I handed my two skeins of bright pink yarn over the counter at the demure yarn store outside of Freeport, Maine, “And I’d like a pair of size eight needles please,” I said. The woman working there looked at me as she rang me up, “I think I know what these are for,” she said, quietly, nodding with approval.
I smiled, “Yes.”
“Are you going to the… ?”
I nodded back, “Yes.”
“Are you scared?”
“Good for you, I’m so glad you are doing that. You are doing that for all of us.”
I felt I had been inducted into a not-so-secret underground society of knitters who were uniting to change the world, and in a way, we were because that’s exactly what the Pussyhat Project is. Specifically, it’s a Los Angeles-based project co-founded by two friends, screenwriter Krista Suh and architect Jayna Zwieman, who are joined by artist Aurora Lady. Simply put, the project encourages people of all genders to knit, crochet or sew pink cat (pussy) hats and share them with marchers headed to Washington D.C. on January 21st for the massive Women’s March that will highlight the importance of a diverse, vibrant feminist movement.
But the Pussyhat Project is so much more than knitting hats to make a bold visual statement: it’s an accessible and inviting way to build community, to open a dialogue about women’s rights, and to come together to share and heal post-election. In bringing people together to make and connect, it draws on a history of radical crafting and activist art. It also demonstrates to participants that they can engage in activism starting from where they are, and contributing skills they already have. In advance of the historic march in Washington (and the many sister marches around the country), I caught up with the Pussyhat Project organizers over email (they are busy ladies these days!) about the ideas, experiences, and philosophies guiding the project, and the power of feminist doing and making post-election.
Eleanor Whitney: How did the idea of the Pussyhat Project come about? How did you put it together so quickly?
Krista Suh: I was really devastated after the election. It was a strange communal grief that was lonely at the same time. When someone dies, there’s a protocol, like, the widow doesn’t go to the best friends’ house with a casserole, but the days after the election all my friends were grieving and there was no protocol of how and when to reach out. As a start, I posted segments of a messy, vulnerable personal project I had been working on all year. I had been waiting for “the perfect time” to launch it, and the election made me realize that my perfectionism was fear that was holding me back and serving no one. Or rather, me staying silent served some people, but me being loud and vibrant served a different segment of people. The election made me decide I would serve the people who benefitted from me being loud. But I wasn’t sure how.
I got the idea for the Pussyhat Project specifically the Saturday after Election Day while I was on a road trip with my family. I had volunteered for Hillary in Los Angeles and flown to Ohio to campaign for her there. So when the Women’s March was announced, I knew immediately that I would go to Washington D.C. in January. However, I wanted to do something more for the movement. I have a degree in Art History from Barnard College and I was trying to draw upon that background to figure some sign, some statement, some powerful piece of clothing I could wear. I came up with squat.
I knew I was willing to strip naked if that’s what it took, but what meaning did that really have? I wanted to express the injustices I’ve felt as a woman, and the hopes I have for the future, and to celebrate the boldness of letting go of old limitations and announcing myself and my values. And then, while on the road, it occurred to me that it would be really cold in Washington D.C. and that I’d need to wear a hat. I thought idly that I could make myself a hat. I had learned how to knit from my grandmother but got reintroduced to both knitting and crochet this summer. And that’s when the idea took off. What if we ALL wore this hat, and what if the hat was made by caring women and men all around the country? When I got back in town, I asked my knitting teacher Kat at the Little Knittery to make the hat pattern and from there, the project came together in just six days.
We put it together so quickly because frankly we are all badass bitches. We each are all so capable in our own fields and know how to communicate and collaborate, so it worked out really well. I also love that people got to exercise their “superpower” for a cause they really believed in. I didn’t ask Aurora to shovel snow for women’s rights, I asked her to draw art in her style that was so perfect for the project. It’s really amazing to see people do what they do best—it’s like watching an Olympic athlete.
Jayna Zwieman: The 2016 election was a doozy. I called Krista on November 10th to go to the Little Knittery, where I have been going to learn to crochet since the summer to help me recover from a concussion, because I wanted to be in a supportive environment. Krista announced that she was going to the Women’s March and wanted to make a statement. I really want to go to the Women’s March, but I cannot make it. My limitation sparked something in me–if I cannot go and really want to be there, there must be so many other people who, because of medical, financial, scheduling or any other reasons, can’t make it either. This could be a project where everyone could be involved, represent themselves and connect. Once Kat put together the pattern, we asked her what it was called. She paused and said,”Pussy Power Hat!” From there, Krista and I hashed out what the Pussyhat Project was going to be—how it would work, how to frame it (we were inspired by the language of the Women’s March), how make it accessible and personal. Krista roped in Aurora who created a great visual language for Pussyhat Project.
