Stitched: Race, Class, and Craft

For years, I’ve wanted to write about the race and class dynamics in the resurgent crafting movement – especially in the knitting and crochet communities. From my own experience as both a knitter and crocheter, I know the

Looped Yarn Works in Washington, DC

unspoken color and class dynamics that can exist. There is after all, nothing like walking into a yarn shop, and promptly being followed around or not offered help, to remind one that cozy yarns and sisterhood of traveling needles aside, for some shop owners, seeing a person of color, particularly a Black womyn, purchasing yarn, is an oddity. This point was driven home on my recent visit to looped yarn works a newly opened yarn shop in the Dupont Circle section of Washington, DC. The shop is beautiful –   full of light, great innovations like a computer in one of the workrooms that will allow visitors to look up patterns on, and artfully displayed yarn in well-organized cases. To be sure, this is a high-end store, but it also has reasonably priced yarns. Looped joins yarn pioneer, Stitch DC  (located on Capital Hill, the Georgetown store having closed), bringing the number of yarn shops in the District up to two.  Stitch DC, though metro accessible, is not easily metro accessible unless you live on the orange or blue line or in Capital Hill, nor is it in a central location. Looped has the edge in that it is easily metro accessible, not far from downtown, and intersects with several neighborhoods – Dupont, Georgetown, Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, Woodley, and Columbia Heights.

