A very woolly day out

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending my day surrounded by, and talking about, my favourite material – wool. All in the name of research, of course, I left sunny Bristol and caught the train into London for the day. Stop one was the ‘spring knitting and stitching show’ at Olympia. I’ve never been to this venue before, and as I approached I felt a sense of growing excitement as the imposing frontage came into view and I joined a trail of people also destined to the halls of crafty goodness. Upon entering I was greeted by two huge exhibition halls stuffed full with stalls selling all manner of crafts-stuff; beads, fabric, cross-stitch kits, books, buttons, sewing machines, and wool. Actually, there wasn’t anywhere near as much wool as I was anticipating, but that was probably a good thing given my tendency to buy and hoard the stuff.

My favourite stall there was ‘black sheep wools’. They specialised in selling heavily discounted branded yarns (Debbie Bliss, Sirdar, Noro, Rowan), all bagged up in packs of 10 and priced with sale stickers. They’d gone for the interesting tactic of just piling all the bags up on the floor and letting people scramble through them. I stood to one side for a few minutes and watched the scene. It was nothing short of hilarious as I witnessed women pushing others out of the way to get hold of the yarns they wanted, others grabbing random bags, throwing them across the stand to one another, and calling out to their friends. Some even decided to wade through the bags in order to get to the ones at the back.  The frenzy the combination of cheap yarn and induced panic of seeing it piled in such vast, random packages really did epitomise the enthusiasm people have for yarns.

After escaping the pulsating crowd I came across a stand hosted by the Royal Museum Greenwich where some of the cast of their upcoming performance of ‘Quedenraha’ were running workshops to teach people to crochet with plastic bags. This appealed to me for two reasons: 1) I’d not used plastic bags to crochet with before, and 2) I’d get the chance to sit down after 3 hours of walking around. So, sitting down with two wonderfully adorned ladies I managed to produce a flower corsage using carrier bags from Sainsbury’s and M&S.

The scramble for bargain yarn, my plastic bag crocheted flower, and one of the many intricate quilts on show

Other highlights of the show included knitting some bunting with ladies from The Knitter, looking around a stunning exhibition of quilts, and seeing young and old alike get excited about their latest findings. One woman, who stopped dead in front of me down one of the walkways summed it up well when she announced “I’m just too overwhelemed with desire for all this lovely stuff! I don’t know where to go next!” I’m not sure where she went next to be honest, but I had plans for the rest of my day so I left the chaos of the knit and stitch show behind and hopped back on the tube.

Thirty minutes later I arrived at my second stop: campaign for wool’s ‘Wool House’ exhibition at Somerset House. I knew it was going to be good when I was greeted in the courtyard by a flock of sheep! Real walking, bleating wool! Inside the exhibition featured a series of rooms designed to illustrate how wool can inhabit a space, playing with colours, textures, and different usages from carpets to coats, and chairs to wall coverings. My two favourite rooms were complete polar opposites of each other – first the ‘natural room’ by Josephine Ryan which played on wool’s natural, undyed beauty and authentic feel, the second was Anne Kyyrö Quinn’s room which was incredibly bright, vibrant, and orderly. There was also a huge wool runner down the length of the corridor, a crochetdermy bear, and a spinning demonstration. It was a very tactile exhibition – and difficult to restrain yourself from jumping on all the furniture and enjoying its glorious wolly-ness. I seriously enjoyed how good the exhibition smelled as well! A strange thing to pass comment on perhaps, but this wonderful exhibition was a proper treat for all of the senses. The main ‘take-home’ message though was that wool is a versatile, renewable, and sustainable material. Lovely stuff.

Wool House highlights: the sheep, entrance to the exhibition and my two favourite rooms

The third (and final) stop of my woolly day out was Goldsmiths, University of London to attend a seminar by Janis Jefferies on feminist ‘crocheted strategies’. The paper was just as interesting as I’d hoped it would be, and offered an interrogation of how the 1980 feminist ideas and strategies of Sue Richardson have been taken up in the recent resurgence of craft. What was particularly of note for Janis, is how many women recognise these feminist histories but do not feel bound by them, and instead use craft to make statements of empowerment. This has been recognised by much of the craft literature now, but still missing, Janis argued, is an understanding of how textile-based investigations contribute to the construction of knowledge. As a tactile experience, textile work has, historically, been subjugated to structures of power and ideology, and ignores the practical, material knowledge of the knowers – women. Contemporary feminist work is seeking to take account of how the many different worlds which co-exist in different communities, have different ways of thinking, and doing, knowledge.

Janis’s paper also touched on explanations for the recent resurgence in handicrafts, and supported the claim that at the heart of its rise is community. Not only is the notion of community associated with appealing values that people want  themselves to feel a part of, but, contra feminist arguments that craft represses women, craft is allowing for enhancement of the self though active participation. The increased prevalence of technology which has accompanied the rise in craft practices then, is not paradoxical, but an extension of the desire for collectivity. Collectivity might imply crafting together for a given cause – such as making a stand against capitalism – or it might be the more simple desire to just be around others for mutual support, help, and advice.

Our post-seminar conversation covered issues ranging from the sentimental importance of materials used in craft practice, the sustainability of the materials used (linking us back to my earlier visit to Wool House), the influence of technology of modern crafting (blogs, YouTube etc), and possibilities for a day at Goldsmiths to hold a cross-disciplinary craft based event (which would be awesome).

That was a long post! But it was a wonderfully busy day that’s given me loads of ideas to follow up and take forward in my own research. I look forward to sharing the results!

The spring knit and stitch show is on until Sunday 17th March (ticket prices vary), and the free Wool House exhibition runs until March 24th at Somerset House.