I'm adding to my vintage craft book collection and it's…
I went to In The Loop 3 in Winchester last Friday – a fine day, full of fascinating and thought-provoking papers, but there was one particular presentation which stimulated my poor cold-ridden brain … sleep didn’t come easily that night. I tried to kill said brain with Sudafed but forgot about the caffeine content, so I got up and started committing thoughts to digital paper …
Emmanuelle Dirix presented her deliciously titled paper ‘Stitched Up: Vintage Mania and The Dark Side of the Knitting Revival‘ which focused on the negative aspects of the current craft revival, including empty representations of ‘vintage’ – that ubiquitous all-encompassing term (hell, I put my hand up to making the most of that one, just look above at the logo). The concerns around rolling back time to the pre-feminist and pre-Windrush years are clear – craft combined with a vintage aesthetic has taken hold of our culture and created a whole new bunch of consumerist and marketing opportunities. So far so capitalism. But here’s the real sting: nostalgia combined with craft is class and race-reliant, appealing to a middle-class, time-rich audience and serving to put women firmly back in their place.
I’m going to focus on craft in general rather than knitting as I still think the knitting revival is something to be cheered, but it’s an overall ‘craft as hobby’ concept which is proving problematic.
So who’s in the dock? There are plenty of ‘craft with attitude’ websites and groups out there urging us to alter our preconceptions, but we also have mainstream publications such as ‘Mollie Makes’ encouraging us to make knitted apple covers, Cath Kidston craft books sending us straight to their shops where they sell us quaint vintage styled craft kits, John Lewis luring us in with their vintage-styled kitchen appliances, an immaculately Louboutine’d Kirsty telling us how delighted she is at saving a fortune by making her own candles instead of splashing out on Dipthyque.
The message is clear – what fresh hell is this? We’re being sold a dud.
So let’s take the ‘vintage’ issue first, and I’ll start off optimistically (followed by a downbeat bit, then hurray, slightly more cheerful at the end). I can’t defend unadulterated nostalgia but I don’t think it’s necessarily unhealthy for a culture to (briefly) look back from time to time, it can serve as a breathing space, a time to reflect on what’s gone before while we contemplate the next leap into the unknown. Until Dirix mentioned it I hadn’t made the link between the events of 9/11 and the current craft revival, but I can see where that fits. I’ve always thought we’re covering similar ground to the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the last century, but the attacks sit alongside that theory. The Arts & Crafts followers (also a middle-class movement incidentally, but championed by both women and men) were reluctant to come to terms with the changes introduced by the industrial revolution, preferring to re-evaluate and retain the quality, tradition and ‘honesty’ of hand crafted goods and representations of the natural world which reflected a way of life soon to be lost. We’re witnessing echoes of this now as we try to assess the ongoing social and cultural implications of the digital revolution, the concerns about where we’re heading, and the fear of losing basic skills. This is not necessarily ‘a bad thing’, even a natural social response (although in my view we’re missing a key element at the moment: the ‘quality’ part of the equation.)
Which brings us to the craft question. Basic human requirements don’t change and we’re currently living in a culture inarticulately reminding itself of that, trying to deny a growing uneasiness and fear of over-consumption, waste and everything from global warming to the exploitation of meerkats. The further away we move from the production process, the more important issues such as provenance of food, clothing and our base needs become. Knitted apple covers (and their cousins the coffee cup cosies) are, of course, a cul-de-sac, a lazy red herring and they should be sent rolling down the path signposted ‘hell in a handcart’. The yarnbombing craze has something to do with this too I think: knitting taking on a new decorative form, performing a different function to its traditional use and straddling craft and artistic performance. At its best it’s an exciting, refreshing, and entertaining public display showcasing the possibilities of knitting and tapping into graffiti politics, but it has spawned some unusual tangents.
