Won’t Get Fooled Again (or ‘The Serpent’s Apple’)

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 …

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There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Christina at 23:19

    There is so much to consider in your well-articulated article that I don’t think I can add much.
    I would make the point that I am not sure the fascination of middle class women with useless craft enterprises is at all new; I was very interested to read about Victorian bazaars and women making “good use” of their time in handicrafts for supposed worthy pursuits in the book The Victorian House by Judith Flanders. [I had thought that the craft bazaar was a more 1950s/60s idea].
    One of my colleagues makes the point that knitting/craft are separate from the politics of women’s rights – we are not being forced to stay in the home and knit – we are choosing to do so. Further, we should all be concerned about the demise of the NHS whether knitting or not; one activity does not replace the other.

    • admin Author at 10:56

      Thank you Christina, lovely to hear from you – great comments. You’re absolutely right about the importance of universal concerns over the NHS, I agree it’s not just an issue for knitters. Admittedly that was a bit of a ranty tangent, but I could equally have used so many other examples to highlight a general media and social antipathy towards very worrying cultural and political issues, knitting just happens to be my focus!

      It’s true that craft bazaars are nothing new and at heart there’s nowt wrong with them, but it doesn’t mean to say we can’t progress from them. It’s also true that women aren’t being forced to sit at home and knit, but I think female social history and craft activity, at least for the last 200 years or more, are inextricably linked. They’re tricky issues to separate, but at the heart of the matter lies the de-valuation of women’s time, the view of craft as an alternative to political and economic engagement, and the self-serving encouragement of the mass media to keep the status quo – hence the making of items which have no commercial value and from which the only financial gain will be awarded to the publishers themselves. Or, in other words, craft itself becomes a commodity to be sold, women who buy into it remain product consumers.

      There are so many examples of patriarchal dismissal of women and their “interests”, but the most obvious one which springs to mind is, again, discussed in “No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting”: during the build-up to the War of Independence the production of clothing and homeware on US soil (as oppose to highly taxed imports from the ‘homeland’) was vital to self-sufficiency. Women inevitably played a huge part in this but were firmly discouraged from claiming any active role in the eventual victory, and so their contribution was downgraded to a ‘pastime’ instead of a commercial role. The message was clear: women (particularly middle class women) were supposed to keep their hands and themselves busy in order to occupy their thoughts away from matters that weren’t supposed to concern them: politics and commerce.

      I thought these were the kind of pitfalls we were supposed to have got over by the 21st century – we knit/sew/felt/crochet etc, but we’re still politically, socially and economically engaged. It’s not all a cosy club where domestics are our main priority, but if you look at the examples Emmanuelle Dirix highlighted you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re nostalgic for a time when they were. Perhaps I’m taking it a bit too seriously … at the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with having a fun craft hobby and not wanting to take it beyond that, and at best if these mass products spark an interest in the craft itself and provide an entry level into a wonderful world then it can’t be all bad, but if we’re to value our craft and encourage ambition, ensuring its prosperity and longevity, we need to set down some pretty solid new foundations.

      It’s hard to unravel my brain and put all this down without sounding righteous and dull, and I should probably stop before I’m tripped up by my own logic … I’m not a textile academic so my theories and ideas may be cloudy, but the further into the new golden age of craft we get, the more I get the feeling that we have the opportunity to change the blueprint, shame to waste it.

      There must be a self-edit button on this keyboard somewhere …

  2. Anna at 16:55

    On the subject of time, I’m glad to have found a moment, much overdue to read this. I too was at the talk and loved the fervour that started filling the air as Emmanuelle’s talk progressed. Thank you so much for adding to the debate!

    I’m in danger of going off on a similarly long rant, so I’ll try to keep it to a few briefish points, seeing as you’ve covered so much of what I usually bang on about…

    – Regardless of being a primarily middle class concern or not, making something and having an understanding of the process is intrinsically different. Importantly, it makes for a very different consumer – if you are able to recognise what went in to making something, that conciousness allows much more freedom and control. It gives you the choice to not buy something or buy in a different way. I would say that anyone who has knitted (even just an apple cosy, because a sweater was too much to bite off), will never look at a jumper in a shop in the same way. Your eye, expectation and possibilities change. It makes you a very different consumer and that might just be a big deal.

    – When I work with kids (2 to 19) in London, most have no clue of where stuff comes from and how it is made, let alone that they might be able to make something themselves instead of buying it. Be that biscuits or a Tshirt, this is quite different from generations who rejected it cause their mums did it/they didn’t have to/want to, etc. I could write pages about the crazy realisations those kids have when they understand what goes in to making the things they have around them. I like to think of it like if your toilet is always clean and you never see anyone cleaning it, how could you have a concept of what it means to scrub out a loo? Even if that realisation is just about what it means for the person who has to scrub out your loo.

    – It is important to remember that, for example, Victoriana as currently seen in peplums and brocade, may this round be coming via the 40s, but the 60s, 70s and 80s did Victorian too. We’re not the only decade or generation to look back. Oddly, perhaps our vision of forward/future has changed less…?

    – I do think that second hand (if we were trying to avoid vintage) is still to be applauded and that the motivation for this round of that revival stems from a disappointment in current fashion and consumption practices in a way I don’t think it did before. Consumerism has only grown in strength and I think buying second hand, though easily co-opted, stems from a desire to be part of a different, more creative, more resourceful, more respectful, ethical and realistic system. I enjoy it particularly when it is about having fun and being amazing, rather than looking ‘granola’ or worthy.

    – New clothing, on the whole, should not be as cheap as they is and the expensive stuff now rarely justifies it’s price. Both are being subsidised in many ways, generally by poor quality and unethical practices, with the savings being passed on to advertising. So while there is the temptation to compare buying to hand making, I think that argument has shifted and should shift again. It is about what you are getting for what you pay for, rather than the possibility to get it for less. We are a good few years beyond making for economy’s sake, unless we are comparing to high end (the breakdown of high end is a whole other kettle of fish). I rarely find new clothes I can and want to buy in to. I can’t imagine any lasting as long as the stuff I have that has been worn by at least one other person before me.

    – Retro might be a term to take more offence to, as opposed to vintage. Not sure where ‘old skool’ fits in.

    I think I should stop there!

    • admin Author at 14:53

      Great to hear from you Anna … yes to all of the above! As often happens when I go off on one, I find it’s all been expressed much more thoroughly and clearly elsewhere. Am reading ‘Common Threads: Women, Mathematics & Work’ by Mary Harris, fascinating. Both this and ‘Making Is Connecting’ by David Gauntlett are fuelling my fire! Bump into you again soon hopefully …

  3. Kris at 12:30

    Late to the party, but phenomenal post with food for thought on issues that I have been gnawing on for some time now as a crafting stay at home mom. When I went to an all-women’s college in the late 80s, there was the sense that we had gained so much but the fight was over, and it would be relatively easy for us to maintain the status quo of the strides forward. No discussion of the choices that still had to be made, and so my classmates and I were caught unawares when we had to make those choices ourselves: hadn’t these things already been solved for us? And of course, they hadn’t, and still haven’t been. My friend and I joke about how the deans of our college would be horrified to learn that we knit instead of run for office. Many days it strikes me that I am using my knitting as a valium substitute, or a victorian throwback to make myself feel useful. (Yes, I still have a brain and I can still do math!) And then there are the days I feel genuinely creative and fulfilled. The lines are very thin ones.

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