On Pins and Needles: 11 Famous Knitters

afrenchindublin via YouTube
afrenchindublin via YouTube / afrenchindublin via YouTube

Knitting has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past decade or so. But for some people, it never went out of style. From monarchs to maniacs, you might be surprised to see who knows their way around a pair of needles.


Julia Roberts is known for her knitting chops—so much, in fact, that Tom Hanks involved her hobby when he made her the target of one of his on-set pranks. While they were filming the comedy Larry Crowne in 2011, Hanks rounded up all of the crew members and gave them yarn and needles. When Roberts walked into the room, all of them were hard at work knitting and purling.

You can see the prank in the video below, starting at 1:00:


Joan Crawford once devised a way to use her knitting against co-stars she disliked. When she was supposed to run lines with enemy Norma Shearer off-camera, Crawford reportedly broke out a pair of gigantic knitting needles and clicked them together loudly, working on an afghan. Shearer refused to speak to Crawford directly, asking director George Cukor if he would “kindly tell Miss Crawford her knitting needles are distracting?” Crawford could hear her, of course, but pretended not to. Cukor asked Crawford to apologize, but she declined. “I will not," she said. "I’ll send her a telegram.”


Another Crawford rival, Bette Davis, was also an avid knitter. There are many pictures of her knitting on set—and she managed to work on pieces during several films as well. Here she is knitting during Phone Call From a Stranger (1952).


When Ryan Gosling was on the set of Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, he filmed a scene that involved hanging out in a room full of elderly ladies who were knitting. The scene took all day to film, so the ladies gave Gosling a few lessons when there was time to kill between takes. “It was one of the most relaxing days of my life," he said. "If I had to design my perfect day, that would be it. And you get something out of it at the end. You get a nice present. For someone who wants an oddly shaped, off-putting scarf.”



First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her autobiography that she spent every spare minute knitting for the war effort, and indeed, she was often photographed with a pair of needles and some yarn. “She knit because she could not sit still," said Mary Ann Colopy, a national park ranger at the Roosevelt/Vanderbilt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York. "Her projects were very utilitarian, and would have been worn and then discarded.” The site has one of Roosevelt’s knitted pieces on display—an army green sweater made for Joe Lash, a friend in the service. A few years ago, Colopy discovered a couple of manuscript patterns among some of the First Lady’s personal papers. She had them translated, so you can knit the same mittens Eleanor Roosevelt did.


Library of Congress

Roosevelt’s predecessor in the White House, Grace Coolidge, found it calming to knit, calling the hobby a “stabilizer in time of perplexity or distress.” She contributed many articles and knitting patterns to ladies' magazines during her time, including this one, which was originally published in the February 1930 Needlecraft Magazine of Home Arts. Coolidge’s version can now be found in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.


Being confined to a maximum security prison has given Charlie Manson time to learn new skills. He sometimes unravels his socks and knits them into dolls, but he also has access to yarn. In fact, he claims he lost one of his teeth when he used them to cut yarn.


When Kate Middleton was pregnant with Prince George in 2013, she took up knitting—though it apparently didn’t go very well. “I'm really bad. I should be asking for tips!" she told a Glaswegian fan. Maybe she improved by the time Princess Charlotte was born last year.


Kate could probably turn to her own grandmother-in-law for tips—after all, the Queen has been knitting since she was only Princess Elizabeth. During WWI and WWII, knitting was more than just a hobby—it was a way to show patriotism. Because soldiers needed sweaters, gloves, hats, scarves, and lots of socks to prevent trench foot, women were encouraged to spend their spare time knitting items to send overseas (as evidenced by this propaganda poster). Princess Elizabeth and her sisters were photographed knitting on numerous occasions, likely to set a good example for other children. The Queen Mother also practiced the hobby, but didn’t remember it so fondly: She once recalled that WWI was just endless “knitting, knitting, knitting.”


Kelly once attempted to knit a pair of socks for Clark Gable as a Christmas present. They were filming Mogambo (1953) at the time and were on location in Tanganyika in Africa. As often happens with knitters, Kelly didn’t quite finish the gift in time for the holiday—so she improvised. “I stole a pair of his own socks,” she told The Saturday Evening Post’s Peter Martin. “Each day I stole something else from him. On Christmas Eve I filled one of his socks with his own things and hung it up. It was a silly gesture, but he liked it. I am very fond of Clark.”


If that whole “Beatle” thing hadn’t worked out for him, the Fab Four drummer could have fallen back on knitting. Starr was quite sickly as a child, and learned how to knit during a hospital stay. “That was the sort of thing you could do in a bed,” he explained to Rock Cellar Magazine.