Aurora Lady: Krista asked me to team up to art direct a different campaign that didn’t come to fruition, but scrapping the other project led to the genesis of this one. The Pussyhat Project was organized super quickly—before I was contacted, Krista and Jayna had been hatching this plan, and I was brought on to give it a visual identity. Krista wrote me the initial email on Friday and we launched on the following Wednesday. That weekend was one of the most intense work sessions of my career. I water colored and inked around the clock, and Krista and Jayna and I were meeting up to go over details and direction in person and via text. We were lightning bolts!
EW: What are your backgrounds? Have you been involved in other “creative resistance” or creative community building projects? Or is the first project of it’s kind that you’ve worked on?
KS: I’m a screenwriter, usually on the lighter side of things: rom coms, jokes for the Emmys, and promotions. I’m currently working on an action comedy feature film assignment with four female leads. As a writer, I know the power of story and representation, and I strive to put women and Asian-Americans on screen in main roles. In college, I ran an underground art movement at Columbia University with my artist friend Stephanie Lindquist.
JZ: My education undergrad was in Economics and Visual Arts (and Pre-med). I have my Master’s in Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. I look at architecture as a social practice. One of the most important studios I took at the GSD was with David Adjaye, who had us go into a place in Boston and figure out what we should design. I picked the first African-American housing project in Boston, a place that was only a few blocks from where I had lived for a few years [yet I] had no understanding that it even existed. Since then I have worked on a number of projects from Imaging Detroit, a pop-up film festival and agora in Detroit in 2012 with Modcar; a Pokemon-go-like game that was a mobile scavenger hunt. I pitched using points within a city to enrich how a user interacts with her space in digital and physical ways. In college, I worked at Clinton’s National Economic Council at the White House after having worked on his second campaign and inauguration. I think of architecture as a way to craft spaces for people to interact. A well considered space can have wonderful repercussions; a poorly designed space can bring out the worst in people.
AL: In my youth I had always identified as a scrappy punk kid, and I’ve always done my best to support marginalized folks and those whose stories were not being told. I’m still learning how to do that. I always felt a little out of it though, because my strengths are definitely more creative, DIY, and tactile than being a physical voice, organizer, or researcher. I didn’t know how my strengths could actively contribute beyond donating money to organizations, and that always felt futile because, well, I was never able to contribute very much.
When I was approached by Krista about the Pussyhat Project, I called her two minutes later and cried on the phone. After the election, it was exactly what I needed. I’ve never worked on a project this big, this far-reaching, and this malleable. I’ve never thought of myself as a proper “activist,” just as a person doing the best they could to stand up for other people and animals. It has been a complete game-changer for me.
EW: What are your overall vision, hopes and goals for the Pussyhat Project? You mention a sea of pink hats during the March in Washington, but also small groups of people getting together and talking about the rights of women and women-identified people, like radical sewing circles. What has already come out of this project that has surprised you or you did not expect?
KS: I had hoped that people would enjoy having something proactive and political to do with their hands, but I didn’t expect the powerful emotional response we’ve gotten. People have expressed to me that this project has been their way of channeling their grief and anger, and that it’s even lifted them out of a depression.
JZ: It’s about hats, and so much more than the hats. Getting people engaged, and creating a [form of] advocacy where people can physically represent themselves and talk women’s rights, is the heart of the project. I am floored by how engaged people have been. We have had so many people reach out to us and tell us that this has given them a way to channel their grief and to do something positive. There are so many people in this country and worldwide who have shown their support for women’s rights by doing and making. It’s empowering. It’s incredible to be a part of a project that does that.
For me alone, a cousin I haven’t seen in years reached out to me and will be wearing one of my hats. I have met so many people and talked with them about ourselves and women’s rights on very personal levels. I really wanted to go to the March, and putting together the Pussyhat Project is my way of being engaged.
AL: This is the stuff that flips me out! I manage our Instagram account and so I get to see everyone rallying in the face of pain, anxiety, and trauma. So many people have shared their stories about how a Trump presidency will affect them and their loved ones, and it is heartbreaking. When I am lucky enough to witness a true connection, it emboldens my own commitment to the project and what we are trying to do. Also, personally, I’ve had the chance to re-educate myself on issues that I wasn’t informed on, but that are absolutely imperative to my own intersectional feminism. It is not easy. It is necessary.
