Crafting and Third-Wave Feminism

Crafting and Third-Wave Feminism

In the early 2000s, crafting and needlework experienced a huge resurgence in popularity amongst a young demographic in First World countries. These crafters, often younger-generation women, gather in pubs, coffee shops, or on living room couches to “stitch ‘n bitch”. They work on knitting, crochet, embroidery, sewing, quilting, cross-stitch, and other needlework projects that are traditionally thought of as “women’s work”. These educated, intelligent, young women (and sometimes men) are a prime example of third-wave feminism; they are reclaiming these traditions and the history behind them, rejecting the assumptions placed upon crafting, and often engaging in activism and social justice causes through crafting.

The ability to knit and sew was vital in the pre-Industrial society for a wide variety of functional purposes and was especially valuable during the first and second World Wars. The American Red Cross had a volunteer force called the Production Corps of mostly women during both the world wars. During WWI, there was an American “Knit for Sammie” campaign and University campuses had “our boys are cold” articles in the student paper encouraging “Sammie’s Sister” to knit for the troops (HistoryLink). The American Red Cross continued these campaigns during peacetime, but picked up efforts during WWII, encouraging women to “knit your bit” making socks, hats, mittens, and sewing bandages and uniforms. The British wartime government adopted the slogan “make do and mend” to inspire the home front war efforts—recycling old clothes and unraveling old knitting to darn socks (BBC). Even children were encouraged to help by winding wool, learning to knit, and doing household chores so mothers could keep knitting (HistoryLink).

Despite the integral addition of needlework to wartime efforts, the “domestic arts, were both devaluated by the predominant masculine society and shunned as associative with oppressive domestic labor by many Second-Wave feminists” (Chansky, 681). The second-wavers attempted to differentiate between ‘art’ and ‘craft’, creating a dichotomy to raise the profile of textiles as a legitimate art form. Other second-wavers viewed women with contempt if they chose to be stay-at-home mothers or housewives, taking part in the traditional domestic sphere. This perception of value in fibre arts—both as an art form and as an activity—is being further challenged today by third-wavers.

In the past 10 years, we have also seen an increase in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture in a similar way that the Arts and Crafts Movement rebelled against the Industrial Revolution (Chansky). For modern crafters, the movement towards DIY is often a statement against mass produced items which exploit cheap labour in less developed countries and a form of creative consumption. This outlook is also reflected in haute couture, youth fashion and a large-scale support for “eco” and “green” choices (Myzelev). “Vintage” and “upcycled” are both commonly used terms to describe modern fashion of the 20-somethings. By also engaging in fibre arts skills, third wavers are obtaining the tools and knowledge to fix items instead of throwing them out. The DIY concept brings back that wartime ethos of “make do and mend” and promotes making conscientious and deliberate choices.

Surveys from the Craft Yarn Council of America in 2009 report the majority of crafters participate in fibre arts mainly because it is enjoyable and empowering to create something out of nothing. Many also use it as a way to unwind after a day in front of a computer screen (Groeneveld). But by simply participating in crafting and reviving a “historically undervalued means of artistic expression”, women are able to address contemporary issues that still face third wavers (Chansky, 682). Crafting also “affords a link between the past (perceived as calm, anachronistic, simple, and worry-free) and the present postmodern condition (a constant move forward and the lack of luxurious leisure time) that can be seen as a positive and empowering phenomenon” (Myzelev). On a day-to-day level, third wavers can enjoy the fruits of their foremothers’ labour for women’s rights and many have an “everyday, everyway” (Chansky) mentality towards feminism.

Third-wave crafters make a statement about the perceptions of “women’s work” by bringing it into the public sphere and raising awareness and value for textile art as a personal pastime. Participating in crafting in public is the idea behind the Stitch ‘N’ Bitch movement. “In their study of Stitch ‘n’ Bitch groups, Stella Minahan and Julie Wolfram Cox acknowledge the multivalence of third-wave feminist crafting when they suggest that knitting circles must be viewed as serving a variety of purposes, remedial, progressive, resistant, nostalgic, and ironic” (Groeneveld). As Faythe Levine, director of Handmade Nation wrote in the foreword of Craft Activism by Joan Tapper and Gale Zucker: “Our generation’s interest in the resurgence of craft started as a grassroots phenomenon, though now I think it’s safe to say it’s leaked into mainstream culture. […]  And when the fad passes, we will still be making. Because making things by hand has never stopped, and it will never disappear.” Third-wavers actively choose to participate in crafts, including knitting, tatting, crochet, sewing, quilting, cross stitch, and embroidery.

