Julia Gillard's chief spindoctor, the Scottish-raised John McTernan, must be well versed in European history.

You can't help but wonder, therefore, how he had the folly to suggest staging a photograph of Gillard knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby, like a modern-day Madame Defarge.

The photograph, posed for the Australian Women's Weekly and reproduced in several newspapers yesterday, is ominously evocative of the "tricoteuses" who sat knitting by the guillotine during the French Revolution. As the September 14 election approaches, it is Gillard herself who is facing the chop, along with a swag of her ministers.

Quite apart from that unfortunate association, the vision of a born-again feminist and staunch republican clicking the needles for the future third in line to the British throne was bound to create a stir. "PM's last-stitch bid to woo voters" was the Daily Telegraph's front-page headline. "PM tries to knit herself out of the poll doldrums," reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

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The photo of Gillard with needles, wool and her cavoodle Reuben, was intended, presumably, as another pitch to female voters from a Prime Minister who spent her first 28 months in office denying her gender was of any importance. But like her speech warning that a Tony Abbott-led government would see female voices banished from the political arena - and unlike her "misogyny speech" last October - the knitting image seems confected. Gillard is much more believable shooting down Abbott during Question Time - or even staring down Kevin Rudd - than in a cosy, domestic setting.

On the other hand, she is a knitter. It's her hobby, like Abbott's cycling. He doesn't get criticised for posing in lycra - or in a hard hat, trying to woo the blue-collar blokes. Gillard is so deeply unpopular now, though, that a photo of her doing just about anything - short of handing out banknotes in Martin Place - is bound to whip up criticism.

McTernan, who described the knitting pose as a "no-brainer", has made her an even easier target. "We know the Prime Minister is good at spinning a yarn and now we have the photographic proof of it," declared Christopher Pyne, an Opposition frontbencher, yesterday.