Monday, March 08, 2021

Feminine values

Since it is March 8th 2021, the first thing I want to do is congratulate all the girls and women out there. Congratulations. We have made it through another year. I am not going to say the last year has been all about progress: this year has cast a harsh light on inequality, gender, race, and class. The pandemic has underlined how easily small differences and cultural expectations can have huge consequences. So if you feel this year didn't really bring us all a step closer to a free and equal society - I don't know how history will judge, but seen from this spot all alone in front of my computer, I can tell you I both understand, know and feel that this year has been hard. 

 When that is said, I found something beautiful this year. Those of you who know me know that I knit. I have always knitted a bit, I focus more easily with a knitting project in my hands. It keeps me from falling asleep while watching television, it helps me listen more closely in lectures, and I have to admit I have a few socks created during conferences. I normally have a pair of socks going - we can never have too many, right? - normally very simple ones, no pattern, just a nice colour-changing yarn. However, once in a while, when I find a lovely pattern, I do other things, although mostly sweaters with traditional, Scandinavian yokes. I love the stranded colourwork and the intricate decreases coming together to create a soft, warm embrace. And when the pandemic isolated us all at home I pulled out my yarn and needles and started knitting.

First, I finished this project, which I had started just days before the lockdown, using scrap yarn from a failed project. It is not fully as large as it should be, but large enough, and it is the Peacock Feather Shawl by Lyudmila Aksenik. Then I worked my way through other projects: a sweater I had started the summer of 2019 (Tiril Snøkrystall Pullover by Tiril Eckhoff), a vest my family had bought as a kit (Duet Vest by Hanne Falkenberg) and which had moved slow due to the very complex construction, until I started ordering yarn for other projects. Soon, during 2020, I had knitted six sweaters, four of them for adults, four shawls, four cowls, and an unknown number of socks and caps. To give you an idea of what this meant: My normal speed, if I don't try, is a sweater a year. This was something like 10 years of production in as many months.

This is not to brag about my speed though, because this maniacal knitting was not a sign of health, but a coping mechanism for stress. And I soon started to see that others used knitting in the same manner. All around me, people shared their knitting projects, and on the websites where I followed knitters, mainly, but also in groups on Facebook and on Instagram, I soon found that people used knitting to respond to the pandemic in different ways.

Knitting has a long history of political activism, and so the response of patterns designed to respond to the pandemic were not surprising. These patterns were interesting though: they were not mainly about making a statement, but about expressing longing and connection. They were extremely intricate and time-consuming, and often came with a lot of individual support from the designers to the knitters that chose to knit them, for instance in the shape of knit-alongs (KALs): online timed work sharing with pictures, chats and Q&As, sometimes with gifts.

KALs are not something new with the pandemic, but the way people talked about them was interesting. It was clear that there is a real connection in sharing your work, and it was less important to be perfect than to share the progress. And soon I was looking at hour-long youtube videos often called "podcasts", where the important thing was not the amount of information shared, but the sharing of togetherness. These podcasts, mostly ran by women, but also some men, are - and this is where we get to the title - celebrations of everything we have so far understood as feminine values. They are recorded in very domestic settings, often either framed by the tools of the craft - in front of shelves packed with yarn, a swift and a ball winder - or in some cozy position with a fireplace, plants, pets, pictures on the walls or examples of thread craft (embroidery, weaving, knitting, crocheting) on the walls or draped around the person speaking. A few candles or electric candles are good too, and add to that a cup of something warm to drink.
Slumber Shawl by Stephen West.

The podcast itself frequently expresses tactility - the touching of yarn, skeins and balls, or knitted results, hugging them, cuddling them, holding them up to the face, while speaking about their softness or firmness, depending on the desired result. Then they express industry. There is always a work in progress and one or more finished works to show off. Since that is the main event, not surprising, but during this there is often a story about who this is for. And this leads us to the next part of what these videos express: connectedness. The people in these networks are extremely good at acknowledging each other. Not just mentioning designers or producers - that is very important and is often underlined with added comments after the fact - but also speaking of videos they have watched, live-streams they have participated in, Instagram, Facebook or Ravelry pictures they have seen, and comments they have received. A lot of the hour these videos often last is filled with this kind of net-work, where they make sure to mention names and demonstrate connectedness. And that is before they start sending each other presents. There is a constant stream of little gifts between these crafters, they send and receive patterns online, but also physical gifts like wool, needles, blockers, little markers, and finished works.

There are other expressions of connectedness. One of the crafters will invite you to a live-stream to sit down and eat with him. Another made a video where you would not see him, but his knitting, seen from his point of view. One will take you on little outings to visit other knitters, and another takes you out on her farm to see her sheep that produce her wool, letting you connect with the original producer, so to speak. Others post memories of times when they could get together, videos from past seminars, festivals and courses. But common for all of this is that I am so far not seeing anything but invitations to participate. The people who comment on each others objects - even some of the eye-searingly ugly scrap-yarn objects designed through random selection and decades of questionable taste - are nothing but inclusive. An incredibly ugly thing gets complimented for the amount of work going into it, or questioned about the sophisticated technique. Something clearly useless is complimented for its inventiveness, and the boring but useful gets lots of praise for its practicality. 

I am aware that being unfailingly inclusive and sweet is not a typical value for women, we can be as sharp and judgemental as anybody, but society has assigned this connection work to women, and it is wonderful to see it play out, particularly at this time when we really need to maintain connections!

So here is the recommendation I want to make on the women's day of 2021: Nurture the feminine values in your everyday life. Find the side of yourself that understands how to connect - it can be over a car engine, sports, cooking or whatnot - and reach out to others. Leave some positive, friendly comments. Touch your favourite tool and tell us why it is the best there is. Let others like you know its story, where you got it, who else have used it, and what it is used for. Connect with the physical world and share it in the virtual. Understand connectedness. It is the feminine value that will let us come out of this sane.