Hey, fiber folks—let’s talk about… sports?
I know that’s kind of coming out of left field (<–sports!) but much of the country is focused on the NBA Finals, which kicked off (<–sports!) last night, and that got me thinking about the intersection between basketball and textiles. From ancient fishermen’s nets to groovy macramé wall hangings, the craft of knotting—with cord, thread, or wire—to make a mesh design has been an invaluable technology in all areas of life, including sports. Exhibit A: the basketball net.
Athletics and fiber arts are stereotypically gendered in opposite ways: boys are taught to push themselves to their athletic limits, while girls (or the “girlish”) stay inside with their needlework¹. But the two worlds—Sport and Craft—actually intertwine in some important ways, both symbolic and material. And some of the people who have allowed me to see that intertwining are the subject of this installment of Making It, New. They are the feminist-craftivist collective called NCAA (New Craft Artists in Action) in Boston, MA, as well as the Canadian mixed-media artist Hazel Meyer.
Before we get to these basketbabes, a brief history of the sport:
Basketball was invented by James Naismith (1861–1939) in Massachusetts in 1891 in an attempt to provide his Phys Ed students with some indoor activity in the midst of a harsh New England winter. He called the game “basket ball” because the first goals were made from peach baskets that he had rigged up at either end of the gymnasium. The sport caught on quickly with American men and women, and the next couple of decades saw some major improvements to the rules and equipment, the most important being the introduction of a textile: the net!
The original peach baskets, like some of the enclosed baskets that followed, made the game somewhat disjointed—after every goal, someone would need to hoist the ball up and out of the basket with a long pole. Finally, some genius struck on idea of making the baskets open-ended. According to some accounts, Naismith enlisted a local carpenter to make an open net from chicken-wire mesh. According to others², a man named Lambert Will, who introduced some of basketball’s key elements, recruited his mother to knit “drapes” below the hoop to show when the ball went through.
Whichever account is accurate, everyone agrees that the game of basketball was vastly improved by the addition of the net. And basketball nets continue to be knotted in this fashion today (even when they are made on a machine in China).
NCAA: Net Works
More than a century after the introduction of the first true basketball net, some rad folks in Boston are building on the textile element of basketball—and doing their neighborhoods a service in the process—by knitting, crocheting, or hand-tying whimsical nets to hang from bare hoops on public courts across the city. These artists, who cheekily go by the name NCAA, call their homemade neon creations “Net Works,” as they are obviously NETted artWORKs. But the phrase also captures the idea of a network, which they create by engaging with locals in these public sporting spaces and with far-flung artists who install similar creations in their own cities.
In celebration of these nets and networks, NCAA published a magazine with instructions for crocheting your own net (and for making a hoop-inspired tank top!) The magazine also highlights other projects and artists whose work engages with sports activities and/or aesthetics, including Hazel Meyer, whose broader work I’ll address in just a sec. Meyer’s contribution to the mag is a hand-drawn comic that recounts her experience learning net knitting in Newfoundland, despite being stood up by a busy fisherman named Randall.
By offering instructions (as Meyer’s comic also does), Net Works invites its readers to participate in the tradition of net-making and also to make it new, make it their own. It provides practical advice for contributing to your neighborhood’s functionality and beautification, and at the same time its yoking together of sports and textiles in a single volume symbolically bridges those seemingly distinct practices. Suddenly, talking about sport and craft together makes so much sense to me—they are both work and play; they value both form and function; they demand both individual skill and broader human networks.
Hazel Meyer: Walls To The Ball
I first learned about artist Hazel Meyer in an essay by poet (and sports enthusiast) Ross Gay, who shot hoops with Meyer during their shared time at an arts residency. I’m interested in some of the same ideas that Gay draws out: the playful variety of Meyer’s work, the ways we see certain bodies through the filter of sports, and the artistry that can arise from repetitive practice in basketball (and, I would add, in the fiber arts).
Even beyond her interest in sports, Meyer seems to be infatuated with hands and their capacity for repetitive labor. In her most recent exhibitions, she includes drawings of hands and alludes to writer Gertrude Stein‘s³ hyper-repetitive style. While Meyer’s work has always included references to exercise and athletics, she came to focus on basketball with her 2011/2012 installation, hilariously titled Walls To The Ball. With this exhibition (the same one Gay writes about), Meyer used her macramé skills to craft basketball nets that stretch all the way to the floor, refusing to let go of the ball. These exaggerated nets allowed the viewer to admire the craftsmanship that, on a regulation hoop, is too high up to really see. Additionally, they slowed down a moment that we tend to take for granted and showed off that game-changing textile technology.
Walls To The Ball also featured a floor-to-ceiling illustration of macramé knots, again calling attention to the fiber artistry in this sports-centric show. To top it all off, Meyer explicitly joined athletics and aesthetics in a series of banners that present comedic virtual encounters between athletes and artists, like one where NBA star Dirk Nowitzki walks into a bar with 20th-century textile artist Anni Albers, and one where fitness mogul (and so much more) Jane Fonda plays a game of h-o-r-s-e with Gertrude Stein. (FYI, that Fonda-Stein match-up is the stuff my dreams are made of.)
So, the bottom line here is twofold: 1) NCAA and Hazel Meyer are doing some super cool stuff and you should check them out! 2) just as The Fiber Archive arose from the belief that “women’s work” is more nuanced and provocative than many give it credit for, I hope to have that same open mind toward activities that are differently gendered, like the wild world of sports. Admittedly, my own lifestyle is more “nothin’ but knit” than “nothin’ but net.” But I learned this week that there are knots that mark the overlapping histories of these practices and I think I’ll look differently at the networks formed not only in my own fiber community but in other (often gendered) modes of recreation.
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1 See my earlier post about the gender of knitting, and also stay tuned for more posts on people who push those boundaries.
2 Disclaimer: many of these “others” are direct descendants of Lambert Will, seeking acknowledgement of their ancestor’s contributions. Although most basketball fans still consider Naismith the true inventor of the game, the Will contingent emerged with the publication of Frank Basloe’s I Grew Up With Basketball in 1952, which credits Will with the netting idea. The recent discovery of some of Naismith’s journals and correspondence, including letters from Will, has fueled debate about basketball’s true origins.
3 Remember her from our very first post, about Stein and her partner Alice’s needlepoint chairs?!