unheppy

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.

18 responses

  1. “heppy”?!
    I don’t think that is the word my mother would have used in the 1950’s when she was scrubbing the front door-step with carbolic. But she still found time to embroider crinoline ladies on her tea-cloths. So much was about “appearances” then. Social conformity. Trying to be “middle class”. So much energy invested in emulating the young Queen Elizabeth – but I bet she didn’t have to scrub her own door-step!

  2. I find the Groskop attitude totally baffling: she talks as though icing is the beginning of a slippery slope back to Vera Drake days. There’s a superstitious feeling that domestic activities have been imbued with antediluvian gender roles and will spread housewifery like a contagion. (I find the Yarnstorm attitude baffling too. That Women’s Hour interview, where Brocket basically blames the Pankhursts for her school’s failure to give enough sewing lessons, makes me endlessly sad.)

  3. Good work!

    It is amazing how many people do lazy maths on what domesticity is…like:

    cupcakes + aprons + icing + knitting = oppressive anti-feminism

    …and I agree that many of the most interesting and empowered craftsters fail to get representation in these kinds of articles…

    let us change it all with a zine!

  4. I love this post. Brilliant.
    I really struggle with this whole “take back the craft” and be subversive by coming a carbon copy stepford wife crap. Also I do think the guardian are really not researching craft articles very well at all currently. This article just felt very limited and badly informed to me. I think you should email this to the women email address and see if they print it as reply/letter.

  5. Sigh, they’ll all be sorry when the zombie apocalypse happens and we’re the ones who can knit, spin, cook, sew, grow our own veg and brew our own beer. Of course we’ll have to kill the zombies first but I reckon we can find a creative way to do that with some of our crafting supplies. Frilly pinafores are excellent for keeping blood and zombie goo off your clothes, you know.

    It’s like the mainstream media is about 2 or 3 years behind the blogging world – I feel that we’ve already had many of these conversations online in much more interesting ways. The mainstream media seem just so bloody lazy with their ‘analysis’ and what they write is far less interesting to me than what I find online.

    OK, got to go and cook the dinner. I shall be sure to put on my apron so I can wallow in my oppression (even though the husband has cooked for about four days in a row and it’s definitely my turn).

  6. Firstly, that second picture you’ve used is hilarious. Something Georgia O’Keeffe about it :) Also, love that dolly mixtures quote! I will use it myself.

    Having spent most of last week at a conference listening to people talk about engagement the public sphere (albeit in relation to public discussion of sci&tech) and thinking much of what they were saying was rather too utopian, I do think you are spot on about the ‘asking questions’ element about crafting spheres. Its public to public interaction, which often doesn’t lead to anything big overall, but muddles conversation and individual’s ability to think, question, do and make along really very well.

    I also think one of the issues behind what Groskop sees as a problem is a complex meshing of a variety of late/post/popo/-modern social identities. That’s why someone reaction against ladette culture can at the same time take on a mantle of ‘rebellion’ (see the Shorditch Sisters). Its not a million miles away from country toffs in tweed loving that spirit of ’68 when when took up placards to march about the hunting ban.

    Have you been following the Steven Wells’ Guardian rants about apparently subversive knitting (he is talking without ANY research on this, its pure rant, so it’d be understandable if you choose to simply leave him out of your post).

  7. I did see the Steven Wells rants (they were just that, weren’t they?) and thought they were completely unworthy of comment. What can you say in response to someone who calls knitting ‘demeaning’ just to get a rise out of a community he has no sense of? I thought exactly the same as you re: the O Keefe apron.

  8. I agree about Steven Wells – he is just trying to get a rise. I agree with Kirsty about how behind the mainstream media are about it, I think that was why I was frustrated about the knitting supplement in the Guardian. I feel that they fail to represent the diversity of the crafting community.

  9. Gosh! Scary. Thanks for the link, Susan

    Am in complete agreement with you, Kirsty and Lara re: mainstream media backwardness.

  10. really enjoyed seeing this discussion about the article which I featured in. really good to get a sense of response to it. The Great Cake Escape project is not actually that linked to the domestic arts/craft revival (not consciously anyhow) although I do have real interest in the scene. It was challenging and interesting (if a little misleading) for us to be placed in this context as The Great Cake Escape is actually much more about street art/guerilla art (see site for more of what we do) and not about baking at all! I certainly do not see myself as or aim to be a 1950s housewife type…I just wear the occasional vintage dress!

