Craft, Compulsion, Privilege, Pay

Crafting supplies pictured with cash

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that one of the reasons why I’m so excited about String Revolution is the prospect of developing some kind of income from it. The idea that I could do these crafts I’m so passionate about as part of my job is wildly appealing.

But this is where I start to second-guess myself (a filthy habit of mine). Because surely, the risk is that once I’m making money from these gorgeous activities, they’ll take on a different quality for me – they’ll become a chore. I’m afraid of that. Afraid enough, perhaps, that I’m unconsciously dragging my feet a little about getting on with this part of the venture.

For tens of thousands of years, women of all social strata have encountered strong pressures – basic necessity, social expectation, plain old coercion – to produce textiles, and have responded in a range of ways, some of them stunningly creative and inspiring. The key, I’m hoping, is choice. I am choosing to do this work, and I feel amazingly lucky to be in a position to do so.

But I’ve been thinking recently about people, now and in the past, who haven’t had that choice, and what a different experience they must have had: the crafts that to me are pure pleasure must take on a rather more complex set of connotations in those circumstances.

I’m thinking of the sweatshop workers of Asia and the Pacific, who no doubt produced many of the clothes I’ve worn over the years. The garment workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who marched in 1912 for bread and roses. The cotton mill workers of the Industrial Revolution. The knitters of Shetland or Aran. Royal embroiderers and weavers and lacemakers. Pieceworkers in every time and place. The ordinary women who, down the centuries, have had the responsibility for clothing their families, starting from scratch – a flock of sheep or a heap of stalks. Teams of slave weavers in ancient Egypt or Mycenae. The spinners of the Late Stone Age.

I wonder about the interplay between the satisfaction of creating beautiful textiles and the lack of choice in doing so. Perhaps, for many women, as for me, textile work has been a positive experience. But doing it from necessity, under greater or lesser degrees of compulsion, must add a darker dimension.

Here in Ireland, the infamous Magdalene Laundries, where “fallen” women were incarcerated throughout much of the twentieth century and treated with breathtaking inhumanity, are once more in the news. (Recently, our Minister for Education and Science, in ruling out any legal redress for the surviving victims, had the barefaced gall to refer to the women as “employees”, which defies belief.) This letter to a national newspaper, from the son of one of the women, reminded me that many of the residents were put doing crafts:

embroidering elaborate tablecloths and other linens sold at exorbitant prices to the tourism crowd (and not a penny received by her).

Meanwhile, girls in Ireland’s Industrial Schools (the horrific history of which is in the process of being made public) were also doing textile work. I quote here from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (so be aware that the link leads to some pretty upsetting material), in a section on girls’ everyday life experiences in the schools:

8.18 Sewing, knitting and decorative needlework were regular semi-recreational activities; several witnesses reported making clerical vestments, as well as socks, jumpers, dresses and school uniforms for co-residents. Specialised needlework and knitting was also undertaken for what witnesses understood was the commercial market and a number of witnesses reported being regularly occupied knitting Aran sweaters, making rugs, embroidering tablecloths, vestments and other cloths for shops and church use.

They used to have these huge tablecloths and I used to have to do embroidery on it and do the designs, I used do the crochet. I used do the vestments, the nuns used give them as gifts to the priests. I used to have to do all the sewing for the girls plus all the knitting during the school’s holidays. Remember I was 14 years old at the time.

8.19 Witnesses reported that mending clothes was a regular occupation in 16 Schools, others gave accounts of lay staff being employed in sewing rooms. In five Schools it was reported that residents darned socks and jumpers for local boys’ Industrial Schools and fee-paying boarding schools.

And here am I, wondering will I break out a skein of handspun sock yarn next, or do a little decorative patchwork. Makes me feel like a latter-day Marie Antoinette, donning my fantasy shepherdess costume to go and milk a freshly bathed cow in the Trianon gardens.

Of course, it could be argued that this in itself is so much middle-class posturing. After all, the essentially non-voluntary nature of most of history’s textile work didn’t prevent the development of a host of fascinating and multi-faceted art forms. Not only that, but it has frequently represented for women a path towards some degree of economic independence (back at least as far as Bronze-Age Mesopotamia, by the way, as absorbingly detailed by Elizabeth Wayland Barber in that book I can’t seem to stop citing).

We may well imagine, in other words, that in many cases textile work is by no means the worst option available (I bet it beat washing the nuns’ menstrual cloths with bare hands in cold water, for instance, which is another memory from the Industrial Schools). I sincerely hope that the women and girls who were forced by self-righteous sadists to embroider vestments and knit school socks in the social dustbins of twentieth-century Ireland derived some pleasure from the work itself.

Even in our modern, globalised context, there’s something to be said for the argument that “the only thing worse than being exploited by a faceless multinational is not being exploited by a faceless multinational” – i.e. unfair trade is better than no trade at all. (That said, this argument is limited, and I continue to support fair trade to the fullest extent I can afford.)

There’s a chapter in Women’s Work (yes, again) called “The Golden Spindle”, which deals with textile work in the upper echelons of ancient societies. It turns out that excavations have on occasion revealed actual, honest-to goodness spindles made of gold, which supports the hypothesis that even rich and powerful women took a hand in textile production – presumably without overt compulsion.