The store owners are friendly and warm – and excited about opening their new shop. It’s great to see womyn in business. My hope is that this yarn shop will be a truly diverse space where the unspoken beef between knitters and crocheters won’t get in the way of good stitching time.  The store also provides a different experience for me as a yarn shopper. I don’t feel scrutinized or judged. I’d like to write a few posts thinking about crafting, race, and class. It’s not fully formed, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
I wonder why the discordance between crocheters and knitters hasn’t been  investigated or deconstructed from the perspective of class and race. From where I sit, as a long-time crocheter, who can also knit, the perceived division is simple enough: crocheters are often perceived as less skillful and the craft of crocheting to be less aesthetically pleasing. Knitting has gown in popularity through celebrity endorsement, magazines, a resurgence in knitwear, and  an increase in quality yarn. Below those surface distinctions lurk other perceptions, for instance, that crocheters are less skilled, are more likely to be less privileged than knitters, and that there seem to be more womyn of color involved in knitting. Knitters are often perceived as being white, more skillful than crocheters, and economically advantaged/privileged. Part of this perception of division comes from the crafts themselves and what they demand in terms of perceived skill, origin, resources (including money and physical space), and the process by which they are taught, marketed, promoted, and situated in the social and gender marketplace.
In the August issue of Interweave Crochet, Marcy of tried to put the tension into words in August saying, “We totally get that there is a peculiarly American schism between crocheters and knitters. We get that not everyone likes peanut butter in their chocolate.”* Marcy was writing in response to the Fall 2010 Interweave Crochet issue that featured several patterns of knit fabric with crochet embellishment. The crochet blogsphere lit up expressing dismay. The responses to Marcy’s post to reframe the August 2010 issue of Interweave Crochet  are telling. They reveal a great deal of insight, frustration, and a hint toward the class and aesthetic schism that exists between the crafts.
NorahW wrote, “You said “Our goal was to move beyond using crochet as mere adornment or finishing technique for knits.”  Wouldn’t something like that go better in Interweave Knits?  Readers of Interweave Crochet already know that crochet is much more than an adornment or a finishing technique.” And in a later post, Norah W continues, “It does feel as if knitting is being forced on us, or that we’re being told we’re not fully fiber people if we don’t try knitting with our crochet.   As I said, many of us *have* tried knitting, and we don’t like it as well.  A couple of the patterns actually seemed to be more knitting than crochet.   I don’t see IK publishing a lot of combo patterns, and I think if they did there would be a similar reaction to the one crocheters are having.”
suse@5 wrote,
“Our goal was to move beyond using crochet as mere adornment or finishing technique for knits”  hmmm…but this is exactly the idea the patterns in the issue promoted.  Knitting was the fabric and crochet the embellishments. I am interested in using crochet as the fabric element and that is why I subscribe to IC.  I find it a bit ironic that also included in this issue is an excellent piece on the innovative uses of slip stitch to create fabric…this is what I look to IC for…not furtherance of the idea of crochet as embellishment. “We totally get that there is a peculiarly American schism between crocheters and knitters.” I don’t think the reactions you are hearing are about not liking chocolate with our peanut butter. Its more about the fact that IC is in existence precisely because of the divide between crocheting and knitting in America.  IF there were a plethora of publications that offered both, as you see in other cultures, then our need for IC would be minimal. But that is not the case.  If Interweave is interested in changing the culture, then the logical move would be to fully integrate all its publications and create niche publications based on taste and  style rather craft. Until then I would hope you would reconsider your POV on this issue and listen more closely to your readers’ POV .”
Many of the feelings regarding crochet are aesthetic. Crochet is often seen as being less attractive than knitting. The image most often associated with crochet is the dreaded and old-fashioned doily or toilet paper cozy. Knitting and crocheting are associated with a different craft heritages, though both have been plagued, until recent years, by a lack of quality yarn. Knitting, for some, is also considered to be more artistic and generally a unique non-manufactured craft.  This is despite the fact that, “Knitting can be accomplished by machine, while many crochet stitches can only be crafted by hand.”** Additionally, crochet has far more stitches than knitting, including stitches that replicate what a typical “V” knit stitch looks like.
On the  Journey to Crochet blog, the same common explanation for the difference between crocheting and knitting is provided. That is, that crocheting is done with one needle, that has a hook, while knitting is done with two needles. But the author of Journey to Crochet also provides another hint, explaining:
I started learning crochet since I was very young, at the age of around 10. I vaguely recalled learning the basic crochet technique from aunt: the simple chain, single crochet and double crochet, fan shape, etc. And thereafter, improvise my own design by combining the different techniques to make various products like: my own scarf, water bottle cover, motif, cushion cover, scarf and many other products. I cannot remember why I like this skill so much. When I first started work, I learned knitting from a yarn shop owner.
Crocheting, it appears, tends to more likely be taught by female relatives, while knitting, at least for this generation tends to be to be taught more likely by peers or by store owners, whom one might argue have an economic imperative to teach and benefit from teaching (and promoting) knitting. Though that’s an interesting economic decision, given that crocheters use far more yarn than knitter do, to complete their pieces. As one blogger explained in a post titled,  “Is Crochet the Red-Headed Stepchild of Knitting?,”***
YEP! Yarn shops are notorious for snubbing crocheters. Books that contain both knit and crochet are dominated by knit. Many ready to wear items that are crocheted are marketed as knitted. There are references to machine crochet when crochet cannot be done by machines – but knitting can! Crochet is mis-identified as knit all over the place.
