Black People Don’t Knit: Lorna Hamilton-Brown MBE
Photography by Caitlin Lock
There was absolutely no mistaking Lorna Hamilton-Brown for anyone else when I saw her enter Eggtooth’s The Nest at The Old Town Hall for our interview this May. Dressed from head to toe in colourfully printed sports luxe with a matching bucket hat and luminous trainers, donning her trademark Black Girl Magic earrings, she looked every part the craft maverick I’d heard so much about.
It’s true that most of us not privy to the world of drop stitch and purl have a certain image in our heads of what a typical knitting enthusiast looks like and admittedly, in my mind at least, Lorna is an exception, except she’s not – not in the real world.
The problem is, as Lorna so expertly explained to me, is that we only know what we’re told, what we see, and historically black people have been left out of craft books, magazines, and TV programmes on the topic. “Black presence in craft is really important to me,” she says, “early examples of knitting are found in Egypt, but everything else is from the European point of view. Everyone knows what Fairisle is or Scandinavian knitting style, but no one knows what African knitting looks like. I remember hearing about Indian knitting and being really surprised for the same reasons – because you never read about it or see examples – it’s not seen. If you were just relying on reading books about the history of knitting you will never see us. If you look at magazines in craft, it’s only recently that you see a black person featured on the front.”
Lorna tells me how despite being a keen knitter from the age of five, and now a knitting personality well-known in the community, she is frustrated by the lack of diversity in the craft world. “We did a talk with Heritage Crafts, that was interesting. They asked, ‘What do you think of when you think of British craft or heritage craft?’ – it all started from that point – I think it was Elaine Mullings (sculptor and art collaborator on Lorna’s We Out Here exhibition at Hastings Contemporary who said ‘whose heritage are we talking about?’).
“We’ve always crafted, but during slavery black people weren’t allowed silk or yarn, so they typically crafted with found materials, limited materials, so of course their work was always going to look different, but it was viewed as inferior. There was always a lot of snobbery over the level of stitching and that stitches had to be a certain size or length, but the skill was always there, it was just different. I think it’s important to look at craft from the black gaze, how we see things, and realise how our history hasn’t been written.
“My dissertation I did when I was at the Royal College of Art is about the myth that black people don’t knit. I was at an academic knitting conference (yes, there are such things!), and I commented that the audience wasn’t very diverse, and one academic said in response, ‘That’s because black people don’t knit’! So, I thought I’d cover this in my dissertation, titled ‘Myth: Black People don’t Knit – the importance of art and oral histories for documenting the experiences of black knitters’. I actually came to the conclusion that she was right, because if you look at books on the history of knitting, we’re never mentioned, we’re never featured.”
Working hard to address this misconception, Lorna has championed black artists within the craft community, aiming to achieve more equal representation and diversity that on top of her first-class honours degree in Digital Multimedia from De Montford University, Leicester, and Masters in Knitted Textiles from the Royal College of Art, has also gained her the position of a Patron of the Knitting & Crochet Guild, a spot on Vogue Knitting’s Diversity Advisory Council, and awarded her an MBE for her services to the community.
“I left school with no qualifications, I only had one CSE, which was art, so I went and did screen-printing at A-level – it was really complicated with overlaying. When we went to the moderator having looked for my work and seeing it had ‘fail’ next to it, we asked why and he said, ‘because somebody like her is not capable of that work – she must have cheated’. That happened to a lot of people and there was no recourse, my parents didn’t know how to appeal – that was my experience of studying art.” Astounded at what Lorna was telling me, I asked her whether anyone spoke to her or tried asking her about her work, “No,” she says, laughing at my disbelief.
“I’ve always knitted from an early age,” Lorna tells me, “it’s something that’s always been there. I had quite a disruptive childhood, but knitting was always something I went to and saw the artistic qualities in. It’s a place that I go to and it’s calming. My mother made clothes and my father made and sold candlewick bedspreads. They were both makers, my dad worked for himself he was always self-employed, and I saw that you could earn a living from making. I started making children’s clothes when I was working in Knightsbridge, and I went to Harrods to speak to a buyer who said to me, ‘are you on the list?’ – I didn’t even know what the list was but she told me they didn’t consider anyone who wasn’t on the list, so I said fine, but then she came back to me and said, ‘oh actually, we found some space’ so there I was with my things being sold in Harrods! I didn’t enjoy it though – I remember going to look with my mum and they followed us around like we were shoplifters. I remember asking if I could have my name on the labels in the clothes and they said no, you’re nobody.”
