cardigans, jumpers, hats and scarves made whilst watching Mad Men, The Wire, Borgen and Red Riding.

Of course, I pore over these hand-crafted televisuals, at the same time that I am using my own hands to knit a cabled cardigan. It is easy to see this as a symptom of our media-saturated world where my click-frazzled brain can’t concentrate on a simple task without being distracted by something else. This conclusion is much more palatable than what’s really happening. The truth is that I’m stuffing my leisure time with as much effortful productivity as I can. I am watching television and I am making something that I can wear now and Instagram later. There is no slacking-off here. No couch potato slothfulness. My need to knit and watch TV is a millennial need to do something at all times. This is good and this is bad. Some part of me would like to be able to sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer’s day with nothing but my knitting and a cool breeze. I tried this once and spent the whole time wishing I’d brought a podcast.

So here I am. The first real bite in an Auckland winter and I’m on the couch knitting a Faroese-style jumper very similar to the one worn by detective Sarah Lund in The Killing. I’ve become so adept at craft multitasking (craftitasking?) that I can knit and follow the twisty plotlines of subtitled Scandinavian TV shows. I am sure that I am not alone in this endless loop of knitting and television. There must be more than one knitter out there who has eagerly binging The Killing at the same time as knitting its infamous chunky sweater. Winter is coming. We will knit, we will watch and we will wear.

"The Killing" sweater, knitted for New Zealand conditions using Outlaw Yarn's Bohemia Worsted.

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers is a contemporary art historian, an obsessive knitter, a keen speaker of te reo rangatira and works in transport. She marvels at her life's many forking paths.

With thanks to photographer Neeve Woodward