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Housewifely virtues: handwork

When I was a girl, my grandmother once tried to explain to me why she kept trying to teach me to knit and crochet. My grandmother was old fashioned, and felt that her three granddaughters ought to act like young ladies, and get something of the education young ladies might have. We, on the other hand, were products of our age, and saw her attempt to inculcate womanly skills and virtues as an attempt to constrain us, to impose standards that no longer applied from the past upon the present.

My grandmother told me that when I was a grown woman, I would live my life in a sea of labor that was done each morning, and undone before I went to bed. I would wash the dishes and cook meals, only to see them eaten and the dishes dirtied again. I would wash clothes, dry them, and see them back in the hamper. She observed to me that it was necessary that I learn to do something that “stayed done at the end of the day.” She was telling me how important this was to her, and she wanted very much to pass on the knowledge.

I was 10 or so, and I truly did not understand what she was saying to me. The life she portrayed seemed alien, distant and unimaginable. Of course I would end each day with some great accomplishment. Of course my work would stay done. I wasn’t going to be concerning myself with dishes and laundry (I think I thought magic fairies might do these for me), but with great events and great deeds - dishes didn’t figure into it. So why on earth did I need to know how to knit or crochet? How could such small things ever matter? I would never, I thought, be the sort of woman who needs, at the end of the day, to rest quietly and work on that one thing that will not be undone. I assumed that my grandmother was simply being fusty/

I remember that talk with chagrin and sorrow every time I think of it - even though being an idiot is the official province of 10 year olds. I’m embarrassed to admit how many years it took me to understand that my Grandmother wasn’t trying to force me into an arcane version of womanhood - she was trying to prepare me for the daily reality of parenthood, of home ownership, of domestic life. Now I know. She knew that my airy assumption that “something would be done” about the problem of domestic labor was unlikely, and she was doing what she could to get me ready. And I didn’t listen.

Many, many years later, as I learned, slowly, painfully to knit from books and with the help of friends, I wished desperately that I’d paid attention to my grandmother, wished that I hadn’t thought I’d known so much. She’s gone now, and my son Isaiah’s middle name memorializes her. I wish she could hear my apologies from here. I know she forgave me long ago, but I wish I’d understood more, sooner.

In my first post on this subject, I made the case for what I see as the deep value of domestic labor. Now despite the title of thread, it should be noted that I do not believe this is or should be “women’s work” - that is, by “housewifery” I mean work, which like “husbandry” is associated with the basic maintenence of a self-sufficient homestead - whether in an city apartment or a rural dwelling. The two terms are historically gendered, but they need not be in the present. In the comments on my last post, we came up with the term “hussy” - now usually associated with the term “shameless” but once merely a short term for a housewife of any kind. My suggestion is that handwork, along with all the other subjects in this category ought to be the territory of both shameless (for what on earth have we to be ashamed of?) hussies and hubbies ;-).

Much domestic work for hussies and hubbies is of the sort called ”reproductive labor” by scholars that has to be done over and over again. Whether indoors, where the floors are cleaned and then mud tracked upon them again, or outdoors, where the sheep are moved to new pasture, and then must be moved tomorrow, it is always there. The children’s water glasses must be filled, the chicken’s waterer’s must be filled, and all must be done day in and day out, round and around the year, and interspersed with big, often exhausting jobs. All of us, then, need a moment in each day when we do something that gets us, as the poet says, “forwarder.” Sometimes that will be the big job - the hay brought back from the field, the new garden bed built, the jars of corn relish lined up. But most days, there won’t have been a big job to mark the day - just an endless line of little ones, most undone again nearly as soon as they are complete. And thus the virtue of handwork, the small thing that gets you a little bit further along on something needful - a sweater, a quilt, a tool, a toy.

Why handwork? What does that even mean? Well, by “handwork” here, I mean not just any work done by hand, but the kind of work that can be done by hand quietly and safely around others, while engaged in conversation, singing, learning, listening, even prayer. It is the work of quiet times, things that can often be done in lower-light conditions, with small, portable equipment at evening, when the day’s other chores are complete. Handwork of this sort marks a kind of transition between work and rest, chores and play - often pleasurable activities, with artistry embedded in them, we do them for both beauty and utility, for both work and play, and thus they bridge the margins of each category.

Often it is the last thing we do, when it feels so good to sit. Or perhaps they are a way of making a day filled with classes or talks, long drives or even a favorite movie into time where something is also addeed to the well being of one’s family or the beauty of one’s home.

