Houndstooth and Academics

I started my dressmaking course last night and I had a great time. We only cut out patterns and fabrics, but it still felt great to start working on a project, one that will result in something wearable in the near and foreseeable future. Here’s the pattern I’m working with. I chose a small, fawn-brown houndstooth with stripes of mustard, burgundy, and slate blue through it. Last night I was spread out on my floor pinning on my piece, trying to match up the pattern. I’ve never worked with a strong pattern like this, so I’m looking forward to the challenge. And I have a lot of faith in my teacher, which I’m sure will help with my overall satisfaction in the course.

Tonight I came across a blog I’m really taken with: Threadbared. It’s the collaborative project of “two clotheshorse academics” where they “discuss the politics, aesthetics, histories, theories, cultures and subcultures that go by the names ‘fashion’ and ‘beauty’.” From the way that other people have reacted to Threadbared, and the attention it’s received from other academics, it seems like I’m pretty late to the game with this one. That said, I was thrilled to find people blogging who have a similar, critical approach to fashion, textiles, and how we engage with them to my own.

Furthermore, the ladies at Threadbared mentioned an issue of English Studies in Canada in a post of some of their favourite critical texts. Check out the addendum at the end: that issue of ESC has three (count ’em!) articles by professors and graduate students from the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Incidentally, I just completed my masters there. I’m swelling with pride.

My very good friend, J, is considering a masters in Fashion at Ryerson. This means that we’ll probably try to get our pipe-dream Etsy shop off the ground. I’m exceptionally excited for her.

I still have plenty to write about from my trip to the Tate, and I haven’t forgotten about it. I just thought that we all deserved a break from the 1200-word ramblings.



I start my sewing course on Tuesday! Tomorrow!!! Yay!

London—Dublin, Dublin—Faro, Faro—Porto, Porto—Lisbon, Lisbon—Faro, Faro—Dublin

The title has been A’s and my travel itinerary since just before New Year’s. Having only been home with my computer for four days is my excuse for having not blogged in almost three weeks. We’ve had a pretty fantastic time travelling so much over the last two and a bit weeks, with my museum-going skills pushed to the max (10 hours in the Tate Modern?!?!), my appetite tested (mmm, arroz e mariscos), and our already-meager pockets further emptied (nothing new there).

But the trips (as well as some other things) also gave me an incredible amount that I want to write about. So much, in fact, that I’m going to have to break it into small pieces. Now that I’ve done a good amount of post-trip apartment cleaning, I can tackle the first topic: textile art at the Tate Modern in London.

Although, for the most part, I fundamentally disagreed with many of the premises behind the textile artworks at the Tate Modern, I found myself responding in both positive and negative ways to the different approaches that artists took to textiles.

I’ll start with my negative reactions.

The Tate devoted a room to the textile work of Marisa Merz, and Italian artist who worked primarily during the 1960s. The Tate places her work within its “Energy and Process” exhibition space:

‘There has never been any division between my life and my work’, Merz has said. The idea of home as a private, intimate, and feminine realm is particularly important for her….She often utilises traditional handcraft techniques and practices associated with female domesticity, such as knitting.

The link between knitting and private, feminine space is not a difficult one to make: knitting has already been claimed by feminist communities as a mode by which women may at once connect to a traditional feminine craft and engage in a contemporary connection to  such contemporary political (and often feminist) values as self-sufficiency, awareness of materiality, anti-capitalism, environmental consciousness, practical creativity, to name just a few. Indeed, Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘n Bitch, one of the most influential knitting books to the contemporary generation (and the contemporary knitting trend), explores this link. At first I saw the Tate’s curation of Merz’s work as a problematic simplification of the implicitly feminist at stake in her artistic project, one that seeks both to assert a feminine domain in the home, and to make the feminine private realm the basis of a very public art. I was annoyed that notions of the private/public and feminine/masculine could be mobilized so uncritically, especially where gender is an explicit theme that Merz engages with. I found myself wondering if the Tate’s curation imposed this simplistic interpretation, and if I should look beyond the curation for some more complex intention on Merz’s part, but I was disappointed when I could not find any.

