Is it time to stop needling Brooks about knitting? Er, not just yet

The infamous faux pas by the new charities minister has become a universal shorthand for misconceptions about the charity sector

WaterAid is one of several charities to take issue with Newmark's comments
WaterAid is one of several charities to take issue with Newmark's comments

It's hard to remember anything that has spread so rapidly through the sector as knitting. First it went through Twitter like wildfire and since then it's become a universal ironic shorthand for misconceptions and prejudice about charities. There are even pictures of a knitted phallus doing the rounds by email. And now Sir Stuart Etherington, head of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and evidently a bit of a betting man, has suggested the knitting sweepstake: at every gathering, everyone puts in a pound and a prediction of how long it will take for someone to mention the k-word – proceeds to charity. Good idea, but a bit easy to rig, you might think...

It all took off, of course, after the new charities minister, Brooks Newmark, was lured by a member of Her Majesty's press into repeating that charities should stick to their knitting – a phrase first used in Third Sector a year ago by Gwythian Prins, a Charity Commission board member. Is it time to cut Newmark some slack, as his predecessor, Nick Hurd, suggested? Most in the sector seem to think we can let this run for a bit. Prins remains unrepentant over enjoining charities to "stick to their knitting", adding that he once knew a woman who knitted quietly through many meetings, but came up occasionally with brilliant ideas – and she nearly became PM of Finland.

"I'd love to learn to knit but actually I'm too busy trying to change the world." These words at a recent sector debate from the rumbustious Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB, convey the essence of most sector responses to the minister's faux pas. And as soon as the word is lodged in your mind, of course, it crops up everywhere. Take, for example, the recent report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre about students adopting less riotous lifestyles. It quoted Professor Fiona Measham of Durham University saying that many youngsters were now "more likely to spend time knitting than sitting in a pub". Presumably, she's really saying young people are doing more for charity... or are we getting confused?

And finally, there's research by the health club chain Virgin Active about which parts of the workforce burn the most calories a day at work (how on earth do they calculate this?). Anyway, top of the list, unsurprisingly, are posties with 1,456 and farmers with 1,284. Languishing near the bottom are charity workers with a scant 912. And that, of course, is because it doesn't take much energy just to sit there doing purl and plain, purl and plain...

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