EW: You mention on your website that fiber arts generally—knitting, weaving, spinning—have been been traditionally feminized art forms. How do you see this project or yourselves connected to that tradition? It makes me think of the work of Judy Chicago with The Dinner Party, the work of Egyptian American artist Ghada Amer, and the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, among other projects.
KS: I relate this project a lot with PostSecret and with Lisa Anne Auerbach. PostSecret is an outlet for people who aren’t necessarily artists to be creative in expressing their feelings, and it gives them a safe space to share with others. I first encountered Lisa Anne Auerbach’s work at an arts bookstore in Chelsea, and I love her subversive knitting patterns.
I think there’s been a weird division that says women don’t belong in politics. It’s why the women’s section of the newspaper was the Lifestyle section on the weekends, and why Hillary didn’t have a precedent of what to wear as a female leader of the world, and when she chose pantsuits people didn’t know what to make of it. It’s a weirdness that’s there that shouldn’t be. Lisa Anne Auerbach’s work highlights that weirdness-that-shouldn’t-be-there of combining “hard” political messages with “soft” female arts. And you’re like, “whoa that is so subversive and ironic, but how sad that it’s subversive and ironic and not just ‘duh.'” Because women have political opinions too, and women have political POWER, but we need to claim it for ourselves. It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—she always had the power to go home, but she had to realize it and claim it.
JZ: Women’s craft circles are often considered “frivolous” whereas fishing trips are not. One of the wonderful things about a craft circle is that there is the space for conversation. What I think is really exciting is that we have put together the traditional knitting circle with a large-scale collective piece. When thinking about everyone coming together and wearing the hats, I think about Spencer Tunick (I saw one of his pieces in Santiago and it had a very powerful effect on me) and especially Christo and Jean Claude.
AL: My mother taught me how to sew when I was a kid. It’s very intimate. Through sewing, my mother taught me a way to keep myself warm, or cool down, or adorn myself; something that was entirely dependent on myself. When I got to high school I realized that most of society saw it as an outdated, silly way to spend time. It is a skill that has saved my butt a million times over, and one I will happily share with my own children when they are ready. I have some of the clothes that [my mom] made when she was a teen. Those will be passed down too.
Knowing how to sew kept me creative—when I was in high school, I learned how to grab stuff from the thrift store and customize it or even pull it apart and re-sew it into something completely new. It was empowering and fun. And as I grew, it was necessary because I never had money for clothes, but I did know how to change things up by busting out my old Singer machine. I actually don’t know how to knit or crochet—yet. I’m really proud to be aligned with folks who make their own shit. I’m really proud to know folks who don’t balk at the idea of creating pieces that are utilitarian or make a stand. At this point, if you are making something, you are taking a stand.
EW: What do you say to people who say “I can’t knit or crochet!” How do you encourage them to get over their crafting fear and get involved?
KS: It’s easy to learn! It’s also a great bonding experience if you ask a friend or relative to teach you. It’s also all over Youtube. For example, I love that AlexCreates taught himself to knit at like 14 years old from Youtube, and now he runs his own yarn business at 19!
I think the project is great at just showing people, “Look, you CAN make a difference.” Even with skills you already have like knitting or crochet. If you don’t have those skills already and you don’t want to learn, I hope this project inspires you to find ways you CAN help make a difference and vocally support women’s rights. Get creative!
For example, our first radio interview for the project was with someone who thought hey, I don’t knit, but I have a radio show, so… How can you use the skills and resources you already have to make a difference? Even better, how can you use your superpowers—the skills you love to flex—in a way to make a difference?
Don’t assume being politically active is hard. Being politically active can be done in ways you’re good at, that you do with ease and joy, and you can do it in a way that’s unique and powerful to you. For example, I love throwing parties, and I firmly believe if you know how to throw a party, you know how to politically organize. A lot of people, particularly women, don’t realize this because we’re conditioned by society to think that our best skills are useless or frivolous and lesser, particularly the more feminine “soft” skills and emotional labor like throwing parties or knitting.
JZ: I am usually the worst knitter in the room! The pussyhat is the first hat I have ever made. If you are at all knit-curious, this is a perfect starting project. It is a rectangle folded in half and stitched up the sides. It’s easier than a scarf! We have seen a lot of people start knitting expecting to stop at one hat. It takes a little bit to get in the groove, so they seem to be continuing to make a second and a third! Knitting is therapeutic! It can be great for introverts and extroverts!