Despite my frustration, I feel as though I must account for the late-1960s, second-wave feminist, moment of Merz’s art. I should approach the artworks and artist on their own terms, not from my current, third-wave feminist viewpoint. Contemporary feminism has moved on to questions of race, class, the fluidity of gender, and multiple feminisms. In Merz’s feminist moment (at least in my conception of the second wave), feminist thinkers were still working out the intricacies between public and private, between femininity and masculinity, between woman and man. I can’t condemn Merz for not doing what she could not possibly have done, and her artworks may very well be an attempt to work out these questions.

However, even if I do try to approach Merz on her own terms, I can’t help but be critical of her project to the point of disliking it. Her work Senza titolo (Scarpetta) (translated by the Tate as Untitled (Little Shoe)) really got me riled up:

Knit shoe

Senza titolo (Scarpetta) (1968)

In the Tate description, this work is “a shoe knitted from nylon thread…placed on a small slab coated with wax, which intertwines with the nylon at the base of the shoe.” Merz has made several versions of this shoe, and displayed them either “on the gallery wall or placed in external locations such as beaches.” The first issue I have with the piece is its extreme non-practicality. For an artist who so strongly insists upon the femininity of the craft of knitting (a craft that is, fundamentally, linked to a practical femininity), the materials, nylon thread and wax, combined with the “delicate, domestic process” of knitting, strips that process of its purpose of its use, of its importance within a feminine domestic sphere. And this diversion from (or perhaps perversion of?) the purpose of knitting seems to express itself in how the nylon material reacts to the knitting process: the nylon has twisted the knit stitches almost beyond recognition; it has made the result of the “patient process” of knitting nearly indistinguishable from a careless mangling of fibres. If this were the intention behind the work, or, at least, an ambivalence that the finished work engaged with, this piece would be much more interesting to me. But I cannot find any evidence that the work or the artist are aware of this twistedness. (The Tate curates other works that are aware of how rendering everyday, useful objects as art can be problematic. But I didn’t write anything down about them. Damn.)

This is not to say that I fundamentally object to the useful or the practical being rendered as art. But I don’t think that the artist or the work sufficiently engaged with this problem, and they should have. The work failed to give a thoughtful account of how feminine craft and domestic materiality can be transferred to art.

One particular claim about Little Shoe really annoyed me though:

Untitled (Little Shoe) is one of a series of nylon-thread shoes which were often made to the size of the artist’s feet, thus acting as an extension of her body.

This claim that the shoes are an “extension of [the artist’s] body” repeats throughout the curation of Merz’s work, and I feel comfortable treating it as consistent with the intended effect of the work, or at least as a widely accepted interpretation of the piece.

But I strongly dislike the claim that the shoe is an extension of body simply because it is the same size as the maker’s foot. I feel a claim like that could be made if the piece were used, were changing, were organically linked to the body. But this piece is none of those things. It does not extend the materiality of the body—it is static, it is a display piece, it is rendered useless by its very materials. I feel so (perhaps disproportionately) strongly about this that I’m having trouble putting it into words.

I truly wish that Merz’s work was self-referential about how it problematises questions of femininity, of the private sphere, of materiality, and of process. But it’s unselfconscious claims to organic-ness and bodily materiality, for me, destroy what could have been a very interesting piece.

The only way that I can recuperate Merz’s work for myself is to look at how the work of an artist (as in, producing art) can fundamentally change what would otherwise be the work of an artisan (producing products for use). But that is a topic for another post, and is something I may be able to more productively talk about in relation to other works.

I’m finished the project that has been demoted from scarf to dishrag. I had a mishap with decreasing and dropped stitches and could not for the life of me figure out how to fix it. So one side of the decreases looks really wonky. However, the other side is actually quite nice.

