Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comfort(s) for Whom?

Last summer I interviewed the brilliant Sara Trail from the Social Justice Sewing Academy for my PhD thesis. Her initiative delivers workshops to youths "to empower people to use their experiences and creativity to sew their worlds and how they see problems, and to create opportunities for growth and change." She mentioned that in a recent keynote for a quilters' conference she explored the context in which people resort to quilting as a means to tackle social issues. Sara noticed that, more often than not, quilting is a reactionary practice. Rather than employing it as a form of radical direct action to address social injustices, quilting is what many turn to after catastrophe has struck. Such instances include quilts as part of the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina survivors in 2005 and for hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. The Missouri Star Quilt Company, a large retailer for quilting fabrics and notions with a massive online following, for example, managed to collect over 3000 quilts to distribute to survivors in the Houston area. Likewise, in 2016, the mass-shooting in an Orlando nightclub known for its LGBTQ+ customer base sparked the Orlando Modern Quilt Guild to commission heart themed quilts in rainbow colors to give to victims' families and to survivors. The narratives surrounding such charity drives are centred around "creating a tangible object of comfort" for those affected by tragedy and loss. Or, as one user on Missouri Star Quilt's Instagram feed puts it: "Wrapping oneself in a quilt is like being wrapped in a hug" - the quilts function as a symbols of love and support from strangers. In this contexts, it comes as no surprised, that people, in fact, used to call quilts "comforts."

Copyright CC BY 2.0

And while these donations are certainly appreciated by those afflicted, Sara makes a valuable point by asking who made them and from what social position this maker speaks. According to a study by sociologist Marybeth C. Stalp (2007), the majority of quilters in the US are white, middle-age and middle-class. These quilters regularly conceptualize their creative activity as a form of carework for their families and the larger community who are usually the beneficiaries of their quiltmaking. For Stalp, this carework is heavily gendered and expressive of women's role as the nurturing and loving carer of the family. It is because of the framework of carework that, according to Stalp, the women can justify spending time away from their other duties and engage in a creative activity they enjoy. Showing love and sympathy for those afflicted becomes a similar form of carework manifested in the physical quilts. Clearly, some of the recipients receive and appreciate the quilts as such tokens of love and support. For example, one user of the above mentioned Instagram feed posted: "I'm from Houston. Thank you for loving us!" 

However, such outpours of love - as nice and well-intended as they certainly may be - are often nothing more than just that: a showcase of one's compassion that does not require any engagement with the context of the catastrophe and the wider social and political structures that make certain groups more vulnerable than others. Making a quilt for a Hurricane Katrina survivor from the safety and comfort of one's own home serves as a means to demonstrate empathy and compasssion without being moved to take any action beyond acknowledging that catastrophe has struck some (but luckily not others). As Jamelle Bouie argues, there exists a sort of "capusule summary of Katrina and its place in national memory" that is built on the assumption of a united America in which all citizens experience disaster in similar ways. As such, "white Americans saw the storm and its aftermath as a case of bad luck and unprecedented incompetence" not related to questions of race or class. This narrative, however, ignores how black Americans were disproportionately affected by the storm and its aftermath. Indeed, "in a city defined by decades of poverty, segregation, and deep disenfranchisement, poor and working-class blacks (including the elderly, and children) would largely shoulder the burden of the storm." In a way, making and donating a quilt to survivors as a demonstration of sympathy and love serves as a comfortable means to "help" others without facing the larger issues at stake. The quilts provides comfort not only to the recipient, but also to the maker. 

This post will be followed by one which explores how quilts can be used as a form of direct political action. 

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!