I am often struck by the liveliness and diversity of the world of contemporary domestic crafts. In very particular ways, the intermewebnet really has informally transformed the domestic into the public sphere. From their kitchens and computers, women and men all over the world are exchanging knowledge about an enormous range of practical issues and debates, sharing their messes and mistakes as much as their proud creations. These people are asking questions about consumer and gender politics, about the history of design, about process and about material practice. They are making things for beauty and for use: benches, pies, hats, yarn, toys, books, tools. Some people are examining the idea of domesticity and transforming it into art, while many others are finding it the basis of successful businesses.
With all this infinite variety, how is that the two least interesting faces of contemporary domesticity have suddenly become its public representatives? The two faces I refer to are the domestics-in-drag who need no introduction here, and those less pernicious, but no less prevalent ‘ironic’ crafters who read anarchy in every crocheted granny-square. In an article by Viv Groskop in last week’s Guardian, the conservative and ironic faces of the ‘new domesticity’ are held up as twin envoys of what is regarded by many (non-crafting) feminists as a terribly regressive trend. Apparently, both Jane Brocket and the Great Cake Escape are indicative of a ‘return’ to the pre-feminist 1950s, that simple time of embroidered table linen and hourglass silhouettes, when the clock struck four, and everything stopped for tea. According to Groskop, the activities of both conservative and ironic crafters reinforce rather than question traditional domestic ideologies, prompting the rather pointless query: “can domesticity ever be subversive?”
Now, I’m not going to have a go at the Great Cake Escape. At least these women are energetically camp and entirely self-aware. Unlike many so-called anarchic crafters, their irony seems less cynical marketing than witty interrogation—a stage toward something that might turn out to be more interesting. And (perhaps unwittingly) the juxtaposition of ironic with conservative crafters in Groskop’s article does reveal something more intriguing about them both than either are in isolation. Brocket is quoted saying that “anything which is very personal and behind closed doors and pleasurable to women is subversive these days.” Here, she neatly captures what was always really at the core of the middle-class English domesticity she celebrates and perpetuates: that is, the dark heart of eccentricity and taboo beating beneath David Lean’s “heppy” exterior. What I am getting at here is just how close net curtains are to fetish-wear, and anyone who has seen Patrick Keiller’s superb exposition of petit-bourgeois Englishness in Robinson in Space will know exactly what I mean.
Brief Encounter. Heppily unheppy.
But despite her incidental disclosure of the obvious proximity of pinny-porn to bourgeois deviance, there are several problems with Groskop’s article. The main one is that she hasn’t done enough research. She just trots out banal generalities about how baking and sewing are stereotypically ‘feminine’ without actually looking at who participates in those activities, examining how they can be empowering, transformative, critical and creative things, or looking at how sewers or bakers of either sex who share and circulate their knowledge can thereby find new means of social and political engagement. Groskop’s notion of domesticity is incredibly, ludicrously limited: for her, it just equates to cupcakes and repression. But if she had just looked underneath the frilly pinafore—ironic, conservative or otherwise—she would have found a whole world of witty, critical, talented, and engaged domestic crafters just getting on with their thing without congratulating themselves on how bloody ‘heppy’ they are the whole time. As one smart baking friend of mine put it “the creativity is in the recipe and the labour, not in the fact that you scatter dolly mixtures on top”*. While Groskop concerns herself with those dolly mixtures, the rest of us will carry on engaging with that labour, and that creativity.
*thanks, Clare B.