Fiber Arts: Manifesto

I. Revived Fiber Connections: an Introduction

Background

Eight months ago I started stress knitting, or as I prefer to say “solace crafting”. The goal in this renaming, as well as being the basis for the manifesto found here, is to move away from the purely reactive to something much more grounded and proactive. To explain further: Last summer I had the time due to lockdown to focus on some letterpress and linoleum print projects I had queued up for myself. And yet, I found myself blocked. I had images drawn on linoleum; I had other woodblocks pre-incised for reduction passes through the letterpress. But I couldn’t move forward with them. I felt like I was back in “Beirut mode”, where planning ahead meant “through the next few days and nothing beyond that”. But Beirut had community, and without that I found myself hard-pressed to channel similar negative energy in ways that I had managed to in the past.

Image on uncarved linoleum block depicting a scene from the protest
of Alton Sterling’s murder by police in 2016, Baton Rouge.

It was speaking with a dear friend in similar straits elsewhere in Canada1 that got me thinking about knitting again. She explained that during a trip to Scotland to visit her husband’s aunt and uncle, she was introduced to knitting as well as the realm of sheep and wool that Scotland represents. Her stories brought back fond memories of my own knitting decades in the past, as well as tips and tricks I vaguely remembered and wished to pass on. Admittedly I wasn’t too much help, for both my foggy memories as well as the fact that she was knitting quasi–left handed and also throwing as opposed to picking. Nonetheless, she had immersed herself in it, was producing scarves for local calls for clothing for those without domiciles, and was just enjoying it. It revived a spark in terms of my own former enjoyment of the practice, as well as ideas of community and craft that I was missing terribly.

This prompted me to go to the local Big Box Store and pick up some squeaky plastic yarn and uselessly blunt plastic knitting needles on rigid circular cables. They seem actually designed to put someone off of knitting, but I kept at it, going back again and a few more times. I was completely lost in terms of my ideas of yarn weight, gauge, and how to proceed. I had to refresh my memory of basic stitches via video tutorial. I had no real goal in mind other than getting my rusty skills back up and running. The needles and yarn I had selected were friction monsters, nearly impossible to use; the results were leagues less than satisfactory. I found a local fiber arts outlet online, and made a few stabs in the dark as to what I wanted to work with in terms of tools and materials, as well as eventual projects and products. The craft package arrived, and the resulting focus and meditative effort, as well as the constant and immediate sense of progress, was exactly what I needed: a solace in crafting.

Influences

It might be useful to elaborate on influences and other aspects of craft and art that have fed into this revived effort2. My mother sewed, knit, and crocheted, as did both my grandmothers and a paternal aunt. The sweaters my aunt made for us as kids were striking in their longevity, as opposed to more disposable clothing of an industrial bent. My paternal grandmother worked in crochet mostly, and we had the “granny square” afghan she made for us on our living room couch for many long years. It fascinated me in terms of color and fabric; later in terms of thrift and planned use. It was my Nonnie, however, who “activated” the craft for me, bringing her knitting when she would visit us from Florida, and producing elaborate lace afghans (she was also an accomplished bee and individual quilter of some renown). I would sit patiently next to her, and watch her work away. I’m not sure if it was to challenge me—she was the wife of a preacher, and nothing if not all stern practicality—but at one point she offered to teach me, and I gladly accepted.

For some further context, those days saw a confluence of “big picture” cultural shifts that also had an effect on me. This was the early 70s, the time of the Equal Rights Amendment and the confrontations against dominant gender norms in terms of patriarchy, language use, etc. Quite impressive to me in terms of defying stereotypes at the time was the football player Rosey Grier. He went on all of the talk shows and spoke about his needlepoint work, eventually writing a book on the subject [link to article ➤]. Being able to “lean” on this allowed many like myself to similarly pursue crafts they otherwise might not have. Or perhaps it only prevented the vocalized reaction against it, I’m not sure. I do remember, however, repurposing burlap and yarn (I couldn’t afford the shag rug kits3 that were all the rage at the time) and working on elaborate colored yarn pictures in grammar school art classes.

It was also the time of the OPEC oil embargo, which brought about a major recession. This helped foment ecological and environmental awareness and activism. In reactionary fashion, corporations were going into their post-boom attrition mode, and most of the men in my suburban neighborhood lost their “American dream” jobs in New York City, including my father. I remember his long years of unemployment, his working warehouse and other part-time jobs not meant for someone his age, my mother going back to work, the resulting household precarity in terms of bills and mortgage, as well as years of hand-me-downs from neighbors and Hamburger Helper instead of actual meals. My mother would often be found darning socks and repairing clothes in an effort to keep one step ahead of built-in fabricated obsolescence.

