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Confessions of a Reluctant Crafter  by Deborah Ostrovsky (Winter 2012)
Confessions of a Reluctant Crafter

I'm standing beside the cash at a popular Montreal knitting shop, and giant beads of sweat are rolling down my face. No one else here looks like they’re about to combust spontaneously in the feverish heat. Is it just me? Perhaps it’s the pregnancy hormones that, for the last few months, have kept me in a constant hyperthermic state. Or it could be that, for the first time since kindergarten, I have actually set foot inside a knitting shop.

I have come to inquire about knitting lessons, and I’m so nervous that my hands start to shake as more sweat trickles down my temples.

Let’s just say I’m far from my comfort zone in here. Stores like these—knitting, embroidery and fabric shops, where (mostly) women are drawn together to cast on, stitch and felt—give me the impression that I’ve crossed the border into unfamiliar territory without a map. I watch other female customers, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 70s, as they scan the shelves of brightly coloured yarns and fabrics. Some chat with staff. Others roll nubbly, hand-dyed strands of wool between their fingers with a concentration and expertise reminiscent of some mystic, ancient ritual. Other women sit in the cozy lounge area with its sprawling plush couches below a large poster advertising a call for feminists, community intervention, rebel fibre, artists and anarchists for a yarn-bombing event. “The Montreal streetsbelong to the citizens, let’s take them back!” it says.

The women in the lounge are an eclectic bunch. Retirees knitting bonnets for premature babies at L’hôpital Saint-Justine. Some, like me, are pregnant and on maternity leave. There are progressive parenting types learning how to make pint-sized booties out of organic, fair-trade cotton—any kind of material that isn’t, say, doused in toxic flame retardants. Young art students with brightly dyed brush cuts sit discussing retro-style knitting patterns for the video game Space Invaders. Their needles dip up and down with each garter stitch and purl.

Everyone feels at home here, this intergenerational patchwork of women exchanging creative ideas. So why do I feel like I have just been parachuted into a strange, foreign land?

“How many lessons would you like?” the store owner asks, smiling. “Five or ten? Or pay as you go. It’s relaxed here. And you’re welcome to stay after your lesson as long as you want.”

“Five, please—that’ll be enough,” I respond curtly. But I keep telling myself I won’t even complete five.

I come from a family of knitting women. But I was born without the crafting gene and can’t cast on to save my life. I’ve rejected all manner of crafts—sewing, knitting, quilting—since early childhood. I watched my sister work for months on Fair Isle sweaters for every new boyfriend and my mother develop tendonitis in both wrists. Still, I’ve decided to give knitting a chance.

But mostly I am here to answer a question that has continued to nag at me over the past few years as I’ve watched just about every woman I know take up some form of do-it-yourself (DIY) knitting or crafting activity.

Why are so many women—and it is mostly women—crafting these days?

Like other parts of Canada, the knitting trend in particular has hit Quebec by storm. The yarn shop on the corner of my street has gone from being perpetually empty to constantly  full. The waiting list for lessons is so long that the owner wouldn’t take down my name, which is how I ended up here, at another store uptown. Meanwhile, many women I know have started to sell their own knitting and sewing creations on Etsy.com. I’m beginning to feel like my lack of DIY crafting skills is denying me a creative outlet that other women, and fellow feminists, are raving about.

I’m not even in some self-selecting, artsy group of crafters (remember, I can’t cast on, let alone manage a garter stitch. Nor do I know how to operate a sewing machine). And yet I, a dweller outside the kingdom of the crafters, meet an increasing number of neophyte embroiderers, patchwork quilters and knitters in the various circles of women whose paths I cross.

Just what accounts for this growing trend? And is this trend among women a good thing or a bad thing?

“It’s just knitting,” a male friend says, trying to calm me down. “It’s like fishing or skiing, like any other hobby.”

But is it—really?

The Craft Yarn Council in the U.S. estimates that there are around 38 million knitters and crocheters in that country,many of whom are between the ages of 25 and 34. “Knitting and Crocheting Are Hot!” the council declares on its site. “Julia Roberts does it, so does Vanna White, Cameron Diaz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Daryl Hannah, Hilary Swank.” Rowan, a popular U.K. yarn manufacturer estimates that 11 per cent of the British population regularly knits. While no precise figures exist for Canada, it’s safe to say that an increasing number of women are taking up the needles.