A was just the recipient of a knitting meltdown. He reminded me that “obviously you want to keep yourself accountable.” I both disliked and profoundly appreciated his tough love. And even more deeply appreciated his patience and backrubs in response to “I’M GOING TO KEEP GOING. BECAUSE SOMETIMES THAT’S ALL YOU CAN DO. WE JUST NEED TO KEEP GOING.”

Here is the offending item:

Showing off the wonky decrease.

I switched to a garter stitch to learn how to decrease and I followed the advice of Debbie Stoller by doing my decreases two stitches in from the edge of the fabric. I tried to make them decorative decreases by doing a left-slanting decrease on the right side of the fabric and a right-slanting decrease on the left side. It worked sort of. It doesn’t look like Ms. Stoller’s examples. Maybe because I interpreted the left and right thing to refer to the fabric as it lies on your needle in front of you, the knitter. But maybe it means on the left or the right of the finished piece? This is a question for Ravelry.com, perhaps.

In other news, that learning piece is now a dishrag, which handily sidesteps my problems with it no longer having a use.

Brief absence.

I’ve taken a bit of a holiday-related absence from knitting. I finished working my retail job (I’ll be taking on a research job in the new year. Sigh of relief.), Dublin was hit by moderate snow which shut down the entire city, A got stuck in the Netherlands briefly which struck me with panic that he might not return home for our first Christmas together, and the above factors prompted me to briefly move in with my family until things returned to normal.

In more recent news, A and I were without running water, and heat from our radiator, for about a day because the water mains to our flat froze. It was a surprising wake-up call to see how much water it takes to do something moderate like washing your face, much less your entire body. Of course, even though not having any water made us feel like we were suddenly living a subsistence lifestyle, we weren’t. We were able to run our computers as we washed our faces with the bottle of water that my aunt gave us, turn on our electric radiator and climb under our quilt for warmth, and if it came to it we could shower at the local leisure centre. We definitely had access to the resources to keep us healthy and clean and hydrated, but they were just slightly less convenient.

Here is where I, predictably, talk about how millions of people a day go without running water much less hot water. Which, of course, they do. And my experience was nothing like the day-to-day worry of keeping yourself alive. Nothing. It would be vain and insulting to people who do have to live that life to think that a single day with no water came anywhere close; what I experienced was definitely not a scarcity of resources. What it did demonstrate to me, however, is what it does mean to be frugal with resources. I am capable of washing my face and my dishes with a third of the water I normally would. Even to live in relative comfort, I do not need to use anywhere near the resources I do.

A good friend of mine came to visit us here and commented on our bar-sized fridge, taps that were separate for hot and cold water, and water tank that needed to be switched on to generate any hot water and was not capable of generating enough to wash the dishes from making and eating dinner. These things are a relatively normal part of domestic life in Ireland (except maybe the teeny tiny capacity of water tank), and he pointed out that, of course, not everyone can live like North Americans. And neither should we.

In knitting news, I’ve given up on making this thing into a scarf. Poor A, ever the gentleman, says it’s perfectly fine that I want to use it as an experimentation piece. To a certain extent, I don’t like the idea of using this piece just to learn things. I feel as though I should be thinking about the practicality of each piece I make, and that in making useful things I should amass skills. My process of learning should be a reflection of the values that are underpinning my project: self-sufficiency, non-consumption, frugality with resources. Realistically, though, I don’t think I’m going to even learn to increase or decrease stitches unless I make a sweater, and without learning those things I’m never going to make said sweater. So, after some logical acrobatics and rationalisation, experimentation piece it is. I also think I’m getting bored of doing the same stitch constantly on this scarf—it’s not that I set myself too big a project, it’s just that I didn’t realise how many stitches of sport-weight (bordering on fingerling) yarn go into a small amount of fabric.

Speaking of A the gentleman, for Christmas he got me (among many other things, he was very generous) a book called Glam Knits for Christmas. I was thrilled. The pieces are beautiful and a lot of attention is paid to tailoring and fit which I LOVE. I’m a sucker for beautiful things and I think this book will definitely give me some insight into how to put them together. I wish there were more books on how to make nice things for man-shaped people so that, someday, I could follow through on my promise to make something for this lovely man I live with.

