Knitters, Weavers and “Women’s Work” Transcript

May 17, 2018

Knitter: I think I first learned to knit when I was eight. I didn’t really take it very seriously until much, much later. And I came to it on a really, what I call a serious approach about 10 years ago when I found that there were knitting communities. So I didn’t get to just knit all by myself, I could be with other people and knit. And I happen to really like knitters, so it all worked out really well.

Knitter: I think it’s fun because wherever you go, there’s always somebody. And the second you see them, they have their knitting out, you have an instant connection, instantly. What are you working on? How long have you been doing it? Do you love that yarn? Have you heard about this? It’s immediate.

These women are from a group of knitters, crocheters, and felters who meet every week at Yarn, a fiber arts store in Montpelier.

People in airports. My husband laughs at me because every time I’ve traveled, we get to our gate and then I look around, and if there’s a knitter, I sit down near them, pull out my knitting, and then off we go. He’s like, what is going on? How is this possible? I’m like, we have our conversation right here. We can see it. It’s tangible.

Some of these women have been knitting together for years. For some, this was their first meeting.

Knitter: I’ve gained some really wonderful friendships with people in my age group through knitting. There was a girl that I trained in my previous job and she said when she had her interview, she saw my desk and saw knitting on it and said, I don’t know who that is, but I’m gonna be her friend.

This is just one of the dozens of local knitting groups that meet regularly around the state. They’re also part of a long history of fiber arts in Vermont. Today, we’ll share stories of women who used their skills with sewing, silking, hooking, and yes, knitting, to interact with the world. And we’ll look at how that history informs the way women’s work is viewed today.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Amanda: We’re looking at four different objects that form one object within the larger collection.

Amanda Gustin and Mary Rogstad are looking at a display inside the Vermont History Museum.

Mary: Laura Anne Flint was born in 1822 in Lyndon and she was the daughter of a merchant. This exhibit of four stages of silk production was put together by her in 1837.

Amanda: She was fifteen years old.

Back in the 1830s, Vermont marketed silk production as a cottage industry for women with “nothing better to do.” The state offered a bounty of ten cents per pound of silk produced. That was a lot of money in the 1830s, but think about this: It takes about four thousand cocoons to produce one pound of silk.

Mary: When she was an older woman and presumably near the end of her life, she wrote this story down and she had actually saved the pieces obviously and had written them down. Then her grandson is the person that gave them to VHS in 1950.

Laura carefully wrote out the stages of silk production on scraps of paper that she tucked in with each piece, including the silkworm cocoon. She would unwind the cocoon, spin the fine silk into thread, and then make that thread into a finished product.

Amanda: When you actually look at the finished stockings and the unfinished stocking, that’s an extremely tight, close, fine…

Mary: Oh, totally. The fiber that was created is really…

Amanda: It’s like cloth.

Laura included one pair of finished silk stockings in the exhibit, and one half-finished pair still attached to their fine gauge needles.

Amanda: The next piece is my favorite bit of this whole display because it speaks to my soul on a very deep level, which is the note here, “Stocking commenced fifty years ago. Unfinished for want of perseverance.”

Mary: I wonder what else she did that she didn’t finish the stocking.

Amanda: I know….I don’t want to project too much, right? I look in that and see this universal woman….For want of perseverance. You take that upon yourself. She did this extraordinary thing. She’s fifteen years old. She’s raising silkworms. She’s earning money on the side. She’s actually finishing those incredibly…if I finished one pair of socks like that, I’d be happy.

Mary: Oh my gosh. With that size of needles, it would be unlikely that I’d finish a pair of stockings like that.

Amanda: Yeah. She still, fifty years later, looks back on her fifteen year old self.

Mary: And sees something where she was lacking.

Amanda: Yeah.

Over the centuries, and particularly in America, many people have associated textile work with women. There’s a continuity there, from knitting stockings for your family to working in a textile mill to creating incredible pieces meant purely for display. But there are also gray areas – where are the lines between business and art? When is a skill practical and when is it artistic? How do we value women’s work?

One expert we talked to deals with these questions every day.

