A while ago I attended a meeting via Skype. It was taking place in Brussels, and featured a number of high profile people from government and from the business sector discussing resilient economies. One of the highlights of the meeting for me was the fact that Filipa Pimentel knitted throughout the whole meeting. I even took a screengrab photo of it (see below), so impressed was I. Filipa is Portuguese and works with Transition Network as the International Hubs co-ordinator. She also does some work with the European Union Institutions, and play a role in Portalegre em Transição, her local initiative back in Portugal. And she knits. Lots. With our theme on Social Change and the Arts, and inspired by our recent piece on Craftivism, I wanted to find out more about what knitting means to her. I started by asking her how she got started.
“I was around 5 years old. I wanted to do as my grandmother did, so I stood behind her shoulder, then I just tried it and I got it! I had a very limited number of toys, and most of my toys I made myself with stones. I had one doll that my grandmother made and gave me, and every time I asked for clothes out of my birthday or Christmas my grandmother would invite me to make them myself so I started to do it like that, knitting little jumpers for my doll.
What can you do? Can you itemise your hand-making skills?
I think I can do almost everything. It’s a difficult question, because there’s knitting for doing something and there’s knitting for itself. Sometimes I don’t make anything, I just do big blankets or scarves. Also, when a child is going to be born I really think it’s very symbolic to do something for the baby arriving.
It’s like you put something of yourself in it. You think about the baby and it’s this lovely thing. It depends a lot. I do a lot of things, jumpers for kids, for my own kids and for other kids, for babies that are arriving. That’s the kind of stuff I do.
And why? What do you get out of it? What does it give you that watching the television or just going and buying a jumper wouldn’t do? How does it feed you?
There are these two sides to it. One is the symbolism. It’s like a ceremony. When you are making something to offer someone it’s really something very important. You spend all this time building something, it’s not only the jumper that you are giving but also all the thought and time you put into it. It’s like a mantra, something like that. For me, when I am giving something that I made to a baby or to someone I really like, it’s really a symbol that I put myself in it, something from me inside. This is something really important.
Then there is the other why. The other why is I discovered I have too much energy. It’s really something very difficult for me to stand still and listen without jumping around or my head goes in circles and I really have trouble to keep quiet and not interrupt people. My mind is really like a monkey!
I discovered that doing the knitting or crochet or something like that, I really go into a level of listening, it’s really another level. It’s very similar to all the descriptions people have of meditation. My breath goes down, I get calmer, I have sensations that I can listen clearly to everything without being nervous or wanting to intervene. I feel much more capable of choosing to time to speak, or to choose what to say that makes the difference. That’s why, when I need to be focused in meetings, I take my knitting with me.
You talk about taking your knitting into meetings. You’ve taken your knitting into some very high profile meetings and meetings with important people, meetings in the European Parliament. I imagine you’re probably the only person who is knitting in those meetings (?) What’s the reaction to your knitting in those meetings and do you have any sense of how it affects or influences the meeting that’s taking place around you?
Before I answer that, just let me say that I don’t take my knitting to provoke anything in people. People ask me if I’m doing this because I’m an activist, making a point, going to get my knitting. But that’s not the process I have in my mind. The process in my mind is that I don’t think that a place like this should stop me doing what I normally do. I need my knitting, I feel comfortable with my knitting, and it helps me contribute in the best way. I’m like that in all meetings I go to. I don’t think I should stop myself doing so if it’s a high-level meeting.
The second thing is the reactions. I only know what people tell me. Maybe people think it’s really stupid, but no-one has told me otherwise.
Like “who is the crazy woman?”
Yes, who is the crazy woman! I’m not sure if it’s positive or not. It might be a little bit puzzling because I go to meetings dressed like they are. I don’t go dressed in a different way so I don’t stand out as someone really different when I go to these meetings. I worked for a long time, until now in the EU, so I know how I should present myself.
The only thing that’s different is I knit, so people get a little bit puzzled. I’ve seen very interesting reactions. I’ve seen a lot of smiles. I’ve seen people try to look the other way for me not to feel that they’re observing me. I had already people looking at me and saying – what are you doing?
Overall, I’ve never felt uncomfortable. Only the opposite. I always feel that there is a positive thing around it. I think you were in a meeting at a high level, right, where I was knitting? You didn’t see anything wrong with people’s reactions?
No, I felt it kind of grounded the meetings. It felt like it connected it in that way. I really liked it. It was a bit like the difference between having a meeting around a real fire and a television.
What I feel, people told me that it’s like making the bubble explode, like you’re having a very high level meeting with ministers, and you are in a bubble talking about abstract things. Suddenly there is something that explodes the bubble and reminds us how human we are, this kind of thing.
Have you ever felt that you’ve brought that into a meeting and it’s changed the spirit of the meeting or changed the way people related to each other?
I don’t know. If I was doing it by strategy I suppose I’d be more attentive to that, but I’ve never done it from that perspective. I take my knitting out because I need to focus, so I’m not focusing on how people are relating to each other. What I see is smiles, people coming up to me and talking about the knitting in the breaks.
I’ve seen things like people in Transition or that are connected to the movement in these meetings that sometimes are nervous because they are in this bubble. Suddenly they think “ah, this is so much better” and they get calmer. They smile and the tension disappears. I’ve heard that several times. The fact that I do that, people that are tense because they are in the presence of very high-profile people, they relax somehow because I am doing that.
How different do you think things would be in the European Parliament if everybody was knitting? If a substantial number of people turned up with their knitting, how do you think it might affect the quality of how people relate to each other or the quality of conversations that take place?
If people have the same need as I have. I suppose there are an awful lot of people at that level have the same kind of need, of meditation and quality of listening. I’ve seen many times people that are really going super fast in life, they don’t have time and do so many things. You are in meetings, looking at your computer, looking at all these things. You head is going very, very fast and you don’t really listen. So this is one of the things.
It would be helpful for people to look for this kind of stuff that can help them to be grounded to the conversation, to listen and to respond when they should respond, and to respond in a way that is related to the conversation.
The other thing is if, really, the fact that someone is knitting in a meeting, it grounds it into this human tradition, not to take ourselves too seriously and to talk about real things that other people who don’t normally have access to this kind of meeting will have, because they feel more comfortable and they will more easily take the floor to talk. It might be something that helps them to do that as well.
Another thing that I’ve seen as well a lot in this kind of high level is the way that you connect to each other as professionals. All the human contact gets into second plan. Somehow, this eases the connection between people so this might be something very good as well!
Here is the podcast of our conversation.