A considerable body of research has considered the role of handcrafts – sewing, knitting, crocheting, and the like – in the service of activism. We might consider here Rozsika Parker’s influential The Subversive Stitch (1984/2011) and more recently, Betsy Greer’s publications, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (2014), and Knitting for Good: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch (2008) but also the ever-growing body of scholarly literature on contemporary craftivism and DIY culture (see, for example: Bratich & Brush 2011; Groeneveld 2010; Kelly 2014; Luckman 2013; Pentneny 2008; Solomon 2013; Springgay, Hatza, & O’Donald 2011; Springgay 2010; Williams 2011).
Embroidery, knitting, crocheting – all have experienced a resurgence in recent years. But what does all of this mean? What purposes might handcraft, traditionally aligned with the domestic and the feminine, serve? “The needle is an appropriate material representation of women who are balancing both their anger over oppression and pride in their gender,” Ricia A Chansky writes. “The needle stabs as it creates, forcing thread or yarn into the act of creation. From a violent action comes the birth of a new whole. Women are channeling their rage, frustrating, gilt, and other difficult emotions into a powerfully productive activity” (682).
Winter had its way with Newfoundland over the past few days. Two days of blizzard conditions have brought us 66 cm of snow, aching shoveling muscles, but also more relaxed brains and bodies, the result of forced closures. The whole city shut down: schools, government offices, the university, banks, public transit. Even the shopping mall and the liquor store were closed. And in that space of winter wind and blowing snow, we cocooned ourselves inside with hot chocolate and scones between bouts of shoveling. I should have spent the entire time writing, catching up with a number of projects. Instead, I spent it in front of the sewing machine, stitching a quilt together.
I’m not an expert quilter. My current project is only my second. I’m awkward around the machine. I can’t always sew in a straight line. The material bunches in funny places. Sometimes the machine won’t go at all and then I curse it and all things fabric.
But the rhythm of the machine also gave me room to think. And what I discovered, after two days of stitching and thinking, is that quilting time is ideal thinking time. Rhythm. Touch. Feel. Sound. Colour. Texture. Routine. All of these worked together. My quilting time wasn’t just about the quilt; it was about all the stuff that’s rattling around in my brain. After several hours together, my fabrics, my thread, and I had worked through not only a quilt, but also the larger ideas that underpinned my research. Together, we told stories. Together, we massaged ideas. Together, we made theory.
In her essay, “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice,” Lisa M. Heldke argues that “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply “in my head” but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (219). Theory, here, is profoundly embodied, located in touch, smell, taste, and the body’s memories. Foodmaking, she says, is “theoretically practical” (203; see also Heldke 1988).
As I worked my quilt through the machine, I considered the potential of quilt making, too as a space for embodied thinking, processing, knowing. Of making theory in a material sense. What stories can 400 squares tell? And what new stories emerge when I join them together into a whole?
While, as Parker observes, “embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative, and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content” (6), it doesn’t have to be this way. Leanne Prain reminds me that “unexpected” embroidery causes us to pause and think anew. After all, “embroidery is a means of communication, the stitches, like handwriting or drawing, make marks. A stitch,” she writes, “can form a mark of love, a mark of hate, or simply indicate, ‘I was here.’” (18).
This ethos is the whimsy that accompanies yarn-bombing, for example, or guerrilla cross-stitch. It’s also the impetus that underpins the Pussy Hat project. A colleague on Facebook admitted to not quite understanding that project until she saw photos of the Women’s March; the sea of pink hats made a bolder statement than she ever could have imagined. But I wonder if the power of the Pussy Hat project lies not only in the final performance, but in the process itself. What spaces for thinking did the process of making the hat enable? How did knitting make theory possible? What theory emerged in the stitches themselves?
Three years ago, my fourth year students, my colleague Beth Pentney, and I – together with a crew of other volunteers – created a giant bikini bottom as a knitivist commentary on the politics of women’s bodies and the politics of art in Newfoundland and Labrador .
