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In life, as in Wool, Diversity is our Strength

I’ve been struggling lately with how to express some feelings I have about the fiber world of late.  Frankly, I’m saddened to see the tired old tropes still clinging: Men who knit, weave, and crochet harassed and belittled.  People of color rejected or made unwelcome. Members of the dominant socio-economic group complaining when fiber arts are used for something other than “relaxation.”  Condemning a major fiber arts platform for reinforcing their community standards and reminding people hate will not be tolerated.

I know many people who somehow manage to create little boxes that hold all sorts of things nicely and neatly separate from other parts of their lives.  Knitting is a hobby and nothing more. Social media is for trading photos of family BBQs and nothing more. Schools are a place where all we do is learn from books and nothing more.

I don’t know how that works.

I am a woman.  As a woman I have been continuously paid less, born the brunt of the mental and emotional burden of relationships, subjected to terrifying misogyny and sexual assault on a daily basis.  I am no more capable of separating these experiences of my life into neat little boxes than a person of color can remove the pigmentation from their skin.

By definition politics is “the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government” AND “a person’s opinions about the management of government” (emphasis added).  Every single person feels the effects of politics in every fiber of their beings in every moment of their days.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The fiber arts are no different; they may very well be functional, but they are also art.  Art by its very nature is a political expression – a visual and tactile story told in a manner everyone can understand immediately to influence, provoke reaction, create thought.  Textiles have, since their inception, included politics; indeed they were frequently created for that express purpose. Here’s a small sampling.

  • In South America, quipu (“talking knots”) were a textile in the form of knotted strings woven into belts.  The Inca used them to collect data and keep records, monitor tax obligations, to properly collect census records, record calendrical information, and for military organization.  These textiles date most often from the 3rd century BCE to the 17th century – and are used in some areas today.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry is a textile we think of as historical record – created in the 11th century CE and documenting the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  Take a closer look at the images and manner of their depiction, and one realizes that the tapestry is also sensationalized and exaggerated: it’s a propaganda piece and it has been used as a propaganda piece for a millennium.
  • Colonists to the Americas deliberately handed out small pox infected textiles to Native peoples knowing the infection would spread to them and wipe out entire tribes. Prior to the American Revolution, colonists in the Americas resisted British taxes by making their own textiles and refusing to buy cloth from Britain and held spinning bees to challenge each other to spin the most yarn.  In 1777 a Philadelphia tavern owner, Molly Rinker, would pretend to knit, instead inserting messages about British troop movements into her yarn balls and dropping them into George Washington’s camp.
  • African print textiles have a complex history, with those wonderful and colorful prints we know so well being manufactured by Dutch Colonial powers as a tool of subjugation.  Now they have been transformed into an expression of vibrant culture and pride.
  • The red knitted caps of the French Revolution, known as Phrygian caps, were inspired by the caps freed slaves wore in ancient Rome and are widely considered a symbol of Republican government over that of monarchies and dictatorships in art, literature, and theater.
  • The history of cotton is itself an expression of global politics and racism – covering subjects as wide ranging as slavery, industrialization, far wages, unionization, global trade wars, the politics of the British colonization of India, pesticides, GMO crops, water use, and child labor.
  • In 1992 I had the express honor to experience the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall in Washington DC.  At that time it consisted of panels from every state and 28 countries.  I had the pleasure of visiting it again in 1996, the very last time the Quilt was able to be spread in one place, it grown by thousands of panels.  Known as the largest community art project in the world, the Quilt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. This expression of love and remembrance was created precisely to show the impact of the disease and how many people, from all walks of life and age, it affected.  It inspired people and incited awareness. It was the first time I truly understood the power of fiber arts and it was the beginning of a new insight into the influences of textiles.  To this day I am humbled and inspired by the Quilt.
  • Today in Tibet, the Pangong Cashmere Center is promoting community development and empowering women through textiles.  The Center was founded with the express mission of creating economic opportunity while retaining traditional cultural connections and values.

And that is the tiniest selection of millions of examples throughout history and across the globe.  Textiles have always been included in sumptuary laws. When particular dyes, fabrics, or materials are restricted to specific classes – or ranks within a class – textiles are explicitly political.  To suggest that politics has no place in the fiber arts is to express a profound ignorance of history, dismiss the experiences of billions of people, and elevate one’s own privilege to the detriment of one’s self and our entire community.  To suggest that fiber arts are merely a “relaxing hobby” is to dismiss tens of thousands of years of rich and diverse history and technological development, artistic expression, and the voices of all the men and women to whom I am connected through my spindle, my loom, and my needles.  To suggest that textiles are nothing more than utilitarian belies the depth and breadth of their presence in our lives and the means by which they express identity. Whether it is a hat, a quilt, or a knotted rope, textiles are an expression of the diversity of our world, of its struggles and triumphs.

