What have you done for me lately?

One question that came up at the Portsmouth sampler talk is a perennial question among stitchers and knitters alike: how did the adults of yore get such small children to sit still enough and concentrate to do these hand crafts? The samplers we saw during the talk were made by girls as young as 8, and two were made by a girl at ages 12-ish and 16; she’d clearly developed an affinity for needlework and done more than was technically required to show her proficiency with a needle. There is historical evidence to support girls having done a great deal of knitting during the colonial period as well; one girl’s diary that was excerpted in No Idle Hands recorded her making some progress on her knitting, probably of stockings, almost every day. The author theorizes that a certain number of rounds was likely required every day, before the knitter could go and do other things, stockings being as perennial a need as you can imagine they would be if they were handmade for everyone.

I’m always a little surprised when someone asks that. It’s not as though we don’t teach children today to sit still and develop fine motor skills. It’s just that it usually isn’t these fine motor skills. Knitting was an important and marketable skill for women in colonial times, and for some men too (there were jobs, like shepherding, that lent themselves well to knitting, and men were expected to do it). Embroidery was marketable also, regardless of social class. A poor to middle class woman could sell her work and/or make a living teaching others how to do it. A middle class to wealthy woman needed to be able to demonstrate her value on the marriage market. Both knitting and embroidery (and crochet and lacemaking, and a host of other crafts) were means by which someone could earn money and maintain her family, and they remained viable until into the 20th century (and some would argue, until now). To not teach a child how to do needlework was to hobble her economically. We would no sooner neglect to teach a child to read and write now.

So here’s my theory: it’s not that children now are less capable of knitting or doing needlework; it’s that the economic rewards of doing it (or the consequences of not doing it) are not nearly as great as they once were. Then as now, everyone learns to do what they need to do, like reading and writing, for basic success in life. Some people enjoy it and do more: reading and writing for pleasure, or profit. But what is done or not done is not a good measure of what can or can’t be done.

(Here’s another one: people will ask knitters why they bother knitting socks when you can just buy them much cheaper. Do people ask techies why they build their own systems instead of just hieing themselves down to the Best Buy?)


4 thoughts on “What have you done for me lately?

  1. “Do people ask techies why they build their own systems instead of just hieing themselves down to the Best Buy?”

    Surprisingly, YES. One of the most common arguments I see from people who like Apple products is that it comes out of the box ready to go. (Of course some PCs come ready-to-go too, but in general it’s a lot easier to upgrade/replace in a PC than in a Mac.)

    A lot of hobbies that kids have nowadays aren’t economically productive for the household in the short term but are excellent for CV-boosting for college applications, thereby potentially increasing potential income later on (I cite some classmates of mine who got fencing scholarships or something like that to very good schools. So far I’ve only ever heard of one knitting scholarship program, through Jimmy Beans Wool, sigh…).

    • Oh, that’s interesting; I never heard of it as a Mac-vs-PC thing, but mostly as a techie-vs-average user thing. Still, I feel like that’s usually more respected than knitting, at least as long as you’re not asking a bunch of knitters.

      I’ve been listening to the back catalogue of Knit Picks podcasts, and Kelly Petkun spent some time in one of them talking about how feminism didn’t do us a lot of favors in terms of handwork (I’m paraphrasing). I don’t entirely agree; I think some crafts benefited a lot from the women’s movement. But she has a point that things have gone in and out of favor with the powers that be. I suspect a lot of people would still think a knitting scholarship was either extremely reactionary or only good for someone planning to go for an arts degree. It’s hard to believe that with so many users on Ravelry, knitting is still seen as outside the mainstream for women under, arbitrarily, age 50 or so.

      • “I suspect a lot of people would still think a knitting scholarship was either extremely reactionary or only good for someone planning to go for an arts degree.”

        If I recall correctly, the scholarship is just for someone who knits. I don’t think there are any restrictions on what the knitter wants to study, it could be anything.

        As for the whole feminism’s influence on crafts thing, I wonder how much of that is due to First and Second-wave feminists? Many of whom, I might add, were pretty privileged socio-economically, or at least more so than minority women in the US (not to start off the Oppression Olympics, of course).

        Even though I’m quite young, relatively speaking, most of my family is much older than I am and as such I think they view knitting and sewing and gardening and things like that as useful skills. If you remember WWII like my dad does, I think that sort of thrift-inducing experience influences how you rear your children, no matter how feminist you might be.

        (When I mean thrifty I really mean THRIFTY: up until the past few years my dad and I would melt down scrap pieces of bar soap, put the soap in a recycled can, and then slice the old soap-scraps soap into new bars. Yeah…)

        • I hear you on the thrift! My parents are boomers; my grandfathers were in WWII. My mother’s parents, particularly, never threw anything away. My grandfather used to make money buying small appliances and like that at flea markets, fixing them up, and selling them on radio shows like Swap Shop. Their home was characterized by an abundance of pens. I never knew that was genetic until I started counting the pen/pencil cups around my house. My grandmother, now 90, has always been a champion knitter, and very thrifty. She sees the yarn I use (wool, almost always) and never fails to remark on how nice it is.

          I was hoping I’d get to read more in No Idle Hands and tell you whether anything in there talked about second wave feminism, but so far, not much has been said. I’m up to the Civil War, and what I get from that was that an enormous mobilization among knitters took place, to supply the soldiers with socks and other knitted items, primarily distributed through the Sanitary Committee (the Army commissary in the Union, at least, sold machine-knit socks, but those of the Sanitary Committee were better-regarded, and also, free). To help raise funds, the SC organized huge bazaars, and evidently, men found it very troubling that women were doing all of these executive functions, and also minding sales tables. It’s shaping up to be one of those things where it’s okay for women to organize and work because a) it’s knitting; and b) it’s a time of extremis, like WWII and women working in factories. But given how strongly the cult of domesticity takes hold in the rest of the 19th century after the war, it can’t really be called a decisive victory for feminism.

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