Katie: My name is Katie Wood-Kirchhoff and I’m the associate curator at Shelburne Museum. Here, I work mostly on our collections of historic, decorative, and fine arts. So, that includes things like, American paintings from the 19th century, but it also includes things like furniture, ceramics, glassware, and a personal passion of mine, American textile arts.

Katie works on the Shelburne’s collections of quilts, rugs, and clothing. She told us about one weaver who defined her own style back in the late 19th century. Her name was Elizabeth Fisk.

Katie: Elizabeth was actually born Elizabeth Hubble in Plattsburg, New York and she gets married to Nelson Fisk, the Fisk family of Isle La Motte, down at the southern tip of Isle La Motte up in the Lake Champlain islands.

So, when Elizabeth marries Nelson, Elizabeth has been well educated. She has studied with William Merritt Chase, she has learned a little bit about dye history, and when she takes on this new life at Isle La Motte, she begins sort of wandering around the island, and she finds all of these old colonial heirlooms in people’s attics.

Well, Elizabeth with her knowledge of fine art, and her knowledge of big trends like the arts and crafts movement, she sees an opportunity for creativity in these looms…. So, Elizabeth looks at these looms and she realizes that she can piggyback off of this sort of Renaissance art of tapestry making. She can revive a hand weaving industry right there on Isle La Motte, using her knowledge of dyeing technologies and fiber arts, as well as these looms that are all over the island.

Word of mouth spread quickly about Elizabeth’s work, especially after she made a set of table linens for Anna James Smith, who was then Vermont’s first lady.

Katie: If you and I saw them today, they might look like they were industrially produced, they’re so finely rendered. A good example of these, I have an example of a sort of bright, almost mango or orange colored table runner. In it is a vase, so pictured on it is a vase of flowers, and it’s in sort of bright colors. So, there are these bright sort of mango oranges, bright blues, bright greens, bright yellows. Those colors came as a result of Elizabeth’s knowledge of dyeing technologies using both vegetable dyes and new synthetic kinds of dyes.

The thing that really sets Elizabeth’s products apart from the rest of these kind of hand arts and crafts industries is that, as she wove her tapestries … So, on a traditional like a Renaissance tapestry, if you were to turn it over and look at the back, you would see that there are a lot of loose strings. Those strings have to do with when the design is woven in, the ends of those strings are sort of just left on the back. Well, Elizabeth wasn’t happy with this, and when she would create her products for the home, she would actually weave back in those back strings.

By doing this, when you actually look at products that Elizabeth Fish Looms put out, the backs of the products look almost the same as the fronts. It’s very difficult to tell which end is the right end, which side is the right side. So, she produced all sorts of things like this.

Elizabeth soon employed women all over Isle La Motte who worked from looms they kept in their homes. She was still an artist — but she was also running a business.

By the time Elizabeth begins fiddling around with looms on Isle La Motte, it’s the 1880’s and she is well enough off that she has the time to experiment with this kind of art. These are not objects that are created out of necessity, rather it’s Elizabeth and her cohorts sort of realizing their creative drive. This was not something that Elizabeth had to do to survive, right?

Katie: For centuries, women have been trained in these kinds of arts that help us refine our dexterity, our sort of fine motor skills. Often we think about samplers and needlework, but this is another I think manifestation of an industry that is traditionally considered women’s work that provides a creative outlet for sort of that next generation.

Katie told us about another Vermont woman who took a traditional craft and added her own artistic flair to it.

Katie: Right now we have an exhibit up at the museum that sort of surveys the career of a rogue hooker named Patty Yoder. She was born in the Midwest, and moved to Vermont actually when she retired with her husband Ramsey. They moved out to Tinmouth. She was born in 1943 and passed away in 2005, and it was really for the last 13 years of her life that she got into hooking rugs.

If you’re not aware, hooking is a method of using yarn to create intricate designs in rugs. Hookers pull loops of yarn up through a stiff backing fabric, like burlap or linen. They do this over and over again, thousands of times, with different colors, to create an image or a geometric pattern.

