On Gender and Needlework: “Hey! My wife does that!”

“Is that hard?”

My headphones were blaring St.Vincent and I didn’t hear his muffled question. I was on a bus to Chicago and knitting away on the left sleeve of an olive green cardigan. Pulling my headphones from my ears, after finishing the row I was concentrating on, I replied, “Sorry, what did you say?”

He repeated his question while looking at the triangle my needles formed as I clicked away on the sleeve, “Is that hard?”

“Nah, it’s not really hard at all, it’s like a puzzle but is only really made of two elements. Once you know how to do those two things it’s easy and relaxing, therapeutic even.”

He nodded, a small smile on his lips. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his high-fashion shades but I’m certain they were still looking at the needles in my hands. “It looks relaxing.” He clicked his iPod back on, the bass resonated from his earbuds, and turned to look out the window as we flew down the highway.

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Old Women and knitting in popular culture

Knitting in public draws stares and questions from a lot of people and I’m always excited to feed their curiosity. Needlework excites curiosity because it looks really weird when placed in modern contexts like a coffee shop or waiting in line at the bank. It comes from unchallenged stereotypes of old women sitting by the fire with knitting in their hands. When someone sees me knitting a hat on the bus, at the library, or in the lounge outside my classroom, many of them have a lot of things to ask. In my experience, these questions rarely come from women. Women will smile in my direction or come to tell me about a project they are working on but they have never asked questions about what I’m doing.

Men will often approach me with questions like, what are you doing, how are you doing that, and what is that? These interactions are interesting and insightful no matter the gender of the person I’m talking to but I find the plain curiosity about needlework of males to be especially fascinating. I wonder if the curiosity is because they are less likely to be exposed to needlework while growing up because needlework has been deemed women’s work for hundreds of years. Or maybe it’s because they have never encountered a garment in progress. Maybe they’ve wanted to know more about needlework in the past but never had the chance to ask or learn about it because it was considered off limits to them as young boys.

The concept of needlework being women’s work is nearly as old as needlework itself with the emphasis on the word, nearly. Knitting was originally a male-only occupation. With the advent of the knitting machine in the Renaissance period, knitting had the opportunity to become a hobby for the wealthy with serious hand knitting only being done by country dwellers who either grew their own flax or raised sheep for meat and wool. The gender shift occurs when knitting became somewhat industrialized. The need for production handknitters dropped off leaving the traditional breadwinners of yesteryear to seek other occupations to feed their families.

The emphasis on needlework as a part of being an accomplished young woman became incredibly important to her development. A woman who was capable of intricate needlework and had a large collection of handsewn and embroidered linens, all made by her own hands, in her marriage trunk was a great catch. A woman’s skill as a seamstress determining her worth as a marriage partner lasted far too long. Needlework as women’s work closed off an entire area of creative expression to males and trapped females within its boundaries who did not want to be in them.

Though gender roles have happily deteriorated to a pretty high degree, men still have a hard time embracing needlework as a normal hobby. I’ve been trying to convince my dad to pick up a pair of needles for years. He and I experience similar anxiety issues and I know that the repetition of knitting would help him cope and relax as it has helped me but he refuses to learn. He says he doesn’t want to look like a ‘pansy.’ His words, not mine.

I attempted to teach my brother how to crochet. I let him pick out the hook–a giant blue one, and yarn–variegated camouflage. He picked up the basics in under an hour and loved it but immediately put it down when dad came home. He hasn’t picked it up since then and whenever I ask if he wants to try it again he says, “No, I think it’s too girly.”

It’s not just men who have issues with male needleworkers. Many female crafters show off a lot of discrimination towards these males who have made needlework a part of their lives. Recently I came across a blog post written by a middle aged woman who wrote about attending a yarn spinning workshop and said that she was floored when the teacher of the workshop was a twenty-something year old man. Her words expressed disbelief at the quality of his skills because he was a man. The tone of her piece clearly suggested that she saw needlework and spinning as a space for women only and too feminine for any man to come close to understanding. This is clearly not true and is incredibly harmful to any kind of gender equality progress.

Even on a semi-socially progressive campus like mine, there are odd reactions towards males breaking into the textile craft world. In a short-lived campus knitting club, there was one male crocheter among a group of twenty women. That one guy’s presence shocked half of the group members and became a really strange selling point when trying to convince new members to join, “We even have a guy in the group.” Though this is not exactly a negative reaction it is still inappropriate. Why should it be a selling point? Why should people care? In general, needleworkers of all genders should just be pleased to see a fellow textile lover rather than question if what they are doing conforms to the ideas of a restrictive society.

Thanks to a lot of movements and trends towards old things being cool again (knitting, vinyl, Ray Bans) things like needlework are enjoying a rebirth and is practiced by who ever pleases to do it. Gendered prejudice in needleworking exists and needs to be acknowledged and demolished.

 

The title is a quote from an older gentleman I encountered in Ireland, who shouted across the room while I was knitting a pair of socks, “Hey! My wife does that!” He then said, “You must be American.” I’m still not 100% sure what to make of those two statements but it makes a great title. 

Cartoon from lefthandedtoons.com

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