Elizabeth Anderson of the San Antonio, Texas, marketing and communications firm Guerra, DeBerry, Coody reports that crafting now means big money. Figures compiled from online sites like craftster.org suggest that in 2010 online crafts sales generated revenue of more than $29 billion in the U.S. alone. This is not to mention the Etsy.com colossus, the hip online international site where (mostly) female crafters peddle their wares, with investors getting a cut of each transaction as well as gaining access to seller and buyer information.

Etsy.com facilitates an estimated $10 to 13 million in sales per month. And yet, this may not necessarily mean it is lucrative for producers. In 2009, blogger Sara Mosle wrote in herpost “Etsy.com Peddles a False Feminist Fantasy” that very few of the female sellers (96 percent of all sellers are women, including those in Canada) have been able to make much money, let alone create full-time employment from their crafts. The proportion of male users of the site was four percent.

Bust magazine praises the “female-led DIY revolution” on Etsy.com and sees it as a positive movement for women. It opens up the international marketplace for felted purse sellers, say, from Winnipeg, to potential clients in Paris. With an average age of 35, over 58 percent of female sellers have college degrees, while 55 percent are married and 46 percent have children. Just 33 percent are employed full-time and 68 percent identify themselves as “part-time artist/artisan/crafters.”

The average household income is $62,000. It seems that a huge number of these mature, educated women are not gainfully employed and rely on a partner’s salary. In other words, some may earn a living from crafting, but trying to earn a living from it might also perpetuate economic disparities between men and women. With the Canadian Labour Congress warning that the gender wage gap has been stuck at the same level since the mid-1990s, describing crafting as a “female-led revolution” might be overstating it.

Etsy.com’s regular feature, “Quit Your Day Job,” profiling sellers who make a full-time living, may, in fact, be selling an unrealistic dream to the very artisans who make the site lucrative for its owners. The site isn’t responsible for the sketchy financial security faced by an increasing number of highly educated North American women. But it certainly mirrors the fact that for many women, income has become less secure.

I’m aware that not all crafting women do it for the money. There are other arguments in favour of celebrating this revival. Kirsty Robertson, a professor of museum studies and contemporary art at the University of Western Ontario and a collaborator with the Viral Knitting Project, sees crafting as a reaction to an economy that has decimated the North American textile industry. In Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches, Robertson describes it as a political act.

“There is something relevant,” she writes, “in the fact that workers from textile plants in North Carolina found themselves marching alongside activist knitters, environmentalists and anarchists at protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.”

U.S. groups like the Austin Craft Mafia and books like Faythe Levine’s Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design also celebrate this revival, demonstrating how the economic void has converged with environmentalism as well as with a community spirit geared up to defy the nefarious effects of a free-market economy. Any movement providing the impetus to question the fragmented, unethical chain of labour from which their food and consumer goods come—as well as their scarves, mitts and toques—can’t be a bad thing.

Inspired by her North Carolina knitting circle, women like Betsy Greer, who helped popularize the term “craftivism,” have turned knitting into a powerful artistic and political act.It is epitomized by stunning works such as Marianne Jørgensen and the Cast Off Knitters’ 2006 Pink M.24 Chaffee, an out-of-commission army tank covered in 4,000 knitted pink squares and assembled in public to protest Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war. A growing number of artists, including Line Bruntse, have created works using handicrafts traditionally reserved for domestic objects. Bruntse’s public installations of woven murals, dresses and blankets knitted with strips of rubber inner tube highlight the ingenious skill typically  associated with the drudgery of women’s household labour. It’s art and it’s definitely political.

Then there are books by knitting guru Debbie Stoller, whose 2003 Stitch ’n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook transformed popular perceptions of knitting, an activity once associated with Victorianera domestic oppression. Along with embroidery and sewing, women’s handicrafts had been viewed by many early feministsas just another angel-in-the-house hobby that limited women’s intellectual lives and as one of the main cultural symbols of their fettered attachment to the world of unpaid labour.

