Did you know Virginia Woolf was a knitter?

NPG 5933. Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), 1912. Oil on board, 15 3⁄4 x 13 3⁄8 inches (400 x 340 mm). National Portrait Gallery, London

In preparation for this newsletter, I had the opportunity to browse through a bunch of back issues of 2005 Interweave Knits (which are now available on CD!). As always, I got stuck on the Knitting & Fine Art features by Fronia E. Wissman. The one below, about Virginia Woolf's portrait by her sister, Vanessa Bell, really struck me. I'm a big reader, and judging from the number of comments on the August 23 newsletter about needlework in literature, so are you!

I had no idea Virginia was a knitter; knowing that makes me admire her even more. And her quote below about knitting being the saving of life is so poignant, especially considering her ultimate suicide.

I have to think that Virginia was able to lose herself in her knitting, in the feeling of the yarn slipping through her fingers and the needles gently clicking against each other. I hope she found the peace that she sought as she spent time with her knitting.

And I hope you'll enjoy this insight into Vanessa's portrait of her sister.

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen)

In 1911 or 1912, when Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) painted this small portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Virginia was working on the draft of what would be her first book, The Voyage Out, published in 1915.

The writer hated to pose and be looked at. The indistinctness of Virginia's features—the eyes and mouth are smudges—might suggest that Vanessa accommodated her sister's dislike of being scrutinized by neglecting to clearly delineate those features.

In fact, the simplified forms and strong colors typified Vanessa's style at the time. All elements of the painting are reduced to flat planes of color outlined in black, with virtually no modeling to suggest three-dimensionality. The colors are bold but not pure—mauves, greens, and blues, orange, turquoise, and gray-green—against which the pink of the knitting is shocking. It is likely that Vanessa experimented with these flat, strong colors after seeing paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne in a small exhibition organized in 1910 by her then-lover, Roger Fry. Vanessa characterized her response to the exhibit as "a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which were absolutely overwhelming."

It was well-known among her friends that Virginia was a knitter. After Virginia's death Dame Edith Sitwell reminisced: "I enjoyed talking to her, but thought nothing of her writing. I considered her 'a beautiful little knitter.'"

Virginia thought of knitting as therapy. Early in 1912 she reported to Leonard Woolf, before they were married and shortly after she had been in a rest home, that "Knitting is the saving of life." That salvation worked until 1941, when Virginia took her life.

—Fronia E. Wissman

The Pearl Buck Swing Jacket

In keeping with the literary theme, I'm recommending the 2005 Interweave Knits CD Collection because it contains one of my all-time favorite projects: The Pearl Buck Swing Jacket by Kate Gilbert.

I loved The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck; I read it over a summer weekend, sitting in a lounge chair in my back yard. I got so carried away with the setting and the story. It is a true classic.

Kate's swing jacket is inspired by the loose-fitting garments the Chinese women wore in the book, and it's just beautiful. The simplicity of the design with the diamond pattern trim on the front edges and the pleat in back are perfect. It's such a flattering piece, too.

I don't know when I'll knit this jacket, but I do know that I will knit it!


Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

15 thoughts on “Did you know Virginia Woolf was a knitter?

  1. I was really touched by your essay on Virginia Woolf. Such information makes the knitting experience so much richer and more global. I loved the way you interpreted the painting colors and techniques as an expression of the caring relationship between Virginia and her sister, Vanessa.

    This morning I read about the knitting project Afghans for Afghans. This, on an even larger scale and level, shared how knitting built some strong bridges with the people of Afghanistan through kniiting. A teacher seems to be the impetus behind this project which organized knitting of sweaters, blankets, hats and mittens for children, and shawls for women in that war torn impoverished country. For me, it is a little gesture of payback for the damage we have caused. There were some wonderful photos accompaning the articles.

  2. I don’t know if I could say knitting was the saving of life, but I sure know that it is a venue for stress relief. In Virgina Woolf’s case, it probably was a saving of life.
    Many times thru the years, when reality became ugly, knitting helped me remain calm and allowed thoughts to flow and resolutions to be formulated. Many that I have taught to knit will comment how relaxing it is (even when they are struggling to get the basic stitches down).
    For me it is the ultimate “chill pill”.

