The quote, attributed to an American settler, appears to be apocryphal, at least I never found the source. But it is a pithy window into why women have, throughout history, wasted a lot of unnecessary and unremunerated time and effort on small transient things.
I come from a long line of skilled crafters, who unfortunately, due to the oppression of Scotland by the English (i.e. the patriarchy) , I never knew.
My Auntie Jane was an astounding needlewoman generally, but she specialised in knitting. She used to work in a knitting shop on pollockshaws road in Glasgow. It’s the mulberry cafe now (a lovely spot for a cup of coffee if you’re ever down that way). Mum said she used to knit up the latest patterns and put them in the window to tempt people. And back then you could buy your wool on layaway, so if you wanted like 10 balls for a jumper they would put them in the back room for you and each week on payday you could come in and buy the next ball. How civilised. She lived in a tiny council flat (by coincidence my sister and I ended up living in the same block, many years after she died) but once you were inside, you wouldn’t know it. It was like a palace. Every inch had something beautiful, every piece of furniture had been carefully pimped up. Everything had a doily (very much in the Barbara Cartland vein, and it sounds terrible, but my auntie Jane was so chic she really pulled it off). There was a little doll with a frilly dress covering the toilet roll. We loved her flat so much. She was especially proud of her “bedroom set” which apparently she saved for years for, all matching white bed and wardrobe and drawers and dressing table with curly bits, complete with frilly surround and glass top and embroidered hairbrush and handmirror (of course) I still covet her living room curtains, huge beautiful wild roses (which matched the wallpaper 🤣) with a crocheted pom-pom edge which absolutely fascinated me. She was tiny, I think I was taller than her when I was 7 🤣 (no exaggeration) and she wore tiny crocheted slippers with Pom-poms on the toes.
Sadly, I was in Africa when she died, and I don’t know what happened to all her beautiful work. I expect it was taken to a charity shop and I dearly hope it was found by someone who loves it. The only thing I still have (somewhere, in a tartan biscuit tin with a Scotty dog on the front, a tiny bottle of perfume called Lilly of the valley which smells horrible, a tin of yardley talcum powder, and a leather bookmark from Troon. That’s all that remains of Auntie Jane) is a pair of gloves she crocheted. They are tiny, my hands were too big even when I was a kid. And I still can’t understand how delicate they are. How is is possible to crochet anything so tiny? Where on earth would you ever wear such a thing? What’s it all for? Won’t they get dirty? Do you take them off to eat? Did women ruin their eyes doing this? Mind you, perhaps the tiny hands give her an unfair advantage. 🤣
She was the one renowned in the family for the “fancywork”. She was only interested in making fancy knitting. She didn’t want to knit socks or dish clothes or school jumpers. I guess I’m like her in that regard.
For “plain knitting” auntie Mary was your woman. She did the functional knitting, school jumpers, leg warmers, gloves, hiking socks and blankets. She was slower than auntie Jane. My mum says she knitted in a weird way which I’ve never seen anyone doing, she says she had long needles and she kind of tucked the left needle under her arm and knitted with the right needle. That way she could knit and do other things at the same time. I don’t really understand it.
(Apparently, neither of them had to watch what they were doing, and could carry on conversations while knitting? I can’t quite believe it, but maybe if you’ve learned since you’re a kid or something)
The third sister was Minnie. Minnie didn’t do “that sort of thing”. Minnie was modern, Minnie got divorced (the only one of that generation to do so) in some kind of scandal or sad tale that no adult would ever tell me. My mum says all she knows is her mum told her the only memory she has of her dad is him walking to the garden gate and she never saw him again. Minnie had to move back in with her parents ☹️. She had a job at the bank. She wore “fitted suits” (they’re always described as “fitted” for some reason). Minnie wasn’t interested in knitting, she didn’t wear knitting. Knitting was old school and it was drudgery when you could go to a shop and buy something fashionable and bright and be happy. Why spend all those hours on housework?
Despite my proud needlewoman heritage 🤣 I never learned to knit until my twenties. No one in my mums generation did anything like that, no creative hobbies at all. They weren’t interested in learning as kids or as adults. They admired the work, but had no desire to own it or to be able to produce it. And they were always I think a little confused by my interest. I don’t think anyone really gets why I would spend hours whittling away with a little bit of string just to make a scarf I could buy in the shops for a fiver.
Now and then people at work or somewhere see something you’ve made, and very often, their highest compliment is: you could SELL these! (Thanks). But you couldn’t, really. If I added up the wool plus how long it takes me to make it, that scarf would cost about £300. Even at minimum wage. So you can’t sell it, really.
My three aunties kind of illustrate the different roles of craft in women’s lives. Back then, it was still possible to earn money from it, which suggests a differently balanced economy, and a different value system. For some women, it was a mundane dreary time consuming drudgery. For others, a pleasure, a means of expressing themselves, and in my auntie janes case, a way of having nicer things than she could afford to buy. For some, it was just a part of life, kids need jumpers, someone’s gotta knit them, that’s just life.
But whatever they were doing, they tried to do it well, and they did, and were admired for it. Not enough, IMO, but they were.
These sisters show how much has changed. Poor people now don’t knit their kids school jumpers, that wouldn’t save any money. They don’t have time to, anyway. And they wouldn’t know how, as no one is taught this routinely any more. Our cheap clothing options come from china, and that is ridiculous for the environment and for the workers.
So I come back to the original quote. Why do I spend so much time fiddling away with little bits of wool and buttons when I could go to the market and buy it for cheaper? Partly, cos I want to be able to do it. I want to have skills. Partly, cos I want something more beautiful than I could afford to buy in the shops. Partly, cos I want different things that you get in the shops. Sometimes I make things about politics or in praise of another artists work.
