Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Knitting and feminism? A hypothesis.

I had a thought that probably has nothing to do with anything and is probably total bullshit, but I want to write it down so I can remember it later, and I'd like to open it for discussion.

One of the reasons lace knitting was such a strong industry where it appeared was that it gave women an additional source of income. A woman who could knit well would have been a very valuable person because she could contribute something of great importance to her household. The same would go for all of the "women's work" things in European culture--knitting, spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidery. All these things weren't just keeping houses pretty for husbands. They were things they could take to market and sell, like the veggies and the other things their husbands did.

Because the finer stuff (ie wedding ring weight shawls, brussles lace, anything involving silk) was more valuable than the rougher stuff, the women had to avoid rough work. You CANNOT work with fine fibers if you have rough hands (as proven by the amount of hand lotion I go through when I'm spinning lace wool, an option women in the 'teens wouldn't have had). So the husbands would have had to do the heavy lifting and the digging and the other things considered "men's work" while the wives stayed home to do the jobs that wouldn't ruin their hands, and to knit, or sew, or embroider. Both members of the household were doing something that would earn money. It was (in theory) an equal division of labor with both members of the household contributing.

Then you had the industrial revolution, where thread, cloth and clothing production were shifted out of the home and into factories. There was no longer any value in handcraft skills, and the women who had them lost their value. Lacemaking, knitting, spinning and such were the industry of the poor. When the skill was made obsolete by factory production, the women who had them became, well, useless ornaments. The division of labor had been set in culture--because in a culture where spinning and knitting HAD value, a woman who had to work outside the home was a woman without valuable skills, and could be looked down upon by her neighbors--so the devalued woman had very few options available. They couldn't regain a valuable skillset without first changing the culture to allow it.

If the above is true, then one could argue that feminism and sufferage was an outgrowth of a (relatively) sudden devaluation and not a long-term cultural disregard for women. The girls stayed home because the work they could do at home earned more money than they work they could do outside the home. When handcrafts lost their value, however, a women who could only knit and embroider and who couldn't do something more valuable in the NEW skillset became an ornament for her husband, a way for him to say, "look, I can support someone who is worthless", the way footbinding worked in China. Feminism did not alter gender roles. Rather, it fixed them.

I think I shall study both and find out if this argument could be made reasonably, and if it might have historical support. Should be interesting if nothing else.


  1. Yes, except for some of the details about wool and the condition of the hands. Non-industrial weavers and spinners have godawful hands.

    A lot of what we call 'medieval oppression' started with the 16th Century. That's the begining of the Modern Era. As the new cash economies grew, men successfully outcompeted women for control of the cash economy. Women gradually became more and more marginalized in control of wealth and official power, culminating in the 19th Century where women lost the right to own property. In many areas women even lost any sort of legal identity outside of their relationship to men. This is not a natural state of affairs, nor is it particularly ancient. It was the result of generations of deliberate work.

    But most people think that the way things are done now are the only right and natural ways of doing things. They also overestimate just how old most traditions really are.

  2. With the condition ... no. Well, maybe if you're doing standard work, like spinning wool that will eventually be socks or sweaters, maybe. But if you're working with fine fibers, good skin condition is essential. Most of the books I've read on the subject go out of their way to mention the care the women have to take with their hands and the condition of their skin. The book that really got into it was on the Orenburg traditions because they're working with down fibers, which is one of the really fine ones. Really fine fibers snag on EVERYTHING. I worked with soy silk once, real silk a couple of times, and if I had dry hands I swear to god, it snagged on my fingerprints. The stuff I'm working with right now isn't quite as fine, but I still have a bottle of hand lotion sitting next to my work table.