Friday, January 5, 2018

Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth and the Craft House

A Craft House in which people of different ages would come together in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere to nourish the practice an appreciation of traditional needlecrafts. Sounds like a dream come to true for many contemporary crafters and craftivists. Indeed, it was the dream of Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth (1886-1967), descendant of the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe, an established well-to-do family in rural Lancashire. I came across her intriguing life story at the the annual conference of the British Quilt Study Group in October 2017. There, the the curator of Kay-Shuttleworth's extensive and asthonishing textile collection, Rachel Midgley, presented on the life and collection of her namesake. The similarity between Kay-Shuttleworth's ideas about crafting and the process of making and those of contemporary critical makers and theorists was surprisingly striking and I was immediately fascinated by this women. Over the holidays, I was now finally able to read the short memoir about her life and passions, published posthumously by her longtime friend and vicar Canon G. A. Williams. A quick read that I can recommend to anyone interested in needlework and practices of making.

From an early age, Kay-Shuttleworth had a liking for needlework and, as was the custom of the time, it was part of her schooling. As an adolescent, she attended the boarding school Northlands and was shocked to find that the curriculum inteded needlework to be taught primarily to younger students whereas the older ones were supposed to focus on more academic subjects. To the fifteen-year old Rachel this made no sense because, in her opinion, "education should be a matter of coordination of mind, hand and eye" (Williams 1994 [1968], p. 4). To be able to successfully learn about about literature, history, music and other languages and cultures the physical engagement of the hands in particular, and of other parts of the body in general, was instrumental. Practices of physical making such as needlework, therefore, should not be treated as separate from the primarily book based study of many subjects in the humanities. Many crafters, past and present (myself included), can confirm this theory from personal experience and contemporary theories of education also draw on similar concepts. For example, in her work on 'craft as conversation', educator Kate Dunstone from Manchester Metropolitan University, explores how craft can be used as a means to generate and share knowledge. Zine making, stitching, cutting or sculpting allow participants to be active as they consume information about aspecific techniques or non-craft related topics. Yet, unfortunately, across much of the (higher) education sector it would still be cosidered rude to be found knitting or hand-sewing, during a lecture or a seminar.

Echoing, though perhaps unconciously, Marxist philosphy about the alienation of mechanized labour, the sixteen-year old young debutante also developed an interest in the effects of the Industrial Revolution and mechanization on the labourers that lived in the vicinity of her family's second home Barbon Manor, located on the outskirts of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. While mechanization meant more free time for certain workers, Rachel observed that this was not necessarily to people's benefit. On the one hand, they were lacking the satisfaction that comes with completing a handmade piece of work. On the other hand, there was no alternative outlet that allowed people to creatively express themselves through making. William recounts that "Rachel recognized that personality develops through expression and that without opportunity for creative work personality must suffer" (1994 [1968], p. 7). So off young Rachel went to create such opportunities for people by teaching needlework classes in the surrounding villages and encouraging people to meet up regularly in groups to work alongside each other and to provide one another with assistance. The establishment of her Craft House was to be the ultimate embodiment of this mission.

On route to this goal, she also discovered the value of different pieces of needlework to serve as inspiration and as a medium for teaching. She travelled extensively and whereever she went, she made sure to bring back some examples of the local textiles. Soon friends and relatives came to help with the growth of her collection by donating textiles and salvaging any pieces they came across on their own travels. The collection grew steadily though, most of the time, it was stored in boxes under beds and in cupboards in Gawthorpe Hall and Rachel's own property Holly House. Rachel kept an extremly busy life managing her family's household and as an active member in various social and charitable causes, above all the Girl Scouts. Nonetheless, she always managed to find time to nurture her interest in textile and became increasingly known as an expert on needlework, particularly lace-making.

But it was only in her late fifties that she finally found the time to fully dedicate herself to the Craft House. She came to refashion her old stately family home, Gawthorpe Hall, for this purpose in collaboration with the National Trust. Until her death, Rachel was dedicated to showing people the collection (which in size is only surpassed by the textile collection of the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London) and to sharing her passion for needlework. As a working collection it was and continous to be open to students, researchers and the general public. Indeed, the collection also includes some "quite hideous things, chosen for their intrinsic interest or To Show People How Not [sic]" (Kay 1994 [1968], p. 37). Right up to her death, Rachel was an avid needlewoman herself and continued to be involved in the management of the collection and the house. Since then, the National Trust alongside with the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection has committed to preserving her collection and legacy at Gawthorpe Hall and the property is open to the public.  The online gallery of the collection provides contemporary crafters worldwide with insight into century-old practices wedged within discourses of women's work, the arts and crafts, mass production and creativity.

Gawthorpe Hall as pictured in Greeves, L. (2013). The Houses of the National Trust.

References and further reading:

Dugan, E. K. (2007). Rachel's Tat. Uncoverings, 28, 27-51.

Kay, F. (1994) [1968]. The Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth Collection. In: Williams, C. G. A. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth: A Memoir. Kendal: Titus Wilson and Son, pp. 37-38.

Williams, C. G. A. (1994) [1968]. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth: A Memoir. Kendal: Titus Wilson and Son.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Emotional Politics - Submissions welcome!

