The Women's Library

In recent years there has been an increasing number of exhibitions devoted to craft objects in art galleries and museums, blurring the traditional distinctions between fine art and craft. Last year’s V&A’s ‘Quilts: 1700 – 2010’ exhibition unveiled magical stories behind the craft of quilt-making – the Rajah quilt was one of the highlights, made in 1841 by women convicts aboard the HMS Rajah as they were being transported to Tasmania. The current exhibition at the Women’s Library looks at domestic craft made in Britain in the last century or so and brings some hidden personal gems into the cultural limelight. After 40 years of feminism and the deliberate revival of needlework and watercolour in popular culture and contemporary art, dress-making and gardening are still viewed as having no or little cultural value. Why have homemakers been denied socio-cultural agency? Their activities throughout history have been an essential part of maintaining survival and enabling production. Why, then, is their work rarely valued or appreciated? What is the role of domestic creativity? The Women’s Library’s exhibition puts these questions on the kitchen table.

Hand Made Tale – a take on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, starts with a selection of books displaying the esoteric culture of craft and housewifery, from The Happy Home Good Housekeeping Institute (1955) to Amy Spencer’s The Crafter Culture Handbook (2007). Housewife by Ann Oakley (1974) is credited for having taken women out of their obscurity and revealed the full extent of their vacuous and unhappy existence in a patriarchal system. Recognising that ‘femininity can be a pseudonym for many forms of chronic insecurity’ and stating that ‘housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization’, the book is still relevant today for professional women reaching the glass ceiling, the debates around the remuneration of domestic work or the search for home/work life balance. At the other end of the spectrum is The Gentle Art of Domesticity (2007) by Jane Brocket. Described as ‘an eccentric delight’ by the Evening Standard, Brocket’s middle-class home is the hyper-feminine equivalent of the garden of Facteur Cheval.

A full wall of the exhibition is reserved to the craft of dress-making, lace-making, crochet and quilting by non-professional women throughout the 20th century. One of the beautiful garments on display is the hand-woven linen dress made by Edith Dawson for her daughter in 1917. As well as being a homemaker, Dawson was a water-colourist, writer and Art & Craft enamellist. Also made for her daughter c.1945 is a stunning viscose coat dress by Irma Cocco, the wife of a shoe repairer. Education and inspiration for a younger generation of women was high on homemakers’ book. One of the objects I found most interesting is a manual entitled Constructive and Decorative Stitchery (1923) by Glasier Foster, who aimed to inspire learners of the stitchery craft at school and at home. Showing knowledge of the Art & Craft movement and other early 20th century artistic developments, Glaser wanted to place stitchery as a ‘distinct and distinguished branch of the arts’. She writes that ‘all really and true beautiful work expresses the worker’s delight in what he [sic] is trying to express in Nature’. Art historian Alois Riegl attempted to valorise design in 1900’s Vienna arguing that geometric design is part of a whole aesthetic feeling about one’s relationship to nature and that forms and styles make explicit the inner value of one’s time and society. Glaser extends Riegl’s ‘will to create’ to the private sphere – placing the domestic worker’s self-expression on a par with that of the professional artist.

There is a great display of homemaker’s tools, one of ‘the areas less scrutinised in the craft tradition’. Framed in polished wood cabinets the rakes, spades and clippers and the preserving pans gain a hint of the distant aura of the art object but never lose their sense of purpose. If the earlier pieces of crochet, quilt and dress already belong to a distant past, taking on the status of cabinet curiosities, there is a homely, uncanny presence around the displays of pots and tools. My mother had an immense flower and vegetable garden and my summer days were filled with the sounds of her watering and pottering around. Although I complained about the chores of collecting greens or writing the labels on the preserve jars, there was a wonderful sense of serenity floating in the house at gardening time. My mother used to imitate the calls of birds so well that I would often stop in my tracks and listen to her talking to them. Such moments of intimacy came flooding at the view of an old pair of rusty secateurs. There is a note by Alice Walker above one of the displays that says: ‘I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.’ There is little more fundamentally creative than tending flowers and fruits – the connection with nature, the caring of plants and trees, the collecting and distributing around friends and family, the gift of health and beauty, the joy of homemade cooking. Priceless work, yet denied value in our modern socio-economic reality. Instead we re-invent creativity to suit our contemporary souls and market logic, craving recognition as ‘creative types’ in the media industry and rushing into flower arrangement or printmaking classes to lift up the weight of alienation and find a channel to express our true selves. If the primary function of art is to induce and inspire the viewer/reader/listener into a reflection upon the self and society, then the professional and domestic crafts have much to offer in this area.

The last part of the exhibition is dedicated to what professor Lou Taylor calls the ‘secret expressions of self’ – the making of items towards a social or political cause that is closely related to the maker and privately consumed. The grave of Taylor’s great grandmother, a Polish and Jewish woman, was destroyed by the nazi in 1942, the year Taylor was born in England. In her honour, she made a colourful, poignant embroidery with tree branches over her grave intertwining with the words ‘Let her soul be tied to the knot of life’. Other pieces on display are an embroidered collar by Emmeline Pankhurst, made for a women’s demonstration around 1909, and a witty piece of crochet saying ‘good girl’ by Katy Deepwell, the editor of the contemporary feminist art journal n.paradoxa, subverting the domestic-as-docile dimension of craft. Those powerful expressions of self cross the line of what has been traditionally viewed as the role of domestic craft – to help make ends meet or as useful distraction for the enjoyment of the whole family.

From its early days, the feminist art movement started questioning the strict division between fine art and craft and the effects that it had exerted over female creativity. Feminist artists such as Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro and Harmony Hammond, incorporated craft materials such as fiber and cloth into their work invoking domestic and feminine associations, calling attention to the long-overlooked labour of women in art traditions that are no less worthy of attention than the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Exhibitions such as ‘Deliberate Entanglements’ in the Los Angeles Gallery in 1971 or ‘Ten Approaches to the Decorative’, the first show of the Pattern and Decoration Movement in 1976 in New York, established a context for feminism to challenge the way art history honoured certain materials and processes instead of others. More recently the domestic crafts such as knitting gained popularity among feminist activists, partly influenced by third-wave feminism’s DIY and networking practices and by the success of such books as Debbie Stoller Stitch’n Bitch: The Knitters Handbook (2003). Stoller values the craft of knitting as a feminist act in itself believing that the denigration of knitting correlates directly with that of a traditionally women-centred activity. This type of reclamation, known as ‘craftivism’, has faced scrutiny from those who argue that the celebration of the domestic arts is neither politically effective nor feminist, and it is all but a trend that supports individualistic, apolitical consumerism ignoring the realities and history of domestic labour. More generally, critics have questioned appropriations that are a-historical and transcultural and thus standardise a practice without regards to its specific origins and meanings. Some feminists also believe that the valorising of craft risks perpetuating it as an alternative ‘woman’s tradition’ and undermines the wider, encompassing purpose of feminism and feminist values.

The curators of Hand Made Tales made it clear that they were aware of the critiques towards such revival practice. Perhaps as a result, the show seems less about reclaiming the domestic arts than reconsidering the role of craft and the values it created for women. The finely crafted objects, books and photographs displayed in the exhibition unthreads personal stories and personalities – not the public face of personalities, nor the private life of known artists or celebrities, but our mother’s and grandmother’s intimate thoughts, hopes and desires crocheted in a shirt or a journal’s quote. It uncovers homely routines, personal struggles and successes. It activates memories and lost connections, causing people to look at domestic life and work differently and to reflect upon the depths of daily rituals.