Stitchy Fingers: Making by Hand in the First decade of ‘Spare Rib’
by: Alison Mayne , December 13, 2021
by: Alison Mayne , December 13, 2021
Spare Rib, published in the UK between 1972 and 1993, was a second wave feminist magazine founded and edited by, amongst others, Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott. This article focuses on its first decade of publication, and considers how the magazine presented ways in which feminist womanhood could be constructed through agentic choices in handcraft as consumer and maker.
Greer (2008; 2014) first coined the portmanteau word ‘craftivism’ to celebrate the agency of expressing personal, social, and political solidarity or dissent through handcraft. Twenty-first century feminists are perhaps more familiar with the concept of making by hand as a form of activism, rather than seeing handcraft as incongruent with feminist values. Considering this, it is useful to think about how issues of Spare Rib can be viewed as artefacts that have accrued heritage and social value (Withers 2016), with the capacity to influence how we understand the place of making by hand in feminist practices and publications more generally. Exploring the place of handcraft in Spare Rib provides some insight into how traditions have been used to sustain feminist ideas and identities, what is selected or foregrounded and—over time—what is removed. Using Withers’ (2016) concept, it is a valuable act of cultural recovery to re-examine Spare Rib and historicise how handcraft has been represented within it.
Feminisms have long had an uneasy relationship with women’s magazines, with the Women’s Liberation Movement rejecting their perceived focus on women’s domestic role and subordination. (Friedan 2010 ) There is also a tricky balance between consumption and anti-consumer culture frequently associated with feminism: To buy a magazine supported by advertising, to see Spare Rib in WHSmith (a UK national newsagent), to gather 100,000 readers, to inform, entertain and challenge in a text which by definition indicates time for leisure (Forster 2016; Forster and Hollows 2020) is to be implicated with consumerism and capitalism.
In the pioneering Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson writes:
It is difficult to discuss fashion in relation to the feminism of today, because the ideologies about dress that have circulated in the Women’s Movement seem never to have been made explicit. This may be one reason for the intense irritation and confusion that the subject provoked from the beginning of the Women’s Movement in 1970 and still provokes. (1985: 230)
Whilst her work focused on clothing, there are still challenging connections here: ideologies of handcraft, such as sewing, knitting or embroidery were entangled with associations of domesticity, oppression and a limited view of the feminine homemaker. There are other parallels, as both women’s magazines and handcraft are often considered frivolous ‘ephemeral texts and “unacademic”’. (Groenevald 2016: 13) Scholarship exploring the significance of feminist print and the culture of making in handcraft is expanding, but there is still work to do in reclaiming the agency and activism that both represent. Interest in feminist print culture can be seen in the determination behind the British Library Spare Rib digitisation project from 2014, and more recent publications such as Re-reading Spare Rib edited by Angela Smith (2017) and Feminist Media by Claire Sedgwick (2020). However, very little work has explicitly considered the place of handcraft in Spare Rib and the ways that the ‘irritation and confusion’ which Wilson discusses led to its unravelling in the magazine.
