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Activists use knitting needles to make their point

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In her new project, Stitch for Senate, Catherine Mazza, founder of microRevolt, is sending knitted helmet liners to U.S. senators. American women used to knit helmet liners for soldiers on the front during World War II. (Catherine Mazza, microRevolt)

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In 2006, Danish artist Marianne Joergensen stitched a pink blanket over a combat tank to protest Denmark's involvement in the Iraq war. With volunteers contributing nearly 4000 knitted squares, the power of the piece is in people coming together to send a common message, Joergensen explains. (Barbara Katzin / Courtesy of Marianne Joergensen)

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In 2005, pro choice activists planned to litter the steps of the Supreme Court with knitted wombs to protest the court's conservative bent. The organizing effort fell through, and donated wombs ended up in the Alternative Fiber art show in Ohio instead. (M.K. Carroll)

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Catherine Mazza, founder of microRevolt, displays her last group effort - a massive Nike blanket - in her studio in Troy, New York. Knitters contributed to the project to protest Nike's use of sweatshop labor. Mazza hopes to send the blanket to Nike's CEO this summer. (Catherine Mazza, microRevolt)

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The Revolutionary Knitting Circle of Calgary knitted a banner with the message Peace Knits to carry in various protest marches. According to founder Grant Neufeld, being able to knit has opened up activism for many of his members. (Grant Neufeld)

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Catherine Mazza, founder of microRevolt, teaches a knitting workshop at the Grassroots Media Conference in Manhattan. Mazza hopes her work will show new knitters that there are a variety of mediums activists use to get their message across. (Marco Deseriis)

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Knitters have donated more than 45,000 blue squares to WaterAid's Knit A River campaign. Organizers estimate the final product will be taller than the Empire State Building. (Courtesy of WaterAid)

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In 2005, pro choice activists planned to litter the steps of the Supreme Court with knitted wombs to protest the court's conservative bent. The organizing effort fell through, and donated wombs ended up in the Alternative Fiber art show in Ohio instead. (M.K. Carroll)

Striking workers picket. Anti-war protesters rally and march. But lately, activists are turning to a new mantra--“knit, purl and cast off.”

Once the preserve of little old grannies, knitting is re-emerging as a hip hobby. Fresh recruits are collaborating with experienced knitters to find a new function for this centuries-old craft: using knitted accessories to make political statements about everything from sweatshop labor and abortion to the Iraq war.

These protest organizers say knitting is a natural outlet for expressing political views.

“Knitting has opened up activism for a lot of people,” said Gary Neufeld, founder of the Revolutionary Knitting Circle in Calgary, Canada. The circle started in 2002, when members staged a “knit-in” in front of Calgary’s financial office buildings during the summit of G-8 industrialized nations.

In knitting circles, participants not only knit but also chat about social issues. “It’s not difficult to find knitters who are willing to work” for these projects, said Catherine Mazza, founder of an electronic art project called microRevolt and adjunct professor of electronic art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

When pieced together from numerous individual contributions, as many knitted protest projects are, the works become a sort of handcrafted petition. “The strength of the piece is that all these people participated,” Mazza said.

On March 19, the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, Mazza, 29, will launch her latest initiative, Stitch for Senate. She plans to send each U.S. senator a knitted helmet liner--a balaclava-style mask traditionally worn by soldiers to keep warm. Since a single helmet liner takes nearly 20 hours to knit, Mazza hopes to convince two volunteers from every state to help her with the project.

Stitch for Senate is a new twist on wartime knitting. During World War II, as part of the Knit for Defense movement, women knit a variety of gear for men on the front. Mazza’s inspiration came from Operation Home Front, a group in Illinois that, like the Knit for Defense efforts, knits helmet liners for U.S. troops.

Unlike those apolitical gestures, however, Stitch for Senate aims to start a dialogue on the war. Mazza says she is trying to get knitters from both sides of the Iraq war debate to participate. “I would like people to be thinking and talking about the war a little more, and this may be one way of doing it,” Mazza explained.

The knitted helmet liners are also intended to remind politicians to keep the promises they made during the midterm elections. She is encouraging senators to send the liners on to soldiers abroad.

Knitting campaigns are also spreading in Europe. WaterAid, a London-based charity, plans to deliver a “knitted river” to the British government as a way of asking officials to promote clean water and sanitation in developing countries. Made up of nearly 45,000 small blue squares, the final product will be taller than the Empire State Building.

And last year, Danish artist Marianne Jorgensen stitched a giant pink “tank blanket” and placed it over a M24 Chaffee combat tank to protest the Iraq war. The tank and blanket were exhibited in front of the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center in Copenhagen, where volunteers helped sew on additional squares.

“The tank is a symbol of stepping over other people’s borders,” Jorgensen says on her Web site, marianneart.dk. “When it is covered in pink, it becomes completely unarmed and it loses its authority.”

Mazza’s last effort, also a blanket, was decorated with a Nike “swoosh” as a protest against the Oregon-based company’s use of sweatshop labor. Knitters from more than 40 states and 20 countries contributed 4-inch crocheted squares for the project. Mazza intends to present the 14-foot-long blanket to Nike’s CEO this summer.

To make the “swoosh,” Mazza used Knitpro, a special software program she designed that lets anyone create a knitting pattern out of a graphic image. The free distribution of trademarked patterns on her Web site, microrevolt.org, is itself a protest against corporations that profit from the designs, Mazza explains. The software’s mission, she says, is to encourage that kind of “subversive knitting.”

To introduce people to knitting as a form of political expression, Mazza leads workshops at conferences and knitting circles around the country. Sometimes the participants are experienced knitters who contribute to her projects. But often, Mazza has to start with the basics.

On a Saturday afternoon in late February, 10 people dressed in T-shirts and jeans sat in a circle in a classroom, absorbed in their knitting. Participants were attending a conference for grassroots organizers at The New School in Manhattan. Five were seniors from a Brooklyn high school. They’d come for the political protest, one young man said. None of them knew how to knit.

As Mazza guided them through their first few stitches with the fudge-colored yarn, some got hooked. “This is addictive,” one of the girls remarked, asking if she could take the pearlescent pink knitting needles home with her. Mazza gladly gave them away.

It may be a while before these knitters churn out helmet liners, but just the fact that they showed an interest, Mazza said, “gave me tremendous hope.”

E-mail: psg2107@columbia.edu