Check out the Call for Papers of the conference I'm organizing with my colleague Angela Matthews! Emotional Politics: The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing will be held at the University of Kent on 31 May 2018. This one-day interdisciplinary conference will bring together academic researchers, activists, policy-makers and practitioners. The aim is to exchange and discuss current concerns and developments in the research and practice surrounding emotion, organizing and social movements. We hope to get a mix of research papers and accounts by activists.
Dr Carolyn Pedwell, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Kent, will deliver the key note and it's safe to say that it will be brilliant!

Veteran activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis (2016) claims that in order for a movement to be effective it needs to mobilize the masses. How does one do this? What motivates people to join a movement, especially if they are not directly affected by the campaign’s agenda and the successful implementation of its goals? Deborah Gould (2009) argues that the purposeful channelling of emotion can be decisive for the success or failure of a movement. Recent campaigns such as Black Lives Matter or the Women’s Marches, though US-centric, have managed to garner the support from millions of people worldwide. According to Carolyn Pedwell (2014) and Sara Ahmed (2004), the key lies in the relational nature of such elusive terms as emotion, feeling and affect and their ability to circulate between subjects and objects. How can organizers and campaigners make use of these characteristics? What problems may arise in the concrete experience of organizing?
Themes for papers may include (but are not restricted to):

  • Politics, emotion, and affect
  • Social movements, rights-based action, campaigning and protest (such as LGBTQI+, disability, human rights)
  • NGOs and non-profit organisations
  • Critical race, gender, and cultural studies
  • Queer, trans and feminist activisms
  • Legal and political studies perspectives
  • Political theologies and philosophies
  • Queer and non-binary phenomenologies
  • Alienation and engagements
  • Practice-based activism and activist-scholars
  • Influencing policy and policy formation

Submission guidelines
Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words for a twenty-minute research paper to by Friday, 22 December 2017.
We also welcome contributions by activists and practitioners on their experience of the role of affect and emotion in their work. Please also submit a proposal of no more than 250 words for a 10-minute presentation.
Postgraduate and early career researchers are particularly encouraged to submit proposals.

It would be fantastic to be able to hear from some craftivists at the event!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Exploring Gender and Sexuality through Making

"Gender, Sexuality and the Sensory" was the title of an amazing one-day symposium recently held at the University of Kent. It asked what significance explorations of the sensory have for contemporary analysis of gender, sex and sexuality. Alongside a a line-up of brilliant speakers I offered a drop-in feminist craftivism workshop during registration and breaks. The idea was to allow people a hands-on sensory experience in exploring the symposium's main themes by making their very own feminist felt badge. I had provided a selection of templates of background shapes and gender themed motifs such as the letter Q for queer, the female sign, ovaries and elongated oval shapes which could be combined to form an abstract resemblance of a vagina. The base material was felt and people could use some mesh fabric, loads of different beads and pearls and of course lots of colourful thread to embellish their badges. 

The results were absolutely stunning!! Most people used the templates as a starting point for creating their own designs and I am truly impressed by the dedication and creativity people put into their pieces. I suggested that people should take needle and thread into the lecture theatre so they could continue working on their badges while listening to the presentations. Many reported afterwards that it actually helped them concentrate - something I've picked up a long time ago. Unfortunately, it's not yet something the academy has come to appreciate. Often, I don't dare to take out my sewing during a lecture because I feel that people would perceive it as extremely rude and as a sign of disinterest. I guess from now on, whenever I give a talk, I will make a habit of letting people know in the beginning that I don't mind if they engage in some kind of quiet creative activity while listening because I'm aware of the benefits.

Some recent scholarship has also come to appreciate practices of making as forms of meaning-making (Cvetkovich 2012, Gauntlett 2007 and 2011, Sedgewick 2003). During the act of making (a painting, a knitted hat, a clay bowl or a felt badge) materials, ideas or both are connected and turned into something new. The maker hereby inhabits a curious position; he or she not only connects the individual materials, but is also provided with the opportunity to connect with the materials themselves and his or her own physical presence in the world through a sensory and kinesthetic engagement with them (Gauntlett 2011). For instance, as the cool metal of the knitting needles rests against the skin of one’s hands, the regular and rhythmic motion of knitting provides a space for body and mind to rest and wander as well as an outlet for feelings of agitation and despair. As such, creative practices of making provide an opportunity to “maneuver the mind inside or around an impasse [as] forms of agency that can take the form of literal movement and are thus more e-motional or sensational or tactile” (Cvetkovich 2012: 21). 

One of the participants in the workshop expressed unease about which design to choose because she was worried about its implied message regarding gender and sexuality. A concern I can relate to as one naturally does not want to offend someone else or perhaps send "the wrong" message. But rather than looking at these badges as definitive statements about gender, sex and sexuality, they are, in fact, an invitation for conversation and a means to raise awareness. If asked by someone about your awesome flashy vagina badge, hopefully, this will provide an opportunity to engage someone in a meaningful conversation about gender, sex and sexuality and, for example, allow them to reflect on the constructedness of gender categories. In the spirit of the so-called 'Craftivist Movement', your felt badge is evidence of your dedication to interrogating gender and sexuality because you have invested skill, time, and effort in creating a handmade object that encourages critical engagement with the topic (Greer 2014). As such, making is not only about connecting materials, but also about bringing together ideas and people (Gauntlett 2011). 

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression : A Public Feeling. Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2012.
Gauntlett, David. Creative Explorations : New Approaches to Identities and Audiences. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
–--. Making Is Connecting : The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge : Polity, 2011.
Greer, Betsy. Ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press , 2003.