Knitting a better world

One of the things we’ve been discussing over on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers Google group is the question of whether there is a conflict between feminism and the pursuit of activities which are generally seen as ‘domestic’ and considered as ‘traditionally feminine’. Millie at Interrobangs Anonymous and Franca at Oranges and Apples have both posted with their thoughts on the ‘lifestyle bloggers’ who present an idealised and very traditional-seeming picture of their lives and crafting (and, several years ago, this wonderful post by Kate Davies tackled the same topic from a slightly different angle). But what about crafting itself? Am I just harking back to the bad old days when women were domestic drudges and rejecting the liberation that was delivered to us by mass production?

Well, no, I don’t think I am. Because while there are some areas in which I’m genuinely grateful for mass-production (as much as I love my handknitted socks, I’m very thankful that tights are cheaply and widely available) I’m not a fan of the fashion industry in general. From the low wages and poor working conditions in the factories where far too many High Street clothes are still made (often by women workers), to the pressure on women to buy this year’s styles and colours and aspire to this year’s ideal of beauty, to the environmental impact of throw-away fashion culture, I think that the fashion industry is fundamentally oppressive. Learning to make or refashion my own clothes and buying second-hand are ways of opting out of that system and asserting my individuality.

There’s a long and noble tradition of links between crafts and radicalism, going back to William Morris at least. I have a wonderful essay by Elizabeth Wilson, published in a book given away to celebrate twenty years of the Virago press in 1993, about the importance of traditional women’s crafts, such as knitting, to a section of the women’s movement in the Seventies, and the way they ‘wanted work and home life, child care and other forms of creative endeavour to be integrated instead of parcelled up into separate times and places’. This struck a chord with my own brand of feminism when I read it, and does so even more now; her comment that ‘an interest in crafts and the conservation and appreciation of second-hand clothes and furniture…could be anti-consumerist without being puritanical’ sums up the way I try to live my life (I don’t always succeed, but I do try).

(And I am utterly charmed that when I went back and looked for a post along very much these lines I wrote in an old blog several years ago the first comment on it turned out to be from Antje saying that it had inspired her to look for a local knitting group and think about learning to knit. Which just goes to show that knitting doesn’t have to be confined to the domestic sphere; as Antje and all the indie dyers I know prove, it can also be the foundation for a successful business!)

17 responses to “Knitting a better world

  1. This is lovely. Thank you for writing it.

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  3. Great post! It makes me wonder about how chefs and tailors seem like respectable professions but cooking and sewing don’t have the same status.

    I used to shun crafts and other traditionally female-oriented activities, but as I’ve become more comfortable with who I am, I feel I can embrace them. I’m still too impatient to cook though!

    • It is rather depressing how there is still this thing that when a man does something, it’s Art, and when a woman does the same thing, it’s ‘just handicrafts’. It reminds me of a quote from Middlemarch which is what made me fall in love with George Eliot, many years ago:

      A man’s mind–what there is of it–has always the advantage of being masculine,–as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm,–and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.

  4. Oh totally! I think the difference is that in times past people used to have to sew because there was no mass produced/affordable clothing and things like needlework were rhe only acceptable thing to pas the time for upper class women. But not, its for choice, not need. Making something yourself from scratch is so satisfying!

    Though I would question how much handmaking is really an alternative/step away from traditional forms of capitalist consumption. Sewing machines and fabric are objects of consumption too. I’ve written a bit about this in the past actually, a long long time ago. I should try to find the link, but now my lunch break is over!

    • Sewing machines and fabric are objects of consumption too.

      Yes, that’s true. And anyone who has every witnessed the mayhem which accompanies online updates from companies like Posh Yarn or Wollmeise, where the entire stock can sell out in less than ten minutes, would agree that so is yarn! I certainly don’t think crafting and thrifting are a complete rejection of consumer society, but I do think that for me, personally, learning to make my own clothes has made me think a lot more about quality and question the increasing disposability of fashion.

  5. oh god, I should have read that before posting. Sorry about typo overload!

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  7. I was thinking about this post as I caught the end of the programme about textiles in various Indian communities on BBC2 this evening. From what I understood (and I only saw about 10 minutes so I might well have missed some crucial information) they’d been looking at a particular community where the girls and women spent all their lives embroidering and weaving to prepare their dowry before they could be married. The cloths were incredibly beautiful but had obviously come at huge cost to the women. Some members of the group had broken away and were insisting that the girls be educated and able to do other things and in fact they were forbidden to do embroidery. For them, I think, the point was that to prevent any of the girls being secretly coerced back into the old ways there needed to be a clean break.

    And although there was some sadness that the old ways are starting to fade, mostly I could only thing how much better it would be for the women not to be tied to their needles for the best part of their lives and be free to do all kinds of other things too. I would like to hope that the needlework skills are not entirely lost by the community but that they could become a source of pleasure rather than drudgery.

  8. You took the words right out from under my keyboard! Exactly my attitude towards crafting and refashioning. If only we could get more guys to do the same :)

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  10. Learning to make or refashion my own clothes and buying second-hand are ways of opting out of that system and asserting my individuality.

    I am so with you on this (and the rest of that paragraph, but especially this). It’s not about making an image of a lifestyle, or feeling I have to be a domestic goddess, or anything like that — it’s a (small) poke in the eye of a capitalist industry that I hold many reservations about. There’s definitely still consumption (I’ve got the fabric stash to prove it) but I’m taking links out of the chain of production, and that’s important to me.

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