HISTORY PROJECT: The Immoral Rhythms of the Early Sewing Machine

Sewing Factory in Late Victorian England

 

It’s Spring in the northern hemisphere and, for many, that marks the beginning of sewing season (#memademay, for reference). So this week, a salty little sewing tale…

In the 1860s, a small but impassioned debate broke out in both England, France, and the U.S. regarding the potentially “exciting” effects of the sewing machine. That’s right—doctors worried that the rhythmic pumping of the thighs resulted in sexual arousal and that women workers were using the machines to stimulate themselves. Equal parts hilarious and infuriating, it is a story that brings up questions of the industrial use of women’s bodies, their unanswered complaints of fatigue and ailment, masculine control of female sexual processes, and the threat of a working woman enjoying a private pleasure. In short, it’s a juicy one. (Pun most definitely intended.) Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: The Immoral Rhythms of the Early Sewing Machine

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FIRST FLOCK: Merino Mania & White House Wool

Hey, have you heard? It’s election season.

For most of this season, politics is a spectator sport. But here in Indiana it is finally our turn to step in and play a round—the Indiana primary is next week. So in the spirit of all things presidential, we’re doing a special post this week: The Sheep of the White House!

It turns out that sheep have featured in the annals of U.S. presidential history not once but twice—both Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson raised sheep on the White House lawn.

These sheep are part of a larger story about nationalism, industry, austerity, and husbandry, and at the heart are three important rams: E.I. DuPont’s Merino, Jefferson’s Shetland, and Wilson’s Shropshire. So without further ado, let’s meet these guys.* Continue reading FIRST FLOCK: Merino Mania & White House Wool

POP FIBER: Mr. Lucky and the Gender of Knitting

 

 

This week, we’ve been thinking and chatting about the relationship between gender and art/craft and in particular about the spectacle of the male knitter. It’s a big conversation, involving concepts like industrialization, domesticity, capitalism, “women’s work,” high versus low art, homophobia, sexism, ageism, yadda yadda yadda… It’s a conversation we want to keep having but certainly can’t fit into a single post. So today’s post is a little experiment: it’s a short-and-sweet critical essay on a popular instance of cinematic knitting—Mr. Lucky, starring the one and only Cary Grant—just to begin thinking through this question.

The film Mr. Lucky (1943) was based on a story called “Bundles for Freedom” by Milton Holmes, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. It features a classic moment of knitting on film, and captures a moment in American history when knitting was not only popular but almost mandatory in the name of patriotism. Watch this clip for the famous scene of Cary Grant getting lost in his stitches: Continue reading POP FIBER: Mr. Lucky and the Gender of Knitting

MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks/Warmers

For the second project in our “Making It, Ourselves” series—our series of DIY projects inspired by history—we look back to Dr. Gustav Jaeger and his animal-fiber philosophy. He and his adherents claimed that all dress should be not only practical but healthful, which for him meant clothing made purely of wool, camel, mohair or other animal material. (For the full post, see our Brief History of Long Underwear from back in February.) Inspired by the Jaeger story and its reverberations in the Rational Dress Movement of the same era, I set off to create my own animal-based garment to insulate, ventilate, regulate, circulate, and uhh de-fluxionate(?) my body. I found just the garment in Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks. Continue reading MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks/Warmers

HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

Jean Seberg Aran Fishermans Sweater

I know, I know. There is already SO MUCH out there about Aran sweaters. There is, for example, a fantastic slideshow and timeline of the rise of this famous knitting style. There are articles about its morbid history as an identifier of drowned sailors; articles debunking that history as pure fiction; articles explicating the stitch motifs, like hieroglyphs, according to their folk meanings; articles upholding the sweater as symbolic of both national identity and transnational migration. Regardless of the angle, it is clear in all of these instances that the Aran sweater (also called a fisherman sweater*) is much more than just clothing: it is a legend.

As a scholar, I want to understand this legend. As a knitter, I want to be part of it. This week’s post is my effort to do both. Wading through the myriad definitions, explanations, and myths, it became clear that in order to understand the Aran’s mystique, we need to consider its historical and literary roots. Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

POP FIBER: Brioche Knitwear & Carol

 

Much has been said, written, drooled… about the wardrobe in the film Carol (2015). The film stars Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, a middle-aged, mid-divorce mother, and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, department store shopgirl and Carol’s young lover. Costume designer Sandy Powell knocked it out of the park with Carol’s vintage garb, from the showstopping fur coat to the coral scarves and hats to match her manicure. Therese’s wardrobe is less glamorous but just as drool-worthy—the wide-leg trousers with ankle booties, the navy duffle coat with striped detail, the whimsical pom-pommed beret. From start to finish, the women are divine.

But, of all of the fantastic garments in this fantastic film, the one that I find myself thinking about again and again is not one worn by either Blanchett or Mara—it’s the sweater worn by Therese’s male suitor Richard (Jake Lacy) when the two argue in her apartment. In this scene, while he struggles once again to comprehend why Therese would prefer to spend time with her “friend” Carol than to sail with him to Europe, he looks impossibly snuggly and dapper in a chartreuse-and-black ribbed knit pullover with a shawl collar. Continue reading POP FIBER: Brioche Knitwear & Carol

MAKING IT, OURSELVES: The Alice Footstool

 

Centered Petit Point Needlework DIY Upholstery StoolBehold! The first Fiber Archive DIY project is officially finished! Inspired by Alice B. Toklas and Pablo Picasso’s upholstery collaboration in the late 1920s, our new embroidered footstool is a testament to both Toklas’s steadfastness and Picasso’s whimsicality.

As discussed in the Toklas X Picasso HISTORY PROJECT post, our gal Toklas attended to her domestic tasks, many of which involved fiber craft, with the same care and vigor that Picasso or Gertrude Stein, her partner, devoted to their art. (Toklas was even known to stitch Stein’s famous line “Rose is a rose is a rose” onto Stein’s handkerchiefs). This particular collaboration between the artists began with Toklas’s desire to transfer an avant-garde masterpiece—Picasso’s guitar painting—into a petit-point footstool. Clearly viewing her and Stein’s everyday living space as an extension of their artistic life, Toklas transformed a lowly footstool into high art. The stool was soon followed by the even more ambitious Louis XV upholstered chairs, one covered in the playful floral/hand design and the other in bold lines and color blocking. Continue reading MAKING IT, OURSELVES: The Alice Footstool