Stitch Goddess: Joan Crawford, Old Hollywood’s Most Famous Knitter

Joan Crawford’s cameo in It’s a Great Feeling (1949) hilariously plays on her star image as a larger-than-life melodrama queen. She launches into a speech right out of Mildred Pierce, waves off Doris Day when the peppy hopeful tries to rein her in, and expertly slaps both Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. “I do that in all my pictures,” she cracks with airy self-awareness then jauntily makes her exit.

But the cameo shows another aspect of Crawford’s life that would’ve been well known to her fans and regular movie magazine readers. When a cut reveals mink-wrapped Crawford behind Carson and Morgan, she’s knitting—cute little aquamarine socks on double-pointed needles, no less. Many movie stars knitted, but Crawford was indisputably the stitch goddess of Hollywood. 

Crawford’s knitting was news to fan magazines. Screenland practically had a dedicated Joan Crawford knitting beat. In 1934, Weston East devoted several lines to her prolific gift knitting:

“Joan Crawford is knitting her fifth baby blanket…. Joan always gives blankets to her friends’ babies—and her gifts are particularly valuable because she knits every blanket herself. Joan is getting so adept at knitting that she can now turn out a blanket, working between scenes and at home at night, in about twelve days.”

A testament to Crawford’s staying power, Screenland was still reporting on her knitting 15 years later, in 1949:

“Joan Crawford, who likes to knit almost as well as act, is now carting around two knitting bags on account of she’s working on so many different things and likes to switch from one to another.”

(Show me a knitter who can’t relate to that though.)

The same year Screenland was all abuzz over a rare malfunction in Joan’s typically flawless stitchcraft:

“Joan Crawford was so nervous at the preview of ‘Flamingo Road’ that she actually dropped a stitch in her knitting—unheard of for Joan, who’s so expert she can knit blindfolded in a dark cellar at midnight.”

That might be the most badass description of needlework proficiency I’ve ever read.

Crawford’s constant knitting made an impression on her costars. Sometimes too much of an impression; George Cukor asked her to leave the set of The Women because her loud clickety-clack was, perhaps intentionally, fraying at Norma Shearer’s nerves. Fred MacMurray remembered Joan’s stitchwork as a sign of her boundless energy, “As soon as we’d finish a scene, out would come her knitting and she’d get to work on that.”

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. recalled Crawford almost constantly knitting during their marriage. She, in turn, told Charlotte Chandler that she brought her knitting to Pickfair to cope with her unease among the in-laws: “I could keep my hands busy, because I was so nervous.”

My favorite Crawford knitting anecdote comes from the uncertain period between her arrival at Warner Brothers and her Oscar triumph. And it involves her famous rival Bette Davis, also a knitter. Cal York of Photoplay reported

“Those who waited for the guns to explode when Queen Crawford met up with Queen Davis on the Warner lot can relax. We understand a pair of knitting needles have brought the two together. It seems Bette knitted a sweater that turned out not so well and Joan is now unraveling and doing it over for Bette. Will they be that amiable over a coveted movie script, one wonders?”

My confidence in this anecdote is strengthened by others I’ve heard of Crawford going out of her way—maybe even going overboard—to pay her respects to Warners Brothers’ reigning diva. Nevertheless, it’s wise to take fan mags with a grain of salt. Is this story true? Well, let’s just say I want to believe.

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