There is an ironic twist to the attitude of many yarn shop owners. Since it is widely accepted that crochet uses more yarn than knitting, why would shop owners not see us as cash cows and cater to us? Well, typically, we are unwilling to spend as much on yarn for a single item than knitters are. After all, if it will take 6 months to knit a fair isle sweater, I might not quibble about spending the $100 on yarn for it. (Not!) But, in that 6 months, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll spend $100 on yarn – but it will cover numerous projects, including several babyghans, some scarves, a full sized afghan, and maybe a sweater. So, why the problem for shop owners?***
And here we can see the connection to class dynamics and craft. Knitting has been fully integrated into a consumer system that thrives on the exploitation of class dynamics and perceptions in order to gain popularity and profit. Now, that is not at all to say that knitters are mindless consumers or that the extraordinary craft of knitting is somehow tainted. It is however, to push for stitch-crafters, to think critically about how each craft is being framed and why. To ask: why it is that though crocheters use more yarn, they are also more likely to experience distance from their LYS (local yarn shop) and to be treated as if their stitch craft is less important than knitting. It is to ask why stitch craft is connected with privilege in ways that obscure race and class.
Craft magazines often primarily feature white designers or designers from the global West (Europe and the U.S.) and while some magazines have increased the number of models of color they feature, those models are rarely darker-skinned. In fact, the aesthetic of many of these magazines seem to call for people of color, who can blend in or fit the overall aesthetic of stitch work – i.e. as natural, non-urban, and non-working class.  What’s more models are rarely, if ever, shown in urban settings. Instead, models are positioned leisurely in coffee shops or outdoor settings.
“The craft world isn’t white. It never has been. However, the current indie, urban-led, alternative, ironic, craft movement has a disproportionally large number of very vocal white proponents and faces in it… there need to be more voices about crafting coming from mouths that are not white. There are amazing crafts being made by people who aren’t white. Look at the Gee’s Bend quilts.” ****
 The trouble is, that the history of these crafts, as they are connected to people without privilege – people of color, or working class people is more often than not ignored. So we don’t learn about Peruvian traditions of crochet or the storied textile history of Latin America. We don’t learn about the designs of Gee’s Bend quilts. The craft world then, is positioned as white and privileged.  In the case of “yarn bombing,” an urban phrase is used to describe placing knitted objects on objects in communities. While a great idea on the face of it, many of those communities weren’t necessarily asked if they wanted to be “bombed.” What’s more the aesthetically acceptable graffiti of yarn bombing is accepted, while the urban aesthetic of graffiti is criminalized.
“Close your eyes and picture a crocheted sweater. Let me guess. It’s made from double crochet. It’s dense. It’s hot (in the warm sense). It resembles body armour. As a knitter, it’s an affront to all you value about handstitched garments.”*****
Again, there is a perception that the clothing made from crochet is too dense or unattractive. It does not meet the standard fo sleek fashion forward clothing. It is too often identified with clothing that is not haute couture – forming to the body, unique, and streamlined.
Sandi Wiseheart describes the tension between knitting and crocheting,
Frankly, knitting and crochet sometimes seem like two grown sisters who’ve been having an ongoing feud since one sister stole the other sister’s Barbie doll back in grade school. There’s an odd schism between the two, and I’ve seen some pretty heated conversations online about which one is “the best.” Sometimes it takes on the flavor of the Sharks versus the Jets: Crafters snapping their fingers to a backbeat, brandishing hooks and needles, and getting ready to rumble.
Wiseheart does not fully explain why crocheters and knitters are sometimes at odd with one another.  No one seems willing to say  out loud that some of the division is about class and race. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of discussion. On Eskimimi Knits, a survey was posted to tease out the dynamic.  The poster does not comment on the appropriation of “Eskimo” and its antecedent meanings, primarily around ethnic identity, skill, and the need, I am sure for scarves to keep one warm. It’s a witty name – and it also appropriates another culture. Nevertheless, what Eskimimi is able to tease out about the beef between crochet and knit is pretty informative. Several posters shared their experiences. 
 mikitta wrote,  
“I just want to express what kind of anti-crochet bias I’ve encountered. I have, at various times and by different knitters, that it is impossible for me to knit with XYZ yarn as it is only for knitters, that crochet is ugly and I should learn to knit so I can make prettier things and that if I want crochet supplies I should leave their LYS and go to the nearest big box store so I can get hooks and acrylic because the yarn THEY sell is too good for me to use in my projects.”
Deb Burger says,
“I work in a Crochet-Friendly LYS, teaching crochet and helping customers of both persuasions to find the supplies they need for their projects. I have, however, experienced the “crochet is for fuddy-duddies, rednecks and only good for toys and afghans” prejudices VERY often. It’s amazing the number of times knitting customers come in to the shop and see my very softly draping, delicate fabrics (whether sweater, lace shawl, cowl, baby blanket, scarf, etc.) and are AMAZED OUT LOUD that it could possibly be crocheted… because they have always thought of crochet as stiff, rigid, thick…. because they had only been exposed to crochet in its sculptural forms (dolls and toys) or done with an inappropriate mismatch of hook size to yarn size. This myth is perpetuated, too, by yarn manufacturers who insist on suggesting the same size crochet hook as knitting needle on yarn ball bands… if they bother to mention a crochet gauge at all, which many do not.”
Shooie123 explains,
Something I think that needs pointing out is that the knitting vs crochet bias seems to be a predominantly North American issue, and a fairly recent one at that. As someone mentioned to me recently, in some languages the word for knit and crochet is the same and the only differenciation is whether or not you are crafting with a hook or crafting with needles. Knitting has just happened to be the craft that experienced a boom. Crochet is slowly catching up, and has anyone seen much tatting recently? :0)

