Monday, March 26, 2012

Knitting, Masculinity and the Value of Craftwork

The emergence of Etsy “the place to buy and sell things handmade” and other online communities have made people’s skill available to the world to purchase. You can sell your knitting, your altered t-shirts, your 1000 paper cranes, to someone who will want them. In some ways this seems like the best sort of mix of capitalism and patronage. People who want to own the handmade things pay the people who want to make the handmade things, and everyone ends up happier. However it is not possible for the economy of Etsy to be self-sustaining because it depends on undervalued labor. As Sara Mosle writes in her piece, “ Peddles a False Feminist Fantasy” the difference between younger women today and their work in handcrafts and their mothers and grandmothers, is that younger women want to “be recognized and compensated for their talents” (2).  There is no way to sell a knitted sweater on Etsy for a reasonable price given the cost of materials and the amount of time it takes to make it. As a result, hand-knitted sweaters become objects with a “priceless” worth. Worth so much that it is problematically valuable.

The problematic value of a handknit sweater plays into the most famous of all knitting urban legends, “the boyfriend sweater curse.” The story goes if you knit your boyfriend a sweater it will end your relationship, either by the process of knitting it, or by the boyfriend’s insufficient love of the sweater when finished. Books such as Judith Durant’s Never Knit Your Man a Sweater (Unless You've Got the Ring), organize their whole premise around the curse. Other publications mention the curse in their introductions. Guy Knits, a book of patterns for men to wear, bosts this introduction,

“Men who knit are still in the minority, but guys love knits--let's not neglect them. When we knit for a guy, it usually means that the knitter is not the wearer. So we need to understand what the guy is comfortable wearing.  Do this, and you needn't worry about that old boyfriend-sweater curse. As always, knit with love, but make sure that love is not blind.  After all, handknits should enhance, not complicate, a relationship.”

As a book full of patterns for men, the book assures the reader that these patterns are so excellent they are in no danger of the curse.

The introduction to Guy Knits also brings up an interesting question of gendered language. Although the introduction admits only a “minority” of male knitters, and that “usually “ they are not knitting for themselves, the author assumes that the reader, and therefore the knitter, is a woman. When publications do recognize the possibility of knitting men, the writers often congratulate those men for being man enough to knit with titles like Knitting with Balls. The tone of these congratulations often implies that knitting is something men need courage to undertake. Which is strange because although knitting is a female-dominated field, but it is also a powerless one, and one that men can enter if they happen to be interested in knitting, but they would have no other incentive to do so.

All of this is a big messy issue, but one which is close to my heart for several reasons. One is that my boyfriend is a knitter and a good one. He knits lace and cables, writes and designs his own patterns, he's even had a pattern he designed published in Interweave Knits, a widely recognized knitting magazine. When I tell people that my boyfriend knits most people are both very surprised and very impressed. I think people are impressed for two reasons: for one, I think people are impressed that he thinks something which is usually considered a female craft (at least at this point in history) is worth learning. They are impressed that he is interested in knitting as a craft, and interested enough to learn how to do it. The second reason people are impressed is because he knits astoundingly well. Not just because he chooses (or creates) really beautiful patterns, or because he uses very high quality materials, but he knits very evenly and carefully with an admirable attention to all the details of weaving in loose ends, and fixing all the mistakes he makes along the way. He doesn't just knit. He knits really well. And this is the reason I think all of our crafting is worthwhile. Even if none of us make money on Etsy. Even if Linden and I have spent hundreds of hours doing craftwork for All's Well, this work is important not just because our work has given value to those objects and costume pieces, but because our work has given value to ourselves. We have and are building some really exciting skills. Both of us have been learning a lot through the experience by learning new skills. We've both become much more creative and capable with paper as well as with fabric. Learning from Jenny McNee of the American Shakespeare Center has been lovely in part because she is a good teacher and a good sounding board for our ideas, but also because she is incredibly skilled. She knows how to make fabric do incredible things. I think that skill itself is a thing of value, worth learning, worth possessing in oneself and worth preserving for the future.


  1. "I think that skill itself is a thing of value"-- the aesthetics of knitting?

    As a male knitter, I appreciate this post. Good stuff!

  2. Here you see Clara adding the word "that" to sentences with no need of it.

    I meant "I think skill itself is a thing of value" or more broadly, "by possessing skills we make the world more valuable."

    Thanks for asking, and I'm glad to learn you knit! More power to you! :)