Stoller, co-founder of Bust, formed the first stitch ’n bitch group in 1999 and helped make knitting cool for a new generation. A promo piece that accompanies the release of Stoller’s 2010 Stich ’n Bitch Superstar Knitting Go Beyond the Basics quotes her saying, “Many young people were interested in opting out of what they perceived to be a global corporate culture that cared little about the people who made their products and even less about the effect their products had on the environment.”

Stoller makes no claim that crafting is liberating, in other words. As she stated in a 2005 interview with the Guardian, “It’s just a fun thing. Our grandmothers have always known this, and we’re just learning it again.”

Some of our grandmothers did it because professions in biochemistry, medicine or engineering weren’t an option. Still, I see her point.

But I also had what I like to call my Barbara Ehrenreich moment, a few years ago when I became increasingly suspicious of this growing crafting trend. Ehrenreich, an American author and activist, wrote a powerful Harper’s essay a decade ago, called “Welcome to Cancerland,” in which she lamented the devolution of women’s feminist health activism. How, she wondered, did marching in the streets for better health care turn into selling pink teddy bears and runs for the cure? Once the realm of grassroots women’s groups demanding answers from the medical establishment, breast cancer, Ehrenreich explained, became hijacked by pink ribbon kitsch, with patients and survivors themselves frequently making and selling tchotchkes, pink candles, stuffed toys and beading pink necklaces in fundraising efforts. Sure, a portion of the proceeds goes to research, but, as we now know, research money often ends up in the hands of the very corporations responsible for spewing carcinogens into our air, water and food supply. Where, Ehrenreich asked, has the real activism gone?

A few years ago, I was part of a group of health advocates who visited Montreal hospitals to discuss the need for more medical and social support for bereaved parents, particularly those who have experienced a perinatal or neonatal death. For years, activists like scientist Sandra Steingraber have been explaining the need for greater awareness about the environmental links to obstetrical complications, including miscarriage and prematurity. But administrators, it turns out, don’t want to advertise for support services in the hallowed corridors of their hospitals, let alone discuss the issue of environmental risks for prematurity.

Putting up posters for a support group for bereaved parents, we were told, would send the wrong message. Nobody wanted to think that babies died or that fetuses were miscarried on their premises. Instead, we were told by a couple of sympathetic social workers that a few bereaved women they knew hadenjoyed scrapbooking or some form of crafting during the grieving process—something they could do at home. It seemed like the medical system was telling women to just shut up.

The DIY crafting craze may seem worlds apart from the issue of Ehrenreich’s disdain for the cult of pink-ribbon kitsch and reproductive health. But I think it is healthy to be skeptical. If this craft revival is celebrated by third-wave feminist magazines like Bust and Canada’s Shameless because crafting has finally shed its history of female oppression, it’s worth looking at the greater social forces that might be trying to spoil our party. They may be the same forces that trampled over Ehrenreich’s breast cancer sisterhood and turned it into teddy bears and candle making.

The surge in the popularity of knitting has also reached its zenith at a time when Canada has fewer women in Parliament than most of Europe, ranking 48th in the world (behind Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to equalvoice.ca). With statistics like these, I’m not sure if we should be happy about having enough leisure time to reclaim the hobbies granny used to love. And if circumstances for women in public life are forcing some of us—if only subconsciously—to choose knitting and yarn-bombing over shouting into the megaphone, occupying city hall or sitting in the boardroom, it’s a form of feminist activism that smacks of futility to me.

“Knitting, like so much of women’s work, can be deeply satisfying,” says Carol Sector, a fellow Montreal feminist activist who took up knitting again a few years ago. But, like me, she also feels a little torn about this hobby and the reasons behind its recent rise in popularity. “The resurgence in crafting is as much about Tea Party values,” Sector says, “as it is about adding value to a woman’s life.” I think she may have a point.

And, after seeing Vodofone cellphone ads about yarn-bombing and hearing of Toyota-sponsored craft fairs, I fear this revival might also go the way of the corporatized pink ribbon. As Still,” Secter adds, “there seem to be a good number of cool women who are learning to do these things and enjoying both the product and the company of the group they do it with.”

