I am not a quilter, I am just making a quilt.
This might seem an odd distinction to make to non-handcrafters perhaps but maybe you understand what I mean? Just because I practice a craft does not mean that I identify as someone who does that thing. I take photographs but don’t consider myself a photographer but I know that Annie Cholewa does (and rightly so!). I sew most of my own clothes but I don’t consider myself a sewist/seamstress but I know that Stephanie of My Vintage Inspiration does. I crochet (infrequently now) but I do not consider myself a crocheter but Alina of The Gift of Knitting does. I garden but am not a gardener, I cook but I am not a cook.
I do consider myself a knitter though and have done for about 15 or so years, however, I have been knitting much longer than this. Similarly, although I learned to spin seven years ago, I only began thinking of myself as a spinner a few years ago. I am not sure when I started to call myself a spinner or why…at some point I just knew I was.
Why is that we identify with some crafts as a practitioner and not others? What is the point at which we know we are a knitter, a spinner or a quilter? Is it when knowledge enters the bones and muscles? Is it perhaps about what engages our sustained curiousity and delight? Do we know we are a knitter when we take stitch dictionaries to bed? Do we know we are a spinner when we find pleasure in being arms-deep in mucky fleece water?
I have been reading some literature recently on consumption and how since the fifties we have become increasingly identifying with and identified by our consumption practices. Colin Campbell is an American sociologist who describes several different ways the consumer has been defined: as the passive consumer who is the unwitting dupe of advertising and the status quo; as the heroic, rational consumer researching about product choice; and, the lifestyle consumer who buys to express their personality through brands. I remember very clearly a moment in the mid 90s when I was working full time after graduating and could finally afford to buy new clothes. I was wearing a pair of Converse sneakers, Oakley sunglasses, Levi’s jeans and a Mooks hoodie. I was feeling mighty fine. And then suddenly I had this odd realisation that the brands I was wearing were acting as symbolic representations of me and I could combine brands in different ways to say different things about me. Brands were like identity codes. It was a memorable and rather horrifying moment as I at once realised that I had finally got a style that was saying all the right, cool things (for that moment) and also that this was a projected, aspirational, fictional me rather than flesh-and-blood-interior-furniture me. Ah yes, I was the emperor feeling so fine just as my brain pointed out I was actually naked. Loss and insight! Now, this was no revolutionary epiphany, more the beginnings of a discomfort with lifestyle brands, a vague sense that as desireable as the bright shinies on offer were, there was more to being than buying.
Still, that was the nineties and the ascendancy of brand culture. Colin Campbell argues that there is another category of consumer that is significant today, that of the craft consumer who consumes in order to create. A craft consumer buys materials (often mass produced materials) and uses skills and knowledge to make something like a meal, a garden or a room. Whilst craft consumption is an increasingly significant category for understanding contemporary consumption, there is the risk of overstating the role of consumption in craft practice. Crafters do consume, sometimes a lot. Sometimes we buy and accrue vast amounts of fabric to make quilts or buy more yarn than we can knit in a lifetime. Sometimes we are proud of this and boast about how big our stashes are. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable about the buying and hide our stash around the house to make it look less. We go on yarn diets and participate in stash busting projects in an effort to discipline our buying habits.
Consumption is definitely a part of contemporary crafting. But are crafters simply craft consumers? It is entirely possible to make a meal or a garden without buying anything, nor does the buying of the raw materials constitute the defining activity of making something. Even if you buy all the fabrics to make a quilt, making a quilt is still more than an act of consumption. Buying fabric is but one activity among many that make up the entire practice of quilting. If someone makes a quilt by cutting up old worn out clothes to hand and another makes a quilt from mass produced fabrics bought at a shop, are they not both quilters? Surely we are more that what we buy or how we buy?
Let us return to role of practice in craft identity. Some of the literature that I have been reading for my thesis has focused on the social and health benefits of craft. Again and again, researchers have observed that the practice of handcrafting provides a very strong source of identity for practitioners (I have listed one of these papers below). It is the making that is the source of identity, it would seem, not the buying. But what exactly is that identity in relation to a specific practice, how is it formed and how is it understood by the practitioner? How do we know when we become a quilter? Why are we a knitter but not spinner when we might do both?
I know I am a knitter. I know I am a spinner. I feel it in my bones. My fingers find their own way and my mind can play and ponder the infinite possibility residing in materials, technique and purpose.
What are you? And how do you know? I would love to hear.
Some writings you might find interesting:
Colin Campbell, (2005) The Craft Consumer: Culture, Craft and Consumption in a Post Modern Society
Gandolfo, Enza and Grace, Marty, (2009) It Keeps Me Sane: Women, Craft and Wellbeing, Vulgar Press