Thursday, August 21, 2008

This woman's work

My name is Tami and I am a knitter. I have been for two years now, ever since a co-worker let me borrow a kids knitting how-to book over the weekend and I sat down with two giant needles and a ball of Wal-Mart yarn to make myself a scarf. Yeah, that's right. I like to indulge in traditional "womanly" arts. Does that put my feminist bonafides into question? Some say "yes," even as the craft has experienced a revival among hipsters and third-wavers.

In an article that appeared last year in The Guardian, Tanis Taylor writes:

Feminists are concerned that our new hobby may unpick decades of hard work fighting oppression. Germaine Greer has called it "heroic pointlessness", maintaining that for centuries "women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand". Greer and co want us to bear in mind that for centuries, crafts, with their delicate balance of practicality and artistry, were the only acceptable creative outlet for generations of surrendered wives. In this scenario, the kids' home-stitched gingham clothing was threaded with all the oppressions and frustrations of a million muted mothers. Apparently, today's crafters are needle-pointing a similar image of conservative domesticity. Read more...

And on, in a piece from early 2008 that sounds remarkably privileged while calling out crafters for indulging in a white, middle class hobby, Amy Juschka opines:

I applaud the self-determination and autonomy that doing-it-yourself upholds, but there does seem to be a serious disconnect with the everyday lives of many women when it comes to third-wave feminism and crafting.

One of the third-wave's greatest accomplishments was its success in challenging second-wave feminism's overemphasis on the experiences of middle-class white women. In second-wave feminism, the ground for challenging women's oppression was to argue that the personal is the political; but that personal tended to be that of affluent white women.

Third-wave feminism challenged this middle-class white ground and proposed the necessity to think about the multiple locations of women, poor, indigenous, black, lesbian or immigrant. Keeping this in mind, one can then ask about feminist crafting and the assumptions therein. For example, knitting, in a sense, is a middle-class hobby. It, along with much crafting, is a luxury that many women cannot afford.

And while the DIY ethic provides women with a sense of self-reliance it's also a tad self-indulgent. Read more...

I should tell all the black, lesbian and working class women I know who knit or quilt or sew to knock that shit off ASAP. Apparently, she does not know about the wool workers of Nairobi. (View slideshow) Or maybe I should just point out to Ms. Juschka that middle class women, who could well afford store-bought goods, were first to abandon the "womanly arts." Poor women sewed and knitted and quilted (and some still do) out of necessity.

What's Wrong With "Womanly Arts" Anyway

Setting aside that knitting began as a mens-only activity, a lot of folks sneer at knitting as a hopelessly feminine and antiquated exercise--a pasttime for old women who live in musty houses with cats and lots of doilies. Lord knows the one thing worse than being born a girl in this society is to live long enough to become an "old girl." And it's not just the menfolk doing the sneering. As doors have opened for women over the decades, and we are making our marks in domains that used to be just for men, things that used to be traditionally ours are maligned: crafts like knitting and quilting, homemaking, stay-at-home mothering, etc. Not all of these things are for me--okay none of them are for me, but the knitting, and I think I might like to try quilting (Have you heard of the Gee's Bend quilters?)--but they are no less worthy of respect than anything else one might choose to do.

Debbie Stoller, Stitch n Bitch founder and editor of Bust magazine, said: "We have a culture that for the most part really only values the things that men do, the things that are done outside of the home. I want the work that women have always done to become equally valued by the culture at large."

There is nothing wrong with the "womanly arts." What is wrong is that society does not value the work women do. What is wrong is that things like knitting are bound up in antiquated notions of gender roles. (
Men knit, too! Did you know that George Washington Carver was a knitter?)
If feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, then reclaiming a traditional woman's craft, denigrated for not being men's work, is feminist.

Why I Knit

All that said, the reason I first picked up the pointy sticks has nothing to do with feminism. I just thought it looked like fun. My co-worker had just returned from L.A. with some luxurious yarn and a funky scarf pattern and I was intrigued. Now, knitting is sort of an obsession for me, only surpassed by blogging.