So, when Patty and Ramsey moved to Tinmouth, they purchased a property called Blackhouse Farm. Blackhouse Farm had lots of space for all sorts of animals. Patty’s father had been a large animal vet, and so she had experience with sheep and horses and all sorts of things when she was younger. When she retired, she just decided that she wanted a flock of her own. So, they moved to a space where she could have that.

What Blackhouse Farm also did was it gave her a studio space to sort of work on her own creative process. So, Patty had gone to art school at DePaul University, and the knowledge that she sort of gained there in terms of composition, color theory, all those kinds of parts of what we think of what make an artist, she brought to her rug hooking practice.

Patty connected with a rug hooking community in Tinmouth, and she incorporated all kinds of artistic styles into her rugs, from Renaissance paintings to contemporary photography to traditional folk art.

Katie: The other thing that is so great about Patty’s collection, and the thing that’s been especially gratifying for me as a fairly new resident of Vermont is that, it has given me an opportunity to connect with the local rug hooking community.

Many of the folks who came to the Patty Yoder opening knew Patty and so they could sort of share stories about her, and they found a lot of familiarity in her rugs. It’s nice as a curator to get to work on a topic, or on a maker who was so recently with us, because you get a real window into how that practice sort of affects your current situation. It’s a nice treat.

Some of Patty’s work was concrete and specific, and some of it was more abstract. One of her largest projects was to produce an alphabet of sheep. Each letter is done in a different style.

Katie: The center of “P” is for Polly has a black sheep just in profile, that simple rendering of a sheep rather than trying to get the perspective with all of the sheep’s legs, right? She’s conveying what the idea of sheep is, the icon that is sheep or a sheep. So yeah, Patty was really conscious of where she was taking her inspiration. In her rugs, we see a really broad array of design sources represented.

I think one of the interesting things to think about sort of Patty and how her work builds on this long tradition of women making things is that, she … her practice grew within a community of supportive rug hookers and friends who were all engaging with this very traditional practice in their own ways.

When we talk about textiles, we often talk about textiles in gendered terms, right? It is actually one of the big challenges in the industry of working with textile collections, because often the funding is not as great for research in these fields. Often there’s not as much sort of visitor interest in coming to a show about women’s work.

Another researcher we talked to has spent most of her career dealing with those same issues.

Laurel: My name is Laurel, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and I teach at Harvard University.

When historians think about women, textiles, and material culture, Laurel is the person they almost always refer back to. She’s the 300th Anniversary Professor of History at Harvard, and in 1992 she received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Have you ever heard the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history”? Well, Laurel coined that saying in one of her earliest published articles.

Laurel: I remember Hawthorne’s dismissal of 19th century women writers as those damned scribbling females, so it wasn’t just an absence of women’s voices, it was an actual dismissal… I had become a historian by that point, and was very, very interested in recovering the voices of women, but over the 1970s in particular, beginning in the late 60s because of the resurgent women’s movement, there was just a hunger to know, where were the women? Where were all of the women? What were they doing?

Laurel quickly learned that to find these women, she had to look beyond traditional sources. So she focused her research on one primary document: the diary of an eighteenth century midwife named Martha Ballard.

Laurel: I hadn’t found lots of textile processing equipment in inventories from the earliest colonial period, but suddenly, here I was with this diary, 1785 to 1812. I found Martha Ballard and her daughters spinning, and weaving, and knitting, and quilting, but especially a lot of spinning and weaving, they were exchanging products with neighbors. I began to go to the probate inventories, and there were looms everywhere, and this huge expansion of household production that I hadn’t expected based on secondary literature or what I had read and written about from the earlier century. It occurred to me that if there had been this great expansion of household production, I probably could learn something about it by seeing what they make. That began my first adventure with a very detailed project in material culture, not writing about household production, but actually looking at the women’s sheets, the table cloths.

That was a transformative experience for me, to learn things from objects themselves that really wouldn’t have been visible in the written documents. That has been a passion of mine ever since.

Laurel traveled all over New England examining textiles in museum collections – including here in Vermont.The more she looked, the more she realized that one of the stories people told about colonial America just wasn’t true.