At The Spinning Loft we promote breed study, we focus on having fleeces that represent the unique features of each sheep breed and promote their wonder, utility, beauty, and joy.  We specialize in stocking as many heritage breed sheep as possible – both foreign and domestic. We stock as many colors of natural wools that we can find for each breed. We work with our shepherds and pay a fair price which contributes to a living wage for their farms regardless of scale.  I would like to think we’ve made it clear that diversity in wool is our top priority, and through that diversity we believe in the success of our shepherds.

Spin All The Woolz is not just a jingle – it’s how we view the world.

I am always asked “which breeds do I like the most” – and I can rarely answer with fewer than 10.  Truthfully, I love them all. Yes. Even Merino, which you have all heard me say I dislike. I do dislike it – but it is also a valuable fiber with much to give.  When someone tells me they “hate Navajo Churro,” I can’t let that go. I ask what characteristics they dislike. I ask about what preparation they experienced. I asked how they worked with the wool.  I ask them what purpose they had in mind when they spun it.

So often a hated fiber is one that either a person has never met before and hasn’t figured out yet, or one that a person tried to force into their preferred little box.  Fiber, like people, does not take well to being forced to live a life that isn’t reflective of their unique characteristics. Sometimes what we hear or spin makes us uncomfortable; the problem is not the message or the messenger, but our own feelings.  Diversity is critical to our survival and inherent bias is real and systemic.

I do not allow hate – I encourage and promote transformation and growth and sometimes that growth is challenging.  Those perspectives are important, they have something to teach us. Monoculture, be it tomatoes, sheep, or people will eventually be wiped out because monoculture cannot adapt and grow.  But diversity – diversity adapts, meets the challenges of environment, overcomes adversity; diversity thrives.

I think it’s remarkable that this month, diversity is so prevalent in my life.  It is the subject of recent writing for my work. It is the subject of my blog this month.  Diversity is unavoidable – trying to keep it in a little box is destined to fail. I encourage you to embrace it and ask yourself why it is we are so defensive when our community members express who they are and their experiences.  We need to listen to grow and thrive.

I know that for some of my community, these words come late.  To you I apologize; I can only hope that you know me well enough to know I have stood with you.  I needed to find a way to express myself in a way that clearly stated my values and the values of The Spinning Loft.  I wanted these words to indicate that we are listening to you, and we shall continue to do our own labor as a result of what we hear.  We shall continue to act consistently with promoting the values of diversity and inclusion.

I know for others in my community, these words will drive you away.  I am saddened by your insistence on sacrificing your fellow fiber artists, to turning away wonderful experiences, in favor of your own comfort and to the defense of your personal authoritarianism.

The Spinning Loft stands against hate.

The Spinning Loft stands with human rights.

The Spinning Loft stands with Ravelry.

Alison
The Shipping Wombat
The Shih Tzu Overlords

Which, when combined, make The Spinning Loft

3 thoughts on “In life, as in Wool, Diversity is our Strength

  1. This is wonderful!❤️

  2. What a beautiful post. I have learned many new things from this post. I love you and what you stand for and what you represent. I love you for your creativity, your kind heart, your diligent work effort, your far-reaching love of mankind (not sexist, just traditional), and so many more beautiful qualities. [etd: references to Beth, because Beth sold The Spinning Loft in 2013].

  3. You go, girl! Thanks so much for providing so much history (dare I say it – “herstory” – since women were most involved with textiles and fiber throughout history in much of the world) behind the origin and meaning of “fiber arts.” With no other rights on which to stand, women could exert both influence and independence through fiber (a “spinster” being a woman who spun for a living without a husband, and women who were shepherds and proprietresses of woolen and weaving mills in their own right). This certainly didn’t mean that all was rosy and that working conditions met modern standards – far from it – but it was “women’s work.” While I can appreciate the current interest in creating textiles as an art form, my own emphasis has been on trying to find out how our foremothers/fathers created wearable textiles that would hold up to daily wear year in, year out, and those incredible, hand-spun, hand-woven fabrics worn by the very rich or the very royal. How the heck did they do that? What have we lost, and why is it so hard to recreate this clothing that was so common before the invention of the automated loom and the spinning Jenny?

    It is sad that things have come to a point where taking a stand in the fiber community is necessary, but as the old feminists used to say, “The personal is political.” I, too, stand with the folks at Ravelry because they stand for me.

    Holin Kennen
    The Dancing Lamb

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