At the height of this, I managed to catch the Frederick Wiseman documentary Meat on PBS [link to documentary ➤], and instantly turned vegetarian. This “phase” (as my father put it) would last 23 years. In deference to my overburdened mother, I became responsible for my own nutrition, and I turned the backyard into an organic garden. I subscribed to Organic Gardening and Farming magazine from Rodale Press, which distressed my father as being “Communist literature”. My neighbor Dave (Carol’s brother) rose to the challenge, and we had neighborhood Big Pumpkin contests. The garden meant exchanges with neighbors, discussions at the fence (I never did manage to convince my neighbors to stop their pesticide and herbicide yard treatments, though they did start a compost heap), and a pooling of resources. I miss these days focused on actual “ways of being”, and I see my own material practice as having roots grown from the context and nature of these past times.

II. Fiber Arts Manifesto

Conceptual Underpinnings

This discussion of burgeoning and activated community brings me to the years I spent in Lebanon and to the concept of ma‘ūn. Because ma‘ūn is also the title of a surat in the Qur’an, the lack of an English equivalent can be seen in the various ways the word itself has been analogized in exegeses, as well as translated into English (“the small kindnesses”, “answered neighborly needs”, “aid in kind”, etc.) Culturally speaking it is simply understood as a given: a way of stitching together the fabric of community in the infinite number of interactions that take place during our day to day. The main difference between English and Arabic conceptions here might be found in the grounding: Culturally speaking, in the Arabic it is backgrounded; a given; communal in nature. Outside of such a communal culture it is foregrounded; focused on; individualized. In the former, not acting communally is the aberration; in the latter, acting in a communal way requires determined agency and will, revealing the depressing norm of absent community.

I do not mean to claim that there is an absolute lack of community within dominant North American cultures, but that valid precedents have been lost, destroyed, co-opted, or otherwise paved over by a neo-liberal and globalizing capitalism4. Beyond that, they are merely optional, and often affinitive and thus exclusive. It is possible to find precedents historically speaking for truly communal ways of being, but the dominant culture sees to it that they do not survive. A similar individualism pervades art culture, and teaching in a public art university becomes an exercise in pushing back against quite ingrained (and insidious) ideas of inherently capitalist art economies, the misogyny and racism that are inherent to them, individual creative “genius”, notions of marketing and branding oneself, “craft” as a dirty word5, etc. In this light, as well as for personal and faith-based reasons, the focus on the communal (overriding aspects of the individual) becomes a goal and an ideal to strive toward.

One antidote along these lines is the manifesto, itself not without precedent within creative realms. The manifesto as a basis and framework for arts and craft practice has become deeply entrenched in my process. This goes back to an artists’ collective that we started in 2007 named Jamaa Al-Yad (“The Clenched Fist”). We wrote a manifesto, bylaws, and charter from scratch over a two-year period [link to documents ➤]. In terms of pedagogy, most of the classes that I teach involve writing up manifestos of praxis-derived guidelines. These provide the ability to answer questions and challenges arising from praxis via a reasoned and ethical standpoint. Such manifestos involve questions to ponder, within communities both actual and affinitive, as well as according to individual labor, endeavors, and dreams.

What follows are the reasons behind my return to this craft, of how I see this craft and ways of working along these lines. It is difficult because this type of framework or manifesto has similarly been co-opted by companies and industries wishing to appear ahead of the curve in this regard: a cynical sales pitch. Instead they only obfuscate their continuation of practices that are harmful to the planet, the environment, and to community. To counter this, I present my own “utopian goals and ideals”. As always I see them as mutable and organic, and I welcome input and dialectic as an exercise in building and moving forward.

Place

How do we define our connection to place(s)? What is our relationship to places not our own? I remember returning to Lebanon as an adoptee and the layers of culture there expanding exponentially before me. By this I mean to say that former ideas of homogeneous and static place gave way to an infinite most-local, and cultural reference was lived and dynamic. This was in stark contrast to the disempowering removes I was used to due to ignorance and indoctrination. In this light, the flattening of culture removed from its source for purely aesthetic reasons is also an act of erasure. Culture and place manifest themselves in popular craft, and there needs to be respectful reference to, dialogue with, and use of such cultural manifestations [link to an elaboration of these ideas ➤].

