Is Knitting A 'Fiber Art' Or Craft? It's Both, And More.
At Austin’s South By Southwest Film Festival last year, a documentary listed on the schedule caught my eye with its one-word title, “Yarn.”
A quick scan of the synopsis confirmed that the film really was about knitting and fiber-art, and not necessarily the art of storytelling. The documentary follows four women from Europe and Japan as they use fiber to create everything from beautiful playscapes for children to cheeky, profane wall art. I encouraged my good friends Carin Lamontagne and Elisa Gonzales, both fervent knitters, to make the trek up to Austin and see the movie, but the scheduling didn’t work out. Luckily for us, Bond/360 picked up the movie for distribution, and I shared the new DVD from Kino Lorber with each of them. At a sit-down over breakfast, we talked about the movie and about the knitting community. I wanted to know more about what I saw as a rising phenomenon of knitting groups both in-person and online. Here’s kind of what happened. It has been edited for content and (seeming) clarity.
The scene: Cüppencake, Friday morning. Cinnamon roll, fruit, coffee.
Elisa [using her needles]: I just dropped a stitch!
Nathan: What does that mean?
Elisa: I literally just dropped it on the table.
Nathan: Oh I thought it was an expression, like [beat boxes] “I just dropped a stitch!” and now you got it going on.
Carin and Elisa: [laughter]
Nathan: When I noticed this movie on the SXSW schedule last year, I wanted to see it, but it didn’t work out. I’m glad that Kino Lorber wound up distributing it. But when I finally watched it, it wasn’t what I expected it would be. I thought it was going to be about this whole thing that y’all are a part of… the community of knitters. So when they went to all these different…
Elisa: Activist scenarios?
Nathan: Yeah, and like “fine artists,” it wasn’t what I expected.
Carin: So what did you expect?
Nathan: I expected to learn more about the phenomenon of more people taking this up as a social activity. I thought it would be more grounded in everyday people.
Carin: That’s what I thought, too.
Nathan: …not so much about these amazing wonderful people doing things with yarn.
Carin: That’s what I thought, too. I was also surprised that it was so heavy on the crochet side.
Elisa [explaining]: So yeah, with crochet you use a hook, and it’s a very distinctive look on a stitch, whereas knitting you use two needles, and it’s a different look. When I saw the cover of the DVD, I thought it would be a documentary about grass-roots knitting.
Carin: It threw me for a loop.
Nathan: [snorts] Someone had to say it!
Elisa: I understand because of the medium of what they had to do, they were working with so much acrylic. There’s a term called “yarn snob,” and I don’t like being called that, but I really feel that there’s an importance of the type of wool you get, and from where, and how it’s manufactured and made, and the people who dye it and stuff….
Carin: Yeah, but I think some of these projects [in the movie], the scale of them, it’s not practical to use anything but acrylics for the sheer cost.
Elisa: Like that amazing mermaid [designed by the Polish artist, Olek].
Nathan: She’d sink in the water if that costume were made with wool!
Carin: Even with the acrylic, I’m sure it was really heavy.
Nathan: So the characters we have in this documentary are the Danish woman, Tilde Bjorfors; Olek, exhibiting her 2D yarn creations in fine art galleries, there’s the Japanese playground artist, Toshiko Horiuchi, who was my favorite of all of them…
Elisa and Carin: mine too.
Nathan: …am I missing one?
Carin: There was the one that was graffiti—the yarn graffiti artist, Tinna Thorudottir. She was at the sheep farms, and she would put up the stars that she’d made. She’d nail them to the posts.
Nathan: Yeah, and she went to Cuba to do that.
Elisa: She was really interesting. So when she was talking about using the black wool as a sign of protest, I thought ‘oh cool, I want to hear about that.’ And then we moved on to a different person. I wanted more! Other little stories that were touched on for like 30 seconds could have been fleshed out more. But how do you do that when there’s so many cool topics to address?
Carin: To me the movie felt kind of scattered. It didn’t seem like there was really a unifying idea.
Nathan: Yeah there wasn’t much of a narrative, even though with the Polish artist Olek you did see a little bit of conflict as she described being discriminated against in the art world for doing what is…
Carin: …considered a craft.
