Reproduced by permission of Mark Bush
Whilst in Skiathos, my holiday reading included the novel Tigers In Red Weather. This book is good. Oh, it’s soooooo good. It’s the perfect beach read – intriguing characters, sexual tension, a murder and plenty of chilled martinis. What more could a person ask for? Oh, and there were bits of sewing.
Now, I tend to get annoyed with how sewing and knitting are sometimes portrayed. I began grinding my teeth when the ditzy character in Tigers In Red Weather sewed her own clothes. Oh, here we go again, I thought. Sewing as shorthand for the downtrodden. But then I had to change my mind when her headstrong, sexy, wealthy cousin also got a dress made. Notice the emphasis on ‘got’ – I have no doubt she commissioned a dressmaker when she decided to use some beautiful fabric embroidered with golden tigers. Still, sewing was being used as a motif for something other than oppression. This had to be a good thing.
I started thinking about sewing and knitting used as cultural shorthand. The opening image is a portrait from the National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award. If you’ve never checked out this exhibition, you should! It’s free and stimulating and the NPG has a bar/restaurant with staggering views across London. I love Mark’s portrait, don’t you? That aggressive stare at the viewer. I don’t think this person is oppressed, do you?
Where else had I seen sewing or knitting featured? I’d cheered recently to see a character on Eastenders using her sewing machine - good! But then I remembered the rows of frustrated factory machinists who have sewn knickers for decades on Coronation Street – bad! (Apologies to international readers who may be familiar with neither Eastenders nor Coronation Street. Think of them as the UK versions of Dallas and Dynasty. Um, er … without the shoulder pads. And more of the grey skies.)
The Craftivist Collective has successfully subverted the perceived gentleness of craft in order to get across political messages. As the founder, Sarah, says in this interview, ‘stitching a hankie is a powerful way of lobbying your MP’. Below is me embroidering at a Craftivist event. Hmmm. I don’t look downtrodden, either.
But sewing and knitting are my hobbies. My choice. I am aware that when some people meet me and hear what I do, they give me what can only be described as a pitying glance. Aw, the poor, deluded fool. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? I do so enjoy the moment during conversation when they realise I have a brain in my head. Nothing more satisfying than watching an individual forced to rapidly adjust their preconceptions. Yes, I am an intelligent, educated and independent woman who knits! Sorry to rock your entire notion of the world!
What do you think? Obviously, there are complex socio-historical reasons behind why mass culture stumbled upon sewing and knitting as shorthand for oppression. I ain’t gonna claim that I’m clever enough or educated enough to understand this topic completely! But I do still grind my teeth when someone shows a person sewing or knitting and we’re meant to think, ‘Ah. Downtrodden.’ Why can’t we think, ‘Ah. Inspired!’