"Old-fashioned" and "twee" have been hard-to-shake labels for fabric and textile crafts. Whether it's because the likes of embroidery, knitting, and quilting are associated with domesticity, a certain iteration of femininity or a slower pace of life (or a combination of all three), textile work hasn't always been the trendiest of pastimes.
At least that's what most of you thought.
No longer confined to bored rich ladies in period dramas or those nanas in the Shreddies commercials, textile work has slowly but surely been threading its way (sorry) into the fabric of popular culture thanks to the likes of Instagram, YouTube tutorials, and growing micro-communities. All it needed was a global pandemic and boom! Crocheting is suddenly the mainstream hit it always deserved to be.
The histories of skills like knitting, embroidery, and crochet are vast and span the globe and many common perceptions about each hobby are untrue. Historically, none has been a "traditionally female" activity: knitting, for example, was done by everyone throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with men attending knitting guilds in Paris where they would study for six years to become a knitting master. It was only at the start of the Victorian era that lines were drawn between those for whom a skill like knitting was a chore (the lower classes) and those who took it up as a hobby (the middle classes). Any skills that were deemed humble or domestic work (such as darning, mending, and knitting warm clothes) were seen not only as suitable for the working classes but as working-class chores.
The perceived intricacy and ability required (as well as their relative function) dictated what was deemed an appropriate skill and for whom. Crochet, for example, was known as "shepherd's knitting" in the 19th century but as fashions changed and intricate lace grew in popularity, crochet became a more highly regarded skill. Likewise, as middle-class Victorian women began to take up knitting as a hobby, the far more delicate and decorative work was deemed an appropriate way for upper-class women to while away their time. However, all were tied to the domestic — and therefore feminine — sphere.
The relationship between skills like these and a feminist approach to life has historically been rocky: with its roots in the domestic sphere, many feminists have rejected the expectation that they learn to mend and make as sexist or on the simple basis that it is old-fashioned. This partly explains how these activities fell out of favor, although the greater factor is that the need and want for these skills simply diminished. Increased mechanization — and the meteoric rise of the fast fashion and fast homeware industries — made mending and making your own clothes or decorative homewares feel obsolete. Why repair something when you can just buy a new, cheaper one?
Our increasingly technological world has sped up the pace of life to an extent that would have been incomprehensible in years gone by. Our work and leisure time is filled with digital distractions that eat away at our ability to focus, leaving slower, time-consuming pursuits like embroidering a cushion by the wayside.
But the same reasons why hobbies like this fell out of favor are why we’re returning to them in droves, with modern makers from all walks of life reclaiming and celebrating the act of making cool shit with your hands from the comfort of your own home.
Why would I buy something with all this money I don't have when in a couple of weeks I could make it and entertain myself in lockdown at the same time?
Lily Fulop, the author of Wear, Repair, Repurpose and the mind behind the Instagram account @mindful_mending, got into all things sewing and yarn-related because she cares about sustainability and wants to make clothes last as long as possible. "I've seen a resurgence in sewing and making in response to mass production and consumerism. Especially when it comes to clothing, it feels better to wear things that we've made, because many brands aren't very ethical/transparent/sustainable."
Mariel Richards, a recent knitting convert, echoes this. "The past year I've been trying to make more and more of my own clothes, it started by getting back into sewing and then my boyfriend's mam taught me to knit (shout out to Rosie)." The repetitiveness of knitting is an added bonus. "It reminds me of gaming but it's a different vibe to my other repetitive mindful tasks... While I'm zoned out I'm making something practical, and at the end, I come away with a physical object that I can revisit and reuse."
Mariel warns that it can get expensive fast if you go hard on the materials but that it makes you weigh up the cost of materials vs. the cost of clothes you might have otherwise bought. "It's helped me stop buying clothes from fast fashion outlets and become way more cautious about where I purchase homeware goods or toiletries as well. Why would I buy something with all this money I don't have when in a couple of weeks I could make it and entertain myself in lockdown at the same time?"
Once you start looking into online communities, it's easy to find your aesthetic niche and cast off any frumpy assumptions of what the final product could look like. There's the vintage crochet vibe found in accounts like Realm Designs and Gimme Kaya, the colorful quilts made by makers like @thebrightblooms, the minimalist Scandi chic of Copenhagen-based knitters or the noughties references found in the embroidery of artists like Hannah Hill and Robyn Nichol.
