Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A bit of the Knoxville Craft Scene history

Today I am posting an article I wrote for the Metro Pulse in October 2006.

It’s Monday evening, and Claire Jamieson is rushing to her South Knoxville home after a late class. It’s her turn to host craft night. Soon her living room will fill with friends, creativity, snacks, scissors and thread.

Dawn Spencer scans a Fountain City café on a Saturday afternoon. She’s looking for the people she met online and made plans to knit with. She’s got the materials to make fingerless arm warmers for her young daughter. Once she spots some knitting needles poking from the top of a woman’s bag, she heads over to introduce herself.

Three young women sit around the bar at the New Knox Brewing Co.’s open mike night. They drink beer and discuss plans for a quilting bee.

The craft revival is on in Knoxville. My friend, Jude Ferrara, who is always on the cutting edge, explains it to me one evening over knitting and coffee in the Old City. It’s the nationwide trend of 20- and 30-somethings making things, not because they have to but because they want to. It’s about the desire to abandon strip mall homogeny, pick up some pins and needles and spend time creating something unique. It’s political, feminist and trendy—all pieced together like a quilt. That night Jude asks me to join the crafting club she wants to start.

Clubs are big in this crafting trend. Members hold regular meetings to work on projects, swap supplies, and share ideas. It’s the new book club. Rather than meeting to discuss literature, they make cell phone cozies and discuss yarns. Call it a circle, a bee, or a stitch ’n’ bitch.

Jude and I talk up the idea to crafty people and start meeting. We craft in coffee shops, living rooms, bars and restaurants. The craft of choice is knitting at first, and then it evolves into a smorgasbord of origami, cross-stitch, crochet and sewing. With the help of an online random word generator, we name the club Crafty Kittens and the Yucky Grandma.

Another crafting group is Knoxville SNB. (There’s been controversy over ownership of the term “stitch ’n’ bitch” so they use the acronym.) It has 82 members that have branched into three subgroups that meet in North and West Knoxville and in Oak Ridge. Modern-day crafters that they are, members organize meetings and post photos of finished projects online at Yahoo groups.

At an SNB gathering, I meet Kristan Wessels, a nuclear engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She’s knitting a tank top emblazoned with an image of the mudflap girl (the voluptuous, silhouetted woman who sometimes shows up on truckers’ mud flaps). Kristan says that she identifies with the image because she works in a man’s world.

Her comment makes me think about how feminist Betty Friedan frowned on knitting. Friedan claimed that such activities were oppressive because women had more important things to do. But today’s women don’t feel pressure to shun traditionally feminine activities in order to be respected. The craft revolution is, in a way, feminism at work. Instead of burning bras to demand equality, we are knitting bikinis to embrace what makes a woman different from a man and to say that being feminine doesn’t mean being less talented.

The surge in the interest in craft-making is a part of the third wave of feminism. The ideology of the third wave reclaims and empowers traditionally feminine activities and clothing. The third wave says that it’s OK for today’s liberated women to take back the domestic arts. The movement helps to equate things like embroidery and lipstick with talent and beauty—not feminine weakness.

SNB is more a knitting than a crafting club. Knitting is the most popular craft right now, but it’s only one of many activities taking a turn for the hip. People are quilting, crocheting, sewing, beading and everything in between. But none of this is new. Our grandmothers made quilts with appliquéd dolls in bonnets or crazy arrays of prints. They embroidered throw cushions and made covers for tissue boxes.

The new generation of crafters is just adding its own spice. One kitsch activity combines saucy phrases with old-fashioned cross-stitch patterns (think “Home Sweet Home” and teddy bears framed on parlor walls). A book of patterns entitled Subversive Cross Stitch by Julie Jackson holds my new favorite sampler. It has a border of pink hearts and simply reads “Rat Bastard.”
Monica Lewinsky made her knitting hobby public. She probably hoped that an activity with a wholesome reputation would sweeten her image. But anyone who still thinks that handicrafts are only made by affable homemakers should meet the Crafty Kittens.