To my mind, this is comparable with our modern-day luxury crafting supplies: hand-painted yarns, multi-coloured knitting needles, designer quilting fabrics, speciality fibres such as banana, soy, or wool from specific breeds of sheep, and – yes, unfortunately – the ability to afford organic and/or fairly produced craft supplies.

As relatively rich people in the twenty-first century (we have Internet access – we’re rich), our participation in the textile industry, if any, is (presumably) entirely voluntary. And yet many of us pick up our modern-day golden spindles and get to work. Plus ça change.

Where does this leave me and my precious little desire to earn money from this stuff?

Well, since I’m high up on most of the kyriarchal pyramids, it’s not surprising that I’m in a good position. Textile work is women’s work, and as such is often difficult, undervalued, and underrewarded, but there are degrees of difficulty, value, and reward. I get to pick and choose how I want to engage with the field.

It helps if I think of it as a continuum. I’d like to imagine myself as carrying on the tradition of those Mesopotamian businesswomen in the third millennium BCE. I’d like to operate in a sort of humble, hyperprivileged solidarity with the enslaved children of the Industrial Schools. I’d like to join the community of those who make their living in the exciting new world of online handcrafts – if they’ll have me!

First step, obviously, is to develop some kind of product or service for sale. Working on that…

9 thoughts on “Craft, Compulsion, Privilege, Pay

  1. Also, bringing undervalued work up in status, that’s good too.

    Laura Ingalls Wilder hated making buttonholes so much she got very very good at them. Her mother hated it too. Yet they also chose to use their skills to do work they hated to produce beautiful things they loved.

  2. “Textile work is women’s work, and as such is often difficult, undervalued, and underrewarded, but there are degrees of difficulty, value, and reward. I get to pick and choose how I want to engage with the field.”

    Fascinating article- and now I’ll be reading your favorite book, too. 😀

  3. Ailbhe – interestingly, I read a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder that suggested that in real life, she was an enthusiastic hand-sewer, but characterised herself as an anti-sewing rebel in her books, as she was advised (by her daughter, perhaps?) that this would increase sympathy for the character. That suggests an intriguing set of implications about the conflicting statuses of writing and sewing, and the changing value of sewing between the 1880s and 1840s.

    Léan – absolutely loved this thoughtful post.

  4. Helen: Aw, I always loved the bit where she decides to learn to love sewing for the sake of the results and to never again show her dislike for it, because she admires her mother so much.

  5. Ailbhe – I have a secret sick fascination with the backstory of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, because all three of them – Caroline senior, Laura and then Rose – seem to have been technicolour nuts with the most passive-aggressive intergenerational female relationship possible. Laura could never be feminine and obedient enough for her mother and took it out on Rose in turn. Not to mention their crazy libertarian politics and willing complicity in genocide. Do some googling, or I can recommend you books if you’re interested.

    Actually, here’s a ref! After you posted this comment, I went a-wandering in Ingallsiana and came across a fascinating book suggesting that the whole series was written as an anti-New-Deal project to show the values of hard work, thrift, piety and gender-appropriate behaviour instead of the Democratic welfare state Roosevelt was proposing. Fascinating stuff –

  6. @Ailbhe: Interesting point on raising the status of undervalued work. Thinking about it, though, I wonder to what extent it’s in my power to do that. The Barber book makes clear that there have always been craft workers at every stratum of society, and my messing about with golden spindles has perhaps less to do with Asian factory workers than one might wish. Still, it’s certainly an aspiration, and I’ll be taking any opportunity I see to stick my oar in.

    @Judi: Thanks! And I’m delighted to do my bit to spread the Barber love 🙂

  7. @Ailbhe and Glitzfrau: What a fascinating discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (The part about the buttonholes reminds me of my grandmother, whose mother placed her into the hotel business because she was so “good at” housework – not realising that her efficiency was the result of furious hatred and a determination to get it done as quickly as possible.)

    As you know, I too was a devotee of the Little House books as a kid, but the small amounts that I’ve reread recently have made me quite queasy. The Libertarian bit might have a lot to do with that, Glitz. Thanks for that link (coz you know, I was looking for something to fill up all these barren hectares of free time…).

  8. I think I posted a comment on this before (but, foolishly, on the LJ RSS feed rather than here, and it’s vanished into the ether).

    I can see your point about worrying that craft will become a chore. I grew up doing crafty things for fun, but also for use. We didn’t have the money or the spare time for me to indulge in craft for craft’s sake – I’ve never been one for decorative craftiness, and I think that’s why. When I was 13, I got my first job – linking and finishing garments for a local knitwear designer – and I kept that job until I was 17 (when she moved away). I supported myself through university largely by doing knitting and crocheting outwork for a couple of local firms, and during a recent period of unemployment I did the same. It paid very, very poorly, but it was a lifeline, and one I was only too willing to grab.

    It was tedious at times – I remember being up all night sewing together 144 crocheted roses into a shawl/blanket-type thing, and swearing never, ever again. It was also enormous fun at times, and I still get a kick out of knowing that some of the things *I* made, with *my* hands were sold in Sacks, 5th Avenue. I still sell my own stuff occasionally, in the local craft shop, but mot in a serious or organised fashion. I think the point that I’m trying to make is that if it does start to become a chore – stop doing it for money for a while. It’s amazing how quickly the joy will come back into it.

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