Take Joseph Conrad’s modernist classic Heart of Darkness, for instance. Before Marlow descends into the heat and colonial horrors of the Belgian Congo, he first enters Brussels’ “whited sepulchre” to sign his contract at the Company office. Outside the interior office door, two needling women—one old and fat and the other young and thin—are “guarding the door of Darkness.” There they sit, says Marlow of the heavy-handed metaphor, “knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.” Any SparkNotes-cribbed English 101 essay will note the classical allusion. These Belgian women nod to the Moirai, the Fates who spin—and cut—a human life thread.
As fate would have it, this passage marked the first time that I, budding literary critic and occasional SparkNotes user, began to note the prevalence of literature’s knitting woman. I am admittedly prone to any quasi-mystical sign: a ghosted lover’s name on the side of a freight train repeated car after car at a crossing (Hapag-Lloyd, Hapag-Lloyd, Hapag-Lloyd), a song that arrives at a telling moment (Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”), a learned word (specious) that appears with newfound abundance. Once I became aware of her, the knitting woman turned up everywhere.
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay is forever knitting a reddish-brown stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s tubercular son. During a ribald, imagined game of “would you” in the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom, considering whether she “would” with a bishop, says “yes I would because I told him about some dean or bishop was sitting beside me in the jews temples gardens when I was knitting that woollen thing a stranger to Dublin.” Reading this, I was struck by something beyond Molly’s shocking ignorance of Judaic spiritual leadership and places of worship. Behind every Great Man—the ambitious “conquerors” Marlow and Kurtz, the aspiring metaphysical philosopher Mr Ramsay, the everyman “hero” Leopold Bloom—was a woman weaving something. An object of practicality, yes. But also, possibly, an object of beauty.
Homer’s Penelope, Moll Flanders, Mrs Fairfax, Estella Havisham, Hester Prynne. Why was I drawn to these needle-working women? What was I hoping to find in such a historical domestic commonplace? It seemed akin to swooning over a man on a fictional horse, a man at the helm of some literary wheel—symbols so ubiquitous they are almost meaningless.
I discovered the affinity—or perhaps I should say the distance—between me and these knitting characters one February day in the concrete moonscape of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries. The galleries are windowless, high-ceilinged, vertiginous. Outside, a blizzarding sky matched the colour and texture of the Nickle’s cemented architecture. I was on the second floor, hovering in the halogen shadows. Tears of the Hapag-Lloyd variety were blurring what hung on the white wall before me: a motley striped rug with the phrase “Use Me” stitched, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, inside a border of diamonds, clubs, spades, and hearts.
I’d fled to the gallery from a nearby café, where I’d been having coffee with a woman I did not like. When I dislike someone I bruise with guilt. This leads me to acts of obsequiousness and false flattery, which encourages the unfavoured to strike up what she believes is a genuine friendship; a grossly sycophantic cycle made worse by the fact that I’d been mocking this woman’s writing behind her back, and thus had grossly upped my compensatory flattering. The mocking was done with another student—and secret lover of mine—in our creative writing class.
Of our class of thirteen, he was the Judas-like one of two men, and the only one among us who was a legitimately Successful (i.e., multiple-award-winning, famous-person-knowing, well-reviewed) Writer. He, presumably, did not need the class and was imperious and loud-spoken, beautiful and confident. He had offered to help me with my work. Together we’d spent much time chortling over our student colleagues’ “memoirs” and “prose poems.”
Over coffee, the memoirist had wanted to gossip. She was both disgusted and proud. The Successful Writer, on whose pillow I’d lain for weeks, had sent her a “weird email,” lauding her prose. Prose I knew he found repugnant. You don’t need SparkNotes to decipher what a woman means by using weird to describe the behaviour of a man. In the gallery I was not crying, as one might, over the splendour of the exhibition. As usual, my tears sprang from self-pity. If no one reads your work, save the twelve people in your workshop and one “legitimate” poet you are sleeping with, can you call yourself an artist?
