Friday, July 23, 2010

Feminism and Fiber Arts

This post is inspired by this post and subsequent discussion thread at the Hands In Delight blog. Hands' observation that the women in her mother's generation (late 50's to early 60's) do not know how to crochet or knit or embroider may be true for her mother and her mother's peer group for some reason (I suspect that it has more to do with women clubbing together from other mutual interests), but it has not really been my experience at all. I am in my early 50's, and I am surrounded by contemporaries who excel in a multitude of fiber arts, who are also in the age range of Hand's mother, and also my own age.

She then wonders if feminism had anything to do with that generation's lack of interest in the fiber arts. I have to vehemently disagree with her. I think it is a matter of personal taste and priorities, and the thing that killed the ubiquitous knowledge of knitting, crochet, embroidery and sewing was the inception of cheap mass-produced manufactured clothing and housewares, first domestically and then from overseas. Feminism had little to nothing to do with it.

I was taught various needle arts by my mother, who was born in 1925, and who learned it from her mother. My mother worked a full-time job and had 2 careers (as a teacher and college professor and later, a novelist) over her lifetime, with a very brief period of "stay at home" when my brother and I were infants. The moment we were both in school, she was back to work as a teacher. I suppose this was considered unusual for the time, and she didn't work because the family needed the money; she worked because it was part of who she was. My grandmother also worked throughout my mother's childhood - she ran a small grocery store in the Bronx while my grandfather worked as a low-level bureaucrat for New York City. I am sketchy on the details of my mother's childhood and her parent's financial situation, but I am guessing that both my grandparents worked because they wanted the extra money to provide for their family. So I suppose you could say that I came from a family of feminist needle-artists.

I think the "demise" of needle arts came about more from the pre-feminist thinking that these skills were "women's work" and therefore beneath any "real" artistic endeavors, so perhaps artistically-bent women in the 60's were eschewing these types of skills in favor of the more "masculine" or "high" arts of painting and sculpture - areas that before the feminist movement were not really open to women. I also think that social class had something to do with this as well. Fine embroidery and tapestry work was historically done by women in the upper classes, whereas the more mundane everyday textiles and clothing were created by the lower classes in the 19th century and before. With the advent of the weaving mills and factories, this became even more pronounced. Once women were "freed" from a lot of the gender-specific "mundane household tasks" they took on a stigma - there are plenty of women of  the "feminist" generation in the wealthier strata of society that don't even like to cook! So maybe this is more of a class thing than a "feminist" thing.

And honestly, I don't think there was that much of a demise - remember the Society for Creative Anachronism was started in Berkeley CA in 1975, and by the mid 1980's had grown into an international organization with groups all over the world - this organization prized hand-made items reviving ancient arts and crafts in many areas including needlework and sewing (and also metal and leather working) and working with raw materials - so people were teaching themselves to card and spin wool and other fibers and take up hand-weaving again. I think the current resurgence in crafting and the home-craft movement of today owes a bit to the SCA and the hippies and their tie-dyed textiles and beadwork.

Well, I'm off my sopabox for now, and I'm dying to get back to my sewing machine!

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