What activities fall in this category? My own favorite category of handwork is knitting, but among fiber arts it would include spindle spinning (wheel spinning is sometimes possible in these conditions but requires more equipment than most of the others), needle felting, crochet, rug braiding, tatting, light mending, darning, piecing quilts, carding, embroidery, white work and other fabric and fiber crafts. Many fiber crafts are easily adaptable to these conditions - while it might not always be possible to do, say the finest embroidery in low light conditions, or elaborate fair isle knitting patterns, in many cases is may be possible to sew a straight seam or knit a familiar pattern mostly by touch. If the craft can be done by the blind, you probably could learn to do it too.

But while things involving a needle or pair of needles and some cloth are easily portable and make up a chunk of handwork, these are not the only possibilities. Whittling or the carving of small objects like spoons and toys are excellent handwork. Oiling or maintaining or even light file sharpening of small tools can be done as handwork. There are certainly categories of handwork that I am not immediately calling to mind. The general requirements are that they cannot require daylight precision, they must not be so loud that they preclude conversation, listening to music or to someone reading aloud. They must not be physically arduous, since people are tired at the end of the day. It must be work that can be picked up and put down again. The work should be relaxing, repetetive, soothing - enough so that the moving hands add to the pleasure of putting one’s feet up.

Handwork is not and should not be a gendered province - all of us have time when we must sit and listen, or time when we want to converse. As times get more stressful, we may find that we have more of this time, not less - for all that we have more work to do when we must make do with less money and energy, we also often have more of this time. That is, unemployment, a more seasonal life, less television, fewer nights out and fewer long car trips may mean more reasons to sit, and be quiet together. If the power does go out, or get too expensive, handwork makes the evening hours productive, artistic, graceful - and the movement of fingers enables conversation.

I think there is more of a prejudice among men against fiber arts than there is among women against carving or mending tools. This is a great pity, because most fiber arts were historically at least partly the province of men. Young Scottish boys sent out to mind the flock were set to knitting their own stockings. The knitting guilds were male only in many cases. The same is true of many textile works - and while there are some great resources out there for knitting and sewing men, I think there’s an instinctive “is that really a guy thing?” among many gents. It should be. I don’t know if it helps to offer a role model, but my 6′2, bearded, father-of-many, scythe-wielding, physicist-farmer husband knits rather gracefully. and while he can’t sew by hand to save his life, is better with a sewing machine and pattern than I am. Just as my readers often feel free to blame me for the crazy ideas they pick up here I officially give you permission (note, I have yet to clear this with Eric, but hey, it is easier to get forgiveness… ;-)) to blame it on Eric’s role modelling ;-).

I do my handwork in the car, on long drives, I do it with my feet up across my husband’s lap, or his across mine. We knit together, offering commentary on each other’s projects. I do it when I attend conferences or talks, and when we have guests and I want to hear what they have been doing. I do it while Simon reads stories aloud to his brothers and to us, or while Eric plays the piano or we all sing. I tend to make small things - I sew on buttons or mend the children’s pants, or knit hats and mittens for the winter, or a pair of socks for gift. I brush out the angora from the bunnies and spin it while we watch a movie, or make clumsy attempts at woodworking. All of these skills took time for me to be able to do them without concentration, while also doing other things - I still can’t carve worth a damn, and it takes more of my attention than I like. But I remember when I could not knit or sew without my eyes on the needles, and now my fingers have eyes on their tips, at least for those activities. It took only time and practice.

And each one gets me “forwarder” - even if a whole item is not produced, a dozen rows on a sock or crocheted kippah, a few inches of braiding on a denim rug, two items off the mending pile or the pile of tools to be sharpened and oiled gets me ahead. Each useful item, each mended thing, gets me forwarder as well - one more thing I do not have to buy, one more year of use, one less broken tool. It is a small thing in a life full of jobs that wash over me day by day, done and undone, done and undone again, but the rhythym of knitting needles clicking, of needle against thimble, of knife against wood while music or words flow over me is a step, a stitch, a cut in that repetition, a thing that is complete and whole. It ties me back to my grandmother, a silent apology for what I did not know then but do now, and pushes me forward, to the culmination of good and productive work, and the quiet at the end of the day.

Sharon

Editorial Notes: Does anyone have a nice photo of Sharon - perhaps taken at a conference or a lecture? I'm trying to get photos of authors to spice up the appearance of articles. Faithful readers of Sharon Astyk will not be surprised to know that her household does not have a digital camera. Therefore, we'll have to rely on the kindness of stangers for a photo. You can send them to [email protected] -BA

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