What I’d like, knitted up and sorted, once and for all…

09 +00002015-05-08T16:40:10+00:0031 2012 § 12 Comments


I made the cardigan in the photograph for a small friend of mine and I have to admit I am quite proud of it. The small friend is a she who likes owls (the multi-shaded wool is called ‘Owl’ by its suppliers) and I found the owl buttons online. I was even more delighted when they arrived and I discovered that they’d come from an online retailer based at Gedney, a small village close to my native Spalding.

This particular little girl owns very few clothes in pink. Her mother, whilst objective enough to include some pink in her daughter’s wardrobe, is determined not to turn her into a ‘princess’ and, in any case, I had other ideas for this project (pink not having been a very popular colour for girls during my own childhood, I should never have considered this colour as a must for any daughter of mine, had I had one); I like owls myself and have noticed that they tend not to shine brightly pink as they silently flit between the trees at dusk. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that my chosen header picture there hasn’t a trace of pink in it. When looking for other garments with which to indulge the small friend, my worst expectations were quickly confirmed by what I found, that many are not only pink, but pink in a very sexist way. I’ve discovered (but not been tempted to buy) pink tops printed with patterns of cupcakes and hearts, pale pink coats adorned with dark pink bows and little pink socks with lacy ruffled tops. Most retailers of children’s clothing stock their racks with boy-girl equivalents and I’ve found that the boy equivalents are almost always much more interesting and, generally, much less narrowly stereotyped by colour. For example, at Monsoon, I found some beautiful long-sleeved T-shirts in green and gold, decorated respectively with wild animals on a prairie and a train packed with animal passengers. Some of the motifs were appliquéd or embroidered, making the fabric fascinating for a small girl already interested in all things tactile. I bought them for her: there was nothing overtly masculine about them and they were much more fun than the horizon-narrowing pink-iced buns on a darker pink ground topped with scarlet glacé cherries. Her mum has also bought beautiful boys’ clothes for her which look as good on her as on any boy. Based on my limited recent experience as a shopper for infants, I’m astonished that the racks of sickly pink fairy-frocks sell: I had fondly assumed that at least some of the clear message thinking women (and men!) have been sending for so many years now to the producers and buyers of children’s goods would have got through; I’d have expected to see the ‘pretty-in-pink’ clothes bunched in limp, unconsidered crowds during the sales. But in all the shops where I browsed, the pink princess outfits seemed to be disappearing like hot cakes – or cupcakes!

What I especially don’t understand is the logic behind dressing little girls in clothes like these. In the past, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers or shorts (I belong to the first generation of girls to have made a big push first to be allowed to wear trousers and later to have them accepted as smart workwear), but there were few other concessions to gender except whether buttons were placed on the left or the right of the garment (a confusing convention that thankfully seems largely to have died out). Girls and boys wore the same styles and colours in coats, jumpers, cardigans, shirts, vests and socks. Only swimwear and footwear were different, and then not always: small girls often wore the same (hideously uncomfortable when wet) knitted swimming trunks as boys and stout lace-up shoes in the winter or bar-sandals in the summer were fairly universal. Granted, colours were often drab (browns, greens and greys didn’t show the dirt, swatches of cloth and hanks of wool were often left over from the making of adult garments) and choosing ‘unisex’ clothes may partly have been inspired by the domestic economics of hand-me-downs. I acknowledge there was also quite a lot to put up with before the advent of man-made materials and truly waterproof clothes. Most children had only one school coat and often had to wear it damp on the day following a downpour. All but the wealthiest grew heartily sick of their clothes before they grew out of them: two school skirts, two jumpers and two or three shirts, plus a dress ‘for best’, was the norm and, although I didn’t think of it then, this must have meant mothers, and sometimes fathers (not all fathers ensconced themselves behind their newspapers when they returned home) were engaged in a constant round of washing and ironing. I’m not trying to hark back to some kind of golden age.