But then there are other disquieting trends. Popular classic books from the late 1980s, like The Subversive Stitch (1989) by feminist Roszika Parker, have been replaced almost seamlessly by Kate Jacob’s sappy, chick lit 2007 bestseller The Friday Night Knitting Club (which includes recipes for muffins with a reading guide and knitting pattern). And it may be less than a coincidence that crafting has hit an all-time high in popularity just as the cult of domesticity and infantilized depictions of women are back in style. Mommy blogs like Ree Drummond’s “desperate housewife” site Pioneerwoman.com, TV reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, plastic surgery and celebrity baby bumps are colonizing the Internet, the airwaves and the newsstands.

In the 19th century, writer Mary Lamb claimed that handicrafts like embroidery created intellectual starvation among women. The Brontë Sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell claimed that such tasks perpetuated women’s subservience. Meanwhile, friends of mine with whom I used to attend street protests with are now spending Friday nights eating homemade brownies at stitch ’n bitch parties. If this is some form of activism, it’s the very soft and safe, feminine kind.

Elizabeth Groeneveld, a McGill lecturer who recently completed her doctorate in literary studies at the University of Guelph, doesn’t entirely agree with me.

“Knitting can be a soft intervention into the realm of the political,” she says, “but it is still an intervention.” A published author on the history of third-wave feminist magazines and DIY culture, Groeneveld gently warns me about making such hasty judgments. She’s also an activist who has balanced both worlds, knitting socks and sweaters for enjoyment, along with anti-war arm patches to protest against the military incursion in Iraq.

“You could certainly argue that crafting is a return to domesticity and the private sphere,” she admits, insisting that “it’s a turn with a difference. The DIY craft feminist universe doesn’t exist on some separate planet from mainstream culture. They feed into and shape each other in complex ways. While feminist crafting certainly comes out of DIY feminist zine culture, it would be a mistake to discount the influence of figures like Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson.

"There is no ‘pure’ form of resistance politics,” she adds, “that will be untouched by the forces it seeks to critique.”

Kirsty Robertson tells me something similar. I ask her whether the resurgence of crafting has something to do not only with activism, but also a renewed glorification of domesticity. “I definitely think they both work together,” she says. “I was interested in activist knitting. There are certainly other communities, a more conservative family-values one being a case in point. There are also plenty of people who have been knitting all their lives and would never self-define as a part of either of these groups. Occasionally, these communities overlap.”

But, she reminds me, “They are often quite separate.”

It’s a few weeks after signing up for my first knitting lesson, and I’m absolutely hooked. Knitting has an almost mathematical quality; it’s a technical skill involving just the right amount of creativity and repetition to be meditative while practising my cable stitch or a simple intarsia. My obstetrician warns me that my pregnancy is high-risk and that I should find activities where I can sit for long periods of time. Knitting is perfect, and I can still waddle around enough to attend my lesson every week. Here in this cozy lounge, I’m meeting women from around the world and from all walks of life. My knitting instructor, who is from France, tells me that her midwife knit beside her as she went into labour, helping her to relax. A knitting student who works in a hospital explains that knitting is being used as therapy for patients who have suffered emotional trauma.

I’m happy here. I’m also happy that one of the instructors is male. Crafting culture has fanned out to include a diverse array of people. Any online search will produce reams of websites like menwhoknit.com and announcements for queer knitting circles like the Knotty Knitters in B.C. or QueerJoe’s Knitting blog. These days, any attempt to imbue handicrafts with any one specific set of values or beliefs or group identity could send me running in circles.

But I’m still running in circles. I love my new hobby while simultaneously feeling reluctant to embrace it unconditionally as a feminist or an activist. Perhaps crafting can mean many things to different people. But it will always be unlike fishing, gardening or woodworking—productive hobbies that have more potential to maintain at least a little neutrality in the face of political and social change. Handicrafts will always be linked to the history of women’s work, with its multiple meanings, empowering or oppressive—or both at the same time.

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