09 February 2011


I've been thinking about this a lot - the difference between art and craft, and where knitting and knitwear design fall. There are some people who think what we do it art, some say it is "just" craft, but I see it a little differently.

I see my design work (and that of others) as craft, but the highest level of craft, say, artisanal, rather than "crafty", if you know what I mean. Both the knitting and the designing require a high level of skill, attention to detail, appreciation of materials, and creativity. At the end of the day we have created another sweater/shawl/pair of socks, just as a master woodworker has created another bowl on her lathe. I really love working within the confines of knitting; it's rather like a sonnet. There are strict rules controlling the structure, but within those confines, the artisan is free to unleash her creativity.

When I designed books all day, every day, I always enjoyed creating something useful and beautiful that could be reproduced in quantity at a reasonable cost. To some extent a book is a book is a book. But as we all know, books are judged by their covers because we are visual creatures. There are "rules" for what makes a book (bound on one side, loose on the other sides to allow it to open, usually with a cover and spine conveying the basic information of what's inside), but within that we have Goodnight MoonKnitter's Almanac, and The Cheese Monkeys. Really, it's what we do within the confines of the form.

Richard Rutt in A History of Hand Knitting (so excited to have gotten my own copy of this pivotal work, regardless of its biases and limitations) asks the question "Art or craft?" early on. "Unhappily it [the distinction between art and craft] is coloured by intellectual snobbery, as though art were in some way intrinsically higher, greater, or better than craft." He goes into a little more depth on the differences and concludes:
Knitting is best called a craft. It serves life and is relatively ephemeral. It gets worn and wears out (hence museum collections are sparse). It can be expensive, but is almost never precious. Its structure is more limiting than the structures of tapestry and embroidery. Therefore knitting is widely practised by non-professionals and tends to be a people's craft. Therein lies much of its interest and the fascination of knitting history.
I appreciate the fact that Rutt notices the "cult of 'artistic impsiration'" that sprang up around fine arts in the 18th century and that he sees craft as having its own value. And it is interesting to be reminded how fleeting the knitted item is. Just the other day I wore through the tip of one of my glove fingers. Now I have to decide whether to fix it (I do have more of the yarn) or knit something new. (I know, obnoxious problem, isn't it?) Either way, knitting doesn't last forever, and it isn't economically precious, no matter how skillfully worked, except perhaps those vestment gloves in the Spence collection (I've blogged about them before) worked with gold and silver threads. Of course, it is precious to those of us who spend long hours designing and/or knitting the thing. Let's consider it "dear", economically speaking, when we consider the time and effort that goes into what we create, as well as the dearness of some of our chosen materials - quiviut, anyone?

What do you think? I know Robin asked a similar question on her blog recently. Her readers seemed to come down on the side of art. And what we do is artistic. But is it art? I think of art as unique, though you could argue that every Turn of the Glass or Ishbel (of which there are 8868 projects on Ravelry) is unique, a combination of yarn choice, individual gauge, personal preferences as to size, blocking style, and so forth. But when I (or any other designer) write a pattern, it is so that the item in question can be recreated by someone else's hands (or my hands again).

I think one of the things people object to on "craft" is that the word has been sullied, commodified, dumbed-down. There are crafters (artisans) who take their craft to a very high level, to the point where their creations approach art. I own a Nantucket Basket by Martin Brown, and I don't want to tell you what it cost. It is on display on my dresser, and I would probably grab it if the building were on fire. It is completely different from the "thing" I made in summer school basket weaving at Washburne in sixth grade. I suppose that is a function of experience, skill, and, yes, artistry.

There are also those crafters who make things to pass the time, who don't look at what they do as Craft-with-a-capital-c. Not all of them pursue their craft beyond the basics, but that is really what distinguishes the crafter from the artisan: persistence, passion, and a drive for perfection.

I agree with Reverend Rutt. Knitting, for me, is Craft. And I'm very proud of my craft. You should be, too.

1 comment:

  1. This is something that always intrigues me, when the topic comes up. I think of knitting as craft, mainly because none of mine could ever be mistaken for art - and I've never created anything of my own design, so I can't even say that there are exceptions when I've designed it.

    Having said that, I have seen items that others have made that while not art per se, seem like a work of art to me ...