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A Knitter's Guide to the Movies

"Knit me a muffler," Gary Merrill says dryly to Bette Davis as their characters say good-bye at the airport in All About Eve. Knitting references and knit garments often appear in films, along with knitting characters ranging from a blind grandmother (Cowards Bend the Knee) to an expectant grandmother (Bend it Like Beckham), from a scheming gambler working war relief (Mr. Lucky) to a scheming femme fatale on trial (Chicago). But spotting knitting on-screen isn't as fun as knitting off-screen, and watching films can also be a great time to pull out your own needles -- you can double task while you relax with two comfort activities at once. If that's not enough to entice you, consider that knitting while you watch movies can also be a way to venture into new knitting territory.

The right movie and knitting pairing can help you get more invested in your selected film and more creative with your knitting. You can get great design ideas from films or just get in the right mood with a period film or experimental video. Of course, many great films are terrible for knitting because they demand you do nothing but watch, and I've tried my share of ill-fated combinations...thrillers, subtitled, and silent films are generally not good bets. But since I went back to school for a graduate degree in Cinema Studies I've spent many hours watching films, and I'll admit I may have become just a little obsessed with the search for good knitting and film combinations. The seven suggestions compiled here should help knitters of varying tastes and skill levels find success with movie-knitting, as well as inspire your own ideas and future combinations. So next time Merrill makes a crack about knitting, you can throw your needles at the screen. Or just start knitting him a muffler.

1. Feminine Retro

Suggested Viewing: Three Coins in The Fountain (dir Jean Negulesco, 1954)

So-called "women's films" from the 1930s through the 1950s are great for double tasking with knitting for a few reasons: they generally have straightforward storylines, the stars' coordinated fashions will give you lots of gendered retro design ideas, and when you're confronted by unbearable messages or plot twists you'll be glad you have something to do with your hands.

Like many of the intriguingly paradoxical films of this genre, Three Coins in the Fountain focuses on strong independent female characters that are rendered suddenly helpless at crucial moments, and it suggests that every girl dreams only of marriage and male attention while still demonstrating the significance of women's friendships and affection for each other. Filmed on location in Italy, Three Coins is a lighthearted selection from this genre that follows three heroines' different approaches to landing a husband, as they toss coins and wishes into the Fountain of Trevi to the tune of the popular title song (sung by Frank Sinatra).

Suggested knitting: When I'm in the mood for one of these films, I like to knit something old fashioned and hyper-feminine. Try some homemaking decor like a table runner with ribbon flowers. Or knitting a soft scarf and hat set with silk ribbon threaded through will make you feel like you're one of the cast.

2. Experimental

Suggested viewing: By Brakhage: An Anthology (dir Stan Brakhage, 2001)

Stan Brakhage and other avant-garde filmmakers pioneered textural techniques like painting directly on the film stock and scratching the film's emulsion to create frames of color and design. You can use the films in the compilation By Brakhage: An Anthology as a catalyst for working creatively with color and thinking unconventionally about your materials. For Mothlight, Brakhage assembled objects from nature onto clear tape the same width as 16mm film and projected it to make the final prints, and for The Dante Quartet he hand painted each frame of the six minute film (that took him over six months to complete). These films might make you look for unexpected objects to work into your knitting or try knitting each of your stitches in a different yarn. You might also pause one of the films on an image you like and recreate it in a knit art panel a la fiber artist Debbie New. Look for the two short films mentioned above as well as Stellar, Commingled Containers, Black Ice, and Window Water Baby Moving. If you want to try using text in your knitting, be sure to see I...Dreaming. These mostly silent films can also be perfect ambience for spinning or experimenting with dyeing yarn.

Suggested knitting: Try using yarns in your stash for a stitch sampler scarf to play with different stitches and the way the textures juxtapose. I tried one in Noro Kureyon using single rib, horizontal double rib, and cartridge belt rib and it gets lots of compliments.

3. Hollywood Glitz

Suggested viewing: The Busby Berkeley Disc

This strange DVD is really the bonus disc in the recent Warner Brother's box-set release of The Busby Berkeley Collection, but in some places it's also available for rent on its own. It's a collection of 20 song and dance scenes from early Hollywood musicals that feature Berkeley's signature choreography using chorus lines of leggy women in kaleidoscope designs and extravagant camera moves from atop cranes or shooting through studio-made waterfalls. Watching this parade of dance, you don't really have to follow a story and it's kind of like an audio-visual mix tape for knitting. The images will get you thinking about unusual shapes and glamorous trimmings for your projects. Be sure to look up for "Shadow Waltz" to catch the segment with neon-trimmed violins. And "By the Waterfall" is a jaw-dropping number with dozens of identically clad women frolicking in a water fantasy.

