Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Weaving the Feminist Spirit

craft: 

[kraft, krahftnoun, plural crafts –noun
1.  an arttrade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill

In Dublin, Ireland, I am told, there was a time not too long ago when it was nearly impossible to find young women knitting - a shock given the quantity of sheep in Ireland and the popularity of the Aran sweater (which originated on the Aran Isles off the coast of Ireland) around the world.  Apparently, the women were not knitting in Dublin because, in their estimation, knitting smacks of the poverty of their mothers and grandmothers.

In America, female knitters, fueled by the works of Debbie Stoller, co-founder of Bust Magazine and author of the Stich-n-Bitch books, find ourselves defending our craft as a feminist act.  The very fact that some of us feel the need to do so reminds me that expertise mainstreamed by women is still considered sub-standard in our culture.

In fact, textiles have played a vital, if not central, role in the advancement of gender equality throughout history.  When nomads were settling into farming in ancient Egypt, women wove the cloth that was used for clothing, privacy, protection from the elements, and to trade with other city-states for food and supplies.  They also supplied the woven and embroidered liturgical linens used for mummification and to honor the Egyptian pantheon of gods.  Could there be any question of the craftswoman's importance when the creator of the earth, the goddess Neith, doubles as the goddess of war and weaving?  One myth tells that she wove the world into birth.  God, I love that.

Knitting probably originated somewhere in the mid-east around 1000 CE (prior to that, "Knit" fabric was created by nalbinding).  Due to the fragile nature of fabric and a severe dearth of historical records regarding the craft, we have little evidence to conclude that knitting was originally linked to a particular gender.  European knitting, however, was initially most likely a male pursuit.  It was portable and could be taken on long sailing voyages or while traversing the countryside with sheep.  The craft began to be taken up by more and more women as a source of income during the middle ages when men engaged in other pursuits, sometimes war, sometimes building or farming, sometimes the pub (a simplified, non-exhaustive list to be sure).  So important to the survival of women and children had knitting become that Queen Elizabeth outlawed the knitting machine in Britain for fear that it would eradicate a vital source of income for women.

Though some historians prefer the Eurocentric theory that knitting spread to the Americas along with Christianity, there is ample evidence to conclude that entirely unique versions of knitting (and other fiber crafts) sprouted independently in North, Central and South America at the same time (or earlier) that its cousin debuted in Eurasia. However it came to be used in the Americas, it was eventually employed by women as a means of improving their economic situations -- this, despite the fact that, in some regions, such as the Andes, the craft has traditionally belonged to men.

Most notable in the Americas was the judicious and courageous use of quilts, both to warm pioneers and to guide slaves escaping to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

The Industrial Revolution served to rob women of textile crafts and shove them into the production of sterile, mechanized facsimiles, a far less lucrative venture (here's one example).  It also prevented women from spending time with their children.  It wasn't as if women were flexing their brain power, advancing civil liberties, or manifesting world peace in these new factory jobs that kept them from their families.  Indeed, they were simply working the machines that had replaced their artistic and economic accomplishments.

The 20th century saw a great deal of patriotic and charitable knitting on the part of European and North American women.  While women were not allowed to fight in the many wars that stole their fathers, sons, and husbands, they resourcefully found ways to protect them as best as they could from afar: with hand-knitted socks, blankets, sweaters, and hats.

Textile crafts have done perhaps more to further the causes of women than any other economic endeavor.  It is an odd reality then that modern artists and crafters often times find ourselves defending our textile of choice.  It is even more disturbing that textiles are still frequently belittled as "women's work" or "old lady activities".  The reality is that every stitch that the modern textile artist creates is an homage to the "old ladies" who first stitched them thousands of years ago.   When my ten year old daughter sits beside me weaving the needle through her loom row after row, my son sitting next to his father, both of them knitting, as I myself knit a multitude of colorful stitches into a piece of fabric, the needles of generations of strong, resourceful, creative women stitch along with us.

Indeed, it is "women's work" that we share, and we are proud to do it.



9 comments:

M-H said...

It's unclear to me how you feel about men who knit. Do you feel they are intruding into your special craft in some way?

Sorry, knitting (along with other fibre crafts) is not 'women's work' any more than cooking is, or than woodworking is men's work - all these things are work that anyone can do and enjoy.

That's what feminism means: that we can choose our path and not be criticised for it on gender grounds. It's not about women being 'special' and 'better than men', or having special gifts or crafts: it's about equal opportunity to choose.

LakeMom said...

Thank you for your comment M-H.

I do not think that knitting is "women's work". I think that society has assigned it to the category of "women's work," while also attaching a negative label to anything considered "women's work". Though it is a craft that has been shared by both men and women, the fact is that when women took the brunt of the craft and found success in it, it grew to be perceived as a demeaning task.

My point here is not to exclude men who knit (both my son and my husband are avid knitters), but to reclaim the positive association that was attached to knitting (and other fiber crafts) before it came to be seen in a negative light as "women's work". I am also trying to extract the negative association with the very description "women's work".

My frustration is the criticism that women receive for being passionate about something like knitting and weaving. Had I greater scope in the post, I would have also delved into the interesting reactions that the male knitters in my life receive over the female knitters. Some have criticized, for example, that so much of my daughter's education has been steeped in fiber crafts. Those same people praise my son for the fiber crafts he does. They do not want my daughter to be associated with something they consider, negatively, to be "women's work", but think my son is the special one for breaking what is perceived to be a gender barrier. Likewise, that my youngest daughter is passionate about science, which has been perceived as a largely "male field", is considered by many to be a positive thing.

My fear is that we feminists have gone in a direction that criticizes women and girls for choosing an interest simply because women are most known for that task.

CiCi said...

i am a young knitter myself(11)and think that it would be amazing to have more male knitters in my area
i think that boys and girls focus to much on fitting in and being cool.

Irish Knitter said...

You were speaking to someone who doesn't know what they are talking about. There are multiple stitch and bitch groups in Dublin and all over Ireland.

LakeMom said...

Thank you for commenting CiCi. I love to see young knitters in particular. It makes me so happy. My 10 year old daughter is taking a crochet class at our local yarn store and is meeting other young fiber artists that way. Might there be a class near you where you can meet other knitters?

LakeMom said...

Thanks Irish Knitter. The person was an Irish woman who owns a shop here in town of Irish knitted goods. When she moved here (granted, I have no idea how long ago), it was because she had to close her yarn shop in Dublin due to a lack of interest (this is all according to her). Do you suppose this might have been a couple of decades ago? Has there been a resurgence of knitting in Dublin? I am curious to re-visit the subject with the local store owner.

Carrie said...

Thanks for sharing your feelings on this - they really resonate with me. I am really feeling a subtle shift towards women and men reclaiming 'women's work' as important and respected work. Our family is stereotypical in a lot of ways - I stay at home to educate our children, I knit, sew, crochet and craft, I do most of the cooking and cleaning just by nature of me being here. But my man is definitely involved in those things too, as evidenced by the fact that I have only cleaned bathrooms a handful of times in our decade together. ;) Our relationship is a partnership and we share fairly, though not necessarily equally, all aspects of family life.

~carrie~

LakeMom said...

Thanks so much for your comment Carrie. It is an interesting time in which we live -- when many of us can make the choice to stay home if that is want. It took me years before I stopped saying, "I used to be a pastor, but now I stay home with my kids."

LakeMom said...

"Likewise, that my youngest daughter is passionate about science, which has been perceived as a largely 'male field', is considered by many to be a positive thing."

I should add that it IS a positive thing. My point is simply that the shift often penalizes people of either gender who wish to do that which has been most traditionally associated with that gender.

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