Did you know Virginia Woolf was a knitter?

I was sent this article by my assistant, Eva Elo, who, like Virginia Woolf, is a knitter. It comes from an online knitting magazine, Knitting Daily. I pass it along to all those who are knitters and/or fans of Virginia Woolf. It now seems natural that Woolf, who was always seeking “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…” would be drawn to the soothing act of knitting to root her in time and place.

We will be considering the many questions of meaning raised by Virginia Woolf in the Toronto Pursuits seminar, Minding Time: Virginia Woolf, this July 17-22, 2011. Nancy Carr, senior editor at the Great Books Foundation, will lead the seminar. Nancy has been drawn to Woolf’s work by its beauty, curiosity and bravery.





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 I’m featuring here, 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

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  1. Pingback: Virginia Woolf’s brown stocking | Alexandra Kingsley

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