Alison Miller is a river-rafting guide who weaves beaded bracelets. Erin Emory backpacked through Europe and surprised us with her origami skills at one meeting. Felicia McClung is a social worker who makes picture frames from hollowed books and sews covers for her fiancé’s bongo drums. Helen Yonts, an ex-truck driver, loves to knit and crochet. Alan Hollis ran a marathon and doesn’t care that her cats’ hair gets sewn into projects. Then there’s Jude, our Yucky Grandma, who practices Amigurumi, the Japanese art of crocheting small animal dolls. She just moved to New York City to be an archivist.

The Crafty Kittens haven’t been able to find any male members. There is, however, sporadic male attendance at a weekly craft night held by an earthy group made up of mostly Tomato Head employees and ultimate Frisbee players. The group’s staple female members agree that there is something inherently feminine about craft night, but that they like it when men attend.
No crafters of the male variety are present the night I attend, but the women comprise the most laid-back crafting crowd I’ve encountered yet. Some girls don’t bring anything to work on. They’re just there for the ambiance and the salsa. Moni Vincent makes cards with ink and rubber stamps while Claire Jamieson sews some squares of fabric together. She’s still making the top layer of a quilt she began when she was in high school. Now a graduate student, Claire says that she isn’t concerned with when she will finish the quilt. She just likes working on it.

Claire’s attitude on quilt-making represents the beginning of an American shift from acquiring possessions to acquiring experiences. But crafting can still become a rather consumerist hobby. Almost every craft/knitting meeting I attended had some mention of mounds, closets, or even rooms full of excess materials and yarns. Crafters just have the tendency to hoard. One knitter admitted to hiding yarn so that her husband wouldn’t know how much she had bought.

At another SNB meeting, I meet Amy and a knitter I already know, Erin Bodine. Amy’s making clothing for her iPod; I later notice that she has it dressed in a handmade corset for the meeting. Erin is knitting clothing for herself: an ocean-colored tank top.

The conversation loops around unfinished knitting projects with the occasional frustrated deep breath or outburst of, “That was the longest three centimeters of my life!” At one point, Erin stops knitting and looks wistfully out the window. She sighs and then shares her dream of one day owning an Alpaca farm. She says she would like to spin yarn from their coats. Then she could knit sweaters while watching the very animal that provided the wool.

From that reverie, I get that the craft revival is also about the desire to break out of a society of ready-made everything. It’s a part of the larger DIY (Do It Yourself) trend that promotes the ability of people to learn the skills to make, fix and do things themselves. It caught on because making a necklace or bookshelf yourself ensures that you have something with individuality, something that Americans crave in today’s superstore market. DIY includes the wave toward citizen news reporting on blogs, starting vegetable gardens, even knitting iPod clothing.

Call it a stretch, but crafters are on the same search for freedom—and a self-sufficient means of achieving it—that punk music’s ideology stands for. Neither crafters nor punk-rockers want to pay for something they could make or do in their own way. Forget matronly; crafting is punk-rock.

Charlotte Tolley is the director of the Knoxville farmers’ market and attends the Frisbee/Tomato Head craft night. She compares the crafting trend to the slow food movement, which works to protect vegetation diversity and promote regional cuisines of the world. Slow food stirred up the broader slow movement. Slow encourages a less rushed daily life to improve its quality. Slowmovement.com advises using time saved by technology to appreciate a slow and simple activity like cooking a meal, taking a walk or knitting a sweater.

Making crafts definitely goes slowly. I finally finish the quilt I’ve been working on for months. It ends up wider on one end and there are a lot of crooked lines, but I made it myself. And according to my fellow crafting friends, that’s what counts.

1 comment:

Floss said...

Hi, Brooke, this article is superb! I really enjoyed reading it. My sister and her husband have some friends who move in this kind of world, one of whom embroiders pictures of female genetalia, if I remember rightly. From my humble corner, I just wanted to let you know that I visited the shop which sells the Rice Sack planters today, and have some photos of their new rice sack stock plus a link to their website. I'll post them on my blog soon (at the bottom of the post entitled 'Four generations...'