Handcraft & Feminisms
There is a long cultural history associating women and handcraft, frequently drawing on essentialist ideas about nurture, hearth, home and care. This is often exemplified by the image of an ‘angel in the home,’ with eighteenth and nineteenth century samplers completed by young women and girls as part of their education in domestic skills, perseverance and obedience. (Goggin & Tobin 2017)
However, literature and myth are also populated by women who use handcraft subversively, for example to separate them from the world, as in Tennyson’s account of The Lady of Shalott, or Penelope, who wove and unravelled her weaving for years waiting for Odysseus to return, both ensuring her fidelity and obedience to her husband, and subverting attempts at control by the men around her. (Canevaro 2014) Similarly, there are intriguing real-world examples of nineteenth century women who rebelled against the use of handcraft as a tool of domestic oppression or control. These include Elizabeth Parker of Ashburnham, East Sussex, who records instances of maltreatment in her work as a nurserymaid ‘with cruelty too horrible to mention’ by stitching in red thread onto a panel of linen she perceives to be as comforting as a person she can trust. (Victoria and Albert Museum 2021) Lorina Bulwer created three long stitched and densely embroidered ‘letters’ recounting her experiences of abuse by doctors whilst locked in Great Yarmouth workhouse in the 1890s. (Norfolk Museums Collection 2021) Agnes Richter embroidered layers and layers of dense text onto the lining and exterior of her straitjacket whilst incarcerated at Hubertusberg Asylum, recording her experiences, fears and wishes with thread. (Prinzhorn Collection 2021)
This article is not the place to rehearse the complex history of craft being placed in opposition to, or as a poor cousin of, more artistic endeavour. Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on how handcraft—particularly that engaged in by women—is denigrated with a steady ‘drip of condescension’. (Hutchison & Feist 1991: 6) Scholarship on craft has been affected in no small part by its implicit and explicit connection to gender, with deliberate use of the masculine label of ‘craftsmanship’ in works by Crawford (2009), Frayling (2010) or Mytting (2015). This focus on masters and ‘the things men have made’ (Frayling 2001: 93) reaches its orgasmic end in phallic descriptions of ‘arousing’ tools (Sennett 2009: 195) and the ‘sublime screwdriver’. (195) Women’s handcraft, especially undertaken in domestic settings, or for such mundane practices as clothing the body, appears beneath consideration, its precarious position in the already contested field of amateur and hand craft being ‘impacted by multiple legacies of gendered exclusion’. (Luckman, 2014: 48)
Adamson, one of the leading current scholars on craft, expresses concern about the work of an amateur handcrafter—making in a way that focuses on personal gratification rather than on professional quality—which appears to him an activity which is socially passive in simply purchasing commodities to facilitate ‘sewing in the living room’ (Adamson 2007: 140), or other such mundane pastimes. Handcraft, especially in the production of domestic or personal objects to adorn the body has been—and in contemporary popular media remains—considered to be of low social or artistic status ‘at odds with intellectual life’. (Parker 2010: 214) Lippard suggests that such interests may have been ‘engendered by isolation within a particular space and by the emphasis on cleaning and service’ (1978: 486) of domestic settings, although she values the potential for remedying this by forging important connections through sharing handcraft with other women as they work to rehabilitate, patch, and fix the broken things they experience.
Within the Women’s Liberation Movement, there has also been ambivalence about the place of women’s handcraft, which is often perceived as ‘bound up with the superficial, the solely decorative and transient values’ (Dalton 1987: 32) of a closely proscribed life which focused on femininity and family. Dalton, writing for Virago in a volume on women and craft (Elinor, Richardson, Scott, Thomas & Walker, 1987) is uncomfortable with the lack of professionalism shown by amateurs who create for leisure at home, identifying in particular that women’s reliance on magazines leads to limited imagination, skill and creativity. This view is challenged by Hackney (2006; 2013) where magazines aimed at women from the 1920s through to contemporary examples are imagined as windows upon, as opposed to barriers to, creativity, as they offer handcraft support which means that women can engage with exciting ideas about art and design with a like-minded community.
However, in her germinal text The Subversive Stitch, Parker (2010) delights in exploring the metaphor of the textile needle as a ‘weapon of resistance (ix), used by women to craft their own meaning ‘in the very medium intended to foster polite effacement’. (201) In this reading, Parker draws on the work of Louise Bourgeois in her justification of handcraft as a powerful tool for creativity and reparation:
When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair damage. Its claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin. (Bourgeois cited in Parker 2010: xix)
Parker develops her argument that there is unity rather than ambivalence in women’s use of handcraft as a way of challenging patriarchal subjectivity, where the craft of activities such as sewing, embroidery or knitting in a domestic space move from symbols of oppression to the means of self-expression, agency and protest.
