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Anarchy and Apron Strings

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 on crochetville.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.

In a yarn-strewn room at the shop, Hoskins weighs in on the New Domestics and the sudden appeal of crafts and housework. I wonder from the start if she's going to drop the F-bomb in relation to the womanly arts, and sure enough, she does. "I do think it's feminist in some way," Hoskins says. "I think a lot of it is, like, the reclamation of our feminine past, and the fact that it's not something to be ashamed of."

Shame. It's an interesting point to ponder, considering past generations of women were made to feel ashamed if they couldn't whip up a soufflé or darn a tattered sock. The cruelest mid-century supper club humor was directed toward inept wives, those poor wretches who burned dinner, scorched linens, and would sooner buy a shirt than mend one. Now, ironically, some women feel the need to apologize if they excel at--or even take an interest in--traditionally feminine activities. It could be viewed as treason, or worse, the systematic undoing of the progress our feminist forebears made a generation ago.

Hoskins believes the opposite--that the choice to be domestic or even work exclusively inside the home is just another privilege afforded by feminism. "We have the luxury of reclaiming this part [of ourselves]. Where in the past, like in the '60s and '70s, there was so much work to be done to stake our claim outside of the home," Hoskins says. "Maybe we're starting to feel like we can and should value what women have always done, that it's not inferior to what men have done."

"Women's work" has always been a loaded term, and seldom a compliment. It evokes softness, weakness, tedium, even inferiority. "A man's job," contrariwise, has usually meant dirty, adrenaline-fueled, challenging labor deemed unfit for the fairer sex. But why are some traditionally gendered tasks considered more valuable than others? Is baking inherently less important to society than, say, post-digging?

"Knitting is women's work, but that's good," Hoskins says emphatically. "It's not less worthy than working outside the home."

Maybe that's one reason last year's remake of The Stepford Wives was so roundly rejected by audiences: The crusty old archetype of the enslaved housewife has been replaced by the new vision of the empowered domestic. (Or else the film just sucked.) Either way, it looks like those tired old 'bots need to make way for a new crop of duster-wielding goddesses: the Stepford Punks.

For whatever reason, a punk rock ethos permeates the New Domestic lifestyle. This makes for some incongruous creations. At Crafty Planet, there's a sewing bag on display that reads "Knit Fast. Die Young." They've got patterns for skull-print sweaters, Goth embroidery, and snarky cross-stitch sampler kits that bear such treasured, timeworn expressions as "Babies Suck," "Beeyotch," "Merry Fucking Christmas," and my personal favorite, "Irony Isn't Dead." On a corkboard near the door, various hipster entrepreneurs advertise their wares: guitar strap appliqués, hand-sewn Vespa seat covers, even hip kiddie clothes. Some of the Crafty Planet denizens may be housewives, but I detected no whiff of desperation. Imagine Kim Gordon in a Vulcan mind-meld with Betty Crocker and you'll get the idea. Today's crafter is more Riot Grrl than Girl Scout, cookies notwithstanding.

Hoskins sees definite blood ties between the genesis of the New Domestic movement and the local punk rock scene. "It started with music, I think," Hoskins says. "The whole DIY movement: starting your own record label, having your own band, doing your own thing. DIY can apply to anything. It's about wanting to be independent and not wanting to support big business or be corporate. You don't want to buy a sweater everyone else has." Think of it as stickin' it to the Man with a six-millimeter crochet hook.

The punk rock esthetic is evident even in the BUST merch that initially shocked me with its seeming docility: "I'm Foxy and Crafty!" screams a knitting-needle holster. The booklet of cookie recipes includes "suggestions of punk rock tunes to listen to while baking." And the Easy-to-Knit Scarf Kit promises to produce not a neatly stitched muffler, but a tattered, deconstructed paper yarn sash that, according to the description, is "so punk rock." In fact, BUST cofounder Debbie Stoller originally borrowed the term "stitch 'n' bitch" to describe gatherings of rogue knitters who embrace yarn and anarchy in equal measure.

 

This maverick attitude in younger crafters is a relatively new phenomenon--"old-school" housewives, unsurprisingly, tend to toe the line. "The younger people, our core group, they're more likely to try to learn on their own. They're independent." Hoskins says, noting that older customers are more likely to seek detailed instruction. "You see fewer younger knitters working from patterns."

That turns out to be an apt metaphor: Despite handicrafts' reputation of being passed from generation to generation, many of today's twentysomethings were never taught to sew on a button, let alone knit elaborate toques. In the '70s and '80s, my own mother was too busy schlepping coffee for her male associates to worry about obsolete womanly arts like needlework. Hoskins says that most of the students at Crafty Planet's classes are reclaiming a heritage lost somewhere along the way. "I don't know how many of these women learned from their parents or grandparents," she says. "I think more often they're coming without having learned anything when they were young."

Once you become aware of them, the New Domestics are ubiquitous. You'll see a green-haired girl knitting infinitesimal preemie booties on the bus. Or you'll overhear a conversation between two dreadlocked grad students about how to properly mulch rose bushes for optimal blooms. Sometimes they gather at bars for hours of drunken, riotous purling, or meet at the park with their socially conscious, thrift-shop-outfitted toddlers in tow. The New Domestics aren't poseurs or dilettantes; they're cranking out real-deal handicrafts and tending gorgeous gardens with expert panache. And unlike their downtrodden housewife ancestors, they look happy.

