Photograph by Hulton Deutsch via Getty Images.

Knitting Is Soft and Crafty—and Subversive, Chaotic, and Political

Two recent books look at the emotional comforts and political possibilities of textiles.

by Haley Mlotek
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Apr 9 2018, 11:19am

Photograph by Hulton Deutsch via Getty Images.

Everyone considers themselves an expert in the conditions of their lives —what is often called “taste” or “preference” in clothing is really our certainty of choice. We know what feels right and so then we decide we simply are right—one woman’s wool sweater, for example, is a source of material and emotional comfort, the site of pride (she made it!) or the site of politics (she knows there is a deeply radical history of women working with textiles!) or best of all, both. Another woman might put it on and be like, “This wool is too itchy.”

Alanna Okun’s recently released book, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, considers knitting as a mostly personal and sometimes social practice. Currently a senior editor at Racked and formerly a senior editor at Buzzfeed’s DIY/crafting vertical, Okun has written a collection of twenty-seven short pieces of varying forms. One chapter, “Missed Connections,” features short entreaties to people she has briefly encountered while knitting (“You: Lady who seemed scandalized at my embroidery on the N train. Me: Sorry for stitching “Butt Stuff” in public. In my defense, it was for a friend.”) Others are straightforward lists, like “Okay, So Here Is Why Summer Is The Best Time For Knitting” (“There’s a small thrill in incongruity—who knits at the beach? You could!)” and “Words They Need To Invent for Crafters,” which includes three instances of blood-boiling rage: “the blood-boiling rage of reaching an especially fiddly part of a project and then the phone rings,” and “the blood-boiling rage of someone you don’t know or like very well asking, however jokingly, if you will make them something,” and “the blood-boiling rage of being told that crafters are supposed to be a calm bunch and therefore should not experience blood-boiling rage.”

Okun describes herself as a “knitter, a crocheter, an embroiderer, and a general dabbler in most fibery pursuits,” and explains that she’s using her crafting to “make sense of some of the hardest-to-control parts of being a person—anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, total boredom.” In her experience, nine out of ten people she encounters can’t relate to her crafting: she mostly speaks to people that have, as far as she can tell, have never held a needle or visited a yarn store. But she uses knitting to find a common language with them regardless, knowing that they might feel about drawing or marathon running the way she feels about knitting, or, best of all, that they might want to listen to her talk about crafting, and let her teach them what it is she loves about it. “A craft project allows you to hold something concrete in your hands even when everything around you is swirling and illegible; it allows you to take tiny risks and solve tiny problems and achieve tiny victories,” she says, and her form of love and connection is transferring that feeling through her enthusiasm for craft.

The essays revolve around themes usually understood as a set—birth and death, love and heartbreak—as well as the contradictory needs of being a person who sees life though a series of choices: we can have the comforts of home or the thrill of an adventure, autonomy and individuality or intimacy and togetherness. Okun writes with great sensitivity for the first major losses of adult life, and with a sense of wonder for those first major milestones: a real friend, a real apartment, a real love. One such insight comes as a footnote, in an essay titled “Sixish,” where Okun explains that she wants to make a clock with a softer idea of time—not six on the dot, but a “sixish” that could encompass the moments between and before, after and during, times that are close enough rather than being fixed and set. She admits that the whole project is a little goofy, saying it’s like “if Don Quixote had painted flowers on the blades of the windmills instead of charging towards them,” and then as an aside explaining that she found the definition to “quixotic” after looking it up from the Livejournal dropdown menu of emotional options. “My greatest sin might be collecting too much, forcefully assigning it meaning or wrestling it into the shape of a narrative, and displaying it above my door.” These realizations—holding knitting needles, it seems, frees the mind in a lot of different directions —are all part of central, elemental questions Okun keeps considering, which will be well known by people who are living or have lived through their twenties: what’s me, and what’s you?

In essays that consider knitting more as a practice than a form of personal expression, Okun goes on the defensive against cultural representations of knitting, saying she hates to see it reduced to a punch line. Though she knows what the jokes are—namely, that it’s for older, non-threatening women crafting for their small domestic spaces and their beloved family members—she is insistent that knitting is neither just for grandmas, and also, so what if it is, grandmas are cool! There are references to the activities she finds to be just as—maybe more so—deserving of dismissal, of being labeled too frivolous or just the right amount of superfluous. “Yeah, nobody’s going to knit the cure for cancer,” she says in one essay, “but nobody’s going to score a touchdown that cures cancer either.” In sports parlance, this strategy of playing defense as offense is not particularly effective: isn’t this a book for people who like crafting, at least as an idea if not a practice yet?