More recently, textiles scholarship has explored these ideas, in the wake of political and social activism communicated through handcraft, from the banners of Greenham Common (Clarke 2016), the Names Project which created memorial quilts for AIDS victims (National Aids Memorial 2021) to the Pussy Hats worn by those in the women’s marches protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the USA. (Derr 2017; Black 2017) Here, handcraft is acknowledged as a ‘strategy to examine and challenge contemporary issues’ (Black & Burisch 2010: 610), engaging with social activism or community building (Bishop 2006) in a way that simultaneously reclaims handcraft as a feminist act. (Chansky, 2010) In some settings, this can be part of public provocation to challenge ideas about shared public spaces or an embodied engagement with cultural resistance, where handcraft opens up a ‘mutable, creative and negotiated space that is a political activity in itself’. (Springgay 2010: 112) Most recently, this may be observed in community handcraft projects which record personal and political responses to the Coronavirus pandemic through quilting (Stalp 2020), stitching solidarity in lockdown (Fountain & Burchill 2020), virtual ‘rage knitting’ (McCracken 2020) or gathering in new ways to grieve. (Schulte 2021)
Still, Turney (2009) expresses concern that handcraft activities such as sewing or knitting have been marginalised from academic and cultural discourse because they represent ‘a democracy of objects and practices so prolific, so mundane, that it isn’t noticed, it’s taken for granted’ (5), resulting in the stigma of the complexity and skill of handcrafts being overlooked as ubiquitous and anonymous. Not just on the streets, but in the home, handcrafting is increasingly acknowledged as emerging from complex motivations, and perhaps illustrates that the domestic interior is a ‘more fragmented place than the frozen space of patriarchal mythology’. (Buckley 1999: 57) Hemmings (2010) suggests that making for leisure rather than necessity means that handcraft ‘appears in unexpected guises with intentions and meanings that stray far outside the realm of the domestic and utilitarian’. (9) Such intentions may include the relishing of a slowness hard to find in a fast-paced world (Black 2012) through to the quiet activism of taking up space and time in handcrafting alone (Hackney 2013), generating community identity (Prigoda & McKenzie 2007) or opening up opportunities for creativity (Stannard & Sanders 2015) and experiencing ‘flow’. (Lampitt Adey 2018)
In her work on domestic culture, Hollows (2013) posits that there is less scholarship that explores the everyday, or what may be labelled mundane (although that in itself belies a negative attitude to handcraft). This tendency has impacted the study of making practices such as knitting, sewing and embroidery, and is further complicated through attitudes toward feminism resisting handcraft as something which may be construed as anti-feminist. Hollows’ (2013) work on consumption connected to women’s domestic activity and oppression suggests that to separate from the domestic is part of identification as a feminist, and comes with a rejection of associated tasks or interests (Hollows 2008)—just as consumption focused on domestic space was challenged by Friedan. (2010/1982) There remains a concern not to valorise domestic handcraft as a source of fulfilment for women (Harrison & Ogden 2019), and to seek liberation in disrupting the traditions and stereotypes of femininity in the domestic sphere.
Spare Rib: The Early Years
Echoing Withers’ (2016) interest in what may be understood in considering the heritage and cultural value gained by feminist print culture over time, Bruley & Forster (2016) ask how communities and traditions of feminisms are revealed through public facing cultural acts, including publications. Drawing on the expertise, experience and contacts of the first editors, Spare Rib reached a wide audience through huge print runs and retail in large national UK chains such as WHSmith and John Menzies. (Winship 1987; Hollows 2013) Through its manifesto, printed as a press release and on the first page of the inaugural edition, Spare Rib claimed its place as a magazine for women, addressing the shortcomings of existing women’s magazines which perpetuated a vision of women as ‘passive, dependent, conformist, incapable of critical thought’ (Spare Rib 1972a: 1), focused on consumption as the answer to a better life, and in which the domestic sphere was the only context for fulfilment.
