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No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting
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No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  363 ratings  ·  62 reviews
Drawn from diaries, letters and personal reminiscences, No Idle Hands tells an intimate and sometimes hair-raising story of hand knitting in America from Colonial times onward. Women knit through the hardships of covered wagon travel across the West. They knit to save their husbands and sons from freezing to death on battlefields. Shell-shocked men knit to save their sanit ...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published April 7th 1990 by Ballantine Books (first published 1988)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,220)
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Varina
The book is a fairly interesting look at the social history of hand-knitting in America, if a bit simplistic (although this is an abridged version so it is unclear if that is a problem with the original). For instance, one thing I noticed in this book is that every few decades (or even every decade in the early 20th century) it seemed like there was this major declaration by the fashion powers that be that knitting was popular again, that suddenly there was a rush of knitting. It struck me as cu ...more
Barb
Apr 22, 2009 Barb rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: knitters, history buffs
The insights into the motivations of US knitters through time were enough to keep me reading this book. Anne Macdonald tackles a difficult topic in a way that is both academic and engaging. For myself, a steady though not productive knitter, it sparked many reflections on the task of knitting, its trendiness, and its stigma.

This book caused me to reflect on how absolutely anonymous knitted works are. A well-knit item could have been knit by any experienced knitter. There is no way for an individ
...more
Julie
Apr 10, 2008 Julie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: knitters and women's history buffs
This book was chock full o' interesting subject matter, but was written just like every one of my undergrad and graduate papers:

Statement. 12 quotes you've dug up in support of said statement. Closing sentence for paragraph (in rather formal language) that tries to be witty but doesn't usually succeed, such as, "Surely they had had enough!"

Repeat 129830198490814 times. There was much discussion of wartime knitting, something near and dear to my heart. We're not knitting for the guys who are in t
...more
Kirsten
I love this kind of social history, and this did not disappoint. It's gotten me seeing knitting everywhere (even in the historical drama we were watching last night!), and thinking about knitting a bunch. I like the anecdotal nature, and seeing the way that knitting fits into historical events. Unfortunately, this was written 25 years ago, before the current resurgence in popularity, so it ends on a bit of a down note (she seems to be pleading, "But it will get popular again!" and it has. It wou ...more
Emily
Super interesting book. I listened to it the abridged version which was a bit of a bummer. Apparently other editions include pictures of women knitting and excerpts from magazines and newspapers with pattern information (although no full patterns).

Based on journal entries and other historical documents, this is the story of knitting in America from the colonial period up to the 1980s. It really grounds the act of knitting in the history of the time, including the politics, fashion trends, wars,
...more
Mary-Heather
I love nonfiction history - particularly women's history - and this is a dense, fascinating read if you are interested in the social aspects of knitting in America. It actually made me proud to be a knitter and a textile crafter - in a world that no longer "needs" handmade fibers, but once very much did, it was eye-opening to read about how knitting has been a truly revolutionary act.
Vanessa
I was a little disappointed that the book only goes up to the 1980s. I would love to read an updated version that includes the most recent revival of knitting among hip 20 somethings.
Megan
Jul 29, 2014 Megan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: knitters with an interest in history
This book is really interesting for somebody who hasn't had intensive study in history. There isn't really any history book out there that has a history of American knitting. They went from knitting on the frontier to knitting with Elizabeth Zimmerman and Barbara Walker.

I think reading about the social times of knitting in older times rather than more modern times because we know how things happen know. We don't really know what it would be like in Victorian times or during the westward expansio
...more
Tonileg
Apr 11, 2015 Tonileg marked it as to-read
I like to vary my reading with so random topics as well as not so random.
I love knitting, it is a my go to relaxation and concentration exercise when the world starts to get me down.
Everyone should try it because it is useful too, I mean everyone needs socks, hats and sweaters (well, maybe not the sweaters in the humid tropics). So when this book popped up in my recommended reading, I decided to give it a try and it is a bit dry yet still satisfying with its glimpses of other women finding nirv
...more
Caitlin
So I didn't quite manage to finish this one, not through any fault of the book but rather because my local library doesn't have it. I checked it out while visiting family over the holidays and simply ran out of time. I didn't enjoy it enough to check it out again next time I'm there, but I would have finished it if I'd had the opportunity.

This was less of a social commentary and more of a history than I was expecting. It was a little dry in places, talking about the knitting bees that supported
...more
Marsha
Jan 20, 2010 Marsha rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Knitters, Historians
Shelves: art-craft
First, I both ordered and borrowed this audio from my local library. I thought it would be a great idea to knit, and listen to the history of knitting, and indeed it was a good idea. The library got it in Playaway, which is a dedicated mp3 player. Unfortunately, it is buggy, and I had many problems keeping it playing and getting back to the point that I stopped listening. This kind of put a kink in the enjoyment.

This is a historical book, and while the author makes every effort to make it inter
...more
Wendy
This was pretty good, and while academic, an easy, quick read (that is, when I read it--I couldn't read more than a chapter or so at a time, before I got tired of reading the word "knitting"). The chapters about the Civil War and WWI are particularly good. But after 1960, it gets pretty dull and unfocused; I wonder if the author lost steam or interest?

I would have liked to see more examination of why knitting went in and out of fashion, rather than just noting that it did; more conclusions drawn
...more
Sharon
"No Idle Hands" is not a book for the casual reader. This is a serious, scholarly work on a rather narrow topic - the social history of knitting in America. If you are interested in knitting and its place in the cultural development of the U.S., or if you want to understand American society through the lens of this particular craft, then this is the book for you.

