I'm in the middle of reading The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker which is frankly fascinating. I know there was a conference at the V&A last year called The Subversive Stitch Revisited, exploring the legacy of the book 20 years after its first publication. I didn't go because I hadn't read the book then and didn't know it was on, but I know some people who went and I'm going to do some secondhand research involving them at some point. The book largely covers the craft of embroidery from Victorian times and links it with the false notion of femininity, and how this relates to class and women's roles within and outside the home.
So embroidery was at one time an upper class ladies' pursuit and kept them occupied for no real reason other than to give them something to do all day. It was considered a proper ladies' activity, and was practised by young girls who wanted to be 'good' and feminine even though some of them hated it. It was more or less considered to be an art like any other. Then the Renaissance came along and the idea of the artist as a 'divine, inspired individual' was big, so copying patterns designed by someone else, no matter how accomplished, started to look a bit shit next to these wonderful conceptual oil painters who just happened to be mostly men.
This division between fine art and craft went on for ages and still continues to this day to an extent. Craft is still mostly practised by women and tends to serve a more functional, domestic purpose. The Arts and Crafts movement went some way to uphold the value of a well-made object, though, so props to them. Nowadays the likes of Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin mix fine art and craft in their work and seem to do quite well out of it.
High Priestess Cape by Grayson Perry
Crochet has a slightly different history it seems. Developed from a type of embroidery called 'tambour' it was practised by poor Irish women during the potato famine, who used it as a cheap way to make lace to sell abroad. It was deemed a bit common until Queen Victoria got into it and then it became all the rage. Here she is look:
taken from love-crochet.com
Jump forward a few years and here we are today. Crafts got left behind slightly in the 80s when people started buying cheap factory-made items and handmade wasn't very cool. Now we are in a recession, or were, or something, and a big crafts revival has taken place (actually it started way before the recession but whatevs). Funnily a lot of the stuff people make nowadays doesn't seem to have much function; yarn, especially wool, is expensive, and people still buy cheap goods from abroad, even more than ever, so it doesn't really have much correlation. But it's super cool to crochet.
So the issue of femininity. I would say, from my travels on Etsy and the like, that being cute and childlike is kind of a big trend in handmade items. People favour woodland creatures and kittens and cupcakes, crochet food, doesn't make much sense to me. I'm not knocking it because it obviously makes people happy and they like making it and buying it so who am I to judge. I'm as guilty as anyone else to be fair. But when you look at those women from Victorian times, embroidering flowers on everything in the house (for a while, the word 'flowering' was synonymous with embroidering) and women now, crocheting teddy bear cupcakes: the styles have obviously changed, and women (presumably) are making things of their own free will these days; but what it means to be feminine is more or less the same. Soft, unobtrusive, child-like. As Rozsika Parker says: 'there is no hint of the determination, application, ambition and education demanded by [these works]'
cupcake bears by Amigurumi Kingdom/from DIYlife.com
Our very own Elizabeth Gaskell saw the limiting social structures held in place by embroidery. In Wives and Daughters, 1866, she depicts her heroines using the craft to intimidate others, throwing their reels around, and to seduce men by being ever so feminine. The woman without needle skills is hopeless at attracting men. Parker notes that she 'relied on [her] readers' familiarity with the art', sympathising with the heroines' lack of real power but allowing them to win their own small victories using their only weapon: embroidery.
More on this another time. Maybe when I have actually read a book and am not just making it up in my head.