Social Fabric: Interview with Joanna Gill

Social Fabric is an upcoming documentary about a group of knitters from Scotland and beyond who pieced together an extraordinary map of the country in the run-up to the independence referendum. The map, co-ordinated by Aimee Chalmers, was displayed at National Collective’s Yestival exhibition in Summerhall, and has since made its way around the country.

I spoke to Joanna Gill, the documentary maker behind the new film.

What first attracted you to the knitting project?

Knitting is a huge part of Scotland’s cultural history, especially along the coast. The fact that it was going to be used as a political act as well intrigued me. It was also interesting that it was a project started by women. A Social Attitude Survey showed women were generally more sceptical about independence, but these women were willing to put all their effort into supporting the Yes campaign. I also liked hearing how the idea evolved from a knitted Alex Salmond, to a Saltire that could cover Edinburgh castle and eventually the map. I’m a cartophile myself. I have a collection of maps of Scotland dating back centuries and some old military maps I found in a junk yard. The project also made me reflect on why we love maps. For me they inspire a sense of adventure, but also a feeling of control.

Large projects like this can often be a slow and complicated process. How challenging was it to capture on film?

The most complicated issue was the timescale and geography. Women from all over Scotland were taking part. We had to make some tough decisions on how to cover it based on our means. We were sure we wanted to include Doreen Brown from Shetland. As the woman who knitted the famous Fair Isle jumpers for the Shetland ponies I knew she would be a character. I also wanted to include Shetland due to the history of knitting there, and Shetland was an interesting case politically. Generally Shetland was against independence, despite wanting more autonomy. A 12hr ferry journey in the middle of winter storms gave me my first taste of how living at 60 degrees North could shape a person. For the rest we were on the mainland, and luckily Scotland is a cinematographer’s dream. Point your camera in any direction and a stunning image appears. Occasionally convincing people to take part can be an issue, but everyone was so welcoming. I could barely fit into my jeans after the first few months of filming from the generous offers of cream cakes and dinners. We were very grateful of the support we were given by the women themselves. In the end the most challenging issue was money. All of our decisions had to be based on how can we self-finance the production? In the middle of the shoot our camera broke and our car was scrapped, meaning we were extremely limited towards the end, hence why we decided the crowdsource the film.

Was the building of a community as important as the finished work itself? Did lasting friendships develop?

In a way the sense of community was cultivated by the finished work. Some of the women did choose to knit together, we followed two of them in Glasgow. It was really interesting to see how their conversation jumped from the hot referendum issue of the day to the choice of their wool in a flash. It didn’t take long before they were sharing their life stories with each other, oblivious to the camera. Many of the women have never met each other, and yet the product of their hard work and creativity sits side-by-side on a map. That’s why this film is also important to show the women who worked together just who they were working with.

We lost the referendum but people seem to want to celebrate the movement, and are finding new ways to keep the momentum going. Is there now that added sense of purpose to the film?

Documenting part of the grassroots movement was always important no matter the result. However, seeing how the campaign has evolved I think it’s taken on a new inertia. Seeing how the media neglected to tell the story of the grassroots campaign I fear they are misunderstood by a majority of people, especially those living outside Scotland. I have heard any number of misunderstandings about the nature of Yes campaigners and I wanted to show the multiple faces of the independence movement and as well as those who respectfully declined the choice. Headline news isn’t particularly nuanced, so showing that it wasn’t just a battle of soundbites was the most important.

How did the project help to involve people who were perhaps turned off from traditional politics?

I think the project gave a sense of place and purpose to people who didn’t feel the traditional style of politics was suited to them. Confrontation and heated discussion is not everyone’s cup of tea, and what’s better is that it worked. People who were turned off by traditional politics came out and voted. I’ve only seen such high turnouts in countries where voting is compulsory.

What next for the map and its makers?

The map is currently touring Scotland – from wool shops to Yes shops with the aim of finding a permanent home in Holyrood. The women are working to get the piece accepted as one of the Parliament’s permanent collection and what better place to have a memento of the work of grassroots activists? Even though the campaign for full independence may not have gained the majority, it managed to effectively get a question on the ballot by stealth – that of devo max, and I think the grassroots activists played a significant role. I’m not sure if there are any plans to follow up with any more political knitting projects, but never say never.

Social Fabric official website
Social Fabric on Twitter
Social Fabric fundraiser

Andrew Redmond Barr
National Collective