Back in the wee-1990’s, I was an undergraduate with a major in art history and a penchant for textiles. Being as such, I proposed writing my senior thesis on quilting and quilters, a topic that was roundly dismissed by the traditional art history department at the University of Michigan. At that time, craft had no place in the curriculum and even in the art school there were few students pursuing fiber arts- which was sort of the nerdy sibling to the much cooler painters, sculptors and installation artists. I was the only one of my friends with a sewing machine and my crafty impulses were acted on alone. Yet, I yearned to be part of a group. One of the reasons I found the history of quilting to be so fascinating was the social nature of the quilting bee – bringing women together to work on a communal craft project that included food, drink and gossip sounded like my idea of a good time. So when I saw the advertisement for a quilting group at a fabric store in small town outside of Ann Arbor, I signed up.
The group met in the back of the store on Tuesday evenings and was made up of women mostly in their 40s – a few nurses, a teacher – all of whom knew one another. I showed up, barely 21 with a newly minted nose ring, and they didn’t quite know what to make of me crashing their party. While I did learn quite a few handy sewing tips, I mostly hung around the margins of their chatty conversations about work and kids. Although I would like to think that a mutual love of quilt-piecing could bridge the gap between a proto-hipster undergraduate and a conservative, church-going mom with three kids, it just wasn’t happening. Now that I belong (somewhat) to their demographic, I can see the absurdity of the whole thing. After a few months, I gave up going.
It was just a few years later that third-wave feminism found its stride, Debbie Stoller (my hero!) launched BUST and later formed the first Stitch ‘N Bitch in 1999. Suddenly, you couldn’t throw a ball of yarn without hitting someone with a knitting needle in her hand. By the early aughts, DIY crafts had morphed into something of a movement, one that is now being examined by Emily Matchar on her blog (and forthcoming book), The New Domesticity which asks questions about the effect of this newfound elevation of homemaking on women and feminism, particularly how it is played out in social media. She suggests that all of this focus on home design, anachronistic chores, and women-focused arts – at least how it is served up in the blogosphere – might not be all that empowering after all. And she may be right. I mean, who hasn’t read someone’s crafty blog (not Domaphile, of course) and felt diminished because you didn’t DIY your child’s party decorations out of found objects? How different are these domestic blogs from fashion magazines, anyway?
While these are all questions to consider, one of the happier outcomes of the resurgence in things domestic is that when I put out the call for a knitting/crafting group last year, the response was overwhelming. Made up mostly of my crafty co-workers (which I suppose isn’t all that surprising given that we work for an institution dedicated to the decorative arts and material culture), our group has about 15 members. We meet once a month to eat, drink, stitch and – most importantly – bitch. Considering how busy everyone is, it is a minor miracle that we have managed to keep the group going and I think that is because it fulfills a need. In lives that are saturated with technology, it is refreshingly off-line. Being inherently productive, it is somehow different than meeting someone for dinner or going to an event. More like a book club, but without the commitment of having to actually read the book – you can show up to the group having done nothing crafty during the intervening weeks. Our definition of “stitch” even extends to the organization of photos and magazine clippings. Aside from the hurdle of scheduling, it’s decidedly low pressure.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, quilting bees were a much needed social outlet for women who spent most of their time on solitary domestic activities. A century or so later, with lives that can feel oddly isolated in spite of the overstimulation of busy work schedules and social media, it’s not all that different. The craft is a vehicle for the community – face to face. It’s about the bitching much more than the stitching, and I highly recommend it as a tonic for what ails you.