Maths, Knitting & Feminism

Knitting is an ancient art traditionally practiced by women. It is a difficult craft and many around the world are reclaiming the pastime, refuting its dowdy reputation and bringing it into the modern age. Knitting circles are popping up across the globe -- the most popular organisation being "Stitch N Bitch" which currently has over 1,300 groups from its birthplace in New York City all the way to countries such as Israel and Thailand. Founded by New York Times Best Selling American author, publisher and feminist commentator Debbie Stoller, Stitch N Bitch is at the forefront of the renaissance knitting is experiencing and presents the idea that not only is knitting well suited to the fractured nature of the modern age but that it also has strong "feminist credentials." Early feminists rejected "womanly" traditions like knitting under the premise that the historical link to women was a hindrance and the social role it suggested blocked women from forming identities outside homemaking. Stoller thinks that the exact opposite is true -- she firmly believes that the age old tie to women that knitting has is important and that the craft itself is to be respected as it requires expertise, intelligence and creativity. 

Knitting used to explore topology

The knitting revival goes beyond homemade hats and sweaters though and has recently been brought into the realm of mathematics by people like Dr Sarah-Marie Belcastro and the British duo Brits Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer who refer to themselves as "designers of mathematical knitwear". The latter two use knitting as a mathematical teaching aid, explaining that creating an object from a maths concept forces increased understanding and often becomes a maths problem on its own. They use knitting to make mathematics more accessible and appeal to more hands-on learners. Their site Wooly Thoughts showcases their creations and includes instructions and patterns for those interested in exploring mathematics visually. As for Belcastro, she has brought the craft into her professional life, and like Ashforth and Plummer she uses it to represent topology -- "the study of mathematical properties preserved when an object is twisted, stretched or otherwise deformed." Knitting helps her to explore the mathematical concepts she encounters on a day to day basis. What began as a childhood hobby became a useful tool for Belcastro while in college as she realised that uniting math and yarn could further her understanding of incredibly complex concepts. 

The creation of these wooly representations is not only a crafting opportunity, but also becomes a math problem in and of itself. Knitting is "discrete" and thus involves individual stitches akin to pixels on a computer screen. "Converting a smooth curve into a knitted pattern is a math problem because one has to figure out where exactly to place the discrete changes in curvature so that the object as a whole has as close as possible to the desired smooth curving," explains Belcastro. This method has allowed her to knit vastly complicated ideas into objects that those in-the-know would immediately recognise. Her most detailed piece to date is a model of a non-orientable surface of genus 5.


Belcastro's non-orientable surface of genus 5 where each colour of the shape represents a different projective plane

Seeing a feminine tradition being modernised and brought into serious academia is a very exciting prospect and it's innovators like Belcastro who inspire us to no end as they translate their passion into new forms. 

Interested in getting involved? Find a knitting circle near you via Stitch N Bitch