Image from Jamaa Al-Yad’s “Revolution Until Victory” project

This reverence for the communal is all the same balanced by the individual creative act. In a project that our collective completed as a commission for l’Institut du Monde Arabe [link to project ➤], we worked with embroiderers in Greater Syria on a series of works that involved the Arabic saying “Revolution Until Victory” rendered in square kufic Arabic lettering coupled with motifs of meaning to the craftswomen involved. We hoped to expand the project after this trial run, but it was derailed by COVID and the lockdowns that followed, as well as the port explosion in Beirut. Nonetheless, as explained in the framework, embroidery and cross stitch patterns of this region are unique symbols of town, family, popular belonging, and faith. To do justice to the craft, we felt obliged to speak not just about the craftswomen, but with them and among them.

The question I ask myself as I make my way around the “fiber arts realm” as it were is: How has this been lost, altered, twisted, and otherwise forgotten in current craft economies? How much of that loss is tactical to economic systems and structures? I try to set up guidelines for myself along these lines. For example, as much as I admire them, I may not currently see myself knitting for my own use or wearing a traditional fisherman’s gansey. This has nothing to do with its aesthetic or my sense of identity, the cabling or craft, the tradition or history. This has everything to do with how I see myself in relationship to such creations and their creators, and the work required on my part to arrive at an ability to adopt or reference them.

Such “work before the work” that I might set for myself requires acknowledging their history and craft; lifting up, learning from directly, and celebrating the craftspersons behind them; understanding the yarn and materials that source them and give them life; appreciating the material aspect of their production, use, and wear. Only then might there be license to work with and thus honor such work. Likewise, I can be wary of those who remove it from source, riff on it, disassociate it from origin, spin it away from place. The former changes my relationship to the produced craft in a horizontal, positive way; the latter in a vertical, negative one. How can I honestly approach such craft? How can I force awareness of this approach in my work?

Craft and Material

To expand on this idea, a bit of a detour through a similar realm, that of food production and its relation to cooking. While working at the American University of Beirut I had the pleasure of collaborating with Rami Zurayk in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences. Rami’s focus was on material aspects of food production, and the historical and traditional methods and modes slowly disappearing in the region for imports, ease of use, and changing habits [link to blog ➤]. My own personal interests along these lines found echo in my neighborhood in Beirut. My evening hangout there was the corner greengrocer staffed by Syrian workers (now friends-brothers), where I would drink tea and catch up with neighbors on local, regional, and global news. I remember starting a series of posts that Rami put up on his blog of what was coming in and out of season, resonating with the popular local practice of eating with seasonal change, and the tendency to choose the baladi, or locally produced (a popular awareness, different from the bourgeois conceit found in the “West”).

“Working” at the local greengrocer, Ras En-Nebaa, Beirut

At one point Lebanon was forced to sign a refinancing deal with the World Bank and IMF in order to pay down its “debt” to the Global North [link to Debt as Colonialism article ➤]. One of the requisites of that signing was the importation of European produce into the country and the exportation of Lebanon’s produce to be sold cheaply in foreign markets. This left lower-quality baladi products in the markets locally. The preference for unblemished, fresh produce resulted in a rejection of local production. Soon we would hear ourselves pleading with customers, saying things like, “the produce is local, but just the seed is foreign” to explain what a Granny Smith apple was doing in the market instead of one of the local varietals. Farmers started growing trend-based foreign crops such as mangoes, avocados, and kiwis which had greater export value. This had a further negative effect on local agricultural practice due to water requirements, pesticide and herbicide use, and the like. At a certain point we took down the posts, defeated: The destruction was total, I didn’t recognize the market as “local” anymore, and this popular way of being was gone.

100% Corriedale wool yarn sourced locally from The Small Bird Workshop, Nanaimo, BC

I am thus hyper-aware of the provenance of material, especially yarns that can similarly and literally be traced back to the land, to the animals and plants, and to the people/producers who brought them to material production. I am thus also highly skeptical of ideas of agency imposed on most-local producers, as if this agency exists wholly outside of market forces. Similar to the Slow Food Movement, The Fibershed Movement [link to book ➤] seeks to localize source and origin of supplies. There is here on the Lower Mainland and local to me, for example, a source of beautiful yarn that I support readily [link to shop ➤]. The price points, however, are daunting for this to be a continued practice. For those below a certain class stratum such products remains completely out of the question. The danger here is a bourgeois-ification6 of such practice that undoes any benefit derived from localizing the product.