Laurel: I began to see materials where household weavers began to imitate imported products and create something new. It was really intriguing to me because what it taught me was the old myth that early American women made everything they used. You still will read that sometimes.

They didn’t. They imported things from England from the very beginning, and actually, household production expanded in the 18th century for complicated reasons. Often, it was to replace routine household goods in order to save very precious capital in ordered, purchased imported goods, so imports and household production developed together. They’re not mutually exclusive. They’re interdependent, and one helped to shape the other.

There was a myth, a powerful myth, about the honest woman of her distaff, or later, the spinning wheel as a kind of icon of respectability in household industry. And so someone might inherit a coverlet and assume that their ancestor made it, and then write that name down with a little account.

A lot of the work I had to do was to put together what I could understand about the technology of production and the availability of raw materials with the surviving written sources, and it was a lot of very interesting and quite laborious detective work, but as I went through that process, I learned not only what people made, but what they and those who inherited these materials valued and wanted to believe.

Laurel found that textile work bucked another historically accepted trend: it didn’t adhere to the same gender roles that applied to other homegrown industries.

Laurel: As things move out of the household into a more commercial workshop, this is long before industrialization, they often move into the hands of men, and think of baking, beer making. Lots and lots of research in Europe that when brewing is a household occupation and a product of essentially neighborhood trade, women often predominate. When it commercializes and becomes a bigger operation, men take over. It’s the old distinction, you know, women cook, but men are chefs, so that’s a kind of familiar process across time.

I don’t think there are a lot of men knitting, but there are certainly some, and there are certainly men who do fiber art, but I think in general, fiber arts have really been labeled as women’s work. It’s incremental work. It probably can be accomplished alongside childcare. It’s tedious. It’s demanding. It requires fine motor skills. I don’t know all the reasons, but textile production, at the kind of basic, fundamental level, has long been engendered as female.

Laurel wrote a book about all this, called “A Midwife’s Tale.” It won a Pulitzer Prize. While she was researching it, she studied those same silk stockings made by Laura Ann Flint that we talked about earlier.

Laurel: There’s this wonderful note in this packet of display on the stocking saying, “Unfinished for lack of persistence.” The idea there is that household production is about character. It’s about making use of small pieces of time. Waste not, want not. It’s a character-building activity. That goes way back in time, but it was really pressured right then because there’s becoming a real question. What is women’s worth?

After we talked to Laurel, we realized she misremembered something about those stockings. Laura Ann Flint wrote that they were “unfinished for lack of perseverance.” Laurel said “persistence.”  “Persistence” has become something of a buzzword since it was used last year to describe the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren during a debate.

Sen. Mitch McConnell: She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Nevertheless she persisted” became a rallying cry, a reminder that women’s work, their value, and their voices, are still being questioned in the present day. And in some cases, textile work is still one of the venues for pushing back.

Knitter: One of the things that happened in the last year that I think is really significant in terms of women’s work and fiber arts and all that stuff is the pink hat thing.

We’re back at Yarn. None of the knitters here could forget the lead-up to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, when marchers wore hand-knitted pink hats as a sign of protest.

Knitter: That was something that took off like nobody expected it to. And they couldn’t keep enough pink yarn in here. It was flying out the door and people were making multiple hats for as many people as they could possibly make them for.

Knitter: Yeah, I went to Washington and…I gave them to people who didn’t have them, in the street, and they were so overwhelmed with gratitude. It was like, here’s a hat; you don’t have a hat. It’s like, I can have this hat? Yes, yes, it’s fine. Oh my god, thank you so much. It’s like, it’s okay. It was amazing.

So it was an opportunity where we all got to do things that we love doing anyway, which is knitting, and giving them away, which we also love to do. And giving them away to people who are grateful and who will then actually wear them. So hopefully all these people still have their pink hats.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Mike Dougherty, Amanda Gustin and Eileen Corcoran, with help from Mary Rogstad. Thanks to our guests, Katie Wood-Kirchhoff, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and the whole crew at Yarn in Montpelier.

Music for this episode is by Michael Chapman and the Woodpiles, Blue Dot Sessions, and Podington Bear.