  3. I am an historian major (degree) and women’s studies minor (degree not offered at the time in 1985) and I never found this information. I am a crochet and knitter. Good grief thank you so much for this information. Blessings, Janet

  4. Kathleen, thank you for this nugget of information about Virginia Woolf. I never knew she was a knitter, either, and I find it fascinating. I also agree that it is the “saving of life.” I have been housebound and out of work for a year, following an illness involving a disorder of my inner ear, for which I’m about to have surgery. I started the year crocheting a lot, which I have always done, but I began to get frustrated by the limitations that seemed to attend it (the stiff drape, lack of great patterns that you get with knitting but not so much in crochet) … so I took up knitting a few months ago.

    It is indeed saving my life. When things feel stressful beyond bearing, I pick up my latest project. And my husband, seeing my fascination and knowing it made me feel better, started buying me every knitting pattern book he could find that would intrigue me. What a bonanza.

    I’m enjoying your thoughts on knitting in its many permutations, but I think this is the best one so far.

    Keep up the good work. 🙂
    Peggy Cope

  5. I don’t think I would ever have pictured Virginia Wolf sitting and knitting. Thanks for sharing this and the info on her sister. The Pearl Buck Swing Jacket is awesome!

  6. Thank you for a beautiful post. I have never seen this painting of Virginia Woolf and didn’t know she was a knitter!

    Her quote about knitting as salvation rings true for a lot of us knitters. It’s touching to see this sentiment verbalized so long ago, and it’s still true for many of us today. It’s nice to see how we all share the same pleasure and therapeutic benefits of knitting. It may not be something non-knitters can understand, but we all share a bond through the ages. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Thank you so much for including this brief essay on Virginia Woolf as a knitter. In spite of the simplified formal style, it is an intimate portrait and very touching indeed. Recently we watched the Hours, with Nicole Kidman playing VW. I don’t remember if they had her knitting — she did smoke a lot.

    There is research being done in the UK on the psychological effects of knitting and potential therapeutic benefits for mood disorders etc. It is very interesting. This can be followed at stitchlinks.com:

    “When the seeds of Stitchlinks were sown the idea was to support those who felt isolated or lonely by circumstance or illness. But it has blossomed from there to include people who believe in preventative healthcare, carers and healthcare workers. The benefits can help everyone to find balance in life, to take control, as well as better manage illness.

    The tools we use are knitting, cross stitching and crochet. A large number of people already use them to manage a range of medical conditions.”

    Recently it was reported a woman in the USA, following a stroke, recovered use of her right hand by knitting.

  8. I was introduced to Virginia Woolf and knitting at the same time summer of 2009. I read To The Lighthouse — in it the protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay knits socks. The beauty of this writing is how Virginia sets the pace with the lighthouse light and Mrs. Ramsay’s knitting. I did not realize it at the time, but the two interplay setting the meter and timbre of the writing which sets the mood and pace for the entire book. Subliminally it whetted my lifelong desire to learn how to knit. After finishing To The Lighthouse, I was left with a gaping hole and learning how to knit filled it. I have since knitted over 15 items and am hooked!

  9. While I was familiar with the painting of Virginia Woolf and knew she was a knitter, I found myself studying the painting to determine whether she was holding the yarn in her left hand or her right hand. I think I have decided that she was a “thrower” but I’m not 100% certain.

    Thank you, Kathleen, for your article today and every day.

  10. I am an avid reader as well. Recently I was asked to list the two people I would have liked to meet — Pearl S. Buck and Mark Twain were the first people I listed so I admired the swing jacket pattern as well. Thank you for the inspiration! Carol Kuhlman, Winlock, WA

  11. Hi, Kathleen, you really outdid my admiration for you. I did know that Virginia was a knitter but some comments did make me take another look at her knitting and how she holds her hands. I knit continental and when I count my stitches, I hold my hands identical to hers. Perhaps she was counting her stitches and pondering the “saving” grace of the same! It is much like the Mona Lisa’s smile, very engimimic!

  12. I loved the assay in Virginia Woolf. I love her writing and I was not really aware that she was also a knitter. With the rest of the posts here I can attest to the calming effect knitting has on one. I would like to knit the Pearl Buck Swing sweater!! Where can we get the pattern?