But still, as far as our clothing went, girls and boys were pretty much equal. I certainly never wore anything that suggested that my future would be focused on baking cup-cakes and wearing lipstick (though I happen to enjoy both), nor did my brother’s clothes indicate that he was destined to be a footballer, astronaut or mechanic. I make these points tongue-in-cheek, but underlying them is a very serious principle indeed: that of achieving true equality between the sexes and removing the glass ceiling once and for all. How are the women and men of the future going to be inspired to exercise a completely free choice, electing to become engineers or hairdressers, electricians or fashion designers, bus drivers or nurses – or indeed, bakers or make-up artists – because they’ve thought about it and this is what they want to be, if at the age of a few months they have already been placed in a gender pigeon-hole created by parents in cahoots with clothing manufacturers?

I began by saying that I’m proud of the owl cardigan. It’s been a long time since I knitted a garment and, though the pattern was simple, I enjoyed making it and felt a sense of achievement when it was finished – especially as its owner seems to like it. It’s a unisex cardigan, suitable equally for a girl or a boy, and could equally have been made by a man or a woman. One of the people who taught me to knit was my stepfather, a burly fifteen-stone builder with hands as big as soup tureens. Boys – and girls – and parents – take note.


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§ 12 Responses to What I’d like, knitted up and sorted, once and for all…

  • hildairene says:

    You said it…but some girls, I know one…Iwas her nanny for over 12 years, don’t like pink at all and really resist all the peer pressure!
    I never liked the colour myself .
    I love that cardigan and the rich earth tones you used…I hope your little friend does too , that it does not itch .
    If her friends don’t like it but she wears it anyway, she shows character!

    • Hello, Hilda! Thank you very much indeed for coming to say this! She is already a very independent spirit and I’m much struck by her close scrutiny of and fascination for colour and texture.
      You may be interested to know that a close friend of mine, who had two daughters and set out to challenge the pink stereotype right at the start, was horrified when one of the girls simply demanded to wear lots of pink, in spite of all her mum’s efforts. Fortunately, her liking for pink proved to be a fad and she soon dropped it!
      I imagine that your young charge has gone on to be very creative and artistic, as well as independently-minded, with you as her mentor! Do you still keep in touch with her?

      • hildairene says:

        Hello Christina,

        better late than never…I had to install something on my ipad to be able to read your answer and reply to it….I read the blog directly in the mail, but I had not enough memory left in the ipad…
        I finally got around to do a little ‘housecleaning’…

        I’ve been taking care of several girls and the ‘pink period’ is a passing stage I noticed.. so I tell the mothers who complain about it….
        “Don’t worry…. it will soon be over…”
        The girl I mentioned is 16 now and still in school….
        She wants to be a vet… horses are the love of her life…

        She’ll get there…I’m sure she will..

      • Hello, Hilda. Apologies for my incredibly late reply. I’m just beginning to surface again after a ‘hell of a year’! I’m sure I’ll catch up with you soon on FB. Best wishes. 🙂

  • Heather L. says:

    I love this so much. In this age of renewed feminism and “leaning-in” I have also found myself beyond annoyed by the clothing and the toy sections at my local stores. They all draw sharp contrast between the genders: pink, frilly, baking, dolls, dress-up on one side and multi-colored, action-packed on the other. It’s distressing to me as a woman and as a mother to two young boys -because girls aren’t the only ones being sent a message about the things appropriate for girls.

    I grew up in this world as well. This world where I was told by clothing & toy stores (and commercials and TV and society in general) that girls wore pink or purple, lace and frills. So I wore boy clothes. I was told I needed to love dolls and dress-up. So I played with action figures and legos. And for a lot of years of my life I thought something was wrong with me. I told my mom I wanted to be a boy. THANKFULLY that was all pre-transgender children became a thing. I suspect transgender children are mostly kids like me who simply don’t prefer the “pigeon-hole” their society has boxed them into.

    Interestingly enough, my little boy likes pink, and baking, and he’s been known to dress up in princess clothes. He likes art and music and dancing, and I suspect he could have a future in theater. And like my wonderful parents I am happy to let him do the things stereotyped for the opposite gender. He wants to be Snow White for Halloween? Done. Let’s find a wig for that dress. I suspect he’ll grow up to become an exceptional father. In the meantime, I don’t want him to be shamed for liking “girl” things.

    Recently Amazon did away with the “toys for girls” and “toys for boys” so we are making progress! Yay for progress! And Yay for posts like this. Thank you!

