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.

 

For the Love of Texture: An Origin Story

My mom in her natural habitat, surrounded by texture

My mom in her natural habitat, surrounded by texture

There was a span of about three years when my mom used to say, “I come from a long line of chiefs,” a quote from the movie, Whale Rider. I don’t really know why she said this all the time but I assume it was just one of those things that got stuck in her head and wouldn’t remove itself from the surface of her brain. The point is that I think of her saying this whenever I think of the women in my family who have proven their crafting prowess through the generations. I come from a long line of crafters and that is almost as important as coming from a long line of chiefs. The women in my family have passed on their crafts to the next generation for as long as that new group would listen.

My great-grandmother, Monelle Huckaba, was a prolific and multi-faceted craftswoman who, when she had an idea for something to sew, would, “throw some newspaper down on the floor and trace exactly what she wanted and come up with a working pattern to make her idea from,” as reported by my mom. She embroidered, sewed, hand quilted, and cross-stitched well into her not so great years of life.

My grandmother, LaVerne Huckaba, had three girls, my mom and her two sisters, all extremely close in age that she had to dress for cheap. She made a lot of their clothes and a lot of those clothes matched. From a spectrum of pastel Easter dresses to totally rad 70’s ponchos, my grandma slaved over the sewing machine in order to master the art of dressing three opinionated girls.

Mom is a tactile person. She spent a lot of her childhood in the depths of her grandmother’s and mother’s fabric stashes and that influence took her through college where she studied Textiles and Design. She taught me how to shop and appreciate clothing and the best way to do these things is to reach out and touch whatever thing you might be walking by. As a picky teen I’d grab items off the racks and coo over how cute they were and my mom would reach out and swish it between her fingers, “Yeah, but it’s scratchy you don’t want to wear that.” The best and probably worst parts about knowing how to make your own clothes is that you become excessively picky about their look and texture.

Amazing aesthetic, terrible texture

Amazing aesthetic, terrible texture

Texture is transformative. The most heinous piece of clothing is still salvageable as long as it feels great on the skin. Texture controls a lot of our behavior whether we realize it or not. For example, babies love the silky tag on their blankets, children love the fuzzy fur of their stuffed animals, adults gravitate towards plush furniture or smooth leather. Texture makes something more than its function. The most inane object becomes sensually interesting once you discover its texture beneath the pads of ridged fingertips.

My first memorable experience with texture came when I was about five years old. My mom sewed a lot when I was young and I usually found myself around her as she hunched under the light of her trusty sewing machine and maneuvered the seams of quilts and dresses. I must have been bothering her while she was trying to work because she passed me a booklet of silk swatches in every color my mind could have imagined and told me to play with them.

That little book of a hundred colors kept me entertained for hours while my mom worked beside me. I remember laying the small rectangles out on the floor playing with the color combinations all while swishing a couple of silky pieces together between my fingers. The slick fabric sliding across itself was soothing and the colors were mesmerizing. Mom handed me a needle and thread so I could practice sewing the pieces together.

I found some of these pieces many years later while I was looking through my fabric boxes and was embarrassed by the inch long stitches all around the little pieces. A set of rectangles, one light blue and the other navy, were sewn together with crooked stitches and stuffed with polyfill to make a pincushion.  I threw those pieces away in disgust at the lack of ability they showed but now I really wish I had kept them to remember that first experience by. I have yet to find a fabric that felt the way those little rectangles did and doubt that I ever will.

Mom taught me how to crochet when I was eight. We sat together in our ratty brown, gold, and green armchair with her feet propped on the matching stool, mine barely passing the crevasse between the chair and the stool. She demonstrated the looping motion of grabbing the yarn with the hook and it slid through the motions so quickly, so easily that I had no idea there was even a possibility of someone being incapable of performing the motion. She handed me the hook and yarn, wove the yarn around my fingers in just the right way so I could attempt the motion.

My wrists and fingers couldn’t perfect the synchronized motions of the rolling and tugging the hook needed to make a stitch. I let the blue aluminum hook fall to my lap in defeat. Mom left me, the chair, and the hook to our misery. After hiding the hook and yarn from my sight and spending some time in anger at my lack of skill, we tried again a few weeks later and the stitches came easily. Crafts are gained through muscle memory. If you try it once, it is easier to pick up the next time around. Creating that muscle memory makes your body hunger for more, making the repetition and furthering of creativity a necessity.

Recent crochet swatches

Recent crochet swatches

From knitting to quilting to embroidery to weaving, as I grew I tried it all. Some of it stuck. Some of it didn’t. What did stick was a love for the knowledge of these crafts, as well as the love for the tools these crafts necessitated. My shelves are filled with how-to books accumulated from years of Christmas gifts and inherited from familial generations who either gave up their skills for store bought items or couldn’t hold a needle between their arthritic fingers anymore. I gained tools the same way and am left with more knitting needles than I could ever have projects for and crochet hooks from the circumference of a sewing needle to a hefty man’s thumb.

Once I began college, I found myself gravitating towards textile crafts again for two reasons: I had a lot of extra time freshman year because I’m not so great at meeting people and my roommate was interested in the modest stash of yarn I had brought along with me to school. I busted that yarn out and started crocheting again. The rhythm of the stitches returned to me in a rush and I was hooked.

I threw myself into yarn and learned more about crochet and knitting in the three months of the first semester than I did about whatever my classes were focused on. I channeled all the distress I felt about being away from home and my high school sweetheart into yarn things in an attempt to stay positive. For the most part it worked out pretty well. I gained some skills and filled the time that I would have spent being lethargic and moody.

I’ve continued to foster my textile obsession at every chance I get. In my art history courses I’ve studied Indian saris and ancient Chinese silken burial shrouds. In my English courses, I’ve found ways to make my creative project about needlework. I am continually hungry for more information on textiles and am pretty damn grateful that my institution has afforded me so many opportunities to incorporate my interests into my degree in some unconventional ways.

Besides my intense curiosity about the history of crafting and collection of skills I keep coming back to textiles because the act of creating is grounding and pure. These crafts are ancient, with spinning being nearly as old as humanity itself and knitting and crochet being a bit younger but still as pivotal to our clothing histories. Being a part of this greater narrative of creativity is rewarding and fulfilling. It is so easy now to be totally disconnected from the world while being intensely connected to an artificial existence. Craft has kept me on Earth, the real Earth, and has made me more conscious of my decisions on consumption.

Crafting keeps me close with the women in my family who have passed down these skills to each other. The passing of skills bond the teacher and pupil in a way that connects them for life because they now have something interesting and ever-changing to discuss and gush about whenever they are together.

IMG_20140426_174054Though I never really got to meet my great-grandmother, the master seamstress, I feel connected to her in a different way. I use her embroidery needles and snoop through her quilting books to gain inspiration. I am connected to her, my grandma, my mom, and sister through these skills. I am even connected in some small way to all other individuals who hold these skills.

I hope to perpetuate and heighten the prevalence of craft in modern life because I think it is so important to happiness to be doing something tangibly productive with our hands. That tangible item can foster relationships, make you happy, and even keep your head warm, what more could you ask for?