Knitting is creative. Writing is the creative exercise that appeals to me most, but I also enjoy find just the right pattern, the right color yarn, the right decorative trim, the right notions to complete a knitted bag. (See one of my early efforts at right.) Sometimes it seems like everything I do is related to the written word: Writing press releases or speeches at work; writing blog posts in my spare time. It feels good to create in a different way.

BTW, if you still think knitting is old-fashioned, you should see some of the interesting things people are doing with knitting these days. I'm not talking holiday sweaters with jingle bells for the reindeer noses. Just visit The Anticraft if you don't believe me.

Knitting is meditative. Beginning meditators are often told to count their breaths as a way to focus the mind. 1...2...3...4...If you feel your mind straying, say, wondering what to have for dinner, you are simply to begin again at 1. Knitting is kind of like that. There is a rhythm to any pattern. Knit...knit...purl...knit...knit...purl. But you must focus. If you let your mind wander (as my mind is wont to do), you may find yourself purling where you should have knitted a stitch, decreasing a row where you were supposed to increase. When that happens, you are forced to rip out your work and begin again. Knitting is as much a cure for my monkey mind as seated meditation.

Knitting is sensuous. Spend some time in a yarn store--not the craft aisle at Wal-Mart--a yarn store. Ah, those rows upon rows of color...a hundred different shades of red...a hundred hues of green...soft, silky threads...scratchy, strong fibers...handcrafted bamboo needles...slick, smooth steel sticks. The act of knitting is sensuous. As I sit, propped in bed watching Keith Olbermann recount the Republican shenanigans of the day, I am soothed by the satin ribbon slipping over my fingers and around my cool, smooth Addi Turbos. (Left-I'm knitting a pair of satin boudoir slippers as a Christmas present for my mom. Shhh! Don't tell. The pattern is from Simple Knits with a Twist by Erika Knight)

Hell yeah, knitting is sensuous.

Knitting is challenging. Basic knitting is easy. But there are advanced patterns that are really hard. And, of course, I want to do the really hard thing. Getting some projects right means measuring, knitting swatches over and over (Hard for impatient me.), figuring on the calculator. But when it all turns out right, there is an amazing--and very particular--sense of accomplishment. It's the kind of "I made this with my own two hands" accomplishment that we don't feel a lot today. The food on our tables likely came from the supermarket...our clothes from the mall...our bedding from Pier One. I knitted a blanket for a baby niece. It did it in this really cool tangerine yarn I found, mixed with a slightly orangey cream color. (I hate traditional colors for baby blankets. Pink. Blue. Blecch!) Everyone wanted to know where my sister bought the blanket. But I made it. Hee. That makes me feel good.

Knitting is subversive. Truth be told. I kind of like it that people have all these silly misconceptions about my hobby. I get a little thrill when people double take at the chick with the afro puff knitting away before the movie starts. I like being a part of unexpected things. That's just me. I also like how modern knitters are using their craft to make statements and make a difference: Knitting in memory of Matthew Shephard, knitting shawls for cancer sufferers, knitting hats for preemies, knitting afghans for people in wartorn Afghanistan, knitting for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other projects.

So, with fall looming, I'm picking up my knitting needles and planning new projects. Maybe I'll share some with you. And if you're searching around for a new hobby, I highly recommend this "woman's work."

Some useful links:


Erica said...

Since when is a DIY ethic "self-indulgent"?!? Just because I CAN afford to pay a professional without bankrupting myself, I'd rather not when I can easily do it myself; therefore, I replaced a ceiling fan myself. Beyond that, it's insulting to the thousands of people who CAN'T afford a professional. Take DIY one step further -- volunteering your skills for friends and family (for example, I regularly debug and repair computers for them) -- and it's a benefit for the community as well. HOW IS THIS SELF-INDULGENT? Maybe just the KNITTING is...

Frankly, it just smacks of a manufactured explanation for why feminists should be stop practicing "womanly" arts. I prefer instead encouraging men to practice them -- and LOTS of guys knit (I'm currently bargaining with my uncle for a hand-knitted afghan in exchange for embroidering something) -- which widens the field of knowledge rather than dismissing it because it's a holdover of times when women were forced into it. I have the right to work as an engineer, the right to vote, why should I give up the right to make something both pretty and useful?