But as I staggered around the exhibition trying to get a grip, I began crying over something that wasn’t about me. The exhibition, Home Economics: 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs, was curated for the Textile Museum of Canada’s fortieth anniversary. According to the exhibition text, Home Economics was a celebration of: “generations of artisanal entrepreneurship, women’s domestic and collective work, as well as rural development in Canada.” On the walls, rugs were mottled with nineteenth-century dirt. Several were hooked using patterns distributed by Newfoundland’s Grenfell Mission, which began circulating kits in 1913 to alleviate poverty and raise money for medical aid, sparking, in the process, a robust women’s textile industry. A Grenfell mat offers the kind of theme you might expect: a red-and-white sailboat on a blue sea under brown cliffs, Canada geese mid-flight in winter. One particularly striking mat, a pelican on a turquoise background, made me weep inexplicably.
Home Economics included a piece by Emily Carr—a pair of double-headed eagles hooked in a style resembling her Haida Gwaii paintings. Emily, too, sold rugs to pay her rent. A mat attributed to Florence Ryder of the Sioux Handcraft Co-operative on the Standing Buffalo Reserve was a bold geometric design of brown and blue. The Co-operative, active from 1968–72, was made up of twenty-three rug enthusiasts who aimed to revive traditional Sioux designs. The exhibition’s most contemporary pieces seemed intended to question tradition. Heather Goodchild’s Journey (2010) shows four bonneted women traversing a landscape veined with the blood of a tree-hung lamb and an embroidered text that reads, “We will go three days journey into the wilderness and offer sacrifices unto the land as it shall command us.” Hannah Epstein’s Question of the Day (2014), which depicted a purple-faced monstrous child in a baseball hat with a cartoonish speech bubble announcing, “Am I,” felt uncannily joyous and uncomfortably modern. Nancy Edell’s Peter and Nancy as the Two-headed Dog (1993) featured a nun and a sea serpent beside a green, polka-dotted, two-headed dog coiled by a red snake and flanked with the heads of a bespectacled white couple, in what I took to be an awesome kind of self-portrait.
A brightly woven mat, created by Calgary-based artist Yvonne Mullock and members of the Chinook Guild of Fibre Arts, proclaiming in black block letters “HIT & MISS,” hung near the entrance. Like most of the exhibition’s rugs, Hit & Miss is made of locally sourced recycled materials: wool, cotton, burlap. (Long considered a craft of poverty, rug hooking was usually done using a burlap base made from an old feed or grain sack and scrap materials like worn-out clothing.) Created collaboratively over ten weeks in the project space of Calgary’s Esker Foundation gallery, Hit & Miss, according to Mullock, addresses issues of authorship, collectively, and the performativity of making.
What moved me to unselfish tears—as I went about the gallery admiring an intricacy of weave, a shock of colour, the haunting silhouette of a pelican or polar bear—was an impulse, an energy, an aura that seemed entirely outside the idolatrous realm of The Artist I was so desperate to enter. When I am at my most insecure, and therefore a cynical and scathing critic, I often lash out at writing I consider “lazy,” my shorthand for what appears to be a writer’s lack of attention to aesthetics, a slipshod craft. And yet here, in each textile, were countless hours of detail-oriented, painstaking work. “Women’s work.” And to what purpose?
“USE ME,” that first rug demanded. Of Newfoundland design, it was another of Mullock’s collaborative pieces, created with ninety-year-old Mary Francis Decker. I circled the gallery and returned to look at it again. Use Me’s literary Lewis Carroll motif and sad double entendre seemed an apt reflection of my perverse personal relations and depraved appeals for romance. I admired the rug’s purposefulness, its practical beauty and partnered origins. And as I moved again through the exhibition, I began to note a striking prevalence: the works in Home Economics were often produced collaboratively or anonymously. This, to me, was both curious and exemplary. What I’d found in the gallery was an age-old question: What defines art? Which may seem obvious to some, both the definition and the asking. But being a relatively young woman, I never imagined having the authority to opine on such matters, even to myself.