Anne Macdonald's book is densely packed with minutiae that you will find nowhere else. She has scoured the written historical record an
...more
Leslie
This is my bed table book. While not a page turner it's quite readable and interesting.

Being mainly a fiction reader I took a bit of a risk ($2.00 at the used book stall) but am pretty happy I did. It's nice to see how the industry in the US matured and how US knitters became a community. True, it was never as much of a community as it is now thanks to Ravelry, but it was a community. And it makes me proud to wield my sticks and string.
Janet
Nice audiobook about knitting, I learned lots. I can't imagine what people went through: knitting in covered wagons through hardships, knitting for servicemen during wars, servicemen knitting during their recoveries, unraveling garments to reuse the yarn when the children grew.
Feeling lucky that I can just go to an amazing yarn store and pick out yarn and needles, including circular needles made with plastic and smooth joints! Quick listen at 4 cds.
Jennifer
I'd previously read the full book for a class and loved it. This time I listened to the abridged audio version, which was not well edited. The transitions between chapters was quite abrupt and post WWII was hardly addressed at all. Love the triple threads of empowerment, sustainability, and activism that are woven through knitting's history!
Nicole
Understand that I'm not far enough into reading on this subject to speak to the quality of Macdonald's research, but she certainly makes a lot of compelling arguments and writes an excellent narrative about the shape of knitting in American history. The section about the Great Depression is particularly interesting. It's a good read for historians and knitters alike.

(At the end): I really loved this book--wish it had been published more recently, or updated to include the way that knitting has j
...more
Linda
Not as good as I expected it to be, especially considered all the rave reviews I've heard from fellow knitters. I didn't feel like the author took all the historical information and transformed it into a story. Instead, it's just strings of anecdotes and quotes strung together with little if any unifying context. Also, devoting only 2 or 3 pages to machine knitting really underestimates how big machine knitting got in the 60s to early 90s. It may not be the favorite topic of snotty hand-only kni ...more
Louise Silk
I was disappointed with this book. It seemed so limited in scope. I wish that the author had a more feminist point of view, what she does is not very critical of time and situation- more a simple reporting of a limited look at the time periods. She reports on knitting trends- how women used knitting during war times as a means to contribute to war efforts, from the American Revolution to the Korean War- without any examination of the underlying social principles. She writes a little about the in ...more
Feistymonkey
I really liked this book, but it had some flaws. For example she would start off multiple decades/chapters with the idea that knitting, after losing favor, was back with a vengeance, but failed to point out the lulls. She also threw around the term "Antis" with regard to Suffrage without ever explaining what it meant (you could guess, but the way she used it made it seem like this was a term which warranted some explanation). And for most of the book she overlooked anyone with less than a middle ...more
Barb
Fascinating topic. Refers back to a lot of primary sources that I need to look up.
Marilyn
Very thoroughly researched. I LOVE HISTORY. I hate the way history is taught in most schools. We go from one war to the next to the next to the next. Who started the war, when, where, why? Where/when was each battle fought? Who won? Where/when was the treaty signed? Seriously? The truth is that there were things happening IN BETWEEN THE WARS. There were people living there lives, surviving. So, I was struck by how this book talks about knitting during the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, ...more
Knitpurlgurl
This is a fascinating look at the entire history of knitting in the United States of America - from the colonial days to the pioneer days to the Victorian era to the first WW to the roaring 20s to WWII and to present day, Anne Macdonald, covers it all. She recounts knitting as a way to keep hands and minds busy, as well as for necessity, eventually for fashion, and finally for hobby.

Unfortunately, I listened to this book on abridged audiobook (as it's only available abridged on audiobook). I th
...more
Jane
Feb 29, 2008 Jane rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: knitters
Shelves: knitting
As a historian, there is much at fault with the methodology used. (It's pre mid-80's reflexive turn). However, as with most histories of needlework/knitting that I have read, she links this occupation with femininity, and goes to some length to 'prove' this. I am not in dispute with this thesis - I just found it odd that she completely ignores the feminist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. This of course left room for other social historians and scientists to fill in the gaps. The history ...more
Lisa Boone
A very scholarly work, full of information.
Nightsparrow
Such a fascinating read! Normally with books I read for school, I skim-read to find what is relevant to me. With this book it was another story altogether! I loved reading about knitting, and the little anecdotes that were included as well :)
Sara
I wish this was available on unabridged audio.
Theresa
I've been wanting to read this and I finally got my hands on the audiobook format so I could listen and knit. No idle hands here :)

I knew about the war time knitting chronicled here, but I didn't know about children being put to work knitting their own stockings in the colonial era.

If you like social history, cultural anthropology, and crafting, give it a listen. Although, the curious part of me wants to get the actual book from the library and see what was redacted from the book.
Jessica
Though it looks like it's going to be dry, this is a rather fascinating look at knitting's (and other needlecrafts) role in a Protestant-work-ethic culture, as well as the role of traditional women's crafts in American culture. But most striking to me all these years later is the anecdote of a latter-day knitter, who recalls knitting a bikini while riding on the back of a motorcycle on the way to a California beach.
Stormy
Though an abridged version, there is a lot of information about women in history and the vital part they played. It was mind blowing to discover how much of an effect women had on the outcome of the revolution. What a shame these important facts aren't taught in schools. Definitely worth reading if you love knitting and want to be enlightened about the impact it had in history.
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