Sometimes, I get a squirmy feeling in my chest when I tell people that I sew. It has less to do with me and more do with their reaction, which can go one of two ways: a very enthusiastic response about what a “classic” and “rare” woman I am, or a sort of sneer of confusion as to why I would want to partake of something considered part of women’s domestic past. These two responses land at opposite ends of the spectrum but are both rooted in the same misconception about what it means to be a sewist. Both see sewing as a submission to a woman’s traditional role in society, and both are wrong.
Assuming that I sew because I am trying to fulfill my role as “good woman” is not only insulting to women, but it is insulting to the craft. Often, popular understanding of what constitutes art is far too narrow. For most of my life when people asked me if I was “artsy” I felt compelled to tell them no, because I am not some type of painter or illustrator as people usually assume is attached to the title of artist.
Our culture leads us to believe creative activities historically associated with women, such as cooking and sewing, aren’t art. Yet, everything about them is artful. Art is not easily defined, and that is the way it should be. The only requirement I attach to the definition of art is creation. Sewing is creation. Looking at a rectangle of color and being able to envision it as something whole, to see exactly where I would place the darts and what accent colors would make it pop, to translate a piece of nothing into an expression of my being–I dare you to tell me it isn’t art.
Sometimes the people who reject sewing as art are well-meaning progressive women who just never want to be forced to squeeze into a traditional role. This fear of this forced assimilation is totally valid, but the way it is expressed is not helping anyone. It’s not feminist to reject and shame things that are traditionally feminine. Feminism is about the choice to express ourselves however we want. But it’s also about dissociating traditionally “feminine” things with negativity. That means supporting women and recognizing their artistic expression as valid, even if it is different from the way we choose to express ourselves. It’s an important act feminism to reclaim textile art as just that–art. Detach art from the gender binary. Give sewing the power and reverence it was neglected for far too long.
What other arts have we neglected because they are seen as feminine? Maybe we’ve never thought of our grandmas as artists but maybe they are the most artful members of our families.
I encourage you to give Faith Ringgold, Suzan Engler, and Toshiko MacAdam a search to see just how broad and innovative textile and fiber art can be.