Suggested knitting: You'll want to work with luxury yarns and novelty embellishments, maybe adding some fluffy cuffs made from eyelash yarn to gloves and a hat. Or watch the scenes to get great ideas for 1920s and '30s bathing suits and hats.

4. Kid-Friendly

Suggested viewing: The Point (dir Fred Wolf, 1971)

The Point was television's first animated movie-of-the-week, featuring Fred Wolf's beautiful and influential free-form animation and based on musician Harry Nilsson's concept and hit songs. It aired on ABC in 1971 with Dustin Hoffman as the narrator and it's now available on VHS and DVD with Ringo Starr narrating. Written with an anti-discrimination message, the script doesn't condescend or make saccharine moments out of young Oblio (voiced by Mike Lookinland from The Brady Bunch) and his search for his point in life.The story is quirky and funny for all ages, and the dreamlike musical interludes are good for knitting and will encourage kids to draw.

Suggested knitting: Finger puppets! The whole family can be involved in picking out character details from the movie for ideas to bring your puppets to life, like adding hair, hats, arrows, and mustaches. Kids can help prep puppet eyes and hair or draw their puppet designs while they watch.

5. Embellished

Suggested viewing: Sequins (dir. Éléonore Faucher, 2004)

Although you'll have to follow subtitles unless you speak French, this film is a natural fit for knitting -- maybe because director Faucher was inspired to make Sequins while darning a sweater her mother knitted. It made this list because the embroidery the two main characters create will have even embellishment-shy knitters reaching for beads, sequins, and ribbon.

As Claire, the film's teenage protagonist, deals with an unplanned pregnancy, she finds an escape in her passion for embroidery that leads her to seek work with a successful but troubled fashion embroiderer. She covers her growing belly with cozy sweaters and a flattering lacy lime green sweater dress that will make knitters' hands twitch. The film's rural setting and slow pace will appeal to those who wish they could live on a farm and knit fresh from the flock.

Suggested knitting: If you're worried about following the subtitles while you're knitting, watch this film while your newly knitted bag is felting in the wash and use the film to start designing the embellishments you'll add.

6. Free Love

Suggested viewing: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (dir Paul Mazursky, 1969)

In this funny film, two couples confront the sexual attitudes of the 1960s. Elliot Gould is terrific along with co-stars Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon, and Robert Culp. I was surprised this movie was a good one for multitasking because there are so many subtle looks between actors, and the photography is stunning. Still, it works well because it moves at a casual pace and much of it takes place in living rooms and bedrooms until you feel as if you're all living together and you can pass in and out of the lives on screen. Let this film keep you company on a late night or spring-cleaning day. It's great for organizing your yarn, needles, and projects, or doing the blocking and finishing you've been putting off.

Suggested knitting: If you don't want to organize and you're watching in a group of more than one knitter, make a dent in your stash instead and try a Free Love Scarf -- pass the knitting from one person to the next while each adds a row or two of leftover yarn from other projects. The only question is who gets to keep the scarf, but no one said sexual (or stash) liberation came without problems.

7. Deconstructionist

Suggested viewing: Pump Up The Volume (dir Allan Moyle, 1990)

You've probably already seen this end of the '80s film about a messed-up high school and the young shy-by-day but rebel ham radio DJ-by-night (Christian Slater) who activates a youth rebellion. But rewatching movies can be a great way to relax and a great time to double task. In Pump Up The Volume , teen angst, an '80s soundtrack, punk styles, and DIY attitudes will help you get up the nerve to unravel that sweater you want to alter, cut off the sleeves and reattach them to a different sweater, or otherwise refashion your wardrobe.

Suggested knitting: Have friends bring over a knit item they don't like anymore, then watch this blast from the past and chop up, unravel, reknit, and reattach until everyone's got something they like better. Pump up the volume, start ripping, and "knit hard!"



Sara Pepper lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she spends too much time thinking up strange unmarketable schemes like how she might knit a movie.