AL: I am one of those people! I can’t knit or crochet, but I can sew and draw and spread the word. Jayna and Krista were so deliberate in making this a project that leveled the playing field in terms of skill. The patterns are created with the intention of being accessible to beginners, or those who might have some guidance from a seasoned knitter or crocheter. They also put together an extensive idea list of things you can do if your skill set doesn’t lay in the creative field. Maybe you are able to be a marcher, maybe you can donate a skein to a knitter, maybe you can send an email about the project to your aunt who works at a radio station, or on, and on, and on. The Pussyhat Project is for EVERYONE. We want you. We are also open to ideas and want anyone to email or private message us if you’ve thought of a way to contribute that isn’t listed on our website!
EW: What do you imagine the future of this project is after the March on Washington? Or do you hope that participants will be inspired and work on their own projects?
KS: We have something up our sleeves, an experiment so to speak. The organizers of the Women’s March have been very clear that the March is only the beginning, and that we need to keep up the revolution after January 21st! And the Pussyhat Project agrees. I hope that the Pussyhat becomes the new highly visible symbol of the resistance and that we’ll see it being worn long after Inauguration Day. It’s a physical, tangible symbol that we can touch months from now. We can wear it and announce to the world that we are feminists, and we fight for our basic human rights.
JZ: One of the important aspects of this project is the creation of a platform and framework for people to get involved. If you can get a knitting circle together to support women’s rights now, you can also do it in the future! One of the things we’re asking hat-makers to do is to include a note about a women’s right’s issue that is important to them to send with their hats. The hope is that marchers will reach out and thank the hat-makers, making further connections. These notes are entirely up to the hat-maker.
As a platform, the Pussyhat Project, like the Women’s March, is pro-women’s rights versus anti-Trump. I hope that positive and strong activism continues. For me, I have been looking for ways to get involved in political activism beyond phone calls and petitions (which are important!) and be more personally productive. Pussyhat Project does that. Ultimately, I would love if the Pussyhat Project sparked new kinds of political activism.
AL: I would love to see the folks who participated in the Pussyhat Project to continue to galvanize their strength. That means pushing our own personal creative resistance projects, staying connected to one another and connecting with new people, and thinking bigger and better each and every time. I hope that this project lets people know that their voices are valuable no matter the situation, and that even seemingly small actions can impact society in big ways.
Please, please keep making shit. Please keep sharing it. Please think outside the box and don’t play down your ideas because they sound ridiculous when they first come out of your mouth or your initial audience isn’t receptive. This isn’t the time to tamp down your ideas if they have the potential to make a statement or create a larger dialogue.
EW: What do you see as the role of creative resistance projects like this one, and creativity and art more generally, in a U.S. where Trump is president? Some activists dismiss art and creativity as frivolous, but I think it’s important to build community, have hope, and remember we have a capacity for creativity and joy, as well as being a conversation starter. I’d love to hear what you think!
KS: I think art is so important because frankly, sometimes regular political discourse shuts people off. When we want to reach people in emotional primal raw ways, it’s through art.
JZ: It may be the new dawn of punk rock. Many people in the moment may dismiss art as frivolous, but it is often art that captures a zeitgeist and gives visibility to an issue. Sometimes it can be frivolous, but sometimes it can be powerful. With Pussyhat Project, we have brought thousands of people together to actively support women’s rights and the marchers (who are amazing) who may have otherwise been disengaged. This is powerful on a personal level and for the project as a whole. Making these hats has given thousands agency. One the smallest scale, it is a kind gift for an individual; on the large scale it is a powerful collective image.
I still remember the AIDS Memorial Quilt from the NAMES Project. I have never seen it in person, but it still gives me chills. At that time, I was a little kid and had never known anyone yet with HIV or AIDS. It was really abstract. When I saw all of those quilts that were made for PEOPLE, real PEOPLE!, I understood on a deep and visceral level how important it was to mourn the loss of those lives and fight for a research and a cure. There was love poured into those quilts.
Art has the potential to build community, and there is no reason why political activism cannot be creative. Joy is underrated.
AL: I’m already seeing it happen. People are pushing out bigger projects faster. And the projects are strong—a lot of them have been boiling inside during the length of 2016 and are being pushed to the surface now. It’s exciting to see so much happening. In November, it bummed me out that it took the election of Trump to bring it to a tangible point. Now, I’m like, fuck it, NOW IS THE TIME.
I am very very happy to have creativity on my side and to be in good company with folks who value these projects, want to team up, and want to change things with the creative as their vehicle. Let’s GO, people! The people who dismiss art as frivolous are not my people. We just need to keep working, keep coming up with ideas, keep churning out a message that connects and means something. The connection is where the strength is, and that’s how we have hope and community. We will keep getting stronger and we will keep working harder. We will continue to make work that is unavoidable.
Learn more about getting involved with the Pussyhat Project, and access their great patterns, on their website.