Black People Were the Original “Craftivists”

It’s time to reclaim our heritage as makers of things

Credit: Mike Hone/Getty Images

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” colorway that people found offensive. On social sites like Reddit and Instagram, BIPOC makers shared about times they’d felt unwelcome in yarn shops and fiber festivals.

The internet exploded with the controversy and even major news sites got in on the action. I gobbled up story after story — it’s not every day that knitting scandals make the New York Times. But eventually, I felt down by the whole conversation, which focused on the racism but rarely centered Black makers in meaningful ways. News stories didn’t unpack stereotypes or talk about slavery’s role in U.S. textile history. None of the coverage told me what I really wanted to know: Just how involved were Black Americans in textile arts historically and what are they doing now?

So I started doing my own research. I already knew America’s textile industry was built on stolen land (yep, indigenous people lived in the South, too) and the free labor of an enslaved workforce, and that slaves picked cotton. But I didn’t know much beyond that. That’s because so much has been erased and/or credited to White women.

Turns out, for centuries, Black people were the most proficient spinners, knitters, weavers, and sewists in America. And we were skilled upon arrival. White people intentionally purchased slaves from regions known for expertise in textiles and natural dyes like indigo. Enslaved girls learned to knit as early as five, and women made fine garments for their masters, as well as clothing and blankets for themselves.

“Early American” quilting, largely associated with White colonial women, has African influences. West Africans brought patchwork and appliqué with them and preserved their cultural heritage by quilting motifs from African cosmology and religion. Some scholars believe that high-contrast quilt patterns were used to direct slaves and mark safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Social justice warriors Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were both accomplished knitters. And after emancipation, many former slaves worked as tailors and seamstresses. Elizabeth Keckley was so successful that she eventually became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal dressmaker.

Slaves regularly gathered for after-hours sewing and knitting bees, which may have fulfilled more than practical and social needs. New neuroscience shows that needlecrafts have a variety of health benefits, including reducing anxiety and depression and alleviating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. With this in mind, I believe handiwork was one of the few mechanisms that enslaved women, in particular, had to cope with constant exposure to mental, physical, and sexual violence.

Centuries later, the Yarn Mission is also using the fiber arts to promote healing and create opportunities for the Black community. The organization emerged from the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, when knitter, activist, and now doctor of criminology, CheyOnna Sewell, taught other protestors to knit.

“We were healing and talking and getting to know each other,” St. Louis resident Taylor Payne says about these early lessons. “We didn’t really know each other, you know, we just all met out in the streets.” Knitting kept hands busy, calmed spirits, and created a positive point of connection between complete strangers brought together by the protests. Eventually, Ferguson protestors and residents became like family, working together to keep streets clean, get to cars safely, and ensure everyone had necessities like toilet paper, says Payne.

She and I bonded during the interview when she shared that, just like me, she manages her mental health with a combination of medication, therapy, and knitting. “When I was really depressed, [knitting] literally was the only thing that would get me out of bed.”

Five years after Ferguson, the Yarn Mission continues to foster healing and center Black makers. The Black-led collective offers free knitting classes and supplies to community members and plans to start paying knitting teachers. Their website is both showcase and sales point for handmade items by Black makers, including Payne, who knits up one-of-a-kind cable-knit “ancestor sweaters” named after prominent African Americans.

But how did Black people go from being the most coveted makers in the nation to getting the stink eye at local yarn shops (or not going into them at all)? I couldn’t find any historical documents that addressed this; however, I suspect it occurred when handicrafts went from Depression-era necessity or wartime contribution to a leisure activity popularized by magazines like Vogue, Knitting, and Stitchcraft, which targeted White middle-class women. Around the same time, civil rights was opening up spaces traditionally closed to Black people.

Crochet is considered lower-class because its end products tend to be practical rather than aesthetic. “It is far more typically used for household products than for clothing”

Our presence in such spaces continues to cause “cognitive dissonance” for White people, who typically lack regular contact with Black folk and associate us with certain places (the ghetto) and activities (not knitting). For obvious reasons, Black people are not always comfortable being seen or being vocal in traditionally White spaces, which could also account for our flying-under-the-radar within the fiber and textiles community.

