Black People Were the Original “Craftivists”
It’s time to reclaim our heritage as makers of things
Trigger warning: this article discusses the 2014 Ferguson protests.
A few years ago, I took a part-time job at a local yarn store — or “LYS” as they’re known among fiber enthusiasts. I was a competent knitter; a (White) neighbor had taught me years before. But to do my job well, I needed to become a connoisseur of yarns. I knit more complicated projects and studied the personality traits of different fibers. Mohair, transparent but unforgiving; merino wool, plays well with others; cotton, strong and unyielding. Before long, I could wax eloquent about the tonality of kettle-dyed South American yarns and pick Noro, with its distinctive colorways and Japanese aesthetic, out of a lineup. I had been deeply depressed that year, and this tactile and visual stimulation gave me life.
I loved my customers. The photographer’s assistant who knit accessories for high-end baby photo shoots. The fly tyer with yarn specs down to the dye lot for a specific shade of burnt orange wool that attracted fish. The devoted (and wildly ambitious) mom who bought more than two miles of silk thread to make a wedding ring shawl for her daughter.
Their projects may have been diverse, but they most definitely were not. I only remember two other people of color coming into the yarn shop the year I worked there. I never expected Black people to come into the store, and I never wondered why they didn’t.
For centuries, Black people were the most proficient spinners, knitters, weavers, and sewists in America. And we were skilled upon arrival.
Recently, allies and BIPOC makers have become increasingly vocal in challenging the sea of Whiteness that is the fiber and textile space. First, it was the pink “pussyhats” that women around the world knit and crocheted for anti-Trump women’s marches. This year, a prominent White knitter wrote the now-ironically titled blog post, “2019: My year of color,” which gave some colonialist vibes. Making magazine excluded indigenous people from a desert-themed issue. Indie yarn company Madeline Tosh released and quickly pulled an “Inclusion”…