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knitting and the financial markets August 4, 2008

Posted by Bradley in : Uncategorized , trackback

How did it come about that focusing on core business activities is described as “sticking to your knitting”? This is what HBOS’ CEO announced last week that the bank would be doing. Larry Elliott in the Guardian says that this is “a phrase that tells you much about the new mood of sobriety in a chastened financial sector.” The term seems to be accepted London market slang, but it’s also used by Michelle Leder at footnoted.org, and is also used in the world of politics (see also this brief critique of buzzwords (including the knitting phrase)).

A slightly different take on the phrase turns up in a sermon:

My grandmother had a saying. When someone was involved in things they shouldn’t be, she’d say, “They should stick to their own knitting.”

Other peoples’ grandmothers seem to have used the same saying. The quote above suggests that the crucial aspect of the phrase may be the focus on one’s own knitting rather than on others’ activities, which is consistent with the use of the phrase. But why has a phrase which includes the word knitting become so commonly used in the context of financial and business activity? Invoking the idea of knitting suggests a return to more traditional and careful practices. It’s sometimes used to mean that people are not being overly ambitious:

he was not going to have any plan, and after the fire it became even more obvious that we ought to be sticking to our knitting and not producing what he would call grandiose plans for the future.

But there’s a particular weirdness about the popularity of the knitting phrase in the context of corporate and financial activity. Knitting is an activity traditionally performed by women (often grandmothers), and many (most/all?) of the business leaders who use the phrase, seemingly unselfconsciously, to describe what they are doing are male.

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