Third-wavers consider freedom of choice and independence to be a human right—which includes their personal hobbies and individual activities. Crafting is undertaken for a variety of reasons, rarely out of a fundamental necessity as seen previously. As Debbie Stoller noted in her first Stitch ‘N’ Bitch book, there are a wide variety of crafters, not just certain subcultures. “Some of these women were pierced, dyed, and tattooed. Others were fashion-forward, trendy types. Still others were of the crunchy-granola variety. And plenty of them could not be categorized at all.” The knitters that Stoller sees are not necessarily radical, progressive, political, or even feminists, but the fact that people can chose to participate in crafting without overarching stereotypes is enough.

Many 20- and 30-somethings are making crafting their own by reclaiming the activities in a contemporary, individual, and even subversive style. Many modern crafting patterns for knitting, crochet, embroidery and cross-stitch promote alternative views, or subvert common norms. This relates to the third-wave concept of challenging assumptions and norms as well as using popular culture to raise consciousness and empower women. For example, in Knitted Icons: 25 Celebrity Doll Patterns by Carol Meldrum, you can knit Cher, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, Elvis, Bob Marley, Ghandi, and even Queen Elizabeth II., an online knitting magazine, published “302 Calories”, a pattern for edible panties knit with licorice rope called “302 Calories” in the Spring 2004 issue. Another illustration of alternative crafting is Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery by Leanne Prain, which features patterns such as tattooed baby dolls, random note pillows, knuckle tattoo church gloves, and microbe embroidered hankies. One of the more controversial patterns is “The Snatchel,” published in 2007 by AntiCraft, for a satchel-style bag that looks like a vagina. Many individuals and businesses online offer alternative patterns that deviate from the ‘norm’ but have gained incredible following in the craft community. Subversive Cross-Stitch sells kits and is now a book with patterns for traditional framed cross-stitch style patterns with alternative messages such as “Fuck Cancer”, “Will Stitch for Cocktails”, “Bitch Please”, and “Bah-Fucking-Humbug”. These are only a few examples of the plethora of creative alternative crafting being reclaimed and circulated by modern crafters.

Modern crafters are also subverting the traditional associations with craft, handmade goods, and textile art in the promotion of social justice and political activism. Betsy Greer coined the term ‘craftivism’ to describe this particular brand of campaigning for a cause. “By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism. Craftivism allows practitioners to customize their particular skills to address particular causes” (Greer).

Using crafts for activism is not a new concept as we saw from wartime knitting, and there are many political and social justice causes that are being raised through textile arts. In 1987 in San Francisco, a group of people got together to create a quilt for friends lost to AIDs. Today, the AIDs Memorial Quilt has 47,000 panels and is a travelling gallery exhibition. Run by the NAMES Project now, there is also a Canadian version of the project. Knitting chemo caps, or preemie hats, or scarves for the homeless also have long traditions through various organizations. In the 1970s, South American women being oppressed by the government would sew arpilleras, tapestries depicting everyday life, to tell their stories and history. They also hid notes within the arpilleras and underneath sewn panels to get messages out of the country uncensored. Craftivism is not a new concept—just a new word—and it’s certainly not disappearing any time soon.

In lieu of large public demonstrations like second-wavers, third-wavers emphasize local, individual and grassroots feminism. In Hoopla, Prain interviewed Rosa Martyn with the London Craftist Collective, which meets monthly to craft together and plan awareness campaigns. “We’ve done work around conflict in Sudan, and, during the British election [in 2010], we wanted to tackle voter apathy. We make patterns encouraging people to vote … we’re mainly known for mini protest banners” (377). In Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti, Leanne Prain and Mandy Moore discuss the long tradition of knitters and crocheters as rabble-rousers. “From groups such as Calgary’s Revolutionary Knitting Circle, who protested the World Petroleum Congress in 2002 by knitting a web to stop a military convoy, to Microrevolt Projects, who exist to “investigate the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labour,” knitting and crochet can be political, artistic, and yes, renegade” (22).

While the general public may view certain contemporary crafts as deviant, crass, or distasteful, ultimately, the creators are embracing the freedom of choice and individuality, creative consumption, and challenging stereotypes. Textile arts and “women’s work” have come a long way, and the brief history provided is by no means complete. Many third-wavers are seeking to reconcile the previous stereotypes and notions associated with crafting. The Craftifesto, penned by Amy Carlton and Cinnamon Cooper, co-founders of the DIY Trunk Show in Chicago, embodies the third-wave crafter’s ideals: “Craft is powerful. Craft is personal. Craft is political. Craft is possible.” These points directly correlate with the ideals of third wave feminists—the rejection of the domestic sphere, emphasizing the differences of women, self-expression and individualism, freedom of choice, and a emphasis on grassroots activism. Using crafts is just the means to the end, with the focus being on expressing themselves, raising the level of consciousness, and empowering themselves—all of which are important third-wave feminist beliefs.