Monday, 23 May 2011

I hereby admit that knitting needles will not, in fact, take down the patriarchy

I finished Laurie Penny's first book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism on the way home, and while it was awesome in loads of ways - it's a Marxist-informed look at fear and control of lady bodies, taking in anorexia, transphobia, and housework, along with a surprising number of other topics in its scanty 66 pages - there's one thing that's been niggling at me since.

I know! Nitpicking at three whole sentences out of several thousand words is kind of a dick move! But it's a move I am going to make.

Meanwhile, the most brain-bleedingly pointless domestic tasks have, for some young women today, become so alien and fantastic that they are now a lifestyle option. Cookery classes and knitting circles encourage young, trendy western women to indulge in a sanctioned fantasy of glamorous domesticity that never really existed, an arched, kinky fetishism of the trappings of a drudgery that is still the reality of many women's lives. I know plenty of women my age, educated and emancipated, who view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-waisted fifties skirts and silly little pinafores.
 Yeah, diss knitting and I will blog at you.

So the overall point - that white western women have the luxury of employing cleaners, shopping in supermarkets and buying clothes made by sweatshop labourers in third-world countries, and so can perform an imaginary version of Mad Men-lite housewifery as a retro quirk - is solid. But the examples picked interest me.

For centuries, the task of making clothes so the family didn't freeze fell to women. While this was often a boring chore, it was clutched at as an outlet for creativity. Incredible intricate and inventive techniques like Aran cabling (where each motif has symbolic meaning, asthetic beauty, and the practical advantage of keeping rain out) seem to be a way of sneaking art in to lives which didn't have much opportunity for self-expression. No one could criticise you for wasting your time on fripperies, because clothing your family is a necessary task and a virtuous feminine activity. I'm not saying it's always a rhapsody of creative joy - any knitter whose heart doesn't sink at the instruction work five acres in stocking stitch is made of sterner stuff than I - but if "time-wasting" activities like art or music or writing are frowned upon because look at her messing around with a paintbrush; five kids, you'd think she could find summat to do, then you'd take your pleasures in any socially-acceptable work you could find.

And over time, they become part of the mythology of femininity: Good Women know how to knit. Good Women spend hours creating delicate cross-stiched handkerchiefs for no earthly purpose. Good Women cook proper meals, because they care enough about their kids not to resort to microwave ready meals in an emergency. What started as drudgery and blossomed into creativity can become part of the system of oppression again (I'm thinking of Laura Brown obsessing over cake icing in The Hours).

But taking up the needles - even in the space age year of 2011, when there's no material need to - doesn't have to be about idealising that imaginary 50s housewife past. When I'm knitting (usually in my jimjams, actually; not so glamorous) I'm not picturing myself as Betty Draper, whipping up some darling little bed-jacket for my abused and acting-out daughter. And if I'm strictly honest, I'm not usually basking in the glow of participating in a centuries-old tradition handed down from mother to daughter, either. I'm just making stuff. Because it's fun, because I like clothes, because it's something to do with my hands to stop me chain-smoking myself into oblivion. People knit for a lot of reasons, is what I'm saying, and just because something looks regressive, doesn't mean it's spearheading the assault on feminism.

All of which is in no way just an excuse to say I MADE THIS WITH MY OWN HANDS I AM SO PROUD.

It's a fox. If you were wondering.


  1. Silly little pinafores my arse. I knit to make stuff that fits *me* not some imaginary *average*. :) Plus it's fun and I get to fondle things.

  2. I sew to re-use clothes that no longer fit or are no longer fit to wear, collecting up memories into things to keep us warm, our butts dry, or our landlord's cream sofa free of coffee stains. I sew to make things that make my house my own. i sew to make things for my partner, family and friends to show them that i care about them and to provide them with things they need but can't find in the shops. and i sew the same way i used to smoke - thinking about nothing and everything at once, tuned out of the world, to recharge my mental health.

    if any of those things *aren't* feminist (and i'm thinking particularly about recycling/the environment and workers rights here), then I don't think your understanding of the interconnectedness of things is up to scratch.

  3. You guys are the awesome: the whole female creativity thing was just the first point that came to mind after reading that book, but you've both come up with a myriad of other ways that crafting is intricately connected with feminism/social justice/generally making stuff better.

    And Harri, that was really beautifully written - can't wait for your F Word posts.

  4. Skills that women traditionally have have always been run down in favour of more authentic, 'magical talent' hand crafts that men have traditionally done, like painting and writing.

    Saying that, I think the craft craze today is a bit of a class issue- I wonder if this is something that more middle class women do? Coming from a very much working class background I can't think of anyone that does this apart from my nan.

  5. Absolutely - apart from anything else, wool's bloody expensive. Plus there's the time issue. And they're only the obvious things.

    It's interesting that it's changed so much over the last century - our grans' generation made clothes as a matter of course, because it was the cheaper option; now buying ready-made clothes is easier and cheaper... because of sweatshop labour in the third world.

    And thanks for reading!