While Spare Rib provided an alternative to what women’s magazines already represented, challenging readers and the status quo with new notions of womanhood and feminist thought, the earliest years of production still attempted to emulate aspects of existing publications (Forster 2016; Forster & Hollows 2020) with features on food, beauty, and clothing. Traditionally feminised interests were portrayed as a celebration of freedom and collaboration, ‘Do-It-Together’ culture and subversion. Where ‘domestic’ activities were featured, these were largely presented from a ‘feminist consciousness perspective, chiming with anti-capitalist feminism and the anti-consumerist ethics of a 1970s lifestyle’. (Forster 2016: 823) This explored how activities like handcraft could be part of personal expression and political commentary on the traditionally ‘feminine’ or domestic.
However, as Spare Rib became more established, there were editorial struggles in moving away from traditional features on interests such as handcraft. (Rowe 1982) The first few years of Spare Rib can be viewed as the magazine and its editors learning how to ‘be’ a feminist magazine, but the balance of attracting sales, educating new readers about the Women’s Liberation Movement, and satisfying the expectations of established feminists proved challenging. Winship (1987) suggests that meeting these complex and often contradictory goals was always an impossible task. Investigating the place of handcraft in the magazine is a microcosm of some of the dilemmas faced by the editors in encouraging women to see themselves, their personal practices and the wider movement in fresh new ways. As Spare Rib moved through the 1970s and away from an editorial structure to a collective, the approach towards handcraft shifted from regular features focused on encouraging making and expression through creativity to a more distanced historical perspective, before it unravelled almost completely.
Handcraft & Agency in Spare Rib
Handcraft takes its place in the very first issue of Spare Rib, with an article about the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, which includes details of the ‘thoroughly feminine’ elaborate embroidered banners of the Suffrage movement. (Raeburn 1972: 12) Whilst this is clearly set in its historical context, it is notable that feminist practices and making by hand are connected in the magazine from the very beginning, even if perceived tensions between such acts pull these apart later.
The next issue of Spare Rib saw the second and last feature on clothing, entitled ‘GARB’ (the first focusing on jeans worn by real women of the Portobello and Edgeware Roads in London). Regardless of how short lived this fashion contribution was, it is fascinating to see that the feature presented hand knitting as a celebration of feminist agency. In ‘Patterns for the Woolly Minded’ (Hamilton 1972) knitting patterns designed specifically for Spare Rib by Avril Highley of KnitMastery and styled by accessories from Biba, were marketed through the image of three women, arms around one another, relaxed, collaborative and joyful. It suggested using wool ‘of any 4ply you might have hanging around’ (36), which assumed existing interest and skill in the readership, but adopted a deliberate tone of relaxation and freedom in getting ‘your needles out and seeing how good it feels to wear clothes you have made yourself’. (36) Rosie Boycott, writing later for The Guardian, commented that this feature was included ‘in the name of self-sufficiency’ (2007) and the team was surprised and overwhelmed by the huge audience response of those wanting to order these (free) patterns. She reflected that this feature was, like cooking, ‘wholly frivolous and politically dangerous’ (Boycott 2007) in failing to offer something sufficiently distinct from other women’s magazines. These early tensions can be observed in the wording of the title ‘woolly minded,’ and its implications of muddled confusion or triviality.