In a manner that I’ve since come to view as rather naive, I had always taken art and creativity to be synonymous. Now, suddenly, it seemed that perhaps this wasn’t so. I knew that so-called High Art had been a historically masculine affair, that a woman’s creative expression had rarely occupied even the remotest regions of Art’s geography. Was this the reason I’d been so captivated by Conrad’s Moirai, by Penelope and Moll Flanders? Was this why the knitting woman had been troubling me in a dark, significant way, like a half-remembered dream? What was the difference—spiritually, not materially—between the creations of a Mrs Ramsay and those of a Stephen Dedalus?
And beyond its obvious use-value, its domestic and gendered imperatives, what motivated such woven labour? To my self-important twenty-first-century brain, this was almost impossible to fathom. Imagine spending countless hours hooking a rug upon which someone will wipe his boots! Imagine devoting years to a quilt that will likely be used, at some high or low point, to wipe away semen! Can any of us, now, with our Instagram accounts and Snapchats, our Fitbits and chronic busyness, our forcefully public private lives?
There was a living pulse in those gallery rugs hooked by long-dead women. The hours spent on the fanning brown tail feathers of a partridge, a yellow burst of autumn foliage, the greys and greens of the sea. And for what?
It was, to my mind, a bright display of the intrinsic enjoyment of creation. What one might—despite the work’s utilitarian and unpretentious elements—call “art for art’s sake,” a slogan that once opposed the nineteenth-century ethos that demanded art have a didactic or moralizing function. Yet it seemed to me that both ethoses, aesthetic and prescriptive, had changed so as to become unrecognizable. Rather than ask what it might do for its audience, art’s primary purpose increasingly appeared to be what it might do for its author. Everywhere I looked, the function of art seemed to be one of elevating the individual genius, lewdly pulling up, like a “wardrobe malfunction,” the status of the Artist Himself. And I, too, was hungry for success, desperate be liked. Had I found an antidote to this motive in the lowly hooked rug?
In the gallery was everything I’d been missing since starting a graduate-level creative writing program where I was taught not how to write well, but how to “be a writer.” The display summoned a painful, tangled frustration I’d previously been at a loss to articulate.
Of course, it’s no secret that textiles, often decorative or domestic in nature, are thought unworthy of Art’s name, especially when compared to the lofty media of sculpture or painting. Which is not to say that contemporary feminist artists haven’t worked in great measure to elevate historically feminine forms and challenge gendered hierarchies of aesthetics. Many textile artists—Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, notably—have turned the medium subversive and political. But when I arrive to a Thursday evening meeting of the Chinook Guild of Fibre Arts, it seems that political and subversive agendas would be as likely to turn up as an Instagram “influencer.” The Guild’s meetings are held in the Rosscarrock community hall, which, to my dismay, happens to be kitty-corner to my junior high school. An old dread rises as I park my SUV beside the cluster of pines where I misspent my youth smoking cigarettes and trying (unsuccessfully, given my acne and then-small ambitions) to make out with one of the Jareds in my grade. I arrive at the meeting unannounced. I’m going to tell them I’ve been inspired by the exhibition. (I should have been a textile artist!) The rugs made by Mullock, Decker, and the Guild—Use Me and Hit & Miss—appear to have some mystical connection to the failures in my life. I want solace, creative salvation.
What I actually say is that I want to learn how to hook rugs.
Two women chair the meeting, and they are electrified by my presence. One is sturdy and broad-chested, with red hair and wind-chapped cheeks. The other reminds me of the mother of someone from my junior high school. Accordingly, I flush with teenage shame, a guilty reflex for all the cigarette smoking and wine-cooler drinking and what adults ludicrously referred to as “heavy petting.” I am made dizzy by an odd tilt of déjà vu. I feel like I’ve met many of the Guild women before, somewhere in my youth, and that I bullied their children. I smile like a psychopath.
