A friend just brought to my attention this article Germaine Greer has written for the Guardian, in which she rails against the 'grisly parade of handcrafted gifts' that are created by knitters and other crafters and foisted on unfortunate friends and relatives. Now I may or may not be engaged in a little desperate pre-Christmas knitting myself, as the mystery macro-ed up photo above may or may not show, and this really got my goat. I realise the article is meant to be humorous, in the hackneyed 'Oh no! Another rainbow jumper from granny!' vein, but as someone who now knows just how much time and effort goes into making hand-knit gifts, I do not find it amusing.
Even leaving aside the cheap cracks, it seems to me that this is a lazy piece of journalism, and an ill-considered and disappointing response to the craft boom from a very intelligent woman. Greer claims that:
'Craft was not always so revolting... As long as long as people made craft objects for their own use, they were... functional, durable and dignified. Once they began to make craft objects for other people, the work became coarser, the time taken for manufacture is rationed, and the design becomes repetitive and perfunctory.'
There are so very many things wrong with this statement that if only it weren't such a terrible pun I would be tempted to write it off as woolly thinking and call it a night. It seems to rest on a sentimental and slightly patronising imagined past, one in which time for crafting was presumably not rationed, and all items produced were thus imbued with a mysterious dignity. The knitters throughout history who practised their craft to clothe their families, or to make a living, were indeed probably more skilled than the friend who dared to give Germaine a mismatched pair of bedsocks. They were also frequently subject to the kind of servitude that Greer as a feminist surely cannot endorse, as outlined by Kate Davies in this excellent blog post about the poor recompense of nineteenth-century Shetland knitters.
Her take on craft today is equally flawed. It seems entirely counterintuitive, and somewhat egomaniacal, to suggest that one takes less time and care over things made for others than for oneself. Also, obviously, modern craft objects are not automatically 'revolting'; the alternative - something bought from a shop - can be just as hideous as the socks that Greer is so ungrateful for, without the excuse of the thought and effort that went into making them. What she describes as 'the sinister power of the handmade gift' is a reality, if the word sinister is subtracted, because of precisely that thought and effort, which are intermingled with the item during its making, and evident to the gift recipient after it.
Regular readers of this blog may remember that I designated 2009 The Year of Selfish Knits, after turning myself into something of a one-woman sweatshop last winter. As Christmas draws near again, though, I found the idea of nothing hand-knitted under the tree rather a disappointing one. Without giving too much away, I have made a few things. I recognise the fact that the leisure-time and resources required to do this are themselves luxuries, by contrast to the situation of many knitters of the past who knit because they had to and not necessarily because they wanted to. I do feel, though, that to take the time to make a gift is a small, loving act of rebellion against a quick-fix consumer culture, and should be valued as such.