Making one’s own clothes took a back seat until a significant issue in March 1973. The theme of this issue was the domestic work of making and mending—both literal and metaphorical—with the cover image focused on the burden of domestic labour, illustrated by a harassed, apron-wearing woman gazing at the viewer over close-up images of an iron, a teapot, and a spool of cotton thread. She appears unconvinced by the subheading reassuring readers that such labour ‘needn’t be a chore’. (Spare Rib 1973)
Within the issue, an extended feature over four pages, ‘Stitchy Fingers’ aimed to encourage ‘non-expert’ dressmakers with the tagline ‘Simpler than Simplicity’ (Sampson 1973: 31) referring explicitly to a popular home sewing pattern brand and suggesting that makers may be freed from the strictures of paper patterns to demonstrate their own creativity and agency. With text by Ellie Sampson and designs by Ann Caddle, a 20-year-old fresh from the London College of Fashion, ‘Simpler than Simplicity’ had straightforward, geometric diagrams and hints for taking measurements to craft one’s own garments. This was celebrated as cheaper, more satisfying, freeing and fun—in making by hand, women should not ‘let the rules get the upper hand’ but instead ‘wear what you want, not what current trend dictates’. (Sampson 1973: 32)
But this is not quite so straightforward a message as it may seem. The making relied on much existing haptic, tactile understanding of how to sew by responding to simplified diagrams and minimal instruction. The illustrations used throughout are ‘vintage’ images of women engaged in making and adapting clothing, either flapper-thin or New Look-waisted. This is as problematic in the use of the same ostensibly appealing and nostalgic references to the past regarding handcraft that can be observed today. (Myzelev 2009; Harrison & Ogden 2019) Was this a parody, or a subversive nod to associations of domestic craft and women’s suppression? These contradictory messages about making one’s own clothes are not resolved in the feature, and home sewing would not be discussed again in Spare Rib for another two years.
The complex and uncomfortable relationship between feminism and sewing one’s own clothing is next observed in Elizabeth Wilson’s 1975 feature on homemade fashion. She considers the fantasy of a cultural revolt in making one’s own clothes, to satisfy self-expression and give the social signals to one’s ‘tribe,’ helping to address some of the same points about waste, mass production and sustainability that are being made today. She presents home sewing and similar crafts as a way to engage in the radical act of demonstrating alternative lifestyles, and even makes a connection between the twin gestation of the Women’s Liberation Movement and anti-consumerist creativity in making by hand over the course of the 1970s. However, she discusses tension in that same relationship, where self-expression of an individual may be at odds with the cooperative political direction of the wider group. Readers are invited to consider Wilson’s discomfort and ambivalence in the tensions between attitudes towards textiles handcraft and the complicated act of ‘learning to be a woman’. (Wilson 1975: 32) Sewing a wardrobe may push back against consumerism and facilitate self-determination and agency, but concerns about conflicts in feminist philosophy remained.
Spare Parts: Using your Hands for Happiness
Other elements of making and crafting clothing and accessories came with an early regular feature ‘Spare Parts’ in the final pages of Spare Rib, usually written by Stephanie Gilbert. The very first of these, published in July 1972, set the context for feminist DIY and empowerment in making shelves. (Gilbert 1972a) Initially accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations, and later using photographic images, these encouraged agency through one’s own fingers, whether making or fixing for the home, mending possessions, children’s toys, or crafting simple gifts for friends.
An early example connected closely to handmaking was ‘How to Repair your Clogs’ in issue 3 (Gilbert, 1972b), which gave instructions on fixing the crumbling cork of one’s platform heel. This feature generated the only complaint letter published in Spare Rib about ‘Spare Parts,’ with a reader suggesting it was inappropriate to advise mending when women should instead be exercising their consumer rights. (Spare Rib, 1972b) Part of the ethos behind ‘Spare Parts’ was set out explicitly in the December 1972 issue, in which Gilbert presented a double page on handcrafting Christmas presents such as felted brooches, purses and fabric decorations. Such activity is framed as anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist, avoiding the over-packaged and over-priced ‘onslaught of material goods’ in order to find ‘satisfaction in making our gifts’ instead. (Gilbert 1972c: 39) Between features on fixing broken bicycles, dripping taps and even self-defence, there were ‘Spare Parts’ pages which offered advice on making curtains and blinds— ‘our windows, or covering them up and keeping ourselves in, is an important matter to us’ (Gilbert 1973: 28)—and lampshades. However, the feature became more sporadic, even accompanied by apologies for missed issues, ‘pitifully reduced to promises, promises, of better things to come’. (Gilbert 1974: 38) ‘Spare Parts’ was officially dropped from the regular feature list from issue 25 in the summer of 1974.
