Knitting a Gothic Fan Culture

Posted by Brigid Cherry on October 12, 2010 in Dr Brigid Cherry, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

During a conversation last week with an American exchange student taking my horror film module, he asked how I had ended up with horror cinema as my research specialism. It’s not a very complex history: like a lot of the fans who have contributed to my research over the years, I discovered quite early in life that I had a taste for the macabre, the Gothic, the scary. I knew I was not the only woman to have such tastes, yet when I first studied film it seemed there was little acknowledgement of the enthusiastic female horror film audience, either in the academy or in the industry. Choosing a topic for my PhD in the Film and Media department at the University of Stirling (yes, overlooked as it is by the Wallace Monument, I do seem to have an attraction to campuses dominated by Gothic buildings), it seemed only proper to address the gap and undertake a study of women who find forms of horror pleasurable. Over a decade later, and having expanded my research out to include male fans, science fiction fans and online fan cultures, I still find myself returning to female fans and their attraction to horror and Gothic themes. This ongoing project has led me into areas that might not always seem linked with the ‘dark side’ and suggest that a taste for horror does not preclude a pursuit of feminine interests and activities. For example, the launch at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego of a book of knitting patterns entitled Vampire Knits, with patterns for a Countess Bathory scarf, a vampire diary protector, a sangria bracelet and pulse protector mittens and cowl, provides the fan with opportunities for flagrantly wearing her vampiric heart on her sleeve, wrist, neck and reading matter!

Our first thoughts of knitting though may not conjure up connections with Gothic horror. Nevertheless, in the thriving and now trendy world of feminine handicrafts, Gothic film and television—and in particular, vampires—provide source material for creative and entrepreneurial fans and an array of yarns and patterns provide a thriving micro-economy of fan production. As Genevieve Miller, author of Vampire Knits, says in her introduction:

I’m a knitter who loves vampires—and I’m not the only one. I started out as your average knitter […but] it didn’t take me long to find a group of knitters and designers who were similarly enthralled by modern day vampire stories. We fans of mysterious, brooding and sexy vampires shared ideas and inspirations with one another, creating patterns inspired by beloved immortal characters. And so the idea for this book was born.

In my current research in the area of female horror and vampire fandom (destined for a conference paper and a chapter in a book on vampire fandom), I am seeking to place feminine handicrafts alongside other forms of fan production and fan art. Fan films and fan fiction are probably the most predominant and highly recognizable forms of fan production, and these frequently occupy an overt (if sometimes oblique) relationship to the original text and involve for the most part some form of narrative development. We might expect traditional handicrafts, on the other hand, to be employed by fans in the areas of costuming and cosplay, variously for ‘fancy dress’ at fan conventions, as an activity integral to fan film production or in live action role play. The making and wearing of costumes in this way is usually linked to specific characters and ‘performed’ in the specialist environments of fan culture. Such costuming may not occupy a particularly gendered niche; it might often involve crafts traditionally regarded as feminine activities (dressmaking, pattern cutting, embroidery and so forth), but one only needs to think of the numbers of Star Wars fans in Storm Trooper armour or Lord of the Rings fans in elven chain-mail to see that it also centered around skills regarded as masculine (metalwork, molding, weaponry, hardware, and so on).

New Moon Alice yarn from Sunshine Yarns and Cthulhu from These Loving Hands on Etsy.

Fan knitting, however, is less invested in specific fan events and cultural practices, but rather in the everyday (in the same way, for example, that a Star Wars fan might wear a Darth Vader t-shirt to the pub). It can involve anything from custom dyed yarn especially made for knitting a pair of Alice Cullen mittens from the New Moon movie to someone crocheting her own little Cthulhu. Knitting in this respect is not so much a fan activity in its own right as it is a common-or-garden pastime, taking place inside and outside the home, either as a hobby or as a means to an end—the production of wearable clothing or useful domestic items. And despite its surge in popularity in recent years with the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch and guerilla knitting or yarn bombing phenomena (not to mention the men who practice the craft), knitting is still seen as a somewhat old-fashioned activity undertaken by older women; it is associated with housewifery  and grandmotherhood. It is significant in this respect that the circulation, discussion and sharing of fan-handicrafts takes place largely within the closed (members-only) spaces of the online knitting and crochet community, rather than within established online fan communities. For my explorations of feminine handicrafts and fan production I have therefore focused on the Ravelry site, the social network, forum, organizational tool and micro-business for handcrafters, dyers and pattern writers. Fan knitting, it appears, occupies the boundary between traditional hobbies and fan culture.