In Okun’s estimation as a crafter with a deep love for the practice and theory behind her work, she suggests that part of the reason crafting is dismissed or reduced is because it is seen as something too soft for a hard world, encapsulating a truth that goes unexamined yet is deeply felt. There is, though, the parallel history of knitting as a medium used to express strong, subversive, and even chaotic intentions. Last summer, another book with similar aims was published: Fray: Art + Textile Politics by Julia Bryan-Wilson explores the social, political, and economic history of crafting, using case studies to form a theory of “textile politics.” A professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California Berkeley, Bryan-Wilson focuses her writings and research on artistic labor, craft histories, and feminist and queer theory, reminding us that while we may be familiar with the uses of fabric and textiles, we are less certain of what they should mean. By definition their politics are often rough and unfinished.

Fray was far more concerned with the political than the personal, Bryan-Wilson’s choice of case studies showing exactly what kind of community is possible amongst individuals committed to crafting, focusing on three main movements between the 1970s and 1990s in the United States and Chile. The two countries were selected because both of them have, in those three decades, been radically reshaped by the neoliberal economic practices of free-market policies and privatizations, and both countries felt this transformation strongly in their textile industries. Anonymous collectives of Chilean women, for example, sent out arpilleras, small burlap-packed cloth wall hangings depicting graphic scenes of torture, violence, and other human rights violations as well as protest, exporting them to other countries with the hopes of showing what horrors were happening in their home. The AIDS Quilt is another example of crafting made political, founded in 1987 and is currently sized at “over one million square feet, it weighs fifty-four tons and has been seen since its creation by some eighteen million visitors,” Bryan-Wilson reminds us. “It is by any reckoning (from the number of participants to actual acreage) the largest ongoing community arts project in the world.”

But when Okun says that she hesitates to consider her pieces as “politically useful art,” I, too, hesitate—why not?

The decidedly feminine application of craft, whether as art, hobby, or commerce, or all three, is an area where we find the many frayed links between feminists, and the forward-facing presentation of a feminist identity. The suffragettes used embroidery imagery in their protests, in large part because it referenced Victorian ideas of femininity, using pretty patterns to make dangerous demands. When Sojourner Truth sat for an 1864 portrait she chose to show herself in the process of knitting, as a symbol of both her activism and her femininity. bell hooks once said that “the work of black women quilt makers needs special feminist critical commentary,” the impact of race, sex, and class made threadbare when seen through the labor that goes into a commercial product designed for domestic use. Meanwhile, there is also William Morris, leader of the 19th century British Arts and Craft movement, who applied a socialist understanding to textile, arguing that it was a way for a worker to produce their own materials from beginning to end. Today, as Bryan-Wilson notes, the Etsyification of so-called “craftivism”—that blend of crafts produced for activist ends—follows Morris’s politics by offering contradictory, if left-leaning, solutions to complicated problems: the early 21st century was a bonanza for a DIY ethos that extorted people to buy handmade or homemade goods, rather than make them. “[T]his is one of the most paradoxical aspects of craftivism—just as in Morris’s day, when his fabrics became upholstery for the wealthy—which is that so much of the purported handmade revolution is really about individualized niche shopping,” she writes. Etsy’s slogan is “Shopping for meaning in a sea of stuff”; the idea that self-actualization is one purchase of a hand-knitted uterus or a crass cross-stitch away is a trademark of neoliberalism, “as entrepreneurial-ism and self-branding are especially pronounced in the case of much textile production.”

This is the predecessor to our contemporary retail landscape, where feminist slogan t-shirts are given triple-digit price tags in department stores and knit hats with inflated symbolic values are given similarly inflated prices by Etsy entrepreneurs. Rather than take away from the political power of textiles and textile art, this serves to prove both Okun’s and Bryan-Wilson’s point: the materials we wear are not just evidence of our personal hobbies, but can be simultaneously pacifying and radical, political materials used to propagate political agendas.

The practice of buying rather than making our own clothes and other textile goods is, historically speaking, extremely recent, and it is an odd quirk of culture to view what is common now as what must be right. Much of Okun’s offensive tact seems to be the result of what she has internalized after a lifetime of crafting. Our grandmothers, for the most part, are right to be horrified by what Anthropologie would charge for a knit cardigan that they, when they were Okun’s age, would have just made for themselves. In making her own clothes, and artwork and various accessories to decorate her life and give as gifts for her loved ones, she is connecting herself to a lost legacy of homespun connections that matter far more than mass-produced tchotchkes. But when Okun says that she hesitates to consider her pieces as “politically useful art,” I, too, hesitate—why not? There are a few moments where Okun engages with criticisms that are political in nature, like when she jokes about the high costs of knitting materials by saying it’s all part of living “in this delightful late-capitalist society,” or in another essay when she says that “being a grown-up can be such a drag (Capitalism, amiright?)” She is quick to point out that she is, herself, “white, thin, cisgender, from a comfortable background in a comfortable life,” saying she “can’t begin to imagine the struggles of people who have to contend with a society that yells far worse epithets” than what she calls herself. “I want to make the whole world,” she explains, “but that gets so daunting. And so I start with me.” It is the aim she puts in her sights that I admire, but turning it into a question of one or the other has the same effect of putting a beloved wool sweater in the wash—everything shrinks, and you’re left heartbroken over fabric.