Both chairwomen, I suspect, are grandmothers, though they call themselves the “new blood.” These loosey-goosey Thursday night meetings, they tell me, are considered a bit blasphemous by the Guild’s elderly and more traditional members, who meet Monday through Wednesday mornings. The CGFA has over two hundred members—all women—and has just celebrated its centennial. My seatmate, graceful and blonde (more new blood), tells me that one can often get a good deal on material because members so frequently die.
“It’s like a two-four of beer,” she says conspiratorially. “We meet the second and fourth Thursday of the month. That’s how you remember.” On her phone, she shows me photographs of completed pieces, a trunk show. The craftsmanship is stunning. The quilts, she says, are made collectively and donated to veterans, refugees, the Children’s Cottage Society. “We’ve given so many to our family and friends,” she says. “They don’t want any more quilts!”
The three-hour meeting is a mix of work, instruction, gossip, and show-and-tell. At seven o’clock, the chairwomen move to the front of the room for a round of announcements. When, to my surprise, they grandly announce my presence, all twenty-five or so attendees cheer. I wasn’t a jock in junior high, and I cannot remember a single time anyone has cheered on my behalf. Needless to say I am thrilled. One of the Guild’s primary aims is to pass knowledge to younger generations, and I am certainly the youngest person there.
Next, members are given the opportunity to show off completed pieces. A spreading horror takes hold of me as a lanky woman with a Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle strides to the front. Like a matador, she holds up and waves an embroidered spray of thistles. She speaks with an intentional lisp: “Thithles. I love thithles! They’re so boorish!” she shouts, twice. She tells us the thistle pattern was modelled from a set of tea towels she purchased on a trip to attend her mother’s memorial in Scotland. Bride of Frankenstein, I am almost certain, was my junior high Home Economics teacher. Under her watch, I sewed bean-bag frogs and baked cheesecake while sneering, parroting her Scottish accent, passing notes to Jared J, and sneaking out to the pine grove for cigarettes.
I imagine I’ve ruined this woman’s life, shattered her self-esteem. But like most of my self-aggrandizing and shame-laden fantasies, this one misses the mark; she doesn’t even recognize me.
After announcements, I’m prodded to take a tour of the room’s round tables, where members are busy at work. Each woman eagerly shows me her quilt, crotchet, knitted sock, or scarf. There are two acclaimed rug hookers in the Thursday night group—one works in what’s called the primitive style (think deer, log cabins); the other does fine hooking, an intricate, updated style that uses thinner than usual strips of wool. A lovely and very elderly woman with a drooping eye tells me that rug hooking “has almost warped into art.” The primitive hooker says she can teach me. She will lend me a frame and hook. There are kits under the stairs in the gym. Would I prefer a cat or a flower, to start?
I say cat, but already I suspect that I won’t find what I’m looking for at the Guild, learning to hook rugs. Immediately I despise the boring laboriousness of it. When during the show-and-tell bit someone announces the months or years they spent on a single project, my first thought is, “You could buy that at Winners for fifty dollars.” An ugly sentiment, and so obviously not the point. I think of a short story I’ve been working on for half a decade.
As it happens, rug hooking does appear to be a dying art. I sign up for a fibre-arts course at the city-run Wildflower Arts Centre—where the pottery and oil painting classes fill to capacity months in advance—and it is cancelled. The only person who enrolled was me. I note a hipsterish resurgence in embroidery. The craft brewery in my neighbourhood, for instance, has a Stitch ’n Sip night where supplies, instruction, and a cocktail cost thirty-five dollars. But rarely does anyone put in the time and effort needed to learn the craft at the very senior level of CGFA members. I don’t want to put in the time and effort either.
Months after my gallery unravelling, the Successful Writer from my workshop is nominated for a major award. Gifted and precise, he’s the type who can express what you’ve always felt but never recognized until you see it in his perfect metaphors. Brilliant is how I described him, even after our affair soured. The nomination is one of many. He’s won plenty of awards.