This “making precious” of what should be local, popular, and commonplace insures that such an elitist class divide continues to drive profiteering as the central focus of such production. In this light, the tendency to “vote with one’s pocketbook/wallet” falls flat. This passive response is limited to “top down” actions of those at the apex of the class pyramid. Sadly, the current alternatives all speak of class luxury and privilege. For example, establishing personal relationships with producers similarly does not scale up or out. In Lebanon such relationships were easier, due to a different cultural milieu and a Mediterranean preference for absence of social hierarchy. I can imagine this more likely possible in the UK and Europe, due primarily to lessened scale and distances.

Such a notion of horizontal connection to producers reminds me of going to 4-H fairs when I was young, as well as the availability of university-based cooperative extension agents that I remember connecting with as a teenager [link to example ➤]. At the same time, in North America this concept can be deceptively marketed and overhyped in direct contrast to reality [link to film ➤], and places with active connection to the rural diminish by the day. How to re-establish true and crucial connection to the literal grassroots? Personally, and for just one example, I vow to support local sheep and wool festivals [link to example ➤] as well as the more popular connection points between source and craftspeople (such as guilds, bees, community groups, CSAs, etc.), in a hoped-for return to the local and baladi. I would love to hear of aggregators or archives of such examples out there.

Labor

One such connection resulted from a field trip that Rami Zurayk and I made with a bus full of my students to the Bekaa Valley and the Advancing Research Enabling Communities Center (AREC) farm extension of AUB. One of the projects in the class on periodical design I was teaching with Mayda Freiji involved researching traditional crafts in Lebanon, their makers and producers, and creating newsletters advocating for these crafts. The links to towns, villages, regions, and customs superseded those to individual artists. Nonetheless, individual designers disconnected from these sources were taking “inspiration” and outputting riffs on them for upscale markets in Beirut and for export.

Rami gave a class lecture on a women’s collective in the Bekaa Valley that produced a variety of woven and sewn goods: quilts, pillowcases, floor mats, wall storage, etc., and we visited them to learn more about how they worked and their material practice. The trip out to the Bekaa Valley from Beirut crosses the Mount Lebanon chain, and other signs of local craftsmanship further accompanied us the whole way: richly detailed truck painting, calligraphic banners, local food production at the pit stops in mountain villages, etc.

This linking of village to craft reminds me of when my brother worked for a land conservancy in Connecticut. I would visit, and we would walk down along a creek there. Every once in a while I would stumble across small pieces of porcelain, some with blue glazed designs on them. It was puzzling until we visited the local historical society. They explained that up-river was an earthenware factory, and anything that was broken during firing or otherwise substandard was simply thrown into the river, to eventually wash downstream. Craft is connected to place in intrinsically vital ways. But it still begs the question: Was the craft “of the place” first? Or was an industrial practice instituted as an overriding market-driven effort? More importantly, how is it possible to avoid the purely economic nature of this question?

In her book Markets of Dispossession, Julia Elyachar describes the craftsmen of Cairo as being intricately linked to the social fabric of the city, above and beyond what they might be selling. When external models of commerce were imposed on them, ostensibly to help them economically, the destruction wrought on the community could be seen to be purposeful; the supportive argument to the contrary a deceit. To accept models of globalization especially in the current guise of assisting the small craftsperson as being purely about the economic survival of a given local population is to give in to this deceit, as well as to set up the craft’s (and community’s) eventual destruction.

The disappearance of the craft sector in the developing world can be seen to follow the trajectory taken by the manufacturing sector in developed countries, for which these countries are now paying a heavy price. The loss of these sectors has resulted in second waves of destruction as communities first dissolve and then see their land rezoned out of popular reach. The making precious of craft along bourgeois lines, focusing on the aesthetic and economic aspects thereof, is a crass reduction of our relationship to such craft. To re-establish craft along popular lines is thus a resistant effort meant to reclaim space and rebuild community.

The community we were visiting was an example of just that. At the farm we were welcomed by Bedouin farm workers who tended to sheep and goats producing milk and wool collectively with other farms. They also oversaw farmland and orchards. Women were at the forefront of the labor force, and Hamra, their matriarch, told us stories of their nomadic past and current status within the country (Lebanon sees them as “stateless”; their perceived homelands stretch over three nation-states). Umm Hassan recounted their work as a collective, how they divided up tasks, and how they rotated these jobs so as to “avoid boredom”. It quickly became evident that urban upscale craft stores were exploiting their stories of origin in order to market their wares.

