Home CommentaryStudent Life Contemporary Craft: Why We Continue to Produce Textile Art in 2020

Contemporary Craft: Why We Continue to Produce Textile Art in 2020

by Lillian Roy February 4, 2020
Contemporary Craft: Why We Continue to Produce Textile Art in 2020

Jenna Cleyle, Monika Noble and Rivka Mitchell are roommates. Graduate students in their early twenties, the three friends share an apartment in the heart of Outremont. It’s a cozy place, with potted plants nestled in every corner, fairy lights strung across the ceiling and a huge, remarkably comfortable couch in the middle of the living room. A couple of nights a week, the roommates stretch out here to watch movies and eat junk food and chat about their lives. It’s a welcome break from their hectic schedules.

There’s a ball of blue yarn and some knitt ing needles sitting on the coffee table; evidence of the pair of socks that Rivka has been working on. Having knit since she was a kid, it’s not unusual to find her with her feet up in front of the TV, needles clicking away. Sometimes, Jenna and Monika will knit with her, but Jenna typically prefers to do embroidery and Monika likes to sew. She just recently purchased a sewing machine, as she felt it was finally time to acquire her own after she’d grown up using her grandmother’s.

This image of three young women working together—each of them threading and stitching and looping and cutting—is reminiscent of some scene from a Jane Austen novel. It feels like taking a step into a different time, only instead of sitting in front of a gently crackling fireplace, the women are sitting in front of an episode of The Bachelor and yelling at the TV.

For this trio, creating these projects is a source of great comfort and joy. The fruits of their labour are sprinkled all around the apartment in the form of sweaters, blankets wall decor, some of which they’ve gifted to one another. It makes them feel good to see their hard work turn into something useful.

“I take a lot of pride out of it,” said Monika. “I’ve used my hands and made something that I really like. It’s like, ‘I can do this!’”

A study by the University of British Columbia found that knitting can help ease the anxiety associated with eating disorders.  After attending knitting classes, 74 percent of subjects, all of whom were women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, reported feeling calmer and less preoccupied with their weight and eating habits.

 

The psychological benefits of knitting have also been put to the test in correctional facilities. One program, called Knitting Behind Bars, has found great success in a Maryland minimum security prison, where inmates can attend a weekly knitting class. The program has reportedly helped to alleviate stress and tension among inmates while empowering them with a valuable skill.


Rivka echoes this idea. She says that knitting helps soothe her nerves when she’s feeling restless. “It’s repetitive,” she said. “You barely have to think about it once you get used to the motions of it, and I think there’s something really nice about the texture. The wool feels good in your hands.”

Like many young women, Jenna, Monika and Rivka have embraced the same ‘domestic skills’ that their grandmothers likely practiced at their age. Since the turn of the 21st century, a revival in the practice of knitting, cross-stitching, embroidery, sewing and weaving has been steadily growing, largely supported by the rise of social media. Often guided by online tutorials and forums, a number of women are using platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Reddit to share photos of their finished creations. It’s a curious thing—though the roles for women have changed drastically in recent decades, these traditional forms of ‘women’s-work’ have prevailed, finding space even in 2020 by adapting to our modern lifestyles and social networks.

Just last fall, a Chicago woman named Shannon Downey made headlines after stumbling across an unfinished quilt at an estate sale. The quilt, which displays an embroidered map of the United States, was the work of an elderly woman named Rita Smith. Smith sadly passed away before she could complete it, so Downey took to Instagram in search of needleworkers to help finish the project. Over a thousand volunteers offered their services and the quilt is to be exhibited this spring at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky.

Stretching 143 metres long, the Great Tapestry of Scotland is one of the largest tapestries in the world. Made up of 160 embroidered panels, the tapestry chronicles the history of Scotland from as early as 8,500 BCE. Constructed by over a thousand volunteers, each panel took at least 500 hours to complete.

Jenna, who began embroidering a couple of years ago, believes that so many women are gravitating towards the medium as a means of redefining what it represents. “I think it’s about reappropriating something that was traditionally considered a woman’s role,” she said.

Not too long ago, a woman’s knowledge of these various skills was born more out of obligation than desire. In the 19th century, for example, women of every class were expected to have some knowledge of textile craftsmanship. Proficiency with a needle and thread was paramount, because it meant women could elevate their homemaking skills and increase their employment opportunities. The select women who had access to schooling would often acquire these abilities through their formal education; and those who didn’t would usually learn from the other women in their families, just as many do today.

Many early examples of embroidery come from the tomb of good ol’ King Tut (Tutankhamun), the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled from roughly 1333 to 1323 BCE. He was buried with a sizeable collection of clothing items, including tunics, gloves and socks. Many were heavily embroidered with intricate designs and beads.

Although, in some ways, this emphasis on domestic craftsmanship can be seen as oppressive, it did create an avenue into the art world that women previously didn’t have access to. While women struggled to find a place in the realm of sculpture and painting—‘high art’ as some textbooks like to call it—they did gain some notoriety in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. A reaction against mass industrialization, the movement emphasized the importance of handmade artisanship. It is here that decorative arts produced by women found some visibility, although their works were still largely overshadowed by those of men.

Susan Surette, Ph.D, an art historian who studies the history of craft and decorative arts, said that many women have since experimented with textiles as a means of connecting with these feminine roots. In the 1970s, a number of feminist circles partook in the resurgence of embroidery. Stitching colourful designs into blouses and denim jackets, they produced those iconic staples of seventies fashion we know so well today.

You’ve probably heard of William Butler Yeats, the famed 20th century Irish poet. It turns out he was far from being the only artist in the family: his sister, Lily Yeats, was a successful embroiderer. Lily Yeats ran the embroidery department for Dun Emer Industries, an arts and crafts cooperative that she established alongside her sister, Elizabeth Yeats. Dun Emer was run entirely by women and the cooperative aimed to teach craftsmanship to other working-class women and girls.

“It was [about] getting acquainted with these textile skills that our grandmothers or mothers would have used, these techniques that were part of the absolute necessity for gender construction,” said Surette. “The difference now is that we have the choice to participate.”

Today, textile artworks have become increasingly welcomed into the fold of our major institutions. Toshiko Horiuchi-MacAdam, for example, is internationally celebrated for her playgrounds made entirely of crocheted fibres. Other artists, such as South African embroiderer Danielle Clough, have gained huge followings on social media. Clough has even been commissioned to do hand-sewn portraits of iconic celebrities like David Letterman and Tina Fey.

Surette said it’s unlikely that women will stop experimenting with textiles any time soon, especially as the appreciation for decorative arts grows. She believes that the practice of knitting, weaving and sewing are important extensions of our need to create. “Textiles are so embedded in our history,” she said.

The Arts and Crafts movement began in the 19th century as a response to the decline of craftsmanship in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. William Morris, an English reformer and designer, along with interior decorators and manufacturers, founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulker and Company. It was dedicated to trying to recapture the spirit associated with medieval craftsmanship.

Sure enough, Jenna, Monika and Rivka plan to continue working on their craft and improving their skills. While they haven’t amassed thousands of followers on Instagram, for them, that’s really not the point.

“It’s an outlet of creativity, you know?” said Jenna. “It’s nice to put your time into something and create something out of it.”

 

Graphics by Kayla-Marie Turriciano, Main photo by Britanny Clarke

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