One thing I’ve always thought about knitters is that we’re keen to think our knitting is useful in some way (if there’s a charity going we’ll knit for it). An audience member after the talk mentioned yarn prices as a possible reason why people are knitting smaller decorative items, but most of the knitters I know are keen to think that their work is utilitarian and serves a practical function as well as being decorative, and there’s enough reasonably-priced good quality yarn available to close that theory down … certainly if you believe all the ‘my stash is bigger than your stash’ boasts, then shortage of yarn isn’t a problem. Here too is another indication of over-consumption – have we run out of practical things to create now that it’s all available to us at a low cost? As finished goods are cheaper than the yarn it costs to make a garment, is knitting purely a middle-class pastime to make us feel industrious and useful?
Returning to the vintage issue, there can be a puritanical aspect to our representation of the past. I’ve stayed in a few charming Landmark Trust properties (an organisation which rescues historical buildings, takes them back to how they were originally and allows idiots like me to stay in them – the visitor logbooks are lyrical) and a couple of things struck me in the most recent stay. They are all furnished and kitted out identically in a way which means the chief aim is not so much comfort as the attempt to impact as little as possible on the original, pure imprint of the place. So the beds are all about firm mattresses, starched sheets, rough blankets and hospital corners. The irons and hoovers are original items from the 1960s, the bath towels are small and made of a thin cotton. There’s a righteousness about these things which I both admire and mock – after all, these places ain’t cheap, surely they could throw in a nice thick bath-sheet and a steam iron? Do duvets really represent all that’s wrong with modern life or would that just destroy the authentic experience?
I digress, but my point is it seems a trifle masochistic, not to say a luxury, to wish innovations and general improvements in our lives – including social rights – had never been invented (I could throw the epidural debate into the pot here too but that’s a whole other discussion).
We need to look at where the powerhouse for this interest in all things retro-domestic and vintage is situated. Dirix dismissed any post-modernist arguments but some of Barthes’ theory about myth and Lacan’s reading of ‘empty signifiers’ might be applicable here. The movement seems to be buoyed along and reinforced by select groups of women themselves rather than an enforced patriarchal insistence (although it still lies at the root of the problem). It could also be linked to the revived interest in gardening, chicken-keeping, small-holdings, locally-sourced food, and concerns over the ecology and climate, although these activities are non-gender specific while craft remains more of a female-led concern.
In her book ‘No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting‘, Anne Macdonald writes :
“By the early 19th century domesticity became the emblem of woman’s worth. If “Industrious Woman” was the epitome of colonial and revolutionary womanhood, then “Domestic Woman” was all that was good and holy in the next century. With piety, purity and submissiveness, domesticity was the pivotal fourth pillar of historian Barbara Welter’s “Cult of True Womanhood,” and within that framework, industry was the yardstick by which woman’s value was measured.”
We’re talking about 200 years ago here, but with progress in any kind of gender balance resolution coming to a shuddering halt, are women really looking to that fourth pillar to prop them up again?
Let’s take one female group who partly represent this wave of new crafters: mothers of young families. As children of the 60s, 70s and 80s, it’s hard not to be enormously disappointed in terms of what we were promised and believed was possible in our 20s and 30s versus the reality of being a woman with a family in present day. I’m not going to gripe on too much about this – at the end of the day if a woman’s ambitious enough she’ll make it happen. But is it possible that some of this craft revival is about women trying to fill the void faced when they realise that mums either attempt to continue with their careers (often at enormous personal cost), or they leave the workforce along with the identity, economic power and possibilities that all that offers? The flexibility and creative outlet that craft hobbies afford make it a satisfactory pastime, possibly even an economic solution. Mollie Makes? Increased membership of modern branches of the WI? A communal coming-together to mourn the fact that realistically we’re as far away as the suffragettes were from the opportunities, support systems and role balance we’d vaguely assumed would be in place by the 21st century.
The concern for me is this: talk to anyone about the most stressful aspects of their life and a lack of time will be up there. We regard ourselves as a time-poor culture: new domestic appliances should, in theory, have made our lives easier, giving us more time to further our progress and knowledge resulting in a more Fulfilling Existence (TM). Instead leisure is now our main pursuit outside of work and the pressure to switch off and enjoy ourselves in our free time (usually by exposure to a barrage of tangents and comms/media channels) overcomes the urge to improve our lot, do something about the bits that make us unhappy or, in other words, switch on. We don’t want to be challenged, we want to pretend nothing bad is happening. Sorry to keep returning to this example but it’s such a strong symbol … knitting apple covers in our spare time is symbolic of our passivity and lack of engagement with real concerns which affect our lives and those of the very children we’re raising.
The ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ posters (and their derivatives) also featured during the presentation and the sickening reality of their pervasive popularity hit me yet again. ‘Keep Calm ..’ will come to characterise this time of political apathy, a phrase which was originally intended to encourage stoicism when life was at risk, when there really was no choice but instead has come to represent impotence, apathy and lack of engagement at a time when we’re being told we have more choice than ever. It’s a tranquiliser, a chant keeping the masses quiet. The 60s and 70s had valium, mogadon and ativan, we have apple cosies and and cod-stoic phrases from the past whose original meanings are lost. I believe that some irony may have been apparent when the first sales of posters were made – the economy was starting to bomb and mums everywhere stuck the framed posters on the wall, smiling grimly as they gave up their jobs and accepted their lot out of the workforce, or struggled to keep a job and family going: might as well shut up and get on with it eh? As Dirix says, there’s no irony in this.
The equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, we’re encouraged to felt while our rights are burning around us. Instead of worrying about how to perfect our victory rolls and whether one 40s dress is more authentic than another, shouldn’t we be worrying about the death of a truly beneficial institution which was born out of that time? The NHS, that shiny utopian dream made real out of the dust of the world war, is being slowly eroded and for the most part we’re sleep-walking through its destruction, allowing its dismantlement for a generation who can’t remember how grim it was before its existence. Surely every man, woman and child should be up in arms about this? How about we replace ‘Keep Calm …’ with ‘Get Agitated and Do Something?’
Don’t mean to put a downer on the vintage craft party … it’s not all bad and I should know, I’ve tried every craft going over the last 30 years, from lino cutting to manipulating bits of tin, weaving with plastic bags to trug making (I’ve also actually knitted a couple of apples for a food festival – so shoot me). According to who you believe, this is the Age of Aquarius right? I’m a paid-up member to the club, I believe there’s positive joy and identity to be found through creation, it’s a vital part of our existence along with music and mature cheddar. I’m optimistic that although it will rage for a while longer, the dark side of vintage and craft is a storm to be waited out, but it will pass – anything with such little ambition for the movement it supports can’t survive the evolution process.
Not everyone wants to be challenged in their leisure pursuits and that’s fine, there will always be channels to cover all interests, but such passivity in the populace must surely mean a lot of repression, due one day to ignite in one almighty spark? I’ve noticed encouraging – albeit small – signs of a modern feminist revival; digital publications such as Vagenda, female-led TV programmes re-examining the role of powerful women in history, even media heroines Caitlin Moran, Grace Dent et al … maybe the analysis re-starts here and craft/knitting can find its rightful place in the new order.
I can’t dismiss either the vintage or knitting culture altogether as I’m promoting a specific aspect of it through the knitwear designs of the mid-20th century, but we do have to be careful how we tread: feminine roles must not be allowed to return to the blatant sexism of the first half of the last century. I’d like to think that for every representation of a tea-dress-wearing housewife making jam, somewhere there’s a tattooed land girl … a strong woman stepping up to take her place in an economic and productive role, and this time she won’t be pushed back into the kitchen when the men return.
My own take on my championing of vintage patterns and fashions involves a personal resonance to do with my own background, and I’d like to think we can examine the best bits of mid-20th century creativity and take them forward through to the next phase. These patterns also represent undervalued female creativity which needs to be highlighted to prevent a repeat of this period of creative anonymity – hardly any of the designers behind some of the best known brands (Bestway, Weldons etc) were known, many of the current owners are at best holding companies who don’t value their creative heritage or the rights of the original creators, so I feel these patterns deserve their day in the sun again.
So, from small yarn-based decorative items to the erosion of the NHS … what a ride. I’ve made some leaps here and I’ve probably let my petticoats show in my attempts to analyse. Have I over- or under-thought? Is it all obvious anyway? Does it need analysing at all? There’s much more to add to the debate so jump in .. I welcome your thoughts …