Anarchy and Apron Strings

The new domesticity: On the needle with the Knit Grrrls

BUST, the official quarterly publication of lipstick-packing, Kathleen Hannah-worshipping Third Wave feministes, does a brisk business in its official online store. A recent visit to the "Boobtique" revealed all the edgy merchandise you might expect from a sex-positive feminist publication: Waterproof "rabbit" vibrators fashioned of nontoxic silicon. Animal-friendly lip balm (since bunnies are for clitoral stimulation, not cosmetic testing). A camouflage-print tampon case that boasts "Raise the Red Flag," as if involuntarily shedding one's uterine lining is a radical act. Shocking pink T-shirts emblazoned with the scowling visage of St. Joan (Jett). Knitting needles.

Hold up...knitting needles? Like, those funny sticks Nana used to transform itchy skeins of wool into unlovable stocking stuffers? No freaking way.

Must be a clever ruse, I thought upon discovering this glaring idiosyncrasy. Perhaps said needles were actually weapons of self-defense to be concealed within the wearer's camo-print tampon case and unsheathed in case of assault. Or maybe knitting needles had become a soigné hair ornament for the Le Tigre set. After all, a bunch of punk rock girls who disdain archaic notions of kinder und küche aren't going to waste time knitting sweaters when they've got pending legislation to protest. Right?

But as I ventured further into the virtual environs of the Boobtique, the apparent disconnect between the mission and the merchandise became even more glaring: There were recipe cards, the same kind your mom swapped with her fellow hens on bridge night. Needlepoint patterns. Embroidery kits. There was a demure apron, ideal for shielding one's housedress from errant flour or spilled sherry. There was even a booklet of cookie recipes, complete with guitar-shaped cutters for indie cred. This was no prank. A gingersnap-happy soccer mom hadn't hacked the server in the hopes of creating a clone army. I was the interloper, having unwittingly entered the airy realm of the New Domestics, or as they like to call themselves, "crafty girls."

While this trend might sound like a right-wing conspiracy engineered by disciples of Dr. Laura, rest assured that this isn't a Republican thing--and it's certainly not about the care and feeding of husbands. In fact, the New Domestic movement couldn't have sprung up any further from the cultural right. Suddenly, baking, gardening, sewing, and especially knitting are all the rage among educated, ultra-liberal young women, and feminist rags like BUST aren't alone in catering to this crowd. The ancient rituals of tending to hearth and home have suddenly acquired hipster cachet, and crafting circles are popping up like prize-winning hydrangeas all over the Twin Cities.

The New Domestics hem skirts, darn socks, and polish their floors "Cinderella-style" on hands and bruised knees. They mulch their indigenous gardens with free-trade coffee grounds, swathe their faux-hawked infants in handwoven wraps, and crochet dildo cozies. It's like a postmodern version of Martha Stewart Living where tatting handmade lace isn't just acceptable, it's cool. Online communities like Get Crafty, Craft Mafia, and even radical fave Hip Mama are populated with young women proud to be fully domesticated. Many posters even define their profession as "housewife" (or its more primal counterpart, "mama") without a tinge of irony. Feminists used to boast about infiltrating the boys' club; now it's become a badge of honor to devote oneself to so-called women's work.

My first thought about all this was that our '60s and '70s feminist forebears didn't jiggle their way into the national consciousness so their daughters could frost cupcakes and embroider napkins. Female domesticity, after all, was once viewed as a form of captivity, a shameful and usually lifelong tour of duty enforced by the patriarchy. The numbing effects of housework were documented in Betty Friedan's Second Wave manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan described this domestic malaise as "the problem with no name." (Those were the days before the media coined snappy terms for every ailment, however vague.) I couldn't imagine why any woman would want to regress to an era where doped-up American wives were enslaved by spotless appliances of salmon and goldenrod. Great-Grandma knitted socks because there was no Target, not because she grooved on developing calluses.

Then I wondered if the new obsession with handicrafts was merely a postmodern nod to those fading archetypes. Pearls, stockings, bullet bras, twinsets, and other signifiers of buttoned-up '50s femininity have long been an ironic fashion statement for the emo set. Venture into any Hot Topic store, if you dare, and you'll find frilly bloomers and granny glasses on display alongside the usual Lil' Sniper trench coats and System of a Down tees. "Matron chic" has been a staple of the punk scene for ages. So maybe the fascination with domestic arts is a postmillennial moment for with-it girls, destined to disappear as quickly as yesterday's cocktail.

Maybe not.

 

"i want a spinning wheel." --Post oncrochetville.com

 

Trish Hoskins--librarian, scooter enthusiast, and coproprietor of Crafty Planet, a hip craft and fabric store in northeast Minneapolis--thinks renewed interest in the domestic arts is actually evidence that today's woman is rightfully unashamed of her feminine heritage. Hoskins opened Crafty Planet in 2003 and has since watched distaff Minneapolis scenesters snap up knitting needles as if they were the last beer at Grumpy's.

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