Keep your needles clicking and ignore opinions like Juschka's.

Somebodies Friend said...

The advice that you gave for knitting can be applied to just about any hobby or craft a person finds interesting. Start slow and work your way into more difficult territory. The learning and getting better with trial and error is the experience.

Once a person becomes a little bit better and more accomplished in their craft, they can find ways to help others, either by teaching or at least carrying the message, whatever that message my be.

I recently took up writing as a hobby. Even though I am not very good at it yet, but with practice, determination, and time I will improve. And self improvement is what life is all about. If a person sits back and just lets life pass them by, they are just waiting to die.

Miriam said...

Nice post! My sister is also a knitter. Its a beautiful art.

We shouldn't worry about what society thinks. Who cares?

Also, each thing has its place.

I am probably going to bore you now but:

I remember reading a talmudic story:

God made the moon (which represents woman, understanding, the heart) and the sun (male, unbound wisdom, the brain) the same size.

The moon protested, "can two rule the sky?"

God replied, "okay. So diminish YOURSELF!"

Thus, the moon became smaller.

Not until much much later, does the moon realize, it doesn't have to remain diminish. It can rule itself! There can be two rulers in the sky w/o stepping on other's toes. And then, she shined in her full glory and size.

This was to explain that we, women can have our realm, our things, our ways, etc. Yes, we can know deep down in our 'hearts' that the heart is more powerful more needed than the brain...

(ex: someone who needs to convince herself mentally that she's beautiful -her beauty is still in her brain and she has to work at it everyday. While someone who knows way down in her heart that she's just gorgeous! Her actions -all of them- will reflect that)

...both are still needed and has its own function and purpose as God intended. (In fact things must get filtered by the brain before a proper emotional reaction is done)No need to mock the other, no need to compare, no need to compete against the other.

We must shine in our own true good, glory and size!

Tracey said...

Woohoo! Feminist knitters unite!

Teendoc said...

I've been a sista-gurl knitting since my senior year at Yale when I took it up to calm my nerves during med school application season. You probably won't find a more egalitarian uber feminist than I am, so all of this navel gazing of the cited women seems much more self-indulgent than does knitting.

BTW, have you discovered Ravelry? that is a fun hangout for the chicks with sticks.

Lovepoetically said...

you use the term feminist throughout the article, and i wanted to know what is your personal definition of feminist? in addition, do you not identify more so as a feminist as opposed to womanist, the term created by alice walker, because from my understanding of feminist, esp as a wellesley college student, it was constructed for and by white women, who deliberately omitted women of color in this term.

heartsandflowers said...

That's a cool fact about Carver I didn't know. Knitting and weaving is really hard!

Tami said...


I DO identify more as a womanist and not a feminist. And I came to that identification just this year as a result of the racism or, at least race bias, that I saw among feminists during the HRC vs. BO primary. Until then, I would have argued that feminism is inclusive.

In the piece, however, I am using feminism as sort of a generic for the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

Thembi said...

I took up knitting and cooking when I found my ivy league educated behind bored with my day job (this was pre-blogging). For a second I thought i was being a sell-out but then I thought of an apt analogy: just because black folks are supposed to dance and act foolishly, don't mean we can't dance and act foolishly. Because dancing and acting foolish can be a beautiful thing. Stereotypes exist for a reason and as long as we're not blindly following what we're supposed to be good at, we're actually enhancing the things that make being who we are special.

Thanks for this post!

Brother OMi said...

i took up knitting a few years back. man did i suck.... lol

my thing, it is these "womanly arts" that will save a good number of people in the next few year with the economy continuing to spiral downward. our society in general has forsaken doing for self to just letting someone else do it for us. becoming extreme consumers is one of the habits that got us into this mess.

rikyrah said...

I wish I knew how to knit. It's a skill. nothing negative to it. You keep up with it.


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