THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Social Fabrics

Connecting and crafting online

by Paige Parsons

Illustration by Lillian Xie

published April 20, 2018


One long string of yarn, when arranged correctly, can become any number of shapes a person could want to wear on their body: a scarf, a sweater, a bodysuit. With a pull, the whole thing can unravel. The constraints comfort the mind, as with a pattern to follow and an understanding of the basic motions, one can settle into a rhythm for hours. These qualities oppose our conception of the things we create online: the “content” that streams onto our media platforms daily seems immaterial, detached from our bodies, and seamless, as though it can never be undone. It is constantly spreading, hyperlinking, to widen our scope of focus. Knitting, with its tedious, monotonous movements, can act as a break in the information flood of daily internet use, from the barrage of images and words—importantly, it allows a break from the verbal. But digital technologies and craft converge; in recent years knitters and crafters more broadly have carved out a space for a renewed dissemination of craft knowledge, made possible by platforms like Youtube, Reddit, Ravelry (an online knitting community) and personal blogs.

There is comedy in the intersection of handicrafts and internet culture, or at least this is what I think, as special effects transitions appear between different shots of a woman’s hands, teaching me how to cast-on my first row of stitching. But this is only because the face of knitting has always been older, feminine, and domestic, the demographic of those often presumed to be digitally illiterate. It is exciting and strange to see these women in their own online communities, in which discussion of making creative projects is often interspersed with hints to the forms of care these women foster beyond crafting (the nod to a granddaughter that will receive this child-sized sweater, to the cake that needs to be baked for the family party), creating a different ecology from the trending discourse of more masculine or youth-centric corners of Reddit or Twitter.

Historically, older women taught skills like sewing, knitting, and crocheting within the home, as domestic production of clothing was a necessity in most American households. Craft knowledge was transmitted intergenerationally, while trends circulated among women through periodicals and craft books. Victorian classics like the Godey’s Lady’s Book circulated knitting patterns as well as poetry and opinion pieces to tens of thousands of women. Although crafting was a chore, it was also a mode of engaging with deeper aesthetic traditions, often bound to place and family. As a 1895 issue of Art Needlework describes:

Would it not be a pleasant occupation for many of our girls to fashion something, the best of its kind, in the style of the days they live in, so well and so prettily that it would be worth keeping as a reminder of these days when they are past, and we ourselves are among the old-fashioned things; and would also be worth sending down the time as our grandmothers' things have come to us?

My grandmother, in fact, left me a beautifully knitted blanket that sits on my bed. It is something I have always marveled at; its construction incomprehensible to me. She was gone before I became interested in learning, and my mother was never taught, so I learned from YouTube. From the phone in my lap beneath my knitting needles, a Scottish woman instructed me on how to tie my first slipknot, and precisely how to manipulate the yarn into the first row of stitches—loop, slide in, wrap around, pull through.

Youtube has presented astonishing new possibilities for the world of hobby crafters: just typing in “how to knit” on Youtube yields 4.8 billion videos, exhaustively covering everything from basic stitches and fixes to more complicated pattern construction. You can pause and replay the motion of a stranger’s hands at your own pace. You can get bored of their voice or dislike their lighting and move onto another teacher immediately. These efficient instructional videos unfold into the much lengthier process of making: someone can teach you a new technique in three minutes that you spend the next ten hours repeating.

In many ways, activities like knitting allow you to readjust to a slower pace than that of digital communications. Most knitters I know knit in the background of other activities in their life: watching TV, chatting, waiting, listening. When done in public, such as during a faculty meeting or the waiting room in the doctor’s office, knitting occasionally elicits discomfort from others, as if a bit of private domestic life has walked too far out the front door, becoming unprofessional or too precious for others to see.

A knitter’s defense is usually that the monotonous manual work often helps them focus their thoughts or listen more intently. In this way, the rhythm of the hands grounds the outside activities in something material, processing whatever stimuli is coming in through the singular motion of a stitch. In contrast, in surfing the internet, your multitasking can become untethered. Messages can flow in at a rate faster than you can read, the website you are on can open up countless potential pathways to click and wander while music streams in the background. You have to chart your way through the simultaneous activities, making active decisions about what the foreground of your focus is.

Knitting today is deeply embedded in the internet: its popularity as both a leisurely hobby and remunerated labor is due to the accessibility of craft knowledge online as well as the ability to monetize either that knowledge or its products through the internet. Popular bloggers and YouTubers can make money through advertisements, from commissions off of purchased products they recommend to their audiences, or through selling the instructions to their patterns as online documents. Further, websites like Etsy create a marketplace to link small-scale craft producers to customers who want luxury, handmade items without the labor of making.

However, digital communications also enable the rapid machine of fast-fashion, of which cheap and accessible clothing makes the cost and time-commitment of knitting seem like an extreme way to arrive at a similar product: a pair of socks, for example, can take 24 hours total to make maybe spread out over days or weeks or months, a timescale in which Amazon could deliver you a five-pack of socks for a price comparable to that of the yarn. While both the producers and the socks of these two different kinds of production have qualitatively different existences, both products ultimately end up serving the same purpose.

To knit, then, is clearly not to pursue efficiency or utility, but something else. The kind of multitasking that knitting enables is crucial to its appeal, and part of why it continues to draw primarily women, despite the fact that both women and clothing production are now less bound to the home. Whether for money or for the satisfaction of creating things, the work of knitting fits neatly and flexibly into the work of childcare, into the background of a social life, and into the hours outside of the traditional workday.