‘Spare Parts’ sought to provide empowerment and agency through self-reliance in fixing tap washers, car maintenance and self-defence, as well as making curtains or soft toys for children. It challenged consumerism—including in craft retail—the joys of Doing It Yourself or Doing It Together, and illuminating readers in what may be considered traditionally ‘masculine’ handwork, as well as in textiles handcraft. (Hollows 2013) Joanne Hollows’ consideration of Spare Rib points out that the feature provided more than thrifty guidance on practical matters, but also joy and personal satisfaction in developing skills including handcraft.
Pricked Fingers: Early Craftivism
There were also articles in Spare Rib which focused on women’s artisanal protest, with subversion through domestic craft and folk feminism of embroidery and textile work. In July 1975, a feature by the young Rozsika Parker was published offering an exploration of embroidery, writing that ‘[t]his relationship has been mutually destructive … the same characteristics were ascribed to both women and embroidery, they were seen as mindless, decorative and delicate’ (Parker 1975: 41), and textile scholars are still trying to engage with and reset these attitudes.
However, this did not stop the magazine from, in May 1978, using embroidery in the design of their subscription appeal. A chain stitched scroll bearing the words ‘“May Be” the month to subscribe to Spare Rib’ is embellished with delicate stemmed flowers, musical notes, and the gender pictogram of cross and circle. (Spare Rib 1978: 47) This design echoes, subverts and reinterprets the cult of domesticity often represented through handcrafted stitch work to celebrate the feminist ideals of the magazine. It indicates that the editors were confident in making the connection between the political and handcraft, where embroidery could be used by women ‘as an extension of their political voice when they could not risk the safety of their body, or did not have political agency, to exercise their voice in public’. (Mandell, 2019: 3-4)
Whilst the magazine happily focused on this type of folk feminism in the embellishment of textiles through embroidery, its discomfort with the oppressive, domestic associations of handcraft still leached through. In issue 67, writer Amy Brackx (1978) interviewed Beryl Weaver, whose domestic, subversive, therapeutic use of stitching was used to express solidarity with other women feeling confined by their roles as homemaker and caregiver. The article was titled ‘Subverting Sweetness,’ and presented these kinds of personal and political embroidery on to domestic, even saccharine textiles like handkerchiefs and doilies, which may be more familiar to 21st century scholars through projects like Tiny Pricks (Weymar 2019). It focused on Weaver’s practice of embroidery, as well as crochet and lacework, to express her frustrations at feeling restricted, having limited opportunity for a creative outlet and finding handcraft a solace.
Nevertheless, in describing the embroidery which communicates her frustration at domestic drudgery, the maker herself denigrates the skill or significance of her work:
I ask her if she thinks of herself as an artist and she half smilingly answers, ‘No, I’m filling time, or maybe I am wasting time … I suppose I do use a box of coloured silks like a palette and I like mixing and dabbing them around … but I’ve never thought of myself as creative’. (Brackx 1978: 43)
More recently, Springgay (2010) describes handcraft such as this type of subversive embroidery as an embodied and tactile political engagement, where stitch can form a new type of cultural resistance, ‘a mutable, creative and negotiated space that is a political activity in itself’. ( 112) In addition to a defiant act of resistance, other scholars recognise the quiet activism of making space and time for the self (Hackney 2013; Hackney, Maughan and Desmarais 2016) in social engagement or expression. Handcraft and stitching, in particular
the action and movements of hands holding needle and thread looping back on itself in a stitch, made through the folds of cloth, is one of the oldest, most basic, most fundamental, most simple and most eloquent of forms of articulate self-reflexivity. (Pajaczkowska 2014: 21)
is not embraced here as a particularly feminist act. Brackx herself displays tensions in attitudes towards handcraft and handcrafters in her dismissive tone, describing Weaver as suburban, shrill, and ‘shrieking hysterically with a witch’s cackle’. (1978: 43)
Distance through an Historic Lens
The tension of this problematic connection between feminism and textile arts was displayed in the remaining issues from the decade by exploring handcraft largely through an historical lens. Addressing craft as examples of material culture from earlier centuries provided a critical distance from the complexities of its place in contemporary feminism.