Women have a history of doing long hours of unappreciated work for their families. But that wasn’t all we were doing. We made it as beautiful as we could, too, for ourselves.
Because our work is often transient and functional: how important is a tablecloth, it will get things spilled on it, it will wear out, you can’t sell it for what it’s worth, it’s just a tablecloth: and for that reason, women’s craft is undervalued. That is a sick perversion of the patriarchy and rank ingratitude. Because we lay the best of ourselves at your feet (quite literally sometimes) you should appreciate it more, not less. Beauty and love is rare in everyday functional objects. Making new curtains to brighten up the kitchen might seem like a small pointless thing to men, and it does, and they’ve even convinced us of that. Well it isn’t, for some of us anyway. It’s a huge spiritual thing, knitting for someone. Just cos patriarchal society doesn’t appreciate it. That’s society’s bad.
If those aunties instead of spending their “craft hours” doing free labour for their family and friends, had had all that time alone in a studio to work on “art”, they would be in museums now. That would make their work “serious”.
That’s why I rescue whatever I can, and that’s why I’m starting the Isabella Rosner Online needlework museum (more to follow). To me, these doilies and tablecloths and bedspreads are very important works of art and maybe one day the workers and the world will wake up to that.
Postscript: three sad stories about my auntie Jane and the patriarchySad story #One: My Auntie Jane, The Knitted Suit, And The Patriarchy My family were poor, but my mum got a good apprenticeship after school, and ended up getting asked out by a posh boy, Graham. Things were going well and she was to meet his friends one night after work for drinks in a posh hotel on George square. She was all excited and wanted to look her best, so she showed auntie Jane a picture of a lady wearing a pink knitted suit, which was very swish. My auntie Jane knitted it up for my mums big night out.
Unfortunately, the minute she hit the hotel bar she realised that the pink knitted suit wasn’t as stylish and chic as she had pictured it. She didn’t cut the required figure, and the meet went badly. He didn’t want to meet her again after that. Mum said she didn’t care, because maybe it wasn’t very chic but it was made with love, and if he cares what his friends think, then he’s a snob anyway. Of course, that’s the right answer. But I can’t help thinking she DID mind, or she wouldn’t still remember the guys name 40 years later.
Sad story #Two: My Auntie Jane, The Man In The Cupboard, The Little Shoemakers, and The Patriarchy Because of the disgusting treatment of Scotland by their English oppressors, my family was scattered in the brain drain following the war, so we only got to see my auntie Jane a few times a year.
(The funny thing now is I realise, looking back, we never told her we were coming, or any of the relatives. We just turned up and they were always home. Weird. I would never dream of just popping by someone’s house without letting them know first. Anyway.)
Our favourite game at her house was “The Little Shoemakers”. She had two footstools covered in pink damask silk with curly legs. We loved them cos we thought they were like miniature kids thrones. Our best game was to turn them upside down so the legs were in the air, and put our shoes on the legs like shoe lasts, and pretend to be hammering them, and when she came from the kitchen (usually with a tin of chocolate biscuits from marks and spencers, a rare treat indeed for middle class kids from the Home Counties. We got shit like raisins and carrot sticks 😡) she would always say “oh there’s ma wee shoemakers. What’ll you make for your auntie?” And we would tell her all the amazing shoes we would make, like ones from glass, and ones with a million diamonds, ones that made the world smell like strawberries wherever you went, ones that made you into the best dancer in the world, ones that could fly or make you invisible, and stuff. My sister made the best pair ever once, that could stomp anything in the universe, then let you roll up in a ball like a wood louse and roll away to safety. Amazing. We would roll about laughing on her rug, which was pink and gold and green like a princesses and so thick and luxurious that all the flowers and leaves stood up by themselves and you could bury pennies in it.
At her funeral, we saw my auntie janes son who we hadn’t met in years. He hadn’t realised that we still went and visited her. How sad is that? Colonialism destroys families. Anyway. He suddenly put two and two together, and went: oh my god! You’re the two little girls that visit her! He had thought she was talking shit all this time, about two little girls who visited her and ate her biscuits and made her magical flying shoes on the footstools. He thought his mum had gone a little soft in the head. But that IS what happened.
And we thought she had gone a little soft in the head. There was an electricity cupboard by the main communal door to the flats, and she told us a man lived in there and she’d seen him that morning and said good morning etc. We were like “oh ok auntie Jane, that’s nice🙄).
A few years later, my sister and I moved into the block. After a while, we identified a bad smell in the communal hallway, which we eventually traced to this cupboard (can you tell what it is yet? 😏). Inside we found a lot of screwed up newspaper and human shit. That was a fun morning haha. But someone HAD been in the cupboard.
Women aren’t taken seriously, we are appeased and ignored; and the patriarchy/capitalism/colonialism destroys families.
Sad story #Three: My Auntie Jane, Walking Behind The Patriarchy Every marriage in my family seems to have been an unhappy one, for the woman and kids especially. Auntie Jane’s was one of the good ones: he was well dressed, he stayed, had a job, didn’t drink or gamble, and didn’t beat anyone up. But my mum says, he was “a bit of a weirdy”.
The only specific example of this I was able to glean (that’s what family is: a machine that within two generations has reduced you to one story which is all anyone will know about you for the rest of time. I already know what my story’s gonna be 🤣) is that he liked to go out for a walk every Sunday afternoon after church, wearing his full army uniform (he was civilian, but served in WW2). This walk was non negotiable. And during the walk, my auntie Jane and the two boys had to walk behind him, because it is inappropriate for a man in uniform to be accompanied by his family in the street.
The moral of sad story #3 is: fuck the patriarchy ✊🏻