 

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I wanted to know why someone who knits as a hobby would teach knitting online. After all, the composition of a knitting pattern and of a video tutorial are creations of disparate skill-sets.  One popular Youtuber I talked to, Donna Wolfe of Naztazia, began teaching knitting and crocheting online unintentionally, two decades after her grandmother taught her how to crochet. As a technology business consultant, Wolfe created her website and YouTube channel as models for her portfolio to demonstrate to clients how social media can be used to market a business. “Little did I know it would take on a life of its own!” Wolfe explains.

Wolfe’s online crafting tutorials are a commitment wedged into a busy life: “Videos take me three-to-four hours to complete from start to finish. I try to get one video out per week, so I have plenty of time for my consulting business as well as time for being a mom to my 12-year old daughter and seven-year old son.”

In addition to being a supplemental income to her work as a consultant, Wolfe sees the two careers and two distinct skill sets as being linked creatively. She describes similarities between website-building and textile pattern design work: coding and writing knit or crochet patterns both require adherence to certain standards and abbreviations, as well as making aesthetic choices about color and appearance in general. Wolfe tells me that she has certain practices she follows every time she makes a tutorial, including even how she does her nails—which is important when your hands take up most of the screen.

Two of the first videos that come up under a YouTube search for “how to crochet” are Donna Wolfe’s. She speaks clearly, enumerating the process step by step in coordination with every hand motion. Across the bottom of the screen, important words appear, and her pink crochet needle can be easily followed against the white background and bright green yarn. She repeats techniques for clarity, the video transitioning with slow fades. At moments, the video shifts to Donna herself, standing outside wearing a pink crocheted sweater, explaining to the beginner that mistakes are common. The six-minute video, with its ten million views, has certainly helped form the basis of thousands of crocheting projects, little iterations of Donna’s example happening in hands all over the world.

Another popular craft blogger, Jessica Potasz of the channel Mama in a Stitch, tells me that she began putting her crafts online as a way of organizing the patterns she was making. She thought she could just upload them to a blog as a sort of archive, and if someone stumbled on them while looking for a particular pattern, she would be happy that her work could be of use.

She didn’t begin the work intending it to become a career, but as a way of organizing the pastime she had taken up while taking care of her young child. Crafting had multiple purposes, as she explains: “I could foster my love of art and design while making practical pieces for myself and loved ones.” As she gained tens of thousands of followers, Potasz began to take the blog more seriously, and ultimately found ways to monetize it through affiliated links and sponsorships. Most of her original designs are free, but there is also a separate link to her Etsy shop, where instructional materials for recreating her designs go for three dollars. This website and YouTube channel have now become full-time work, done flexibly around her schedule as a mother: “the great thing is that I can take a day away from the blog to take my daughter to the zoo and then work late at night to make up for it. However, it means a lot of long days and long nights!”

On her website, Potasz writes that she was previously a certified Special Education teacher, and still spends some of her evenings tutoring kids. Now, she spends most of her time teaching to an international audience—largely Canadian and American women, but also a sizeable portion of viewers from outside of North America, ranging from teens to grandmothers. There is a certain fondness between Potasz and her audience, as she watches them produce their own personal versions of her designs, often for their own family members or loved ones.

 

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Within the wide open possibilities offered by the rapid dissemination and access to information on the internet, craft production has not only been changed by the internet as a platform, but also as a source for the structures a knitted or woven fabric can encode. Earlier this year, electrical engineering researcher Janelle Shane trained a neural network to learn a set of 500 knitting instructions sourced from various websites. New instructions were then generated by the network, creating idiosyncratic designs, many of which have been knitted by members of the online knitting community, Ravelry. As a wide variety of differently-shaped knit projects were inputted, many of the patterns which resulted create novel shapes, sometimes incompatible with functional knitting. The people testing out the patterns often had to alter the instructions as they went along, combining human ingenuity with the computer-generated designs.

In this space between handmade construction and computer-generated design, knowledge is translated across disciplines that seem distinct, yet in practice can be put in generative conversation. In designer Francesca Rodriguez Sawaya’s handwoven work entitled “texere,” patterns are translated between verbal language, to a digital language, and then into a woven structure. Rodriguez Sawaya analyzed auditory patterns from oral history recordings as the basis of the project, writing on her website that “texere is not about replacing the way we do things today, but the realization that technological design is reactive and sometimes overlooks the unwritten context that adds meaning to our stories.” In this instance, the physically crafted object retains something of traditional knowledge that cannot be subsumed into either language or digital culture. In a similar vein, certain craft techniques, such as Victorian laces, are being preserved on craft websites, ready to be reconstructed by contemporary craftspeople. In this way, online craft communities are both places to push craft into new directions as well as to revive and renew long-standing traditions.

An intertwining of textile and computing technologies is nothing new. In one telling of the story, computing originates in textile manufacturing; some consider the jacquard loom, invented in France in 1804, to be the first computer because of its ability to hold information systematically through punch-cards which translate into yarn selection. Charles Babbage, a 19th century British polymath, took the structure of the jacquard loom as the basis for his theoretical Analytical Engine, a general-use programmable computing engine proposed in 1837. He even used the metaphor of the textile mill to explain its organization: the “store” compartment held numbers inputted via punch-cards, while a separate “mill” compartment processed the numbers arithmetically. More than a century before the first actual construction of a general-use computer, Babbage anticipated the basic logical structure that would come to dominate electronic computer design. Notes on the Analytical Engine by Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician and writer who worked with Babbage, ultimately became formative for the design of IBM’s first digital compiler, a program that transforms code between languages, in 1957.

Lovelace wrote, “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.” As digital technologies allow craft communities to reprocess their ways of making and create new networks through which to transmit technical knowledge, the slow process of crafting returns one knot of the tangible to the vastness of the web.

 

Paige Parsons B’18 is much too impatient to knit her own socks.