Umm Hassan presenting the collective’s works. [photo: Alaa Kabalan]

For example, it was urban lore that particular colors were specifically symbolic to these women, often with Islamic (and Islamophobic) overtones. Umm Hassan related that on the contrary, they were at the mercy of whatever was in the souk, and particular merchants had their own preferences, or else colors were determined by the vagaries of the markets. “We prefer working with bright and beautiful colors!” she said, and this was clearly evident in the variety of material laid out before us. Rami explained that a further irony was to be found in Orientalist definitions of their work as “nearing modernism” by art historians, evidencing the class disdain and dehumanizing distance further imposed on the Bedou in Lebanon’s class-stratified society.

Hand shearing of sheep. [photo: Armine Sefarian]

In response to the suggestion that they could make “a ton of money” if their work was in the Beirut craft stores or exported, Umm Hassan stated: “We are looking to make enough money to buy books and materials for our children’s education; to have enough money in case of emergencies or other needs.” She added, half-jokingly: “Plus the men wouldn’t like it if we made more than they did”. This statement of agency runs counter to “First World” narratives of such women awaiting salvation from a “liberating” West, and finds echo in other parts of the world, as well as in resistance to such malignant tropes. For just one example:

One approach to enhancing women’s power, supported by Oxfam, is to position women ever more ‘strategically’ into the ‘value chain’ of globalized production, on the assumption that if only they had the opportunity to earn the equivalent of their male peers, they might earn an equivalence of power and influence. In so doing, a fundamentally flawed food system is being further ‘propagated’, in effect out-casting other food systems….

This is not about ‘fixing a broken food system’; it is about changing the model and its values entirely. We cannot assume that women are seeking high incomes at any cost. They don’t necessarily share those values! Other values are much more important—including health, food, consumption or other lifestyle choices; these are the values that need to be weighted heavier than earning income. [link to original article ➤]

Here I am reminded of the marketing of yarn products that purport to “provide income” to villagers, mostly women, in remote rural locations (and often in advanced socialist-based and/or highly communal societies) of South America, Nepal, Turkey, etc. I am sure there may exist valid endeavors along these lines. But if they are promoted by outside entrepreneurs, NGOs, missionaries, or other representatives of neo-liberalism, colonialism, and globalization, the odds are high that this is exploitation with a marketable façade. It is not bringing such communities into a globalized economy that is going to “save” them; it is the end of global capitalism, and their revolutionary elevation from the nether classes that will.7

Truck metalwork and detailing, a popular tradition and crafts in their own right. [Photo: Jonathan Abdul-Malek]

In similar vein are marketing videos of revived manufacturing and industries within the United States that paint entrepreneurs as “saving” local industry and “preserving” former ways of being. This is problematic when those “former ways” included free labor sources, now replaced by mostly brown men from south of the border, with no video mention of them, their names, their lives, or the migration that brought them to work far from their own lands, families, traditions, and cultures. The presumed “natural” and status quo model of a single owner and their vertically oriented hierarchical business is directly challenged by historic and current collectives, co-operatives, and other worker-led, -owned, and -operated efforts. Seeking these out might be more difficult, but this effort will prove to be more sustainable longterm.7

Environment

Longterm sustainability brings us directly to environmental concerns. I think back to the 70s and the forced push toward environmentalism, and how this evaporated once the oil embargo was lifted. Similar to the too-brief period of COVID lockdown last year, I wonder: What if we had maintained that somehow? How many lives would have been saved? What state would the planet be in? Where would we be now, instead of in a constant crisis mode? The less-rhetorical questions for me are: How do we change our relationship to our craft via a radically altered worldview? How do we shift away from a focus on the aesthetic end point of craft, divorced from and denying the production of materials, fibers, and dyes themselves, the toll this takes on the environment, and our very relationship to the Earth itself?8

I absolutely support local and small business–modeled creatives as well as indie dyers. I remember my undergrad years spent with The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, and the emphasis on knowing one’s materials down to the chemical level. Yet now in terms of fiber arts I have so many questions without answer, which I feel leaves me unable to make ethical decisions. What is the environmental impact of dye fabrication and dyeing itself? Is there such a thing as large-scale natural dyeing? Who is making progress here in terms of environmentally sound production? How can they be vaunted? Are there options for the end user other than taking up production oneself? It’s a huge contradiction that worries me more when it concerns small producers working along symbolic lines of great import, and/or who have been kept outside of markets for cultural and historical reasons [link to an example at Darci Does It ➤].