 

"holy craftgasm! My first mitten!" --Post on craftster.com

 

Katherine Hysell, 24, enjoys sewing, beading, painting, baking, and of course, knitting. Like many of the New Doms, she equates her education in handicrafts to a feminist awakening. "I was taught how to knit by a college roommate and she was very into feminism and women's studies," Hysell recalls. "I think teaching me made her think that she was passing something on."

"The patterns and yarns out there today are not what your mama had," says Michelle Bogusz, who sews, knits, and crochets. "It's almost like a revolution in our feminine heritage: 'We love you, Grammy, but we're just gonna take what you taught us and evolve from there.'"

Contrary to the stigma of housework and handicrafts as rote, tedious, and numbing, many New Domestics profess to like the calming, almost hypnotic sensation brought on by crafting. Call it "the narcotic effect with no name," or a serendipitous modern-day version of the "mother's little helper" that kept '50s housewives smiling through even the most dour of situations.

And then there's the unexpected catharsis of the crafting circle, that sacrosanct feminine space where stitching rarely takes precedence over bitching. "I get a chance to see that there's a lot going on outside the bubble of married life," says Bogusz of the frequent crafting parties she attends. "The social aspect is fun, but there's so much more going on. This is an opportunity for us to mix and not necessarily talk about our kids or husbands. We talk about fashion, sex, pop culture...I look forward to the next gathering five minutes after I've left the last."

"I've had many friends ask me to teach them how to knit," Hysell says. "I'm surprised myself by how trendy it's become."

Trendy enough to lure even a convenience-obsessed, yarn-phobic journalist to a crafting party? You bet your ass. Armed with two skeins of yarn, a pair of bamboo needles the size of chopsticks, and a how-to book amusingly titled I Can't Believe I'm Knitting!, I bravely ventured to a friend's apartment to see why needlework sends so many otherwise rational young women into paroxysms of ecstasy. There were five invitees in attendance, and I watched in horror as each tackled her project with the grace and assurance of an HGTV host.

Meanwhile, I struggled to "cast on," which is the technical term for winding some goddamn string around stupid inflexible sticks using an inscrutable cat's-cradle diagram. The sleek (and expensive) yarn I'd started out with soon morphed into a misshapen mass of pubic fluff, raked into disarray by my inept fingers and stretched out beyond repair. Not only could I not knit, I couldn't even complete the preliminary step to begin knitting. Two hours later, with a crick in my back, a stormy expression, and an unspoken vendetta against all yarn manufacturers, I tossed aside I Can't Believe I'm Knitting! and resigned myself to a joyless, craft-free life devoid of any feminine heritage. Can't Knit for Shit was more like it.

"You'll figure it out one day," my friends reassured me as they modestly unfurled variegated chenille scarves, stylish fuzzy ponchos, and embroidered napkins. But their eyes reflected fathomless pity. I was no better than that most incompetent of housekeepers: a husband.

 

Speaking of husbands, where are the boys in all this? It's obvious that most New Domestics are in it for their own edification, rather than to cater to the men in their lives, but are any guys actually participating in the hot crafty action? "We do get a decent amount of men coming in," Hysell says, though she admits that her male customers are overwhelmingly sensitive types. In other words, don't expect to see any mustachioed NASCAR fans crocheting in the stands anytime soon, though such a display of confident masculinity would surely impress the ladies.

Despite my failure to knit at even a child's competency level, I must confess that I didn't remain wholly undomesticated for long: During my visit to Crafty Planet two weeks later, Hoskins, bless her heart, helped me find the perfect simple needlecraft for a clumsy-fingered cynic, and I'm proud to report that this project was a success. Sure, the stitches might not be even, the knots might be conspicuous, and my counting may have been a little askew in places. However, I now have a handmade cross-stitch sampler in my office that reads "GO FUCK YOURSELF" in homey script. I guess crafting can be cathartic after all.

Bogusz, meanwhile, continues to marvel at the crafting opportunities that present themselves in our accelerated culture. "Who ever thought to knit a bikini?" she wonders. "Or an iPod cozy?"

Obviously, someone who embraces bravado and progress but clings stubbornly to an idealized, even imagined tradition. Is this supplication to the hearth sentimental or toxic, empowering or insulting? Women today might have the privilege of mastering the fuzzy, insular domestic arts over the male-coded skill sets favored in the corporate world. Unfortunately, progress requires preventive maintenance, and if women don't continue to challenge men at their own game, or worse, choose to re-ghettoize themselves in the home, all our hard work could unravel like a poorly knit sock.

Perhaps there's a more poignant side to this movement, a flash of tenderness buried beneath all that punk rock bravado. Maybe today's young women, largely raised by working mothers, are grasping for some kind of concrete connection to the distant past, a time when women relied on each other, kept close company, created the things they needed, and took pride in their homes and children, rather than feeling ashamed of themselves for caring. There's guilt and conflict inherent in being a modern girl--how does one attain gender equality without devaluing the skills our mothers and grandmothers cultivated? If being successful means devoting oneself solely to "man's work," then what does that say about women?

Or maybe it's all much simpler than that. "To have someone come up to you and tell you that they love your scarf, shawl, or hat is nice, but to be able to tell them that you made it is a million times better," Hysell says. "I've always been a 'make it yourself' type. I am not the domestic diva I lead some people to believe I am. I'm just a knitter, basically a scarf and hat kind of gal."

"People bond and become friends," Hoskins says of the gatherings at her shop. "Sometimes there's a lot more chatting than crafts going on."

Perhaps Bogusz has the best (and simplest) explanation for the growing ranks of the New Domestics. "I do believe we're having fun."


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