Now, feminine handicrafts may not seem altogether Gothic—could a knitted vampire be anything other than cuddly or, stripped down to his Y-Fronts, less threatening?—but fan knitters can nevertheless express their passion for the Gothic and the dark side (or indeed other fan interests with Harry Potter and Doctor Who knitting also flourishing) through their projects. Other fan knitters may give a nod or smile in recognition of the fellow fan, but this is a form of fashioning identity that can remain in the everyday and even appear to be safely mainstream. So, for example, in addition to attending a Halloween all-night horror film marathon, the horror fan knitter can also take part in the Super Sock Scarefest (points awarded and prizes given) during September and October and knit a selection of horror-themed socks to wear at the event. How about some mismatched Franken socks, or some blood spattered Screaming Girl lace (blood courtesy of black cherry flavour Kool-Aid used as a dye), or a pair of Poe-inspired Never More “tapping at your chamber door”. Vampire fans can also lust after a skein of ‘Stupid Shiny Volvo Owner’ yarn—with silver thread to replicate that elusive vampire sparkle (the dyer Fresh From the Cauldron also produces colours inspired by True Blood, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview With the Vampire and Underworld if Twilight’s teen vamps are not to your taste). They could also be ‘turned’ by a membership of Bloodlines, a vamp and hunter sock club featuring Bill, Eric, Edward, Jacob, Sam and Dean (with patterns to match): “One drop is all it takes”. Or become a maker in a mass knit-a-long for the Ravelympics—the knitting Olympics, knit as you watch your favourite events—in Team Twilight or Team True Blood.

“Narrow Minded Skinny Bitches with Bad Dye Jobs.” (Cosmic Fibers’ yarn inspired by episode 10 of True Blood season 3.)

The pleasures can be immediate and linked to the fan’s viewing of their favourite vampires. On Etsy, the online crafts and handmade marketplace, the vampire fan can even purchase a weekly skein of yarn which will be inspired by a line of dialogue in each episode of True Blood; fans can play along as they view, guessing which eminently quotable line the Cosmic Fiber Yarns dyer will choose that week. Now that the latest series of True Blood is over, the dyer is producing yarns for the new series of Dexter , and also runs the Nefarious sock club whereby knitters can receive a monthly skein inspired by monsters, villains and evil characters from fiction and history. These dyers, it should be added, are fans themselves—and often full-time mothers—who have expanded their interests into a micro-business. The names of their yarns reflect their tastes; others include Rainy Days and Wooly Dogs GothSocks and The Asylum For Wayward Yarn, the latter suggesting perhaps that the mad woman of the Gothic Romance is indeed knitting away in her attic.

All these examples are taken from my content analysis of Ravelry, the basis of a profile of fans, fan production, and fan discourses centered around feminine handicrafts. Ravelry itself has over 40 distinct discussion groups centered around vampire films and fiction, and offers more than 70 generic vampire and well over 150 Twilight-inspired patterns. And there are many more horror, fantasy and related groups and patterns. Discussion is orientated around both the texts and the handicrafting they inspire. The True Blood group members, for example, recently participated in a knit-a-long for the duration of the third season’s run of the television series, discussing each episode and noting not just reactions and responses, but how various onscreen knitted or crocheted items might be copied. Lafayette’s granny-square blanket is particularly popular. The My Vampire Boyfriend sock pattern is also a favourite of many with its hearts and fang marks pattern. We may not feel able to consider knitting per se as Gothic, but a Gothic-sensibility and taste for the macabre is definitely being carried over into feminine handicrafting.

  • Genevieve Miller, Vampire Knits: Projects to Keep You Knitting From Twilight to Dawn (Potter Craft, 2010)

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