Beyond this, I’d be curious to know if there are discussions taking place of recuperative, co-operative, or intensive dyeing methods, yarn recovery from thrift-store items, redistribution of fiber and yarn from estates, repurposing clothing and creative mending, etc. We might also question our relationship to yarn stashes, which might not be the point of pride we think they are.9 I remember scoffing at my parents’ junk drawer, and the balls of bakery-derived red-and-white string, bread bag ties, etc., saying one time, “We can just go to the store and get this stuff!” The response from my mother was a tight-lipped lecture about the Depression and World War II, and how lucky we are, and how we should count our blessings. The question becomes: Where and how do I position myself within yarn economies? How do I aim for the sustainable and longterm? How can I consider my stash a communal or collective asset? How do I “down-stash”, or negate stashing to begin with?

E. Community, Local Yarn Stores, and non-dominant communities

I struggle with the term “community” now that I’m back in North America. There are places I’ve definitely found it or am able to experience it through others (Newark, Jersey City, Oakland, Dearborn-Detroit, just for a few examples) and places I absolutely haven’t (Vancouver where I work, Surrey where I live). The common thread here is not strictly an identity-based one, though many of these places happen to be “majority-minority” (this also includes Surrey, for one contrary example). Often it has to do with vibrant working class communities, as well as extant histories of resistance to dominant modes and norms. This readily explains dominant cultural hatred for such places, as well as their continued punishment and internal colonization via state and federal powers-that be10.

British Columbia is a stultifying and colonized place [Link to a previous exploration of this topic ➤]. I have wanted to imagine finding an art community of like mind here. Other than work, volunteer gigs in a radical bookstore, and errands, I don’t venture off the beaten path. This is not for not wanting to, but because I’ve repeatedly been taught my lesson11. Conversations with international students and students from immigrant families resonate, but only in a shared existential sense. The realization is a difficult one: Wherever the dominant cultural mode looms large and remains unchecked in any substantial way produces a place that does not sustain nurturing and ma‘ūn-based communities.

How BC imagines itself…

This carries over to communities of affinity, virtual or real-life, which stop being community when discourses seen as the status quo demand similar consensus. For example, Ravelry tossed off perceived Trump supporters, creating both a big uproar and much self-congratulation. Remaining online though not seen as equally problematic are, for example, a user trumpeting how they learned Arabic to do tours of duty in Iraq. I tuned in to a Canadian podcaster who, apologizing for a long absence, chastised the viewing audience for not “sending some hot cops to do a wellness check” at his house. The “wellness check” is a tactic Canadian police use to gain access to a home. For marginalized groups, it is always a terrifying interaction, because more often than not it ends tragically. Given the times, I’m not sure how possible it is to be so tone deaf to those outside of the dominant cultural norm, or how assumed “progressiveness” via identity markers overrides more obvious and much more evidently divergent differences of political and economic embodiment.

What BC secretes away inside.

I have a nascent Ravelry page up [link to page ➤], and I’ve joined a bunch of groups there. It seems like a ghost town, and given its recent history and purging, this makes sense. I know of a start-up that shows promise called Fiber Club [link to description ➤], and I’m looking forward to that. As much as I’d prefer to frequent a Local Yarn Store, I’ve resorted to buying supplies from a variety of Canadian yarn outlets (for the reduced shipping costs and to avoid the racket of Canadian customs clearance). I’ve ventured into two local shops, and the first experience was so disturbing that I ended up debriefing about it for days with friends, even though I imagine myself to be pretty inured to the xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia of this place. I still don’t know what the deal was, as nothing was directly voiced. But there was a disturbing vibe that I could not dismiss, and the encounter was completely unpleasant. [Note: The store is under new ownership, and the new owner is very nice and welcoming; it is a great yarn shop that I’m happy to be able to frequent again.]

I’ve been stress knitting this “yarn bomb” for the past two weeks
while sitting vigil for a friend, his family, and folks in Gaza.