Then, in a Shakespearian twist of fate, he is disqualified. To the media he provides the kind of vague excuses one often hears in such situations—he “modelled” work after an admired writer, he ingenuously failed to provide credit. No one says, outright, plagiarism. Though I am certainly thinking it.
But what does it matter in light of my woven discoveries?
Because beyond its surface ugliness, what the once-Successful Writer calls a “misstep” reminds me, a little, of Grenfell mats, which often aren’t considered Art because they’re produced from a pattern. Designed by someone else, the rugs merely model an original: authorship and originality are entirely beside the point of their creation. But if the work is exquisitely done, does a pattern make it any less worthy or beautiful? Is plagiarism—or “modelling” or what have you—really any different?
These are material questions. My Wildflower Arts Centre disappointment notwithstanding, critic Alla Myzelev believes we’re in the midst of a needlecraft renaissance. And within the craft’s albeit gendered and queer borders (twenty-first-century needleworkers tend to be women or gay men) a stitch has opened to undo the modernist notion that art’s value is rooted in its originality. For Myzelev, the answer to such questions of value is one of creativity and degree. Yes, most needlework follows a pattern. But a woven object’s merit, she argues, is wrought through choices—of tension, of texture, of colour, of the “unique touch of one’s hand.” For many textile makers, success isn’t measured in “outdated” notions of originality but in “the supreme power of the producer whose creative efforts are the result of joy, imagination, and discipline.” Myzelev’s creative articulation sounds so mystical, so fierce in its god-like force. Laughing in the face of originality, it defies the pomposity of a plagiarism charge, at least as far as the hobbyists she’s writing about go. Indeed, the title of her originality-refuting essay is “Whip Your Hobby into Shape.” Reading it, I wondered how many writers would be willing to practice their craft without the promise of recognition, the lure of admiration, the cult of genius. It seems even the hobbyists want to be gods.
What I do know is that it feels personal, the plagiarism of the workshop poet. Like many, I’d found him an exceptional writer, something of a genius, and I trusted him. His suspiciously mercenary actions violate the very spirit of the work, which to me is striving after truth and offering oneself on the page with devotion. How, then, to reconcile my dismay with the solace I found in the gallery, or the admiration I feel for the women of the CGFA? How can I hold any artist in contempt for adopting the very practices that women needleworkers have used for centuries—using idiosyncratic flourishes to make an established pattern one’s own?
Is my contempt, in this instance, only a jilted lover’s petty vitriol?
Clearly, I’m more attached to the notion of originality and genius than my gallery self would like to admit. For it is true that I would like to defy my own ordinariness. It is true that I’ve spent shameful afternoons imagining extraordinary praise, accolades, awards. And what about Chaucer, Shakespeare, and every pre-modern (or postmodern, for that matter) artist who relied heavily on sources and analogues? Think of Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, and T S Eliot, all of whom are alleged to have uttered some version of the phrase “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
And yet I can’t claim a Grenfell mat and a plagiarized plot are one and the same. Among other things, the impulse behind them are at odds. A Grenfell mat is made from a pattern, yes. But it is an unambitious artifact, if I may call it such a thing, unlikely to proffer much public status to its maker. Hooked to be sold, to bring comfort, to offer joy or beauty: it will not invite wide acclaim. The plagiarist, on the other hand, is something of a thief. He does not tell you he used a source for his words or ideas. If he had, it wouldn’t be plagiarism. He wants to claim another’s genius. He wants recognition that is not his due. He wants to be extraordinary when he is only as ordinary as I am.
Still, I do not want to be a diarist, a hobbyist. So how to reconcile a mystical and joyful—an anonymous or collective—creativity and the very human desire to be admired, acknowledged, seen? The latter appears to be a modern, and largely capitalist, instinct. But the yearning for greatness, for distinction—this must be one of the most unfailing and primitive human longings. For me, the ugliest part of the Successful Writer’s fall from grace is the glee it has loosened in my own heart, the grim pleasure I feel in the decline of the formerly exulted. It has come as a welcome confirmation that only cheats and liars succeed, and, even if some are eventually caught, that the world is indeed immoral and unfair. If I am thwarted in my ambitions, it’s therefore not due to my own mediocrity, but rather to a calamity involving scruples, dignity, and pride.
