Real Men Knit: The Review

About a month ago, I mentioned a new DVD called Real Men Knit. Not having seen the actual film, I limited my comments to the way it was being marketed, focusing primarily on its online trailer:

Real Men Knit (by Brian Sawyer)Though, as a male knitter myself, I was excited about the idea of a movie devoted to profiling my smallish (but growing) demographic, the trailer disturbed me by claiming that knitting is actually a craft invented by men and, therefore, a domain that rightly belongs to men, rather than just show that men are equally capable of knitting. That is, though the title claimed “real men knit,” the content seemed to say “knitting is really for men,” which strikes me as a simplification that’s just as dangerous and damaging as “knitting is women’s work.”

This criticism sparked some interesting discussion in the comments, including this one from my own mother:

In the 80’s there was a book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. It humorously poked fun at the masculine stereotype of the “manly man” who ate only meat and potatoes, not “chef’s food.” Of course eating quiche does not make a man effeminate… nor does knitting. … I suspect their choice of this title was a reference to that book, its humor, and its premise (behind the tongue-in-cheek humor) that one should do as one pleases and not let stereotypes dictate your behavior.

which brought a response from Wendy at Unconfined Mind (the publishers of the DVD):

That’s exactly what we had in mind when we decided on that title. … That and the fact that being ‘real’ means you’re being honest which means you’re ok about doing what you want to do without worrying about what others think. The men in the video who knit are are very ‘real’ and I hope they will help inspire other men to have the courage to follow their convictions.

Since Wendy took the time to comment, I offered to give the film a fair shake if she sent it to me to review. I received it this past weekend and am happy to clarify the differences between my impression of the trailer and my thoughts on the actual DVD, which didn’t actually end up focusing on the points I had issue with in the trailer.

Initial Thoughts

First, upon holding the case, I noticed the DVD’s subtitle, which I missed in the small cover image (shown above in this post) at the movie’s web site: “It’s not just women’s work … In fact, it never was!” This is the more balanced stance I was hoping to see, and I’m happy to report that it reflects the general spirit of most of the DVD. Almost all of the “knitting was invented by men” or “knitting belongs to men” claptrap in the movie actually appears in the short trailer, and in context it’s actually much less offensive. In fact, when mentioned at all, the return to this theme is always clearly with thumb planted firmly in cheek (e.g., “Knit yourself a hat … a scarf … or even a cod piece!”).

The whole package ended up being much more about the characteristics, tradition, and value of knitting in general than its practice specifically by men. Clearly, the angle behind its release and marketing was to capitalize on a niche market, as well as to specifically target a segment of the population that might be interested in “the knitting craze” but otherwise too intimidated by gender stereotypes to get involved themselves. But, though all of the subjects of the movie are male, the spirit of the topic should be equally interesting and rewarding to people of any age, gender, or background.

Documentary

The 32-minute documentary begins with a brief history of knitting (including the caveat that “no one knows who invented knitting, but it’s clear that men were involved from the beginning,” which is a much more tempered claim than “we invented it!”), some of its cultural implications, its regional nuances, and other interesting background about the craft. I found this account fascinating and actually wish it were given a little more space on the DVD. At its current length, it seems rather perfunctory, and I couldn’t help feeling there was much more information to mine here, though I understand why that background was beyond the scope of this feature’s mission.

After the history, the focus switches to the heart of the project by interviewing male knitters of a variety of ages and skill levels. Most of these men and boys mention their gender only when prompted by the interviewer, and then in a humorous, anecdotal way, rather than as official spokesmen for any male knitting agenda. Like the construction of the movie in general, the participants instead focus on why they knit, what knitting means to them, and how it enriches their lives. There are some good personal interest stories here, many of which resonated with my own experience and perspective.

Interviews with Experts

Two separate features on the disc profile and interview “famous” and “legendary” male knitwear designers Kaffe Fassett (who recognizes and appreciates that his celebrity is not of the “rockstar” variety) and Brandon Mably. These extended interviews (clips from each of them appear in the documentary, the duplication of which is only slightly annoying for someone watching the whole thing in one sitting) offer some valuable insight into knitting design, practice, and lifestyle. In addition to their personal stories of their relationship with knitting and its importance and effect on their lives, these interviews allow an invaluable peek into a shared aesthetic and purpose for the art of designing knitwear (rather than just the practice of knitting, which is covered well in the documentary’s interviews with “regular” knitters).

My only quibble with these otherwise excellent interviews is that Fassett and Mably are design partners and therefore share the same philosophy about what constitutes something worth knitting. In particular, they are firm believers in the power of color, both in life and in art/craft (before developing a love of knitting, needlepoint, crochet, quilting, and pretty much any other craft involving needles and fiber, Fassett’s fascination originated with his work as a painter). They have intriguing, insightful things to say about the use and importance of color, but neither of them are interested in what they call the “technical” aspects of knitting.

This means that they would never dream of designing or knitting any piece in a single color and are repulsed by the mere thought of doing so, which is fine and certainly their prerogative (and the examples in the DVD of their gorgeous designs prove that they really needn’t stray from their specialty), but it’s important to point out that this is simply the rather narrow view of two specialists in the field. I would have liked to hear from a designer who was equally interested in using texture and different stitches to achieve the sort of spectacular results these featured designers achieve with color. Though one knitter in the documentary sings the praises of lace, cables, and a variety of other techniques that interest me (and many, many like-minded knitters), they don’t get much respect or attention from the experts, which is a bit of an oversight, I think, as well as a shame.

Knitting Lesson

The final piece to the collection on this DVD is a complete knitting lesson (or, as complete as any 20-minute lesson can be), taught by Eugene Bourgeois, the proprietor of The Philosopher’s Wool Company. Bourgeois is a soft-spoken, gentle soul, and he strikes me as a very relaxed, patient teacher. Perhaps it comes from (or is the cause of) living with sheep in a beautiful setting. I must admit that this segment kind of made me want to have his life.

Getting beyond my jealousy and into the actual lesson, I’m always curious about the many different ways that knitters learn to cast on, so I was interested to see Bourgeois’ method (it’s different than mine). He then provides your basic introduction to knitting in the round and finishing up a simple cap. It’s tough to teach in a video, but this segment does a good job, so it’s worth a shot (there’s really no substitute, though, for having a knowledgeable hand physically guide you).

The DVD package includes the simple but complete hat pattern featured in the lesson, for you to make yourself. All you’ll need is a skein of two-ply yarn and a pair of size 8 circular needles. Here’s a tip, ladies: packaging the needles and yarn with this DVD would make a great gift for the man in your life. Not only will he perhaps learn patience, the value of working with his hands, quiet meditation, and a skill that can occupy him wherever he goes, but you just might get a nice knitted piece or two down the road.

Closing Thoughts

If this DVD is really a call to arms for getting “manly men” to pick up a pair of sticks, I’m not sure it will succeed in changing any minds that aren’t already open to changing, but I’m no longer sure that’s really the intention. It’s largely preaching to the converted (or, at least, the already curious), and it does a good job at that. Knitting is for everyone who’s looking for the benefits it offers, and this movie illustrates those benefits to anyone who’s interested in learning about them.

In the end, though not made explicit, the logic behind the title appears to go basically something like this, beginning with a premise that anyone could appreciate:

  1. Knitting is good for the soul.
  2. All men have souls.
  3. What’s good for the part is good for the whole.
  4. Knitting is good for all men (including the subset that identifies as “real”).

Q.E.D.

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