I’ve been looking through some American craft magazines from the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s and marveling at the changes in our culture since they were published: there are numerous patterns for lace doilies and lace edging for women’s handkerchiefs, advertisements for wonderful new types of synthetic yarn, and articles about how to make money by recycling tin cans into plates or selling mail-order greeting cards. It makes me wonder, what happened to all of the things that the readers – like my grandmothers and great grandmothers – might have made from these magazines?
I suppose they could have ended up in Mike Kelley’s 1987 piece, “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid,” which I saw in the 2011 Walker Art Center exhibit The Spectacular of the Vernacular. I went there to see two beautiful sculptures by my brother, Aaron. The exhibit “considers how artists have claimed homemade handicrafts or rustic aesthetic traditions in new ways.” (PBS.org) Kelley did that with his huge tapestry of old, discarded hand-made dolls, stuffed animals and afghans.
To me, his piece was looking at and questioning the value and necessity of homemade things in our culture. As a life-long knitter, I took it personally. The bears and afghans were familiar and reminded me of the crocheted and knitted things my grandma, neighbors, and other family friends made for me and my brothers in the 1970’s and 1980’s. More importantly, only a few weeks before seeing the Walker exhibit I myself had given a hand-knitted bunny to my four-year-old daughter for Christmas.
While my daughter liked receiving it – she proudly remembered me working on it – I noticed several days later that she hadn’t played with it yet, even though the wool was locally spun (Bemidji Woolen Mills); the dress was made from luxurious, somewhat expensive alpaca yarn; and I had spent hours making a swatch, planning out the yarn, and knitting and piecing it together (I hate piecing). It had been a labor of love for my child. But despite my best efforts, the bunny didn’t really turn out to be as “good” as store-bought: it wasn’t as soft and cuddly as her plush bears, it had no buttons or batteries. So when I saw Mike Kelley’s piece, I wondered: will my daughter’s little bunny end up discarded like these other imperfect, scratchy homemade bears and blankets? What becomes of the imperfect, useless, scratchy, acrylic or wool hand-made things when there are perfect, shiny machine-made products that often become more loved, more used, more necessary to our daily lives? Is there a general lack of quality craftsmanship that is missing in our craft culture in America, where just the fact that something is handmade and not made at a factory makes an item not only a novelty but an heirloom as well?
These questions, I suppose, compel me to try to make things better. That is, if I can make something that is really beautiful, really special and fits just perfectly, it will be as good as factory-made and store-bought and will be loved and used – and keep it from ending up in the dustbin. Ultimately, though, I’m going to say that it doesn’t really matter what happens with my knitting after I’ve finished it and given it away. I love the knitting process and the moment of giving something I’ve made, and of course I would like to know the person appreciated it and could use it. But after I’ve given it away, it is no longer for me to decide. And I am only as good as my latest work, right? So I will keep trying to make better bunnies and socks and scarves…
And as for my own family’s many “heirloom” sweaters, afghans and doilies, I am happy to say that, after a few button and stitch repairs and despite the fact that they are acrylic (I prefer wool) my husband’s grandma’s sweaters keep us beautiful and warm all winter and my grandma’s afghans keep my daughter cozy at night. The dozens of my grandma’s colorful and intricate hand-crocheted doilies, however, remain piled up in the drawer of my china cabinet. At least they have each other’s company: the bunny remains on my daughter’s dresser, well dressed, but alone.