Jul 26, 2018 | essay

Reclaiming Makerhood

Edited by Elsa Sjunneson

My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 11 years old. It had been announced that we would learn in Girl Scouts the following week and, well, I’ve always been the kind to skip ahead in my studies. Call me an overachiever, but I just like to be prepared. Grandma was my matriarch. At the time of our lesson, she was a Jewish woman in her 70s who had been my second mother. She lived three flights up in our outer-borough high-rise apartment building. She hadn’t knit much since I was small, but when I took those three sets of stairs up to her, she pulled her kit out, and gave me a set of size 5 mint green steel needles and a ball of Red Heart, the ubiquitous acrylic yarn most Depression-era matrons gravitated toward. It probably still had a 99 cent price tag from Woolworth’s on the label years after the store had closed up shop, making the fiber about as old I was. The mechanism of slip-wrap-pull-repeat was soothing, it made a certain sense, and it brought back the joy I felt when I wore the zippered hooded sweaters she made for me as a toddler—items I still have and cherish today as an adult. This skill may have been her greatest gift to me.

For years, it never occurred to me to make objects out of my knitting—I only knew one of the two necessary stitches to create textured patterns, my cast on was fine at best, and I had never really mastered binding off—to say nothing of shaping methods. But I enjoyed doing it, found comfort in the repeated motions and growing strip of cushy fabric that didn’t exist just moments ago. When it was done, I would roll the yarn back into a ball and start over. To create something that hadn’t been there before was rewarding.

In high school, I advanced my skills, making scarves for myself, and occasionally for friends. Other teenagers found this amusing, calling me “granny”. It was incongruous at best, an adolescent girl in a large city stowing an in-process baby blanket in her locker. But that incongruousness was one of the reasons I kept coming back. None of my other friends would choose to make a piece of clothing, or a gift. To choose sweat labor made a statement, one I liked.

Automation, industrialization, and new technology are seen as the best way, and in some cases, the only way. To knit, in general, as a modern woman, is to subvert the idea of of both automation/homogeny, and of a submissive, traditionally feminine craft. Many handcrafts in the 20th century were associated with women, and as they sought to expand their sphere, those women often rejected handcraft as part of it. There have always been craftspeople who take time and pride in hand-making things, so the skills were never lost, but the impetus in the general population has been to replace care and time spent on goods with ease of access to them. But there has been a resurgence of interest, in the last twenty-odd years, in being a maker, and in supporting handmade goods. To create is not servitude, knitting for your husband and children; it is not a survival necessity in order to own basics like hats and socks to stay warm. No, in a world of third-wave feminism and mass-production, hand-making things is a reclamation, especially when gifting your creation to others.

Around the early-aughts, as an indie crafter movement rose, Debbie Stoller published “Stitch ’N Bitch“ bringing a certain “rock and roll“ brand of knitting to the fore. It grabbed hold of this idea that we don’t have to rely on mass-production, or that fiber and needles were for older people. It was for anyone who wanted to take the time to create, no matter your demographic. This book had patterns for tattoo-inspired sweaters and supposedly-seafaring bikinis. It had photos of men knitting. For much of my youth I couldn’t imagine a man knitting, or a young person knitting in public—it was something I had never seen, so I couldn’t fathom how it could be done. Stoller’s book encouraged both.

Knitting has become, more than in years past, something that creates communities. Sharing patterns, trading orphaned skeins of yarn, sitting together at a local yarn shop. I would knit on the subway. Talk about my appreciation of my craft with everyone, and often turned to it in times of stress. “Oh you knit!“ my therapist exclaimed, overjoyed when I told her of this way I made use of my craft. “Have you heard of yarn-bombing? I can’t knit but I love it.“ I hadn’t; that was my introduction to fiber arts as a form of radical public and political statement.

Around 2011, artists began wrapping ordinary objects like park benches and statues in brightly colored, custom cozies. It was radical enough that it was usually allowed to stay up where graffiti might not. I loved that the sweet, cuddly aspect of knitting, that granny-chic, was being used to either subvert and feminize symbols of toxic masculinity and capitalism, as when graffiti artist Olec covered the Wall Street Charging Bull in a pink custom cozy—it was pretty obvious whose brass balls were on display then! But more frequently, yarn-bombing tackles less aggressive foes, bringing color and soft texture to tree trunks and parking meters, adding monster faces to park bench. For my money, public art is best when it uses whimsy to bring a smile to your face. The maker ethos is that when you make a hat or socks for others, you’re bringing them joy and comfort. In the same way, yarn-bombing brings that joy and comfort to the public. In a world so harsh, so judgmental and hard, why not make something to smile about?

But the political leanings of these times have brought us a symbol: the pussyhat. It seems fitting that a response to the term “pussy” as a slur against those seen as weak or feminine is a symbol of soft fiber, bold colors, and it is hand-made. While there has been some controversy from some within the movement, insisting it be uniformly pink, along with the idea that to be a pussy, or a woman, is one uniform thing, the pussyhat is best served and in fact intended to embrace all the personal variations that hand-making encourages, and a color or style that represents the wearer—unlike the stiff red MAGA caps they were created to counter.

In a world of mass production, these have somehow remained free from commoditization. People do sell them, but only through artisan platforms like Etsy. You may pay for a pussyhat, but you pay for the labor of a craftsperson to create it on their own needles or hook. Its fitting, and somewhat miraculous, that the symbol of the revolution has escaped automated creation. That it is still made with care, through the sweat labor of a single pair of hands that its wearer can trace a name to. That may be the most revolutionary part of this symbol—that it never comes to us from a faceless source. That it is made by women and men not unlike ourselves. That we can see its heritage.

Like a single strand of yarn, looped over and through, knitting connects people with each other. With every stitch I make, I feel the weight of heritage, of my Grandma, and with every wear, the people who wear woolens I’ve handmade feel me as part of theirs.

© 2018 Jessica S. Cauttero

About the author

Jessica S. Cauttero

Jessica has been making art—be it word, performance, or fiber—on and off since adolescence. She has been working in or around theatermaking for over ten years and her favorite offstage job was probably making puppets. When not writing, reading, sewing, or knitting, she is either performing under an assumed name wearing a lot of glitter, marathoning television series, or cuddling one of her critters (husband included).