Robyn's practice consists of hand embroidery, digitally printed textile wall hangings, and items of clothing. She started making textile-based work at university after researching Yorkshire's textile industry. "I wanted to explore how I relate to this in a contemporary context. My work completely reflects my identity and I feel that the two are so closely intertwined that one couldn't exist without the other, so for me, it's definitely more than just a hobby."
As with other makers, accessibility is a key factor for Robyn and embroidery has much lower costs than other art practices. "For example, you could make an embroidery hoop for £5.50 ($6.84), in comparison to other processes where material costs are a lot higher. Textile work is also easier to produce without a studio, as there's not the same mess caused by the materials and you often don't need the same amount of space (depending on the nature of the work that you're producing)."
Robyn is fully aware of some people's perceptions of needlework but she doesn't actively reject them — she just wants to use these skills to make what she wants. "A lot of the time my work will automatically be read as feminist or placed within the 'craft' category. This is due to the fact that I mainly make embroidery work or occasionally use color schemes/brands that are associated with stereotypical femininity. However, this alignment is something I actively try to avoid in my practice, choosing instead to focus more on the every day and industry." Challenging the boundaries of what these crafts can be isn't intentional but a happy side effect of increased accessibility. "My work is often described as using a process associated with the domestic hobby of wealthy Victorian women, but incorporating working-class imagery and brands. I don't set out to do this though, I just use brands and objects from my everyday life e.g. the food I eat, my favorite pop, the trainers I wore for PE in school. I also think taking up any form of textile work is becoming so much more accessible due to the amount of work, process photos, and tutorials posted online."
Artists and makers like Robyn have long been broadening the horizons of how "cool" it is to knit or crochet or embroider, and the wealth of knowledge and generosity of spirit online means it's easier than ever to get started. You can find your own community, like the Disabled Makers Instagram, which showcases and connects makers and artists with disabilities, or Black Girl Knit Club in London. Mariel points to this diversity as a huge selling point: "Sites like Ravelry or hashtags like #knitspo, #inclusivemaker or #sewcialists on Instagram bring up so much content from such a wide range of creators that it's easy to find your type of cool in what is out there and what is possible to make." The founders of Black Girl Knit Club, Sicgmone Kludje and Vea Koranteng, say they founded their club precisely because of the hashtag #diversknitty: "We as friends wanted to create a safe space for Black women and female creatives like ourselves to gather, share their story, and inspire each other through craft skills... knitting has given us the power to share our story and hopefully start to change the narratives associated with race within the craft community and industry."
All of which leads us to this point where many of us currently have more time at home than we'd ever thought possible. In normal circumstances, perhaps sitting down and having the time and patience to take up a new, slow skill was never going to be in the cards for you. But now, as the instant gratification we've become accustomed to is usurped by a global health crisis, many are taking advantage of having the kind of quiet leisure time previously only available to rich women in period dramas or the retired. It's the perfect opportunity to pick up these "old-fashioned" skills and make them your own.
DIY fashion brand Wool & The Gang collaborate with a range of amazing designers for their knitting and crochet kits, including their most recent checked New Rules sweater with Irish designer Katie Ann McGuigan. They've seen a significant increase in orders since the lockdown began. Anna Veglio White, brand marketing manager for the company, points out that people are turning to the craft for its benefits beyond the final product. "The act of crafting has many benefits beyond the end product. Knitting is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and in such a fraught time globally the almost meditative act of repetitive stitches is very soothing. Not only will you get a sense of achievement when finishing a project, you're likely to feel calmer, having taken time out of the 'real world' to focus on just one thing."
Lily agrees: "I think it's comforting to take up traditional 'home' activities while we're stuck inside. It's a way to avoid the scary news on our phones and to feel productive when we can't go anywhere or do anything. It's a positive way to channel anxious energy."
In such a fraught time globally the almost meditative act of repetitive stitches is very soothing.
Anna Veglio White, Wool & The Gang
On a very basic level, it feels like a relief to engage in practical activities when we're so saturated in screen time, especially at times of crisis. Absorbing yourself in a meditative, anxiety-reducing habit that occupies long stretches of time is a way for many of us (including this writer) to manage. And when the time spent in lockdown is indefinite and sprawling, it helps to have a project that could well take up the majority of that time and to focus your attention on minute, precise movements instead of getting drawn into another existential dread spiral.
Unlike in the past, fabric crafts are no longer done because they are expected or one of the limited options available for passing time. Taking them up doesn't make you an accidental #TradWife — people are making on their own terms. And when our only connection with each other is digital and ephemeral, working on something creative and involved becomes a way to root ourselves in reality; it makes time spent into something tangible.
It can even make watching nine hours of reality TV feel productive. What more could you want than that?