Crafts and gender

The other day I bought a craft magazine from a high street outlet.  It was a new magazine and they were upfront about their editorial decisions:  the sections of the magazine had been designed so they related to areas of the home:  kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and so on.  I don’t know if this was the latest in a long-running development which made me notice, or whether it was indeed the way the editors were so clear in their explication of their target market, but I finally had a realisation: with the recent welcome resurgence in interest in crafting comes a less welcome resurgence of implicit gendered beliefs about crafting.
It’s important to recognise the difference that an awareness of gender issues brings to one’s appreciation and practice of craft. I am interested in the gender differences that appear when men and women do subvert gendered ideas of craft.
Nathan Vincent uses traditional processes to produce non-traditional results, with the specific aim of interrogating gender roles and assumptions: “My work explores gender permissions and the challenges that arise from straying from the prescribed norms…It critiques stereotypical gender mediums by creating “masculine objects” using “feminine processes” such as crochet, sewing, and applique.”  (My particular favourite is the doily crocheted with the outline of a pair of y-fronts.)  The contradiction between medium and subject matter frames the question, and grounds it in materiality.
Dave Cole too chooses to subvert the idea of knitting as gendered by interrogating the purpose of and materials normally used for knitting by doing so in materials such as lead (in Lead Teddy Bear, too heavy and too toxic for a child to play with) or spun statuary bronze (in Knitting with Loaded Shotguns, Safeties Off, 2008/2010 – a piece that was literally dangerous to make and which hangs suspended from the shotguns, as if they are a trophy honouring a heroic achievement).  For me, this kind of “stunt knitting” involves a kind of self-referencing with regards to gender and to craft itself (“So you think I’m a geeky craft boy, huh?  Let’s see you do this!”).  It’s still about the material, and how far it can be tested, and about involving masculine materials in what is seen as a feminine pursuit.
One of Rachel John’s forays into extreme knitting uses a thousand strands of yarn to produce a knitted square.  This is about the material, as in Vincent’s work, and about pushing the limits of a process, as in Cole’s work.  What adds extra interest for me is the level of involvement one can have with John’s process – the film of the preparation of the “knitting event”, and the film of the process itself, is available on youtube.  It’s clearly a creation that involved the assistance of several people, and they are shown too.  The finished product, the knitted square, seems almost a by-product.  This kind of interrogation not only questions the materiality of craft but also the role of the object as the site of meaning.
The stitchnbitch movement wilfully uses preconceptions about women and their behaviour when crafting – even in the name of their organisation – and while it is not hostile to male members, is clearly aimed at women.  But this is not a group which knits like an offshoot of the WI:  it knits phone box covers and yellow road lines; it knits cable covers for gravestones and graffiti ‘tags’.  What they knit subverts preconceived ideas surrounding a group of women knitting.   The objects themselves question the traditional role of women knitting useful, functional items “for the home”, as the community nature of the group activity questions the gendered isolation of the concept of the woman tied to that home.
Which is what makes that magazine, the seemingly unstoppable surge of interest in domestic crafts, and the popularity of Etsy and other websites which exist as a marketplace for crafters (often women, often small traders, often providing supplementary income) so interesting, and a little bit scary.  Crafting – the making of objects by hand – can be seen as a position of resistance to the capitalist mantra of overconsumption.   When you make something instead of buying it you are subverting the fetishisation of the commodity in favour of a relationship to material and to the consumer of the finished object, even (or more so) if that consumer is yourself.  The use of craftwork in artworks in the 1970s in particular articulated that resistance and also the rejection of both the invisibility of women’s domestic work and the masculine nature of the consumerist art world.  Many of the best pieces were not collected, catalogued, or even photographed because the artists made work (such as an entire crocheted room) which was meant to be treated as ephemera, like the endless and unmemorialised domestic work of women.  This work has been lost (or has sometimes since been recreated for exhibitions) but the strength of the protest has been lost.  Withdrawing from a debate can mean the debate just carries on without you and even your voice is lost.  Critiquing of capitalism comes even less easy now.
So when Kirsty Allsopp entreats us to make things for the home we could see it as a critique of capitalism; or we could see it as a call to the return of “traditional values”.  The problem is that often it is presented one when in fact it is the other.   Compare this programme with the recent one on traditional crafts, showing master craftsmen at work – all men.  Crafts in the workplace was presented as a resistant act in which mostly men take part.  Crafts in the home, for personal pleasure or for decorating the domestic sphere, is for women.
It is complicated critiquing this area.  Many women invoke the clever marketing tool of blogging when building a crafting business (Sew Liberated, for example).  The sites include aspirational images and methods to pay for items but they often also include a level of domestic detail that goes beyond marketing.  It could be seen as a way of reclaiming (or maybe just claiming) a more holistic way of creating a feminist life rather than compartmentalising the different work that takes place.  But I notice that men who craft blog just tend to show the artefacts.
Which is why I find endeavours such as yarn-bombing of particular note.  The practitioners take an activity associated with the individual and the domestic sphere and turn it into a collaborative social interaction.  There is an artefact produced which becomes the locus of reaction, of interaction with the wider public.  But during the production of that artefact it is the relationship of the people involved in its creation that is foregrounded.  A friend of mine found herself, as organiser of a local community arts festival, being informed by an elderly woman who had been knitting, “I’ve just tagged the church, dear.” The little knitted pieces were the subject of much pleasure for the local residents and people in the community were apt to talk to each other about them rather than ignore each other as is more usual.  It’s a critique that works on many different levels.  And the artefacts are nicer-looking – and arguably of even more use – than a dolly toilet roll cover.