All this adds up to stereotypes like “Black people don’t knit,” which U.K.-based knitwear designers Jeanette Sloan and Lorna Hamilton-Brown, are working to unpack. Hamilton-Brown, aka Lorna HB the Knitting MC, used oral history and the art historical record to disprove the notion that “Black people don’t knit — they crochet,” which an academic colleague told her at a textile conference. She suggests that Rastafarian crochet caps may be the reason crochet is associated with Black people.

Other research indicates a class issue. Crochet is considered lower-class because its end products tend to be practical rather than aesthetic. “It is far more typically used for household products (doilies, place mats, dresser scarves, stuffed toys, and bedspreads) than for clothing, while knitting is primarily garments for personal wear.”

In 2018, Sloan wrote “Black People Do Knit” for Knitting magazine, and launched POC designers & crafters (soon to be reincarnated as the crowdfunded BIPOC in Fiber). The project has already “made a number of people much more visible” and even led to work opportunities for some of the designers listed. “If more magazines are picking up more designers of color, then we’re going to see more of their work and that narrative will change,” says Sloan, who has been one of the few visible WOC in the U.K. fiber world since the 1990s. “We won’t be seeing a purely White landscape inside a magazine anymore. And that’s a really positive thing.”

Stateside, Black designers and makers are equally intentional about representation within the fiber space. Gaye Glasspie is a designer, blogger, and knitter carving out a niche as a social media influencer. Her presence at last year’s Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival is inspiring future attendance among other Black crafters. Many didn’t know BIPOC makers even attended until she posted about it online, “because the big companies, when they do show pictures from the events, those pictures don’t include us.”

Samantha Brunson, who founded Bobble House in New York and organizes “Knitflix” nights there, agrees. She says there are numerous BIPOC makers doing “incredible work” but “publications are choosing, consciously or subconsciously, not to focus on that.” On the consumer end, Brunson advises that sustainable diversity will only happen if people move beyond the boycott-and-call-out culture to actually buying from BIPOC makers. “Let’s say a designer says or does something that you believe is inappropriate… you have every right to cut them out,” she says. “[But then] find a designer of color to fill that seat… find a magazine that is representing and purchase from them instead.”

And finding makers of color is actually pretty easy if you know where to look. The Yarn Mission and Jeanette Sloan both have lists of Black designers and makers, and Brunson prioritizes interviews with BIPOC artists on the Bobble House blog. On Instagram, check out @meetmakersofcolor, @bipocmakers, @Blackwomenstitch, #bipocmakersproject, #Blackpeopledoknit, and #diversknitty. A few quick Google searches returns a number of Black spinners and dyers, whose products reflect an intersectional array of lived experiences, from rural homesteading in Wisconsin (Mother of Purl) to our collective obsession with the ’90s (Shay Johnson) and Black Panther (Lady Dye).

Under increased scrutiny, allies have also made positive strides. Earlier this year, Ravelry, a social site where fiber folks can find patterns, research yarns, post project pics, and dialogue with 8 million other members, banned all White supremacist, pro-Trump content, from forum posts to patterns for Fair Isle knit “Build the Wall” beanies. Site administrators even facilitated a forum thread about inclusion. Multiple sources also confirmed that the organizers of the Vogue Knitting event have been intentional about inviting Black makers.

Still, I don’t think we can achieve the ultimate goal of making the fiber world an intersectional and inclusive space without telling the truth about Black history. #RealTalk: White women get the credit for uncovering handwork’s “deliciously rich history of political subversion;” dissociating it from patriarchal oppression and rubber-stamping it “feminist;” and codifying “craftivism” as a form of resistance.

But for Black Americans, fiber and textile arts have always been a tool of both oppression and liberation. We used craft to stay sane, preserve cultural heritage, subvert masters, clothe our families, and, literally, to free ourselves. “Black people have been making things for White people by hand since we got here,” says Taylor Payne. “We did all the crafting… We made the clothes. We made the flag, you know? We’ve been working with our hands since we got here.” And I think that makes us the original “craftivists.”

Click through for more information about supporting or donating to the Yarn Mission.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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