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Friday, March 04, 2005

Pallas Athene unspooled: a feminist needlecraft manifesto.

Feminists taking up knitting? Sewing? What the hell is going on here, and why am I a part of it? Is this another sign of the moribund state of feminism during the Dubya age? Is the sky falling? What's up with this?

Yes, needlecraft has been, for the past 7,000 years, associated with the domestic captivity of women. Yes, it has been pushed as a socially acceptable hobby by male-dominated churches, states, and corporations. But needlecraft's history didn't start 7,000 years has a longer history than that, which reaches back before the theorized advance of patriarchal nomadic herder cultures on peaceful, egalitarian Neolithic agrarian cultures.

In those cultures, women did seem to do most of the duties surrounding the construction of clothing: weaving, sewing, spinning, knitting, etc. However, they also did seem to do most of the duties surrounding the Goddess-centric religions of the day, and also did seem to have the upper hand surrounding decision making for the village. The menfolk would work in the fields and build houses and temples and so forth, and also they would mine and forge tools from copper and bronze. Perfectly understandable considering how the male and female homo sapiens sapiens evolved. Basically the point I'm making here is that needlecraft was not invented by The Man to keep womyn down. It was a technology created so that people could have clothing that protected them from the elements. Very necessary to survive ice ages and to settle latitudes above and below the tropics.

Just as the second wave of feminism broke during the 1970s, men got their first taste of needlecraft as a hobby. One must credit macho American Rules Football player Rosey Grier for coming out of the closet about the fact that needlepoint, a trendy hobby for soccer moms in those days was his hobby too. Would you believe Grier, now a Christian minister, still does needlepoint? Indeed. With the current popularity of knitting and crocheting, there are some men taking up the hobby too. Russell Crowe, the macho "Gladiator?" Badass actor Larry Fishburne? Yes, they have been sighted in public with knitting needles and yarn.

There are legitimate reasons for progressives to take this up as a hobby. The problem of sweatshops continues to vex those of conscience. That t-shirt or pair of jeans or sweater you buy at Wally*World cheaply was likely made by a pre-teen girl in the third world who should be in school but can't go because 1.) her family can't afford it; 2.) her family needs the pittance she brings in for financial support; and 3.) her family puts little to no importance on its daughters being educated -- her mother is probably illiterate, so was her mother's mother, and so on through time. While finding fair trade fabric and yarn is pretty hard right now, by making your own clothing you are at least cutting out part of the exploitation in the clothing production chain. You didn't get that handmade sweater from a did it yourself. And that feels good.

Another thing that feels good is the fact that knitting, crocheting, embroidering, sewing, etc. seems to have a positive effect on stress levels and overall relaxation. I suppose that wouldn't be the case if one was trying to finish holiday gifts in time to give them, to give an example, or trying to finish a costume for cosplay at an anime convention that will be happening that weekend. But when there is no deadline pressure, and you are kicking back anyway, it's relaxing. I've noticed how my normally jumpy personality smooths out and chills out when I'm sewing. It's almost a zen state of consciousness. The needle and thread are sewing the fabric. I'm a hollow bamboo in the forest. ;-)

So yeah, it's perfectly acceptable to be a feminist and be into needlecraft. You will probably be less stressed and more relaxed than your non-sewing/knitting/crocheting sisters. Also, when you make something for yourself or to give as a gift that's one less garment you are buying that was made in a sweatshop.

Why the reference to Pallas Athene in the title, though? Well, Athena was such a kewl goddess that they ascribed lots and lots of pursuits under her patronage. As well as being the patron goddess of the patriarchal polis of Athens, she was credited as inventing weaving, sewing, mathematics, logic, philosophy and the olive tree. She turned Arachne into a spider when Arachne beat her at weaving. In the patriarchal milieu of ancient Greece, Athena was perhaps the only third-dimensional female character in the Pantheon. Hera was a bitch who got back at her philandering husband by trickery and sabotage. Artemis was an echo of an earlier time, a protectress-of-game-animals sort of goddess who was probably put in the Pantheon because she was revered in prehistoric times. And Aphrodite was...let's be blunt here...a slut. Athena had a heart and a mind and an indomitable spirit, kept indomitable by not having a consort at a time when married women were literally chattel. It is to the archetype of Pallas Athene, brainchild, warrior woman and weaver, I dedicate this piece.

Feminist needlecraft links:
Stitch n' Bitch US
Stitch n' Bitch UK
Stitch n' Bitch Los Angeles, CA, US
Guardian Unlimited: Stitch n' Bitch article
Los Angeles Needle Exchange, another feminist needlecraft group
The Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society Live Journal community

Sweatshop resource links:

Also make sure you follow my affiliate link to No Sweat Apparel if you're in the market for sweatshop-free T-Shirts, active wear and high-top sneakers.