  11. It’s funny, we were talking about that article on Ravelry yesterday and even referenced you in my post:

    http://www.ravelry.com/discuss/discourse/308981/26-50#29

    I can’t write about these things as well as you but I think we might be on the same page or at least in the same book.

    I find it funny that The Guardian publishes a knitting supplement one week and then a couple of weeks later has an article like this one. That Steven Wells guy has just got his head up his own arse, all mouth and no trousers.

  12. Please permit me to go off at a tangent here, but your post raises a salient point for me, and that’s the need to engage in a ‘guerrilla’ form of crafting. I used to work in the Media itself (P45 arrived today, hurrah), but in the glossy magazine side of things. Among the magazines were craft titles which I worked for: knitting, crafting, sewing. The other magazines were marketed at men, for instance Women Draped over Bikes magazine, Women Provocatively Dressed in front of Cars and Gadgets Magazine. The budgets from Above were assigned accordingly – craft gets little (little women, run along and do your thing) and big bikes and cars got a lot. I used to feel that craft was my only weapon or my only response in this sexist environment. A few of us used to crochet decolletage to cover up the sexist pictures of semi-clad women in the lobby, and dreamed of one day fighting back against the Big Bosses who assigned us the title of the ‘arcane’ division. I guess what I’m saying is that it very much depends on your environment as to whether you want to protest with your craft because it’s not appreciated, or simply get on with it. Now that I’ve left the hideous place I don’t feel the need to protest so much…and quietly get on with it!

  13. But…but…”follow the old paths” lies at the heart of how many find fulfillment. Maybe this is how the human race has worked things out until the last century.

    Maybe irony and subversiveness, while fun to be sure, just can’t lead to contentment.

    Maybe there’s something at the heart of it all — the new craftiness– that goes beyond a 50s mindlessness (but that idea of mindlessness is media-based too — people are always mindless and trying to find meaning). Maybe we are doing these elemental things (that ultimately have their satisfaction in serving others, by the way, something not really compatible with irony) just to find how our mothers “have always done it” –even if our own particular mothers weren’t because they were ironic or having their happiness subverted by irony.

  14. I think it’s sad that the public representation of crafts have been shoehorned into either the ironic/subversive or hyper-feminine-domesticity camps.

    I agree with you that these polarisations are the least interesting aspects of contemporary crafts and that, by focusing on them, the very many and varied pleasures of crafting get ignored and swept under the (ironic or otherwise) carpet.

  15. I agree that the article was hopelessly under-researched and that Groskop missed the real story – one really would hope for more from a journalist working for a national broadsheet. The thing that bothers me, though, is how do we rescue knitting (I think it applies more to knitting than other crafts) from its dreadful image? I knit because I love the calming rhythm of it, because I enjoy the texture of the yarn in my fingers, because I love making things. I think I’m quite good at it, too; in any case it is an essential part of me and my life. Yet I never admit on a CV, or to a new acquaintance, that knitting is one of my main interests. Shame on me, I suppose, but it is hard enough for a woman over 40 to be taken seriously anyway. Why is it OK for my husband to tell prospective employers that he is passionate about football and photography, but not for me to say I feel the same way about knitting? Or am I just a wimp?

  16. “Maybe irony and subversiveness, while fun to be sure, just can’t lead to contentment.”

    Maybe not for some people but that’s a pretty sweeping statement. For a lot of people, irony and subversion might be where they live; the place where they find meaning, contentment and happiness. Why is that path any less valid than the ‘connecting to our mothers’ path? And surely those two things are not mutually incompatible – someone can respectfully connect to women who’ve gone before yet still have a ironic sensibility in their own craft.

    Nor should we assume that women in the past DIDN’T sometimes have an ironic or subversive attitude themselves. I once saw a set of bed curtains decorated with secret Jacobean motifs and apparently this sort of thing was not unusual. Needle-workers have often hidden subversive messages in their craft and in the case of stitched banners for Trade Unions or suffragette marches, their needlework was openly political.

    And think of some of the Greek myths – Penelope weaving and then unweaving her cloth to keep the suitors away. Ariadne providing the thread that allowed Theseus to find his way out of the Labyrinth after his defeat of the Minatour. And how about Philomela, who was raped and her tongue cut out to silence her – instead she wove her story into cloth so that the other women could avenge her. Those are all pretty subversive uses of fiber, if you ask me!

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