Sunday 17 February 2013

Eleanor Roosevelt and Her No-Nonsense Knitting

Eleanor Roosevelt was such a constant knitter and sewer that she seldom went anywhere without toting along one of her projects. She couldn't bear to be idle and often brought her handiwork to the many political and social action meetings she attended. Many photographs of her show her with her knitting or carrying a knitting bag. Such pictures cropped up repeatedly during my research for the Hollywood knitters post of February 11th, but I didn't include her photos in that post because she wasn't an actress and at any rate, Eleanor Roosevelt deserves a post of her own.

According to this fascinating 2009 Knitty interview with Mary Ann Colopy, a seasonal park ranger at the Roosevelt/Vanderbilt National Historic Site, Roosevelt's knitting was very utilitarian. She wasn't a designer. She knitted useful items for her family and friends and very few examples of her work have survived because they were generally the sort of thing one wears out and then discards. The pattern for very basic mittens that accompanies the article is one that was found among her papers.

For all the time that Roosevelt spent knitting, as a topic of interest it seems barely to have registered even on her own radar. In her nearly 8,000 “My Day” newspaper columns, she mentions her own knitting less than ten times. But then this wasn't surprising given the sheer amount of other, much more important work that she did in her life: the speeches she gave and campaigning she did on behalf of her disabled husband; the six-day-a-week syndicated national newspaper column she wrote for 27 years; her constant public speaking; her relief work during the Depression and war work during World War II; her political activism regarding civil, women's, labour and universal human rights; and the work she did with the United Nations. I have read that the United Nations Commission for Human Rights that Roosevelt chaired was by far the hardest working of any at the U.N., to the point that one of its members complained that his own human rights were violated by the length of the committee meetings. Knitting was simply a useful, homely task that Roosevelt did and probably enjoyed, but that didn't merit mention or discussion; it was probably something she did in much the same spirit that she washed her face. And such an attitude is completely in character, really. Roosevelt wouldn't have accomplished all she did without being the sort of person who knew how to keep from getting side-tracked by trivial or secondary concerns.

I like this picture because I imagine Roosevelt pausing in her knitting to contemplate how to get even more mileage out of the members of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights.


  1. I love this woman!!! And I can totally identify with her 'un-idle' hand. I cannot sit without doing something with my hands. So even when I'm blogging I usually have a project going on which I pick up, knit/crochet a few lines and then get on with writing, especially if I am doing research and have to wait for pages to download! It takes me hours to write as a result!! Great blog!!!

  2. Thank you for this post--yay Eleanor!

  3. Admire her even more now...thank you for reminding me how amazing she was.