Response to "Knitting’s resurgence reflects women’s desire to confront inequality": things that have been things for a while, affinity space research, and punk rock new domesticity

I may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

I’m writing up a response to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Today article, Knitting’s resurgence reflects women’s desire to confront inequality. This is a super off-the-cuff response that I hope to shape in the future into a proper essay but I need to get ideas out now or I may never bother.

I’m probably going to do this as sort of a list of thoughts.

Please note: I have not read the study referenced here, which according to its abstract looks like it focuses on consumers’ use of space (hence the focus on yarn shops, stitch & pitch, etc) to “contest… cultural devaluation.” What the abstract describes and what the news piece talks about overlap, but certainly don’t appear to be identical. I hope to read the article soon.

  1. Re: the framing of knitting as “an activity often dismissed as dull busywork for elderly women.” Maciel first noticed the phenomenon of Tucson knitters (which, due to Tucson’s climate, seemed like a counterintuitive phenomenon - and I grant him that) in 2011. This was 8 years after the publication of Debbie Stoller’s book Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook and 6 years after the publication of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter. Kim Werker founded the online magazine Crochet Me in 2004 because the world was full of cool stuff for knitters and not for crocheters. The website Craftster was founded in 2000. The Internet Archive has snapshots of the forum get crafty dating back to 1999. CROQzine began publication in 2005. Faythe Levine’s companion book and documentary, both titled Handmade Nation, came out in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Researcher Andre F. Maciel “learned that millions of women have taken up the hobby during the past two decades,” but a lot of this news piece frames it as if he’s discovered something wildly new. (The fact that part of his data collection included reviewing “640 articles about knitting found in large-circulation newspapers and magazines such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and the New Yorker” makes it clear that this was not a novel phenomenon in 2011 and still is not in 2021.) Again, I haven’t read the journal article; perhaps it does not treat the new domesticity as a hidden secret that only he and his colleague discovered in the past 10 years.

  2. “Martha Stewart and others led a New Cult of Domesticity that embraced household endeavors such as cooking, baking, fiber crafts and home decorating.” This is the first time I’ve heard of the new domesticity referred to as the New Cult of Domesticity. Also, while Martha Stewart definitely was a big part of the most mainstream stuff happening here, she doesn’t exhibit the punk rock ethos that I associate with the new domesticity.

  3. “They are contesting this cultural inequality, the stereotypes of knitting. It’s not in a radical way — they are not joining social movements as hard-core activists; they are not breaking social ties. They are not radical feminists; they are not abandoning their traditional roles. They want to reclaim the value of women’s culture.” I expect this kind of generalization is the natural outcome of a newsy piece as opposed to a scholarly piece; presumably Maciel and Wallendorf address the limitations of their study in the journal article. For example, their survey found that “Of the 110 knitters who responded to Maciel’s survey, 87% held a college degree and two-thirds lived in households with earnings of about $90,000. Most of them were white, most held conventional middle-class jobs, and most lived in committed relationships. About half had children living at home.” But it’s worth noting that when it comes to surveys “ …women are more likely to participate than men (Curtin et al., 2000; Moore & Tarnai, 2002; Singer et al., 2000), younger people are more likely to participate than older people (Goyder, 1986; Moore & Tarnai, 2002), and white people are more likely to participate than non-white people (Curtin et al., 2000; Groves et al., 2000; Voigt et al., 2003).” (G. Smith, 2008) (PDF) So there may be a disparity between who knits and who responded to the survey. There is work out there specifically on craftivists. While perhaps the participants and respondents in this study were not radical, that’s not to say that crafters in general aren’t. (Don’t even get me started on the terminology of “make” vs. “craft,” that’s a conversation for another post.)

  4. This is clearly affinity space research. When conducting research on an affinity space, there are plenty of potential challenges to doing ethical research. Taking this sort of traditional anthropological outsider view is out-of-step with the best affinity space research I’ve seen. This study is billed as an ethnography and I’m curious to see how the journal article frames it and how it addresses research ethics.

As I said, this is a gut response. This piece and especially the journal article it references deserve more attention.

Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @kimberlyhirsh