Knitting accompanied our weekly readings and our seminars. It accompanied all of our thinking and all of our discussions. As one of the seminar students, Mary Germaine, said:
When you knit and you’re with other people, there’s nothing else to do but talk – nobody’s checking their phone when they are knitting . . . in class we are looking at things that are hard to talk about, like what happens to women in Sierra Leone. We’re not socialized to deal with that sort of information. Having our hands busy helped to play out the discussion in a physical way.
Knitting made a space for thinking and for working through challenging ideas. Knitting made room for theory. And because it was part of every class, knitting became part of our theory making process: together, we knitted our theory into being. In the words of Betsy Greer (2008):
By allowing our minds to work through what we’re feeling while our hands follow a familiar and comforting rhythm, we allow our emotions to sink in and work their way throughout bodies – from the reluctance of letting our negative feelings settle and root to acceptance of the outcome and the discovery of new paths we can take to make things better …. Knitting creates a safe space in which to sit comfortably, whether with our uncomfortable thoughts … our anxieties … or … our joy. (p. 42)
Handcrafts are ideal vehicles for storytelling and storymaking. As Leanne Prain observes, “textiles can help us learn about ourselves and those around us” (2014, 11). From button blankets to story quilts to embroidered maps and more, the artists and craftspeople profiled in Prain’s Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles demonstrate the myriad ways that textiles can tell stories, often without words.
Textile work makes meaning through touch. The material is the story, is theory.
“Artists may have many reasons to work with textiles,” Prain writes,
but often, their love for the medium of fabric has to do with the sense of touch. Through the nap of velvet, the slight roughness of linen, or the silkiness of angora, fabric can evoke memories. Our childhood memories are filled with fabric, from the blankets we were wrapped in to the scratchy sweaters we were forced to wear to school. Quilts, embroideries, and weavings can hold remembrances both personal and collective, and artists can use them to create biographies, autobiographies, genealogies, and memorials. (2014, 103).
My first quilt, created out of a range of fabrics I bought during the course of two research trips to Suriname, is rich with stories. Stories of my family’s histories, stories of a nation’s histories, stories that haven’t yet been told.
As I stitched this second quilt, I recalled a Maroon sewing machine displayed in the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo. Carved out of wood, with intricate detailing, the machine was purely ornamental, but its very presence suggested the relevance of sewing to Maroon cultures.
The anthropologist Sally Price, who has lived and worked with Maroon communities in Suriname for many years, points to the importance of strip quilts as part of Maroon culture. In a more recent online piece, she links this piece work to larger histories of women’s art, considering in particular a politics of collage – termed femmage – that could “[turn] the detritus of earlier…projects” into new “aesthetic wholes.”
Today, such work might fall into the realm of assemblage theory, or, perhaps, into actor network theory, both of which consider how it is that individual elements gain meaning through their ever-shifting encounters with one another. But I wonder about the lowly patchwork quilt and the work that it has done – and continues to do – to make meaning.
Needles and thread, my two snow days tell me, are not only good to stitch with; they are also good to think with.
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Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Hypatia, vol. 3, no. 2, 1988, pp. 15-30.
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Prain, Leanne, ed. hoopla: the art of unexpected embroidery. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011.
Prain, Leanne. Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.
Price, Sally, “On Femmage,” E-misférica, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015. Retrieved from: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/price
Solomon, E. “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do- It-Yourself Culture.” PsychNology Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, 11-20.
Springgay, S. “Knitting as an Aesthetic of Civic Engagement: Reconceptualizing Feminist Pedagogy Through Touch.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 2, 2010, pp. 111-123.
Springgay, S., Hatza, N. & O’Donald, S. “‘Crafting is a luxury that many women cannot afford’: campus knitivism and an aesthetic of civic engagement.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 24, no. 5, 2011, 607-13.
Williams, K.A. “‘Old Time Mem’ry’: Contemporary Urban Craftivism and the Politics of Doing-It-Yourself in Postindustrial America.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 303-320.
(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.