Monday, June 7, 2010

The olden days, hand-me-downs, and some thoughts

This past weekend DH and I took a long day away. We did a similar trip last summer too - maybe this will be a tradition for us? This year we hit the road and went west, toward the (say it with me...) M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i River.

We made many stops along the way, but our destination was Stonefield, a historic site dedicated to re-creating the agricultural life that dominated southwestern Wisconsin a century and a quarter ago. We mostly explored the rural farming village, wandering in and out of the blacksmith shop, the carpenter/undertaker shop, and the general store. Then, a small shop caught my fancy - the millinery. I loved stepping inside and seeing the fashion of yesteryear. Animal ethics aside, what I wouldn't give to wear a hat with a big feather sticking out the top!! And just check out those hat pins too. I loved looking at all the supplies in the shop, along with the homesteading staples found at the general store. For info. on the history of Clark's Mile End check here.

The following day a neighbor brought over a big box of hand-me-down clothes and inside was a lovely treasure - a hand knit sweater. I promptly asked my neighbor about the sweater, certain that it was in the box by mistake and she would surely want it back. But no, it was actually a hand-me-down to her from a friend and she said her friend didn't even recall where she picked it up.

The individual that made this sweater knew it would be worn by an active child and created it accordingly. The fit is snug, but not restrictive. The yarn is a washable wool. The buttons are securely fastened. Whoever made this also knew a thing or three about sweater construction - the seams and button bands are lovingly perfect. The design details and color are nice too; especially on my purple-loving girls.

Amazing that it should come to us on a cool, breezy summer day - the sweater was immediately worn and loved.

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Some slightly incoherent, dis-jointed, and not necessarily on-point thoughts:

I could wax and wane here about the history of art, the history of craft, the handmade and homesteading. However, I think that in even considering these ideas, and sharing photos, I am saying a lot about what I value from the past and what those actions/ideas/lessons hold for us in the current day.

I don't knit clothes for my family because I have to; because my husband will get frostbite if he doesn't have decent wool stockings. I do it because it brings me joy and a sense of fulfillment. The same holds true in our home for woodworking, gardening, sewing and preserving. So why do we do it? Because the process of doing...making, making do, mending, creating...ties us to the physical process, and resulting tangible goods, from our predecessors. When we make it brings forth their art, which so often doubled as a necessity, and places it centrally in our lives.

Do I live a less 'authentic' life then they did? I think you could make the case that is true. I don't always wear/eat/use the things I create, which means I have time to make things I don't necessarily need. I do these things - the things they needed to do to survive - as a hobby and artistic expression. But that doesn't mean that I honor or enjoy them any less. Indeed, our life is the fuller because of it.

I remember sitting at our dinner table when I was a teenager and my Dad saying things like, "This broccoli [or insert any number of other vegetables here] is from our garden!" I rolled my eyes, smiled awkwardly, totally embarrassed by my Dad's happiness. What I didn't know! How foolish I was! Much to his dismay, I am sure, I am repeating his phrase at our own dinner table now.

Admittedly my contributions are small in comparison but I still can say, "This salad mix is from our garden" and it fills me with a similar sense of joy (pride?). I hope our girls will be spared my teenage ignorance. I hope they will come to value the handmade and handgrown that surrounds them. I hope they will understand that our society didn't spring out of nothing, fully formed, fully wired. That we are who we are because of those that came, struggled, persevered, and created, before us.

And lest I forget to mention it, much of what I enjoy, specifically knitting, has traditionally been termed 'women's work.' The kind of work that for generations has been considered oppressive and isolating, either due to the shear physical labor, or by the hidden and subjugated nature of it, by my academic colleagues.

And as a feminist scholar how to I reconcile the apparent contradiction in what I study and what I enjoy doing? I know there is a new movement underfoot, you can look here, here and here, and I think I am a part of it. But my scholarship and my craft don't intersect on paper or in my pocketbook; I don't write about my craft, nor do I profit from it. But I do both. I write about gender diversity, equity and inclusion, and I knit.

Melissa has also written about feminism and aprons. You can read her thoughts here.


DangAndBlast! said...

