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.

drew_chopsticks

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

Art Vs. Craft: A Battle Should Be Teamwork

Art and craft are described as warring creative principles within our social sphere. The actual definitions express something very interesting about the stigma behind each distinction of creativity.

Art-noun: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that  expresses important ideas or feelings

Crafts-noun: objects made by skillful use of the hands

Chiaro

Chiaro

By way of these definitions couldn’t we say that all art is product of craft? Couldn’t we say there is no distinction? The ‘beautiful’ part about art is subjective as are the possible ideas and feelings art expresses. I think this clearly means that a well executed, simplistic wooden chair like the Chiaro, by Leon Ransmeier is just as artful as the Sistine Chapel and in turn means that the Sistine Chapel is a product of craft, “skillful use of the hands” just as much as the chair is a product of craft.

Equating the Sistine Chapel with a modernist, minimalist piece of furniture clearly seems off base and out of touch but I really don’t think that is the case. Traditional ‘art’ skills are no different in context than traditional ‘craft’ skills. The difference between knitting and painting, besides the actual media, is the stigma. The idea that one is high and one is low. Each skill requires an equal amount of mastery to create a truly exquisite piece of work.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Who can dispute this? Just because we don’t generally decorate our walls with pieces of textiles in the West does not mean that textile based or ‘craft’ based skills are any less than those of high art traditions. The concept of high and low skills is absurd especially now in our post-modern world. Post-modernity has blurred the lines of everything academic, intellectual, musical, artistic or new why shouldn’t it blur the lines between traditional ideas of craft and art?

Thankfully there are a lot of artists, also known as craftspeople, who are questioning the boundaries of high and low art and high and low materials. These artists are the ones who will help erase the instances of wrinkled noses at a hand made piece of clothing.

Solid Air

Solid Air

Roanna Wells tackles the boundary between art and craft through her experiments with embroidery and wood turning. She is, “Passionate about keeping the boundaries between contemporary drawing and textile art fluid.” Her embroidery pieces use traditional (wool and silk thread) and nontraditional (paper) materials to create detail oriented abstract pieces. She uses some classic stitches from the embroidery cannon but improvises as well.

The Great Wave if Kanagawa

The Great Wave if Kanagawa

A lot of Wells’ pieces are pretty massive and they incorporate a lot of influences from the blurry effect of watercolors. Especially her piece, “Solid Air.” It is also reminiscent of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” watery and dreamy at the same time.

 

Color Craving

Color Craving

While Wells’ pieces are destined for museums, Stephen West tackles the boundary between high and low art in a tangible way. A knitwear designer with an edge, Stephen tackles complex color theory and sculptural design elements into his everyday wearables design collection. West is most famous and revered for his ability to use unexpected features in a traditionally ‘old lady’ garment, the shawl. The “Color Craving” shawl is an interesting shape, a really original take on the traditional prayer shawl. It is peppered with fancy holes, ladders, and stripes a completely modernist approach to tradition. The pattern was also originally released as a Mystery-Knit-Along meaning that people paid their six bucks for their own pattern and it would be sent in chunks to the customers so the idea of the shawl was unknown to the maker until it was complete. This is akin to performance pieces that are done in galleries all the time. It is interactive and easily manipulated by the individuals involved.

The distinctions between art and craft need to and are being, slowly dissolved through the work of boundary busting craftspeople. The obliteration of these distinctions and their stigmas will open an entirely new experience up to an entirely new group of people.