Ahead of our Protest and Activism workshop we’re delighted to share a guest blog from one of our speakers- Katja May. Katja is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. To hear more about her research, please join us on Wednesday 7 November from 2-4.30pm in the Gannochy Seminar Room at the University of Glasgow!
Textiles have always been deeply connected to the Transatlantic. For black slaves shipped to the new world to toil on the cotton plantations of the American South, the passage resembled one of the first (and for many also the last) horrors of slavery. The cotton these slaves and their descendants then planted, harvested and ginned would often also embark on the transatlantic crossing as either raw or processed goods, but also in the form of passengers’ clothes. Likewise, different textile practices, from dressmaking to embroidery and quilting, went back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic as practitioners moved between the two spheres. This is still very much the case today and the process has become heightened through technological developments that allow online exchange between practitioners and those interested in textile arts and practices of needlework. Think, for example, of the pussy hats that were conceptualized in the autumn of 2016 by Kristah Suh and Jayna Zweiman in the United States as a “symbol of support and solidarity for women’s rights and political resistance” (Pussyhat Project). The knitting and crochet pattern travelled across the Atlantic and beyond and became the iconic object of the Women’s Marches that took place in January of 2017 across the world in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
My PhD research is inspired by this ubiquitous nature of textiles that threads it to global politics and economics while also being closely connected to the individual. My own passion for textiles was inspired during my high school exchange year in the US, which was to mark my first encounter with traditional patchwork quilts. Back in Germany, it took another three years before I learned how to sew and quilt myself, and it didn’t take long for me to become (slightly) obsessed about anything related to quilting and textiles more generally. This was eight years ago, at a time that the so-called modern quilting movement and its attendant aesthetic was gaining in popularity in the US and had also found its way across the Atlantic to Europe. Age-old discourses about the connection between needlework and femininity were revived, reproduced and sometimes reworked as a result of the revival of the craft. Besides the question of active participation in the craft as an act of conformity or subversion to traditional norms of femininity, practices of needlework are repeatedly discussed as alternative forms of production that supposedly counteract mass produced textiles. However, none of these things are as clear-cut as they are often made out to be. For example, one can make a pussyhat out of cheap acrylic wool bought in a Pound store that is likely to employ its employees (many of which are probably women) on no more than minimum wage and in a precarious contract. Likewise, I could wear a pussyhat made from high-end organic wool in combination with an outfit bought from high street retailers well known for unethical and dangerous manufacturing processes in their South Asian clothing factories. How then, can we attempt to disentangle the ways that practices of needlework are closely knit to other areas of everyday life through their historic legacy, modes of production, and connotations with femininity? I think that the key is in moving away from those popular areas of focus because they will always lead to a dead-end or rather some type of standoff between two opposing sides of a binary rather than investigating what it means for practitioners to be involved in a practice with such contested meanings.
My interdisciplinary research project Everyday Textures: Practices of Needlework, Meaning-Making and Social Transformation examines practices of needlework, for example quilting, dressmaking, embroidery and knitting, as a form of politics within feminist anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism. Drawing on the work of Margaret Wetherell and Ann Cvetkovich, I conceptualize these crafts as affective social practices of meaning-makingin order to attend to their texture in the context of their everyday performance. As a result, I hope to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. My sample of case studies is necessarily eclectic because neither the everyday nor practices of needlework can be neatly fitted into disciplinary or methodological boundaries as they bridge that which is ordinary but also exceptional, forms of repetition, moments of disorientation and breakdown as well as potentiality. As such, I critically engage with a number of text(ures) from women’s writing to textile artefacts to the works of the US based youth organization the Social Justice Sewing Academy and the Afghan-European embroidery initiative Guldusi to the contemporary craftivism movement. Through this attention to texture on the level of everyday affective social practices of creative making I follow different trajectories of meaning-making across the textured web of everyday life lines situated not in an abstract realm but in concrete material and affective experiences.
Katja May, University of Kent