The truth of the matter is that both crafts are done for enjoyment and are a luxury (albeit an inexpensive one if you shop carefully) , and one must have leisure time to do it. Bias slips in here in the same way that it does with any item that’s not a necessity. Some folks just want to feel that they have something better/faster/prettier/snazzier than the person next to them does. Thats exactly why people line up for hours in miserable weather for the newest Apple product.

ilillys points out,

“Thanks so much for publishing the survey. But there is something even within your introduction that bothers crocheters that you are likely not even aware of. You say, “I prefer the fluid fabric of my knitting for most item, but I appreciate the rigidity of crochet can benefit the construction of many garments such as hats.” Modern crochet is no longer stiff and rigid (unless one wants it to be). It can drape just as beautifully as knitting and can make equally lovely blouses and garments. This idea is a holdover from old, 1970’s-style crochet. Encountering this idea from other fiber artists is frustrating, but that 1970’s stuff is bullet-proof and never dies and so everyone has seen some and formed an opinion about crochet based on it. It is infuriating, however, to encounter this idea in a yarn shop, where fiberistas should know better.”

Crystal inaccurately suggests that crochet has been around for less time and therefore doesn’t have as much of a following,

It’s interesting that people who only crochet comment about the bias in the industry when it can be esily explained. Crocheting with yarn has only been around since the 70’s when it was popularized by the arylic montrosities made in that era (in both knitting and crochet). Because of that it’s still a young craft that hasn’t reached it maturity yet. Knitting has been around for hundreds of years in it’s current form so it’s more advanced with regards to designs, yarns, supplies, patterns. There are a lot of crocheters out there who don’t realize how young it really is and don’t understand why they have less available.

If you’re still doing the old style cotton crochet with the gorgeous lace and doily patterns you can see the breadth and depth of the availability for patterns. That’s because it’s the part of crochet that has that history to draw from. String crochet has had the time needed to develop and it is gorgeous and varied as a craft.

If crocheters want more patterns, then design some! Contribute to your burgeoning craft and show people that it is valuable. I can see that it is making great leaps and strides and continues to do so, but it needs the community behind it to keep advancing.

What I find interesting about Crystal’s comment is that it mirrors many of the statements made about poor people or people of color. If you want things to be different then you must show people the value. Or, in other words, you as the person experiencing the bias must change your situation. Secondly, Crystal incorrectly states that crochet has only been around since the 1970’s. That’s patently inaccurate. By some accounts, crochet precedes knitting, and can be traced to ancient Egypt and Latin America.

I’ll be thinking more about the connecting between craft, race, and class over the winter.

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3 Responses to “Stitched: Race, Class, and Craft”

  1. […] For years, I've wanted to write about the race and class dynamics in the resurgent crafting movement – especially in the knitting and crochet communities. From my own experience as both a knitter and crocheter, I know the Looped Yarn Works in Washington, DCunspoken color and class dynamics that can exist. There is after all, nothing like walking into a yarn shop, and promptly being followed around or not offered help, to remind one that cozy yarn … Read More […]

  2. Pearl Lim Says:

    thank you for reading my blog and using part of Journey To Crochet in your article. Actually, the part on how I started crocheting just honestly stated how I started my journey on crocheting.
    For where I came from (Singapore), most of the people do not really know how to differentiate crochet and kniting producrt unless they are the crafters themselves. The first comment it came to them when they look at my products are, “Knitting?” That may be due to the word “knit” is more common then “crochet” and some Chinese don’t even know how to pronounce this word too.. 😛
    Being say that does not mean crochet is not popular in the Asia countries. Look at the books and products from Japan and China! Too bad I cannot read japanese..
    I too came from the ‘crochet dolly’ phase and once had the same idea that crocheting are only meant for making lacy products and not for fashionable wear. However, I have came across more and more books and magazines which find new patterns and ways to prove that whatever knitting can do, crochet can do too! And more knitters are willing to change their mind to become crocheters too.
    I agree that we need more crochet designers to expend the growth for crochet products and increase the awareness. Maybe I should do more knitting stuff for a while to learn more on what is good on knitting and carries it over to crocheting some days! 😛
    Cheers and long live these two crafts!

    From Pearl Lim, author of Journey to Crochet Blog
    PS: I will make sure that my products will be tag with “Handmade by Crocheting”

  3. I wasn’t aware there was a division between knitters and crocheters. Truthfully, I think there should just be respect for the art of being able to create something. This post also reminded me of a Mighty B episode called Macro Mayhem, where Bessie becomes obsessed with Macrame. I don’t even hear people discuss macrame that often.

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