Thoughts on bad crafts of the 1970s
As a fiber artist, I rebelled against the environment in which I grew up: the 1970s. That decade supposedly put a premium on arts and crafts. Every summer throughout the 1970s you could find crafts fairs galore, and every bookstore and magazine rack was filled with scores of books on how to make macrame, knit vests, make wall hangings, mold your own candles, even build your own loom. But most of the projects in these books and many of the objects being sold at the fairs were very unimpressive.
Lumpish macrame wall-hangings were woven from bristly jute and hung from sticks, with huge ugly beads or feathers or fossil crinoids knotted into them. Patchwork quilts incorporated bright pink or green polyester whose fibers were already pilling before the thing was even sewn together. Rag rugs were thick and coarse with uneven edges. Knitting was done on huge number-nine needles and involved lots of textured novelty stitches that made anyone wearing the garment look about twenty pounds heavier. Candles came in lurid, leering colors of red, pink and orange and (don’t ask me why) invariably had several pounds of colored sand stirred into the wax.
A lot of these so-called “crafts” seemed to exhibit the same level of ability shown by a kindergarten class having fun with glue and popsicle sticks. I was extremely interested in learning how to make things, but I wanted to make them the “real” way, in a craftsmanlike manner that I could be truly proud of. Perhaps reading about William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement was what moved me in this direction, or simply just reading about the crafts guilds of medieval Europe and the years of training that their apprentices went through before becoming accepted as master craftsmen. But it became evident to me that making things badly was very easy to do, whereas making things well was actually quite difficult. Because the course of my life has been about making things as difficult for myself as possible, that’s the direction I took in fiber arts.
I simply didn’t want to make lumpy, scratchy, ugly things made out of bad materials. When I learned to knit nearly thirty years ago, instead of knitting gigantic cables and huge stitches, I used the finest yarns possible on slender size-zero needles. And when I began weaving I moved at once from ordinary yarns to finer and finer ones with ever-increasing thread counts, exploring complex patterns. But I’ve come up against an invisible wall because the weaving technology that I possess—a Schacht “Mighty Wolf” loom— is fine for ordinary scarves and runners and shawls, etc., but it’s not necessarily the best loom for weaving really fine threads. It was never designed for weaving the kind of fabrics I’m interested in exploring, like napped velvets with a fine thread count, or semi-transparent gauze.
So I’m back to contemplating the 1970s. People in the 1970s didn’t realize that they were dumbing-down our traditional crafts. But weavers today are limiting ourselves in vision, crafts-wise, by not holding ourselves to a higher standard of artistry. It’s easy to look back on the ’70s and jeer at them, but weavers today are trapped in that exact same limiting mindset because the projects offered by the weaving magazines tend to focus on the ordinary instead of helping us aspire to be exceptional. Knitting has experienced an astonishing renaissance in the past ten years and most contemporary knitters can now make beautiful and delicate patterned webs of lace; but weavers remain stuck in the past, cranking out endless woolen scarves and table runners in run-of-the-mill patterns. When will weaving follow the path of modern knitting and explore its own technology to the fullest?