    • Heather, thank you for this, one of the longest and most thoughtful comments I’ve received on this blog. I noticed the Amazon shift as it was reported in today’s paper and, like you, felt that some progress was being made, albeit painfully slowly. Good for you as a parent, giving your sons the freedom to make their own choices and to develop in their own ways. Most of the boys of my experience love dressing up and I fear that those who seem not to are already conditioned to believe that they ought not to be doing ‘soft’ things, but be ‘manly’ instead. Today’s paper also has an article about the problems for women in UK universities, who are beset by men who think it appropriate to harass the women around them; these women are much more likely to experience sexual violence than ever before, the writer says. I’m not sure that there is a simple explanation for this, but perhaps boys are increasingly uncertain how to assert themselves when all around them girls are encroaching on traditionally male-dominated territories and choose to compensate by resorting to their idea of biological superiority. Also, I do believe that ‘lad’ culture has an enormous peer pressure impact and it takes a strong independent mind to challenge that and defy friends and team-mates. Getting children to build a sense of self-worth and also genuine respect for others, regardless of gender and all the other differences, needs to be started when they are very young. Parental support and balanced influence are crucial and it would help enormously if the producers of clothes and toys stopped the stereotyping.

      • Heather L. says:

        Your agree that this world is growing more difficult for boys. I think it’s time for people to shine lights on the consequences of pornography -and I would bet sexual violence against women is high on that list.

        I (fairly) recently read an article/ watched a speech about the male brain when viewing women in bikinis. As it happens, male brains when viewing women’s bodies in bikinis light up in the same way they do when they’re viewing tools or objects that they use for their own purpose. The main point being the woman’s body is heavily objectified in the male brain.

        I don’t know about the UK, but here in the US the average age boys are exposed to porn is 8. Addictions to porn are beginning earlier and earlier and it seems to me nearly everything in our culture encourages this behavior. In so many movies, shows, commercials, it’s as though this very thing defines a man’s manliness.

        But if as early as age 8 boys are taught that it’s okay to objectify women in sexual ways, how on earth do we as women have hope of escaping men who think they have a right to do as they will with our bodies?


      • I’d say that western society is beginning (but only beginning) to wake up to the undoubted impact of online porn on boys. I’m not a psychologist, but, as a crime writer, I’m fascinated by psychology. Brain imaging does reveal that online porn makes the person watching it feel as if having sex, which proves, for me, that obsessive viewing of porn must be a major problem for young men who watch more and more for instant gratification. I’m frankly horrified by the amount of time young people spend in front of computer screens (whether or not they are viewing porn), rather than interacting with real people and engaging in real rather than virtual activity. They can hardly expect to develop as well-rounded, balanced and empathetic social animals if they retreat into virtual worlds which are designed to take over their thought processes; they do become addicted and I’m relieved to hear that some are now beginning to admit to their addiction and to take steps to deal with it. But there’s little comfort to be drawn from this in view of the fact that many don’t. Parents do need to work on strategies for developing proper social interaction in their children; I’m worried that many parents neither talk to their offspring regularly nor encourage them to appreciate and value shared activities, which themselves then lead to further interest and discussion. Women do have to be stronger in their challenges to the way men behave and send out a consistent message that they are not to be seen merely as sexual objects; I’m very conscious that many young women are now becoming extremely (and rightly) vociferous on this, but I think they would be naïve to believe that they will be safe from predatory men by just being vocal. I’m full of admiration for the victims of sexual violence who speak out directly to their attackers, as one Oxford student did very recently here, but our whole society bears a huge responsibility for tackling the causes of violence by either sex towards the other. That includes curtailing access to online porn by intervening powerfully at every level from government to schools to parents.

  • Heather L. says:

    Beautiful cardigan by the way. 😉

  • vallypee says:

    I can’t add anything more to what has been discussed and elaborated on here already. I just agree 🙂 And your cardigan is just beautiful, Christina. Congratulations! For what it’s worth, my girls mostly wore dungarees, shorts and tee-shirts in earth colours when they were small. Much more practical for grubbing round in the African mud than pink…they never complained.

  • cav12 says:

    So much for gender equality, let’s make sure girls and boys know what colours to wear! It’s like the toy companies marketing gender specific toys at Christmas time: kitchens for girls in guess which colour? Pink; and for boys-trucks, plastic lawn mowers etc.
    Women/females are always going to have fight for equal rights!

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