It's funny... I was born in 1981, so I have never felt that there was anything I was restricted from because of being female. (I've heard the stories, of course -- my mother's told me of a time not too long before my birth when a married man could get a loan without his wife's permission, but a married woman couldn't without her husband's permission, etc. So I know and appreciate the effort by the suffragists et al.) Because of the egalitarian way in which I was brought up and the world by which I've been surrounded -- perhaps even overdoing it a bit, when colleges now have to think about "affirmative action" to address the nearly 60/40 gender ratio these days! -- what's struck me most are the old-fashioned feminists that wish to deny me the choice of what to do with my life. Perhaps they don't understand that things are different today (in open-minded cosmopolitan America -- having lived in India as well as certain other parts of America, I know it's not everywhere!), and that there's a difference between choosing an evening of knitting over an evening of drunken club-hopping and being forced to knit when you'd rather club-hop, a difference between choosing to give up a salaried desk job to stay with the kids (because you want that kind of life and don't trust your retired mother-in-law to raise your children, as she plans to!, or for whatever reason people who aren't me might have!) and being fired as soon as you're pregnant because a mother's place is in the home. Of course, I hotwired the washing machine last year and fixed the toilet last week... and the husband's now doing all the grocery shopping since he gets off work before I do... so it's not all one way!

Perhaps people like Joel Dewberry and the Quilt Dad will help... if enough happily married straight men choose to do something, the old-wave feminists might not view it as repressive and anti-woman anymore!

(wv: frick: a good response to those who say a woman's only permissible modern lifestyle choice is to be a stereotypical man!)

DangAndBlast! said...

Heh ... didn't mean to write an essay there!

FiveGreenAcres said...

Amen, Sister. I think the linchpin in this discussion is Choice. The luxury of choosing what to do, I would argue, is the heart of Feminism. Perhaps it was taken for granted, amidst the context of a woman's daily grind, that women would actually choose to do these things if given the opportunity to do so, but I think the movement is coming full-circle in being able to honor the choices of all kinds of women. I've learned a lot from reading about Amish women, in particular, who very deliberately choose their lifestyle and take such pride in keeping house well, with beauty and grace and simplicity. Perhaps what Feminists were (and are) working towards is equal access to the peace and satisfaction and pride in a job well done, regardless of where that job is or how it's done.

FiveGreenAcres said...

And I have to think that our ancestors must take great pride in our return to the 'feminine' arts. I've thought a lot about the kind of textile work I'm doing vs. my female ancestors and imagine that their hard work was to provide more for each subsequent generation, always wanting a better life for their children than what they had for themselves. Maybe we're here now, in a secure place of doing 'woman's work' for pure pleasure and nurturing, rather than necessity, and I'll bet that was exactly what they wanted for us.

Little C and Little J said...

I love hearing these thoughts, thanks so much for sharing. I Agree! I Agree! How amazing to do these things because we want to. What a privilege and what a joy. I'd love to keep this conversation going, it's so rich.

Anonymous said...

I would say feminism just means being equal to CHOOSE how to live your life. Whether that be a SAHM or a corporate business woman or a married teacher.

Feminism has gotten a bad rap (one I used to hold as well) of eschewing all things "women's work." But what is more oppressive and restricting - to knit *OR* to NOT knit because you're afraid of what people will think of you?

mama-pan | Mary Frances said...

beth, I am loving these longer posts recently...

I really hear you about the tensions between our academic work/academic selves and our personal investment in "domestic" arts and crafts. It's something I struggle with, for sure.

Pauline E. Hopkins, the important late 19th/early 20th c. black writer and activist, has a chapter in her novel /Contending Forces/ titled "The Sewing-Circle"--it depicts women gathering for what is ostensibly a sewing bee, but is also a political gathering where speakers on women's and African American concerns are heard. I think it's a very pertinent text for this kind of discussion. You can find the novel on googlebooks (it's chapter 8). Now that we (privileged US American women) are lucky enough to live in a time where we don't have to disguise our political activity, we are asking whether the act of gathering to sew/craft/knit/write poetry/paint/sing/cook still has value. I think these things do--for the inherent joy of making as well as for the opportunity they provide to meet and exchange ideas (this very discussion happening in the comments section of a craft blog is a case-in-point).

On the other hand, I also think it's important to pay attention to some of the critiques of the "new domestic" movement for the ways it re-packages consumer patterns (i.e., maybe I'm now buying yarn and wooden toys rather than high heels and fancy perfumes--but I'm still buying). The NY Times article "The Femivore's Dilemma" generated a lot of buzz recently. Again, I think there's a lot of middle ground with all these arguments--don't think I'm wholly in one camp or the other--just offering some food for thought.

ten finger workshop said...

Beth, you seemed to have found the needle on a very very long thread here. Between present & past, between home & work and being women. I love all the thoughts & post, so proud to have such smart women put down on (virtual) paper what I've been feeling.

Rebekah said...

I love being able to get back to the root of things through gardening, canning, knitting and sewing. It makes me really appreciate how things came to be before industrialization.

I am so glad that I have the option to choose what to do to fill my time and that societal expectations are not handed to me just because I am a woman.