I have discovered that a fellow adoptee who I have been working with for years on conferences is also an avid knitter, and we are hoping to start up “knit nights” that I imagine might expand. There is an “adoptees unraveled” group at Ravelry we are considering reviving a bit [link to group ➤]. The afore-mentioned artists’ collective includes a few knitters, and I’m hoping our next project there will be knitting-based. I am inspired by stories I’ve been following of knitting-as-therapy in prisons, schools, and among the disenfranchised; I want to see more of this kind of community building within the dominant modes of fiber art mediation.

The flip side of this would be much less focus on individual purchasing power as some kind of marker of arrival, or talent in its own right. Finally, I’m extremely wary of the caveat on Ravelry of knitting as “fun”, and this being a criterion of who gets canned online. The middle-realm purge of the political right online is always accompanied by one of the political left; all of the major social media platforms censor radical left-wing voices of a social justice framework. The craftspeople I know often tie their work to ideas of protest and resistance, and this crucial aspect of the history within the annals of the fiber arts is being erased. My final question is then: Is there a place for this in the limited list of market emporia that masquerade as bases of community? And if there isn’t, at this very moment in history, what does that say about our society? About this community?

III. Conclusions

As this web site attests, I categorize adoption as functional to place-based and class distances of colonial and imperial imposition, and family-based mimicry of nation-state foreign policy. This often is reflected obviously in our adoptive parents, and the reasons that found them in far-flung parts of the world. My father was working at the time for an oil company in Iran, years after the American and British overthrow of the socialist prime minister who was attempting to nationalize the oil industry there. Like many employees overseas, his return to the States brought a collection of carpets, metalcraft, porcelain, and artworks back home from his place of employ. A lot of these are knockoffs produced for the market demands of such purchasers (see image below). Many are wonders of craftsmanship with a value found in their origin and production, cultural symbolism and expression, completely outside of ascribed or imposed monetary value or outside description.

Having your local craft undone by a market-enforced catering to the Outside.

It is here perhaps that I can locate my own aversion to distancing myself from ideas of source and place. It is here perhaps that I find a sensual positive reaction to the materials that pass through my fingers as I create a fabric. This results in a questioning and desire to understand their material origin; an understanding that an object produced by me carries these stories forward and cannot be divorced from them nor from those in the production chain. Maybe it is here that petroleum-sourced yarns fall flat, in their absence of narrative and absolute mockery of the natural realm, as only man-made simulacra might12.

It is also here that I vow to adhere to my own manifesto tenets along lines that seek to ask: “What lies beyond this current moment? How do we create our fiber future starting now?” To this end and in no particular order, I vow:

  • Avoidance of plastics in my own purchased yarns, while at the same time laboring to find and highlighting affordable alternatives for those who find natural yarns priced out of reach, and pressuring manufacturers and vendors to do the same;
  • Avoidance of companies that hyper-market themselves along deceptive feel-good lines of environmental, sustainable, and equitable practices;
  • Questioning my need for stash by understanding historically the class-based reasons for stockpiling and hoarding, and how aesthetic-based ownership is a vulgar and deceptive mimicry of modes of attrition and precarity;
  • Seeking a most-expansive understanding of the labor input to the material practices that result in my own fabric and product output13;
  • Researching aspects of yarn production as to environmental impact, the treatment of animals, as well as the role of workers and their relationship to production and profit;
  • Coming to terms immediately with true sustainability and the demands this will make on class position, comfort, luxury, privilege, and the like14;
  • Seeking creation of community everywhere, with everyone, and always; not just along identity or affinity lines;
  • Leaning always toward the communal nature of craft, eschewing the exaltation of individual designers, or preferring those who reveal their own communal connections in this regard;
  • Fighting complacency when communities don’t challenge class distance and/or exclusion based on differing levels of economic and political embodiment;
  • Siting equivalent and collective expression and throughput in material practice and production as opposed to solely imagining individual creative expression and agency.

I would welcome discussion of these ideas on Ravelry and elsewhere. I would especially like to hear from adoptees who are similarly striving to reconnect with source, family, community, and roots in original countries of birth via their craft expression. Feedback is always appreciated. See you in the knitting circle.

REFERENCES:

I started out following a lot of podcasts, but many of them now just seem stuck in a consumerist mode that ends up being really depressing for the churn of it especially against the backdrop of the “fiddling while Rome burns” feel of the world right now. There are two online sources (more like treasure troves) of information that I’ve found extremely useful, inspiring of this manifesto, and truly uplifting:

Suzanne Bryan [https://www.youtube.com/c/SuzanneBryan/videos]
When you get tired of the vacuous and useless technique videos out there, turn to Suzanne Bryan. What I appreciate most here is not just the detailed overview, but the variations, options, as well as possibilities of what is being demonstrated. Technique is “real world”, and not demos divorced from context. So three kinds of mosaic knitting, for example; or else starting double knitting in a field of garter stitch. Thorough, eye-opening, and practical.

