Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Knitting: The New Arts and Crafts? (part 2)

A few weeks ago, I posted about an upcoming Toastmasters speech I was going to give. I wanted your thoughts regarding a comparison between the late-19th century Arts and Crafts movement and the contemporary resurgence of knitting. Several of you asked to see the speech, and at last I'm getting around to editing it to reflect what I said rather than what I'd written ahead of time. Here you go!

Do you have a hobby? Perhaps you have a vegetable garden, or you like quilting and sewing. Maybe you really enjoy fixing your car or doing do-it-yourself projects around the house. Maybe you visit your local farmer’s market because you enjoy the organic produce you can purchase there. Perhaps you enjoy baking your own bread, the heady, hearty smell of yeast floating through the air as it bakes – so much better than Wonderbread!

For me, my hobby is knitting. I’m wearing some of my knitted items right now, which I’ll talk about throughout my speech. Tonight I’d like to tell you why, for thousands of young women like myself, knitting is the new Arts and Crafts. Yes, as Tony told me before the meeting, it's been a hobby for many years (he mentioned socks made for soldiers back in World War I), but it seems to me that despite this older popularity, knitting is indeed experiencing a resurgence of popularity among young women and even a few young men. Maybe you’ve heard of these book titles: Zen and the Art of Knitting [laughter] or At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much. You might have seen a news article calling knitting the “new yoga." [laughter] We knit, it seems, because it puts us in touch with something real, something physical, something more important than purchasing a sweater at a store. Take, for example, this shawl that I’m wearing. Whenever I wear it, I think about the process of making it: I started it on a trip to my in-laws, and finished it months later in time to wear to the wedding of two good friends.

Since I’m a historian, I often find myself thinking about past precedent for current practices. Specifically, I call knitting “the new arts and crafts” because of how it reminds me of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. What’s that, you may ask, and what does your handout have to do with knitting? Hang in there, I’ll tell you.

Let’s have a look at the handout. [See footnote below for links to the images I used].* The Arts and Crafts movement was a late 19th century movement that started in Britain with elite men who wanted to escape the sense of alienation and malaise brought on by industrialized society. Buying tables and chairs at stores rather than making them themselves made these corporate leaders of an increasingly capitalist world uneasy. So they went back to the land, or at least to the workbench, creating beautiful tables, chairs, chests, and other works of art. They aimed for simple yet elegant designs that stood in stark contrast to the flowery, ornate complexity of much of Victorian art. Think of the turrets and spires of Victorian-inspired mansions still around today, or the enormity of the famous houses of the Vanderbilts or Rockefellers, and you get an idea of what I mean.

[looking at bottom half of handout] The handout also includes some contemporary resonances for the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. For example, the image of the brand of home repair tools that you can find today actually borrows from a major Arts and Crafts journal called “The Craftsman.” You’ll see images of both there on the handout.

Of course, knitting isn’t exactly home repair or microbrewing. However – and this is my main point for tonight – just as supporters of the Arts and Crafts movement were attempting to get back to something real through their handiwork, knitters of today are seeking to be in touch with the stuff of life. Just look at what I’m wearing, and what I’ve brought with me: hand-knit socks, a shawl, this sweater, and even a cell-phone holder just for kicks. Would it be cheaper to buy socks or sweaters at Target, or even Macy’s? Certainly it would be. Knitting isn’t about doing things for cost-effectiveness. My husband could tell you, however, that whenever I finish a pair of socks, I do a little dance around the house, staring in glee at my feet. [Here I started dancing around the room in a rather ridiculous fashion]. "Look honey, look what I made! Look at my new socks!"

One of my fellow knitters spoke of using her great-grandmother’s needles as she knits her own projects; knitting for her becomes a connection with her family, her past, and her present. We knit, several friends said, because we want to feel connected to the very physicality of the world around us. We want more of a connection than we get handing over the credit card at the big-box store. We want a chance to give actual material shape to our own lives outside of the limiting confines of the mass market.

In short, I, and dozens of knitters like me, knit for the same reason we all go on hikes, travel the world, bake our own bread, grow our own veggies, or learn a new skill. Like the men who participated in the Arts and Crafts movement, we knit for connection, for a chance to experience the world in a slightly different way.

What’s your new Arts and Crafts?

*Basically, I googled for Arts and Crafts images to use on a handout. Here are the ones I used: a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, a Greene and Greene chair, and this plant stand.

At the bottom of the page (for the contemporary resonances) I included the following: the turn-of-the-century Craftsman newsletter, the contemporary Craftsman brand of tools, and a microbrewery logo that plays on the Arts and Crafts ideal.

It was a lot of fun using the handout, as I kind of felt like I was in class. For that matter, it was fun to take off my shoes and dance around wearing a handknit pair. I've never quite danced at Toastmasters before, and the audience seemed properly amused by my performance! They even bought that I used these entirely non-knitting-related images to discuss the contemporary appeal of knitting!

I have another Toastmasters speech this Thursday. The project is to "Persuade with Power." I think I'm going to pretend that it's the first meeting of a class on American religious history and a student has jsut asked why he/she should take this class rather than something more practical or concrete like Econ 101 or American "regular" history. My job will be to convince the student/audience of the importance of knowing about the history of religion in America, using both logic and emotion to support my position. In order to keep it relevant, I might use this time of year - holidays and consumerism - as examples, thus keeping it relevant to the people in Toastmasters, most of whom are not students. In other words, it's the 5-7 minute oral exam I'll never have, but without professors!


Kodachrome Knits said...

Good speech! And thanks for the links to the photos which you included. I wish I could have attended, if only to have watched you dance about in your socks-- :)

I definitely knit for relaxation, creativity, satisfaction, and, as you say in your speech, for a real, tangible sense of *connection*.

PS: Thanks for your comments on my blog--for making a *connection* to me in the vast world of knit blogs.

cathy said...

Great speech!
I can picture you there, in your Koigu shawl, dancing around the room. I liked your choice of images, too.

I'm interested in reading your Persuade with Power speech.

Next time you're in Boston you should check out the Society of Arts & Crafts. http://www.societyofcrafts.org/ " Incorporated in 1897, The Society of Arts and Crafts has been at the forefront of the American craft movement, fostering the development, sales, recognition and education of crafts for over one hundred years."
They have a great shop on Newbury St.

keri said...

What a great speech, you are so brave to get up there and speak in front of everyone. I'm a real chicken when it comes to public speaking.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and I imagine it was even better in person. Nice job! I think that having the handknits right there must have made quite the impact...especially the comparison between a shawl and a cell phone holder! Such a great way to connect past and present!