Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From the vault: This woman's work

[Since I'm on the road, I thought I'd drag something a little different from "the vault." This post originally appeared in August 2008.

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 TheThunderbird.ca, 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:


teaspoon said...

Thank you, Tami! I am enthusiastically arts-inclined and also find it unfair that many arts ("womanly" or otherwise) are unappreciated. I never learned to knit, but I do crochet, which is rare for my age demographic. It is very soothing. I also love to cook, and am immensely proud of my scratch-made, love-filled servings. Within feminism, there is a slight backlash against things that are considered feminine. But I refuse to return my feminist card because I am "emotionally sensitive" (empathic, I think) and have "domestic" hobbies. There should be room for value in all things, not just the "masculine" trades and projects.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

This article was balm to my soul as a stay at home mom, knitter and avid seamstress.

I'm tired of the "womanly arts" being picked on anyway. It's absolutely awesome if any particular woman or man doesn't like doing a particular thing. But denigrating the work itself? This is still happening more than my mom and her second-wave feminist peers realize.

After all, excuse me, we all seem to wear clothes (and appreciate well-made clothes) and eat food, right? We all need someone to wipe our asses when we're young and teach us how to wash our own clothes?

Thanks for posting from "the vault"! I hope you get some good respite from your punishing schedule soon!

Moni said...

Thank you for this! I cannot knit (or sew or crochet or do anything that requires nimble fingers), but I can cook and bake like a Top Chef wannabe! I love the creativity of cooking, the thrill of taking raw ingredients and melding them together to create something that looks good and tastes even better. Cooking well involves all of the senses and helps ground me, while giving me an escape from the pressures of life.

I hate that I feel the need to assert that I don't clean, sew, etc, when some man (not my bf) makes a comment about my cooking that is a little too appreciative, in a "why can't all women cook like this" tone. I hate feeling like I have to defend my gender's right to cook or not cook as they see fit. Hopefully there will come a time when this won't be the case, when anyone can choose to explore their passions, free of stigma or antiquated gender roles.

msladydeborah said...


I knit, crochet, quilt and embroider. These are all skills that I was taught as a child. My grandmother, cousins and aunts took the time to teach me these skills.

Maybe White women did these things with no purpose. But not the women in my family. They produced what was needed and desired from their knowledge. My mom grew up during the Depression Era, she always had new dresses to wear because my grandmother could sew. She made quilts to keep us warm during the winter. She crocheted table cloths, dresses, and all type of items to use. Forget selling them-they were produced for our comfort.

I am going to learn how to sew. I took lessons but at the time, I just wasn't into it. Now, I think that it is a skill that I can benefit from.

It always puts me off how White women can look at survival skills and see something negative in them. My grandmother was totally self sufficient. She could garden, can food, and produce whatever was needed for our household. My grandfather considered her to be one of the smartest women he ever knew. She was re-cycling items before it was popular. My mom still has a quilt that was made from patches of dresses that were not suitable to give away. My mother thought that quilt was the best gift she had ever received.

I consider this to be a cultural divide on the subject of "womanly" arts. When you are from a group of people who had to fight like hell to have anything-you see the ability to produce it as a plus. I am glad that I have been able to use my skills over the years. I still like to crochet. I have hooks, knitting needles, a sewing machine and I have yarn. I make things whenever I have time or want to give someone a handcrafted gift.

So knit on Tami! To all of the sistas who are skilled-right on!

kat said...

**looks up from her knitting to comment**

I've heard this "knitting is a luxury pastime that rich white women do to pass time and produce useless objects" thing a few times, and it completely confuses me.

Most of the women I know from older generations (both white and women of color) knitted, crocheted and sewed in order to make things to clothe their families and keep them warm, just like MsladyDeborah said.

My grandmother earned her living as a seamstress, and knitted or crocheted incredible blankets and sweaters to keep the family warm in the winters. My godmother didn't sell her work, but clothed and draped the family with her crocheting.

My mother sews, and used that skill to make sure that I always had a new Easter or Christmas dress even when finances were very tight...

Where are these "purposeless objects", I wonder?

Now, in all fairness, the lace shawl I'm knitting at the moment will not serve the most practical purpose, but it will be a handmade gift crafted with skill and love...better than a gift certificate, no?

kat said...

p.s. Tami are you on Ravelry? Even more of a time waster than Facebook, but a fun place to find patterns and yarns and stuff.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

"Where are these 'purposeless objects', I wonder?"

kat, this made me smile. Everything I've made by hand sure seems to get used / worn as much as possible!

avocadoawesome said...

I love how other people have commented about learning to knit and sew from their grandmothers. My great grandparents became DIY experts when they homesteaded in a tiny village in Alaska. My grandfather is the "domestic goddess" of their household. As someone else mentioned, he also made quilts from recycled clothing. They were beautiful pieces of art depicting mountains, sailboats, and sometimes even unicorns. He still gardens full time, preserves food, and bakes pies every week. He has been retired for many years and still keeps our entire family supplied with homemade pickles and clam chowder. He is my DIY idol!

Sassy J said...

Tami, seriously? Like knitting fashionable wear and household comfies is what feminist should be harping on? Come on! Why does everything have to be a fight? It's KNITTING/CROCHETING/SEWING/APPLIQUEING/EMBROIDERING for goodness sakes! LOL

Womanly arts runs in my family...kind of. I tried sewing, but when they closed the store where I took classes, my New York fashion week dreams were shattered! My grandmother and one of her best friends used to re-upholster furniture. Now THAT is something! My aunt used to sew and applique (iron flowers on stuff and put jewels and puffy paint around them) as a business...did quite well. She even made my senior banquet dress.

A lot of my black women friends knit, and they do it as a way to relax themselves. Their work is sooo beautiful. I've thought about learning; I may still try!

Cindy said...

I love that you knit. I think it is the coolest thing. I love what I see people doing these days with knitting and quilting. They've taken on their own modernist forms. Being a feminist is about defining what is woman to YOU not about aligning with any construct, past or present.


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