There are pieces of my history in textiles all over the place – unfinished sweaters, a small doll quilt from my grandmother, silk-screening from my best friend and a mountain of fabric pieces collected while travelling. It might be tricky to write and knit at the same time, but sharing stories usually becomes an immediate part of any knitting circle.
Tracing the history between textiles, literature and women is not simple. It weaves, drops, and interlaces throughout all of history. Yet one connection remains. Our textiles have stories of their own. Textiles have been used for centuries to capture the richness of our history and the stories of our everyday (and sometimes not so everyday) lives.
The stories are not always what we expect. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf described Jane Austen keeping her literary work hidden under her needlework.
Woolf was discussing the limitations placed on women during a time when creative writing was largely deemed an unacceptable activity for women. Needlework in some cases replaced further intellectual pursuits for women, such as advanced math or language lessons. However, in other cases it served as an educational tool. The traditional cross stitch samplers, popular in the Victorian period, were tools not only for teaching young girls how to stictch, but also contributed to learning numbers and the alphabet. Before needlework was considered the domain of women, it was men who were actually required to complete an eight-year apprenticeship to become textile masters.
Today, my friends describe keeping their knitting needles, embroidery, and quilt squares tucked under the stacks of paper on their desks or quickly stashed in a drawer. Under-the-desk-knitters are everywhere!
My own history with textiles began when I was seven and my mother first taught me to knit. I still have the first tiny green squarf that I knit (with most of the good lines completed by my mother). My true appreciation for textile expresison didn’t come until my first winter away from home. It was during that time that I discovered humour in the shape of “grape” hats. I recently found a more sombre creation from that time, an old patch I created with the words “Don’t Let It All Unravel” embroidered onto a piece of scrap cloth leftover from hemming a pair of chef pants.
Textile crafters are ingenious. Take Elizabeth Zimmermann, a revolutionary knitting book author, who noted, “a #6 aluminum needle has been know to furnish an excellent emergency shear pin for an outboard motor”. A new generation of “Craftivists” have emerged, blending the love of craft with environmental and social activism. There were at one time large movements of knitters and stichers involved in producing wartime comfort during both world wars. The efforts of knitters were even recognized in popular Canadian war time songs including “Here’s to the boys of 1-6-0” from Word War I.
“So Let us be up and doing Yes
doing our bit alone
For we can knit socks
for our soldier boys
and keep the fires burning at home”
That tradition is now extended with crafters engaging in an incredibly vast and varied list of involvements around the globe. Their acts range from “revolutionary knitting circles/discussion groups” to textile graffiti in public spaces to fundraising. There is an obvious connection between handcrafts, empowerment and creating “community”.
Some examples of current revolutionary stitching include Knitters Without Borders a Toronto-based initiative that helps collect financial contributions from the knitting community to support Doctors Without Borders. Beryl Tsang, also from Toronto, created Tit-Bits. This company helps connect mastectomy patients with knitted breast prostheses. The concept might seem strange to some, but the products provide affordable solutions that also bring a sense of fun, creativity and personal connection beyond the typical purchase of medical products. Tsang also helps to raise funds through the sale of her Tit-Bits and by engaging in breast cancer fundraisers.
Long before the advent of written languages, stories have been recorded in a variety of mediums including painting, carving, pottery and textiles. Textiles are in fact not always what they seem. To some, a quilt, scarf or pair of socks may simply be a material object. However, all of these objects may represent a more complex history. Many of the cable patterns commonly included in modern knitting were passed down from generations tracing a long history of mothers, daughters, travel and new beginnings. Women who could not read or write passed down intricate patterns to their daughters that have travelled the course of mutliple generations of knitting needles. There is also the harsh reality that includes a long and continuous battle for fair trade and rights for textile workers. The very rights and freedoms we enjoy while sitting around a knitting circle or stitching up a gift, are not universally enjoyed. Millions of textile workers endure outrageous work conditions and little hope for change.
But textiles are also the story of hope. Take for example the Guyrayrapana Textile Cooperative of Venezuela. This community-based project helps women use their textile talents to succeed economically, meanwhile providing funding for further education, training and interest-free loans.
Speaking of hope. Did I mention Craft Hope? If you haven’t already checked it out, this organization is worth noting. They regularly post up new projects where people can contribute by donating handmade items that go directly to a chosen cause.
You can share your own textile stories or even a poem about textiles right here….