Sometimes I make mistakes.

Oh no! Holes in my scarf and I don’t know how they happened!

Knitting mistakes

See the upper right hand corner? A hole!

Is this a Yarn Over mistake? And is there a quick fix to this, or should I unknit/frog to fix it?


Knitting mistakes.

At the top of the piece, see the loose stitch on the edging?

I don’t know how I made this mistake. Any lovely knitters out there who want to lend a sister a hand?


So the night before I wrote my first blog post I began to teach myself to knit. Of course, I’m beginning with a scarf; what else do you begin with? I’m making it for my partner, A: he’s putting up a very gracious front where he tells me I’m the best ever for making him stuff, but he also knows he’s really the guinea pig. I also like to pretend I’m the best ever, for his sake.

(However he didn’t let me off the hook before telling me a horrifying story about his real-life guinea pig and the manner in which it died. I will never be the same.)

So the knitting is going well, albeit slowly. I’ve decided to make the scarf stripey by alternating the textures of the wool.

Stockinette Scarf

My first scarf. See the first row of garter stitch, then subsequent rows of alternating stockinette.

So I’m knitting 25 rows of stockinette stitch and then another 25 rows of stockinette but reversed. I really like this texture: stockinette tends to curl on all edges, so reversing the stitch has the nice effect of stopping the entire piece from curling in a single direction, and also letting the natural curl add some nice depth to the texture of the fabric. I’m also doing the last rows in garter stitch so that the edges will lie flat and not curl. I’m using an acrylic yarn for two reasons: 1) A is allergic to wool; 2) it’s not too expensive and easy to work with.

Stockinette Scarf 2

An alternate view so that the textures on the other side of the scarf are showing.

I’m not sure how long I’ll go on for, but I’d like it to be a good, long, wearable scarf. And one that won’t make A break out in hives.

I found myself staring at people’s clothes today wondering if I would be able to make them. Of course, at this stage, in most cases the answer was no. But my usual “all-or-nothing” attitude has me convinced that soon I will be able to make beautiful sweaters. For now I’ll keep plugging away with my stockinette and my acrylic.

A’s allergy to wool gives me pause for thought, as I had hoped to work with materials that were locally produced. In Ireland, it’s wool and linen that are locally manufactured, and I would have to live somewhere like India or the US to access local cotton, a natural fibre that A isn’t allergic to. I don’t feel like I should be using materials that had to be flown here: it participates in a global economy where the wealthy West is able to outsource its labour to poorer countries, not to mention its environmental impact. Of course, the problems with outsourcing labour are far more complex than my pithy statement. Taking myself out of that global economy, to whatever extent I can, doesn’t necessarily do anything to help people: if enough people felt compelled to exclude themselves from exploitative capital it would destroy the nascent economies of manufacturing nations. Which then brings me to question whether or not it is my responsibility, as an ostensible ‘citizen’ of a developed nation, to take care of the citizens of poorer nations—as though I feel some late-capitalist white man’s burden.

If my project to make my own necessities results from an ethical impulse to begin to take myself out of the capitalist system, however, then I must necessarily think ethically about the materials that I’m using. How they affect individuals and communities, the environment, animals, and how my individual decisions align with or diverge from my politics. My politics, ultimately, are my ethics, as must be the case with any political stance: for politics to have meaning they must claim themselves as some kind of right or wrong action; they must align themselves with a certain dogma in order to have any weight.

I still haven’t come to any conclusions about ethical materials, though. And I still haven’t touched on whether or not it would be ethical to depend on animals for materials—both in terms of the large-scale environmental impact of domesticated animals and in terms of whether it is ethical (at least in our day and age) for humans to treat animals instrumentally. But these are questions to be tackled another day, so that tonight I don’t convince myself to be vegan.