High level plagiarism crops up with surprising frequency these days, partly as a result of our digital age, where Wikipedia has done everyone’s research for them and a lapse in diligence or ethics is only a copy-and-paste away from discovery. It seems that questions of art, originality, and individual genius are becoming ever murkier and more urgent. At a time when so many feel impelled to live publicly, when the walls between public and private life have fallen, a time when I can post my kitschy needlepoint (Why the fuck not me?, Will strip for grilled cheese, or the timeless Everything sucks) on Facebook, is there any such thing, anymore, as art for art’s sake? Or is every last creative impulse now caught in the cult of the extraordinary life? In a world of perpetual public striving, is there any room for the ordinary?
In Shakespeare’s time, ambition was considered a foolish, pestilent trait. Consider the fates of The Bard’s most ambitious men: Caesar, Claudius, Macbeth—desiring the highest rank, despairing their relative ordinariness. Perhaps exalting originality and ambition is a largely modernist impulse. In Joyce’s autobiographical Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the titular young artist, Stephen Dedalus, is almost ludicrous in his professed aim to: “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Is the hubris tongue-in-cheek? I can hardly imagine an unknown young woman artist making such an exuberant, pompous claim. We are rarely trained in that kind of confidence. And yet, it is here, in the Dedaluses, the Kurtzes and Marlows, the Mr Ramsayses, that I see the seeds of the Kanyes and Kardashians and Instagram “influencers,” the wholesale shunning of all that is ordinary, and all that is perhaps truly holy.
You will not find many knitting women in contemporary fiction. Women are now as ambitious as men. Fewer of us knit. I can’t say whether this is a loss. Virginia Woolf may well have thought so: knitting women appear throughout Woolf’s oeuvre, not just in To the Lighthouse. In her essay “Women Knitting: Domestic Activity, Writing, and Distance in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” critic Sayaka Okumura claims that these women, even more so than her writer characters, are intended as Woolf self-portraits. Have you ever noticed how close-knit text and textile are? They share, as Okumura notes, the same Latin root, the dictionary definition of text being tissue of a literary work, literally that which is woven, web, texture. Despite this, knitting and writing are often viewed as starkly opposite symbols, one being a marker of domesticity, self-effacement, and household confinement and the other, writing, being “associated with masculinity, as a mode of highly demonstrative and self-centred action.” Is it possible, then, to divorce writing from masculine self-centredness? Maybe in Woolf lies the way: A Portrait of the Writer as a Knitting Woman.
Woolf, it would appear, had no use for celebrity. Consider her advice in “A Letter to a Young Poet:”
As for fame, look I implore you at famous people; see how the waters of dullness spread around them as they enter; observe their pomposity, their prophetic airs; reflect that the greatest poets were anonymous; think how Shakespeare cared nothing for fame; how Donne tossed his poems into the waste-paper basket; write an essay giving a single instance of any modern English writer who has survived the disciples and the admirers, the autograph hunters and the interviewers, the dinners and the luncheons, the celebrations and the commemorations with which English society so effectively stops the mouths of its singers and silences their songs.
To avoid the dulling waters, the stopping of mouths, might we look to Woolf’s knitting women? Mrs Ramsay, for instance, who attends so carefully, so generously, to the dark hearts of others. Mrs Ramsay, who sees what others do not. Mrs Ramsay, who listens and consoles. If she is indeed a portrait of Woolf, then perhaps To the Lighthouse might be thought of as a gift, a reddish-brown stocking. Its reward? The joy and comfort brought, momentarily, to another. And the hard pleasure of creation.
—From CNQ 108 (Fall 2020/Winter 2021)
Mikka Jacobsen is a writer from Calgary. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, Prairie Fire, subTerrain, and the Missouri Review, among others.
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