Nathan: That is something I would have liked to have seen explored more deeply, because all of these women are doing something that can be considered a craft, but it’s also artistic.
Carin: So what’s the difference? Where’s the line between art and craft? It’s such a blurry, completely subjective idea.
Elisa: I think of Southwest School of Art, how they’re still trying to get rid of “and Craft.” They also had felt ‘did that diminish the work of our students and faculty?’ They still teach knitting and weaving, amazing stuff…
Carin: And those are still considered handicrafts, so why is that a negative? When she was talking about being belittled because she was seen as a crafter and not an artist, that was probably the thing that spoke to me the most about the whole movie. Why? Why is [craft] a bad thing?
Nathan: I guess that gets into the snobbishness of the fine art world, which has been going on for decades. You are doing this form of art, therefore we crown you as a ‘genuine artist.’ New ideas get accepted into that world slowly over time.
Carin: I think my issue is that I believe art can still have a functional purpose. In this case, fiber artists—and that’s what they tend to call themselves—don’t think that creating a functional piece takes away from the artistic value. And I think that’s where the ‘craft’ comes in. I think that’s where some of the new popularity is coming from with needlecrafts. I think it’s because of this movement of ‘getting back to basics, brew your own beer, grow your own vegetables, make your own socks!
Nathan: Who is the audience for this movie? The audience that comes in is already IN it. Interested in it, a part of that world. I’m already doing it, or know somebody who’s doing it. And so for the people who are already in it, that’s why I’m hungering for a little bit more, here. Because to me this seemed like a perfectly fine PBS documentary, where we go along and meet these hip five interesting people, and then the movie is over. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if I were seeing this movie in a theater, I would be disappointed.
Carin: Another thing that it could have gotten into more and didn’t, is this is a community. Knitting is a thing you do by yourself, but it’s also not.
Nathan: Yes, and to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, that’s what I really wanted to know more about.
Elisa: People are now unafraid to be out in public, to be in their knit groups out at a coffee shop, at a bar, or wherever, whereas before you just did it at home. Now it’s a social thing, and it’s all ages.
Carin: Yeah, I was sitting in the lobby at one of my son’s gymnastics classes, and I was working on something, and a dad sat down to ask what I was doing. It busts the stereotype because he was genuinely interested and wanted to learn how he could knit, too. That element was missing from this documentary, because there really is this interesting community.
Elisa: So I’m going on a knitting retreat this weekend in Marble Falls. There’s about 200 of us meeting up there, and we’ll be taking classes. We’ve got folks from San Antonio, Austin, South Africa, New England. It’s a lot of fun.
Carin: I think we’ve also seen in the last couple of months that even something like knitting can serve a greater purpose. It’s not just socks for yourself or your kids, or a sweater to keep you warm. It can be a political protest.
Carin: That’s one of the things my mother-in-law is interested in, is fiber artists as activism. My mother-in-law knits, crochets, weaves, dyes her own yarn. And one of the things she likes to study is historically what has knitting meant to women in communities. She’s involved in historical reenactments where she goes out with her spinning wheel and sits at San Jacinto and knits just like they would have done 150, 200 years ago. She does that to not only share the history with other people, but to start conversations about what fiber art has meant—going back to tapestries, even. What has weaving meant to history? The Bayeux tapestry is a historical document… and it’s art.
Elisa: I think the Icelandic woman was the most activist in the film. I identified with her feelings about a lot of things. She’s very confident in her opinions. I wonder about what you were saying, Carin, about the “pussyhats.” Had this movie been made a couple of years later, what direction would it have gone in? I think what’s so amazing about those hats is that it started with a group of women in California, and on January 21st, there were women in Europe and all over the world wearing those hats, marching, out in public. People were like “where can I buy those?” and they weren’t for sale. This was more than a cute hat. There was a statement and a purpose behind it. We have a friend who owns a yarn shop, and she had a resurgence of people asking for pink yarn, and customers were coming in who hadn’t been there for five or ten years. They wanted to pick it up again and felt really passionate about their reasons for wanting to do it.
Nathan: Indeed. Well, when all is said and done, I’m glad to have met the people in the movie, but there wasn’t much of a narrative thread.
Elisa and Carin: [groan]