Roxanne Richardson [https://www.youtube.com/user/RoxMpls]
The amount of information that Roxanne pumps into the fiber realm is quite phenomenal, and her videos have saved me from insanity on multiple occasions. Gets into the nitty gritty of everything from physical properties of yarn to stitch architecture, and includes historical overviews that are extremely informational.

Darci Does It [https://darcidoesit.com/]
Darci’s web site and YouTube channel reflect voices that remain unheard in the knitting world. The split second of under-representation being a Big Deal is over on YouTube and Ravelry (except for liberal posturing) and I am hard-pressed to find within the realm of the fiber arts any reflection of how I work and how those I know and respect work. The web site features yarn from independent dyers, and the video podcasts break it all down in no uncertain terms. Highly recommended.

Books, etc.: The author Cecelia Campochiaro kind of blows my mind on 100 different levels, and I wish I could redo my undergrad and Masters degrees studying solely under her tutelage [link to web site ➤]. The books in my library, open to the university community, can be found here [link to library ➤], with a focused search on fiber arts and knitting at this link: [link to specific books ➤] and on craft [link to specific books ➤] as well as labor [link to specific books ➤].


ENDNOTES:

  1. Carol and I joke that our problem isn’t just being acculturated Americans in Canada, but being New Jerseyans outside of New Jersey, which is an entirely different discussion.
  2. See also: computer programming, graphic design, and printmaking.
  3. One rabbit hole I went down on YouTube revealed this kind of rugmaking, now mechanized with a yarn gun, to be quite the rage along lines of urban culture, tagging, graffiti, etc.
  4. At one point I started a research project looking into the anarchist and socialist communes, organizations, communities, and actions that can be found in New Jersey history. For just a few examples: The Ferrer Modern School in (now) Piscataway; the Kropotkin Library there as well; the Paterson silk mill strikes, etc.
  5. When discussing this with students, some of the major reasons that arise to explain why craft is given short shrift include both its communal nature as well as it being disparagingly seen as “something women do”.
  6. The bourgeois conceit of repurposed working class production and expression is rampant within the art and craft worlds: letterpress, printmaking, sewing, etc. all speak to a “rarefication” of what was once essential, popular, and working class–based.
  7. One example of what I am seeking is John Arbon Textiles in Devon, England. Using recovered and repurposed machinery, producing small-scale output of wool sourced for the most part locally, and with a non-hierarchical working model as well as collective membership plan, the sustainability of the product, the fibershed, and the workers themselves is assured. [link to web site ➤].
  8. The worst of these is a Turkish-owned yarn company (Urth) that purports to bring work to women “who otherwise would be locked in their homes”, in a direct appeal to Western Islamophobia. Their whole “trees for Africa” marketing device is 1980s-era missionary/NGO nonsense, often referred to as humanitarian imperialism. There are already a dozen reasons to boycott Turkish products, please add this company to that list.
  9. An intriguing intersection of Indigenous, Islamic, as well as Marxist viewpoints.
  10. My friend Carol works part-time for what is technically a moving service, but which should more readily be seen as a “de-hoarding team”. The stories she recounts are heartbreaking, and many of them involve quantities of yarn in stashes. We are both vowing to avoid this in the finite amount of time left us in this realm.
  11. For one example of a solidarity economy and dual power constructs, see Jackson, Mississippi’s Cooperation Jackson [link to Cooperation Jackson web site ➤].
  12. In all honesty, I fear more here for my students of color, both in terms of their mental as well as physical well-being, than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.
  13. Frankenstein crafts exist. I have a similar way of describing to students the difference between linoleum and woodblocks in terms of material practices, even though linoleum is technically a natural material. It is all the same “lifeless”, whereas wood has “spirit” that remains intact and manifests itself in the end product.
  14. One reading I give my students on this subject is “Art As Collective Action” by Howard S. Becker. [link to article (requires access) ➤]
  15. Step 1: deleting the Amazon account. Amazon remains the absolute antithesis if not negation of the points raised in this manifesto. There is no valid argument otherwise.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
This entry was posted in craft, Manifesto and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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