Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why we knit

What is it that causes people to want to make things? Even things that could be bought for less money, more professionally done? I am old enough to remember from my early childhood a time when women sewed in order to save money, and knitted or crocheted in order to be able to have things that they otherwise couldn't afford. A generation or two earlier than that, the ability to sew and knit was essential if the children were to have warm clothes. Manufactured goods were expensive, while a housewive's labor was essentially free.

Now manufactured goods are produced under sweatshop conditions probably worse than anything that ever existed in the Lower East Side or the mills of Lowell and Lawrence, the labor so devalued that by extension it almost devalues domestic crafts as well. I see cute Christmas stockings or antique Santas and snowmen made of felt, imitations of a handcrafted style that was itself an imitation of an earlier attempt at making something from nothing--and they sell for $10 or $20, less than the cost of materials, less than the cost of even a pattern. So why would anyone bother?

There seems to be an innate desire to create and to own the competence needed to make beautiful and functional objects with one's own hands. The need to feel competent is a basic component of self-esteem. Infants and children practice any skill they see around them with a passion to achieve competence, whether it's walking on two feet or stalking animals or riding a bike or playing a video game. Doing something hard and doing it skillfully is intrinsically satisfying. And if it's something that your gender--your people-- have done from time immemorial, it fulfills several needs. You feel connected, grounded, like you are part of a long chain of women doing not only what was needed, but rejoicing in their own skill, doing it better than strictly necessary. In a day when the family depended on mother for socks and mittens and sweaters, mother knitted intricate color patterns, cables, lace, anything to showcase her skill.

One of the most touching museum exhibits I ever saw was an American Indian museum just east of Yellowstone National Park. Cradleboards and moccasins and baby clothes were covered with elaborate patterns in tiny beads. Those mothers had a lot to do just to keep their family fed and clothed, but they needed more than that--they needed to show their skill, their creativity, their joy in a new baby. A plain cradleboard would have worked just as well as a decorated one, but not one of them was plain. It's probably true that every human society has decorated its tools and made everyday objects as attractive as possible. Even the Amish, who call themselves Plain People, make beautiful quilts, exquisitely executed. They avoid flowered fabrics, using only dark solids, and their designs are so pleasing that "worldly" people copy their sense of style. We are compelled to make and surround ourselves with things that are beautiful.

So if we pass that job on to others, to fashion designers and interior decorators and third-world wage-slaves, we feel impoverished. We are less than a wandering nomad or a dirt-poor peasant or a cave dweller, all of whom created their own beauty for themselves and those they loved, not for money and not simply because they had to but because that's what human beings do.

In the past I have done cross-stitch and crewel embroidery, made patchwork quilts, and crocheted, and all of them fulfilled the need to make something beautiful and to acquire the skills necessary to do it myself, to do it well. Somehow knitting feels even more grounded, more connected. I know that my grandmother could crochet and embroider, but what I actually remember is her knitting. She worked at the GE her whole life, as much a working mother as any modern woman, but she always knit us Christmas gifts. There was a little yarn shop down by the River Works, and I imagine that many of the women who worked in a factory felt a need to create something beautiful of their very own, something that they controlled from start to finish, something that belonged to the world of women.

It's funny that clever new knitting books offer us patterns for knitting bikinis and weird skirts and sexy bustiers, but what women are actually knitting is socks. Socks! Could anything be less sexy, less cutting edge, less necessary than hand-made socks, when we can buy socks for a dollar or two a pair? Thanks, North American Free Trade Agreement, but there is something we value more than cheaper consumer goods--the work of our own minds and hands as an expression of our love and our connection to our grandmothers and our children.

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