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Not My Baby

10,000 Hours Dress

Meet the “Thousand Hours Dress.” Isn’t she lovely? I commissioned this piece from local artist & designer, Peggy Noland. I told Peggy that I wanted a dress for my new project, Wait. , that I could also wear for ongoing 10,000 Hours events. It somehow needed to involve knitting and I needed to be able to knit while wearing it. (So no long flowing sleeves or miniskirts.)  Everything else was up to Peggy. I was to be client & knitting labor only.

This filled a few purposes. One, I needed a dress. Two, I love to collect Peggy’s work. Three, I wanted to know what it’s like to knit what you’re told for the purpose of fulfilling someone else’s vision. Up until now I’ve always had at least some creative input in my knitting projects, even if it’s just to choose the pattern and/or color. But knitting completely to others’ specifications is something that many knitters do. There are test knitters for designers who make sure that the design actually yields the product it promises. There are knitters-for-hire who will knit you that sweater you want. There are knitters who work in the sweatshops that make the fancy little headbands sold at the hipster store with the French name. Now, obviously, I didn’t have the sweatshop experience; but I knitted what she asked, how she asked, and (give-or-take 24 hours) when she asked.

Her orders:

Color – Sky Blue

Pattern – Pleated Skirts Lace

Piece 1 – large square swatch 12’’ x 12’’

Piece 2 – collar, 4-6’’ wide by 40-98’’ long

Lace. This was not easy. It was a pattern repeat of 22 stitches & 14 rows. It was slow going. It pushed me to the edge of what I was capable of. I could not talk to anyone or think about anything else while working this pattern. I did an internal cheer when I got to the end of each row. Every hour spent on these pieces felt like two. It mentally exhausted me.

Peggy brilliantly scanned in the large swatch, created a mirrored repeating pattern, and ordered a silky crepe fabric printed with the design. She made a fabric from my knitting… but it was not a knitted fabric. It looks like a snake skin print! Which, my mother pointed out, is odd since one rarely looks at a snake and thinks, “How lacy!”

The lace collar (which I managed to make just over 60’’ long) ruffles around the top and pieces of the swatch line the arms. Yes, she cut my cotton lace knitting and it did not fall apart. (She steeked, surged, & fabric-glued it, but it is secure.) Luckily, she did not do this in my presence; surely I would have fainted in a very dramatic “fetch the smelling salts” sort of way.

The result is gorgeous. I poured thirty fully-concentrated difficult hours into that piece. I simultaneously want to wear it everywhere and to frame it and hang it on my wall. I love it. But… it is not my baby. Peggy Noland created this work. When people ask me if I made this dress I will say, “No, Peggy did. I just knitted the lace for her.”

It’s a strange feeling to work on something giving up any creative control whatsoever. I trusted in Peggy, but I had no idea what the final outcome would be. It really did make for a different knitting experience. Hired needles.

This Woman’s Work

(Alternate title: The Elephant in My Mind)

I have finally been forced to confront it. From the outset of this project I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind hoping it would just go away. Apparently it never did.

I’ve joined a fun knitting group in downtown Kansas City; they’re laid-back, interesting, welcoming people. This past Sunday it was just me and two of the men in the group. We were chatting and knitting and in walked some non-knitting people. Then it happened. The thought “I’m so glad the guys are here,” went flying through my head. I cringed. This might not seem like a particularly evil thought. But the moment I was conscious of the thought, I knew I couldn’t ignore the “elephant in my mind” any longer.

You see, why I was glad the guys were there was because it  might validate knitting in other people’s eyes. Not because they are particularly good at it (although their skills are just fine) but because they are simply men. Before you write me off, follow me here for a second.

  1. When I first went to art school I was constantly asked whether I was an Arts Education or Fiber Arts major. (Kind of the art equivalent to Pediatrician or Ob/Gyn for female med students.)
  2. Even in the short time I’ve been knitting, each time I’ve knitted in public some middle aged man comes over and in a very patronizing voice says something like, “It just amazes me how women can do that. You must be so patient. I could never knit.” Subtract the tone of voice and the “how women can do that” portion and it would be a polite conversation starter. Instead it’s a pat on the head and ‘little girls are sugar and spice’ and a 33 year old woman is suddenly 12.
  3. Look in your local art galleries and museums. How many textiles do you see? Especially contemporary textiles. The fiber arts haven’t been well-respected historically. Traditionally “women’s work” and pushed into the “craft” category, even non-functional fiber arts have had a rough run of it.

When I was first putting together 10,000 Hours and searching for a skill to pursue, knitting was my first choice. I had honestly never touched a pair of knitting needles in my life, I knew I could knit often and almost anywhere, I’d have a visible record of my progress, and I instinctively felt that knitting is in its own way a measurement of time. But I kept trying to find something else to do. Something (and I really really hate to admit this) less traditionally feminine. I was afraid that knitting done by a female artist wouldn’t be taken seriously, and therefor that the project wouldn’t be taken seriously. Each time these thoughts would pop into my head I’d push them down and try to pretend that I hadn’t thought them.

Eventually I decided that knitting really was the perfect skill for this project and here I am. But every time some guy in a golf shirt comes over and praises the grace and patience of women I crumble a little. My foot slips on the rocks. And Sunday, in anticipation of another pat on the back I allowed myself a split second to rejoice in the company of the men because no one would dare come over and say something like that with them there doing the exact same thing I was. I felt awful. Like I’d demeaned my knitting friends by focusing on their gender and myself for being ashamed of mine, however briefly.

I have had to admit that when push comes to shove I really am worried about how my art is received as an artist who is a woman. I was once told by a gallery owner, “I don’t like that piece because I can tell it was made by a woman. I like these over here though, they’re less menstrually.” (That was in reference to my Song Birds suite. The first person who can correctly guess the “menstrually” print will receive a work from that series for free. I’m serious. Email me with your guesses.) I’m a little bit afraid of the “you throw like a girl” dismissals and picking up a medium associated with women (and not even women artists mind you) makes the road a little more tricky.

I have seriously had to bribe myself to finish and post this entry. I am THAT afraid to admit these feelings or call attention to them. Partly because it could be seen as “whiny” but mostly because I really wish I was above this. But this is a part of the journey. I have to cope with my feelings surrounding the entire process. So here they are.

I ultimately chose knitting. I am glad. It is perfect for this project and I am loving learning this medium. These moments of insecurity and cringe-worthy thoughts are momentary and often so subtle that I am able to let them go easily. Sometimes they are not.

I am turning back to Big Girls Don’t Cry by Rebecca Traister for reassurance that gender issues are complicated and therefor it’s not unreasonable that my emotions surrounding them are equally complex.