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The Knitting Nannas Stitch Together Activism and Community

by Betsy Greer
craft & maker

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. The group crafts a better future for their grandchildren.

The Knitting Nannas Against Gas made a splash on social media several years ago when they started setting up teatime, knitting needles in hand, at coal mining sites throughout Australia.

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. This group of women crafts hats, scarfs, flags, and a better future for Australia’s children.

Through time, craft has had an incredibly rich tradition of community building. From the stitch and bitch to the quilting bee to the sewing circle, crafts have given us time to be social and creative simultaneously since they began. As crafts were originally made for utilitarian use, these group settings were useful opportunities for exchanging skills, solving problems, and passing time, and still today they fill quite the same function. They also do another thing, they strengthen our communities with seemingly little effort. Time passes over stitches, wheels, new techniques to form a bond that much like spun fiber itself, is both strong and intertwined. After enough time has passed, it becomes hard to imagine back to when your crafts just entertained you, as through the connections you make, it also helps fulfill you. The Knitting Nannas are a strong testament of just that, as they travel, knit, and fight together for a common cause. Watching them finish each others’ sentences and crack up in laughter, while also talking about serious issues, too, was affirming in the knowledge that this is what craft can do.

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. The group crafts a better future for their grandchildren.

Nannas presented booties, beanies and rugs, made with Nanna love, to the Base Hospital Auxiliary in the Aboriginal Australian colours of red, yellow and black.

They were a blur of yellow and black on my computer screen, the two colors of Knitting Nannas Against Gas, modeled after the colors used by the Lock The Gate Alliance, a group formed to raise awareness about the dangers of coal and gas mining. Not only were they wearing hand-knitted protest berets (knitted by another Nanna), but they were sitting in front of posters made from newspaper headlines about the group and wearing KNAG badges; Louise even was wearing a medallion from the Nanna (W)rap video from last year that goes “you can’t eat coal and you can’t drink gas, so you can take your drill and rig and shove it.”

KNAG was formed in 2012 by Clare Twomey and Lindy Scott, as several women were going to non-violent direct action groups together, and, as Louise says, the meetings were frustrating because there was much talk and little action. Meanwhile, according to Louise, the company “Metgasco was sneaking in out at Shannon Brook behind the casino dumping water and busily trying to get their wells in while they could.” In the face of the company’s practices, going to these meetings seemed less than helpful. So, as Louse continues, “the idea was basically to go and watch them, just sit and watch them, and then we realized that was really boring … so they came across the idea of bringing our knitting and [having] a cup of tea.”

In August 2012, several of the women went to Queensland to see what it was like to live in a gas field. “We couldn’t believe what we saw,” said Louise, “little children with bleeding noses, the whole bit.” This helped give them the resolve to fight fiercely in their part of Australia, after seeing firsthand what was being done elsewhere in the country.

And while they do sit there and drink tea while knitting, KNAG is about more than that. When asked what they see as the role of the Nannas, as either activists or educators, Angela says it’s both. “Because we certainly stand there and knit there and annoy the politicians or whoever, but we also educate, we give out DVDs, we talk to people, so it’s both.”

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. The group crafts a better future for their grandchildren.

Ochre Doyle is an indigenous Nanna. Ochre is holding one of the baskets of knitted and crocheted flowers sent to the Acland cenotaph in Queensland to commemorate Anzac Day.

Given that most of them are grandmothers, Louise notes that people feel safe talking to them. “You know what it’s like when you’re at your grandma’s or your nanna’s, you just feel safe. And [when people see them sitting in front of sites they] think, ‘Oh, what’s going on here?’, and they start chatting … That’s how it starts. Very organic, just through a chat. And then letting them know what we’re about.” By using craft along with the worldwide affinity for grandmothers everywhere, they are able to engage people in difficult conversations that other people might not be able to do.

Earlier this year, both women “locked on” in the Pilliga Forest to protest a proposed coal seam gas project. That is to say they both locked themselves to gates with multiple bicycle locks, with Angela, a mother of five with 21 grandchildren, getting arrested with two other Nannas. However, this is far from the proverbial protester out fighting alone. “We have tea parties wherever we go,” says Louise. Of the lock on, Angela tells me, “while the three of us were locking on, the rest of the Nannas were setting a table, decorating the gates with yellow and black, carpets, and all sorts of things, like a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.” The lock ons are a way to spread the word even more, as for some Nannas, it’s their job to get the word out to media and help facilitate interviews. As the photos attest, KNAG protests are full of as much love for one another as they are anger at what is being done to their land. They’re about finding creative ways to educate the public and support one another, which further helps them keep and form a tight community.

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. The group crafts a better future for their grandchildren.

The Knitting Nannas were featured in New Idea magazine.

The group fundraises as well, raising money for various related efforts. Louise sews chooks (chickens), because she says she’s a better sewer than a knitter. She adds that the chickens also represent food security, and bring awareness to that as well. Angela crochets yellow-and-black slings for water bottles so that the Nannas can do things like knit while also keeping hydrated in the Australian heat. Another Nanna makes aprons with pockets to keep things safe, such as knitting needles and bicycle locks. Each woman plays to her own individual strengths to benefit the group as a whole.

Along with raising awareness and money and having fun, the Nannas are also about bearing witness. “We’re about bearing witness to the tragedy,” Louise tells me, “So we’re basically watching, bearing witness to what is going on, as far as the coal seam gas, the coal companies, the politicians, the way they’re colluding …. They really don’t know what to do with us, they think, “Well, I can’t pick up this woman and throw her, because I might break her.” Angela adds that “The point of bearing witness is we’re saying ‘wake up, there’s something going on that is very wrong. Come and talk to us. And people do, they say, “What are you doing here? Why are you doing this?” And it’s education.”

Bearing witness means being visible as they stand up for what is right. “The important thing, too, for the women involved is that with our experience, we are more mature, mature women, but,” notes Louise, “it’s also given women who feel invisible as they get older a purpose, so that they can teach the young ones … the idea is that as women get older they aren’t so invisible.” By intertwining elements that make these women feel stronger as they get older into their protest work, the Nannahood is benefitting the women themselves as they help the community, further strengthening their work.

Is there a cause in your community you feel like speaking out against? If so, you’d do well to take some of the Nanna’s lessons to heart. Because to act as a voice of change, you don’t have to be loud or angry or contentious, you just have to be willing to show up and connect. And use your knitting needles!

The Knitting Nannas knit, educate, and protest the environmental destruction. The group crafts a better future for their grandchildren.

Angela locked on January 18, 2016 at the gates of the proposed Leewood waste water treatment facility in the Pilliga, NSW, Australia

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Betsy Greer

Betsy Greer is a maker and writer from Durham, North Carolina. Her most recent project, You Are So Very Beautiful, is about stitching and sharing affirmations. Find out more: craftivism.com/youaresoverybeautiful/