In her thirties and living on the North Peckham Estate, Lorna heard about a mini foundation course she could take at Camberwell School of Art, so went and enrolled herself. “At the time my son, who’s going to be 30 this year, was a few months old. I went along and did this foundation, but I was so tired because I had to go home during the lunch break to breastfeed so I said to the tutor, ‘I’m really tired, can I sit down?’ and he said ‘we draw with the whole body, we stand when we draw!’ – really old school – they offered me a place but I didn’t want to take it because I was really tired and didn’t like the way they taught – I remember he said, ‘You don’t understand this is such a prestigious place, you will never have this opportunity again!’
We moved to Leicester and I thought I’d like to do an art foundation, I didn’t want to do textiles or anything like that, so I did digital multimedia and went to De Montford University afterwards – that was my first degree. They had game design, web design, but I was drawn to performance – doing projections and things like that. When I got to my final piece, which was about domestic violence, they said if you do this piece we will fail you – this isn’t a performance course, I was ahead of my time, but I’d calculated that even if I failed that module, I was still getting a first and I didn’t care, so I just did what I did. One of the tutors there used to say, ‘I’ve lectured at the Royal College of Art’ – I didn’t really know what the Royal College of Art was at that stage and I didn’t really care, and I remember saying ‘I’ll have your job one day!’ I ended up lecturing there and we worked together!” She laughs.
“I started to incorporate knitting into my artwork and then I started to incorporate performance into my artwork.” Telling me how she’s listened to The Archers since she was a child, she now works out her day by the show. “I listen to Radio 4 and it gets repeated at 2pm, so when I hear that I usually go for lunch and then I’ll work to The Archers until 7:15pm and stop. There was a storyline about domestic violence and I really wanted to respond to it and put the word out. In the Old Town there’s a plaque dedicated to a lady that was murdered – you walk past these things every day and don’t really notice and so I did a piece about Helen Archer and I put it out in front of there and did a whole social media post about it. It was really about coercive control, her partner was doing these things making her feel like she was going mad and then he took the son’s bunny, so I made the jumper with a bunny on it for Henry and I tied it on the railings at Alexandra Park and left it there.”
A lot of Lorna’s work is responsive to media headlines or topical debate, and often she’ll place her work in plain sight in public spaces to offer up a talking point to passers-by, an act that has gained her the reputation for being the ‘Banksy of Knitting’, according to Lauren O’Farrell, aka Deadly Knitshade – creator of the Stitch London craft community and founder of Graffiti Knitting and craft collective, Knit the City.
“When I first moved to Hastings I did two large knitted pieces. It was just after the London riots in 2011 – a lot of the pieces I make I just make them, there’s no commission, I just respond to things – anyway I made these pieces, called ‘Out of the Blue’, they were of two young people – the newspapers were demonising youth at the time talking about the ‘feral youth’, but it wasn’t only young people rioting, so I made these two pieces and I hung them at the seafront and asked people what they thought they were doing. People would stop and comment thinking they were holding guns, or doing drugs, but the truth is they are just standing around minding their own business. I took them around schools to show the kids, and I’d tell them I was going to show them some knitting and they’d be like ‘ah Miss, knitting is so whack!’ and then I’d show them and they’d be like ‘oh this is so great’.”
Lauded for her work in the community, one of Lorna’s most recent projects has been the We Out Here (WOH) exhibition at Hastings Contemporary, highlighting the talents of six local Black artists of Caribbean heritage, which at the time of the interview was in full-swing, and after hearing about her life(and finishing our hot chocolates) she asked if I’d like a whirlwind tour of the exhibition – I leaped at the chance, obviously.
Leading myself and two others in tow, Lorna offered up such insight into each and every artist’s background, medium, and role in the craft community. It struck me how generous she was with her time and knowledge, genuinely wanting to share the skills of her peers, speaking about Paul Hope’s stitched leather artwork ‘FROM’, Elaine Mullings’ vibrant sculpture ‘Co27: Blue Tears’ and ‘OG: A Kind of Blue’, Eugene Palmer’s touching paintings making up ‘Wave and Parade’, Richard Mark Rawlins’ wonderful tea towel piece ‘Conversations Over Tea’ and ‘JAB JUMBIE’, and Maggie Scott’s excellent printed velvet/nuno felted lenticular ‘Shopping?’ on waste colonialism, leaving her own work ‘Woman Blue-Elevate’ and ‘WE MEK’ knitted magazine covers, until last. Showing no sign of slowing down, I’m looking forward to more art collaborations and exhibits from Lorna – if you’re into art and storytelling, you’ll keep an eye out for her work too. ⚫