Within this context, there were examples of early work by Grizelda Pollock writing on the Women’s History Art Collective and the creative traditions of patchwork and quilting demonstrated in places like Gees Bend, Alabama (1974). Here, Pollock considered not just the finished crafted objects, often constructed from old clothing, but by and for whom they were made. She celebrates the ‘autonomous creative tradition’ (Pollock 1974: 35) of women designing, working and exhibiting together and laments the lack of recognition afforded to their skill. She recognises the utilitarian, familial and political value in stitching quilts which held enormous emotional and personal significance for individuals, but focuses attention especially on the work of the collective. In arguing against the ways such handcraft skill has been treated so poorly, Pollock makes a powerful case for ‘a confirmation of women’s autonomous creative traditions’ (37)—but quilting as a form of expression for readers is never discussed in Spare Rib during this period.
There is also a tantalising early article by Roszika (then known as Rosie) Parker on the history of women’s hand stitched work in embroidery and textiles, including the Holloway Prison suffrage handkerchiefs and banners, embellished with the names of those who were force fed. The article signs off with a reassurance that this is a first step in exploring historic textiles and embroidery, and it is intriguing to think that her Spare Rib article was the beginning of work which would become The Subversive Stitch. (Parker 2010) Parker discusses how, in contrast to embroidery in the art schools of the 19th century,
today it is grudgingly accepted as an art technique. But the basic values and the class division within embroidery remain thoroughly fossilised. Embroidery, practiced as craft, used on clothes, cushions, is still considered inferior to the fine arts. The women who embroider at home, instead of regarding their work with pride, refer to it deprecatingly as their occupational therapy, while outside the low paid women workers machine embroider the back pockets of pre-faded jeans. (Parker, 1975: 45)
In The Subversive Stitch, Parker (2010) went on to argue that the needle is a ‘weapon of resistance’ (ix), subverted by women who use textile craft ‘to make meaning of their own in the very medium intended to foster polite effacement’. (201) The same themes which suggest handcraft is a complex activity, simultaneously representing submission, powerlessness, pleasure, and empowerment are investigated in this early iteration of Parker’s ideas, but are not expanded upon again. As the magazine approached the end of its first decade, it had returned to perceiving handcraft as an oppressive tool of history: Issue 91 was the last time handcraft—in its palatable position as something from the past—was examined in the magazine with an article about Anthea Callen’s new book on women in the Arts and Crafts movement, Angel in the Studio (1979). Here, handcrafted embroidery was presented as a middle-class activity designed to express and inculcate moral purity in the lives of women who were confined to a small domestic interior. The message was now clear: for Spare Rib, handcraft belonged only as part of historic context.
In a reflexive editorial in July 1979, staff at Spare Rib looked back at how their features on fashion, health and beauty in the early days were part of attempting to find a place in the market for a new kind of women’s magazine. While they were proud that their focus drew attention to issues of commodification and objectification in women’s lives, there was discomfort. The editors explicitly signalled a shift in perspective on feminist approaches in Spare Rib, concerned to avoid ‘trapping ourselves with images which either exploit women or which give the magazine a knitting book look’. (Parker 1979: 18)
Specifically citing handcraft as anathema to what Spare Rib should be is fascinating. Regardless of the celebrations of agency and activism, features on Suffrage protest, exclusion of textiles from the art world and important historic women’s practices, the precarious place of making by hand in a feminist publication was too challenging to balance. Features on knitting, sewing or embroidery were too typical of traditional women’s magazines according to Beetham (1996), drawing on a feminised space but insufficiently feminist for the collective editorial team which took Spare Rib into the 1980s. The first issue of 1982 saw a rare knitting pattern pull-out designed by Luknitics of Perth, Scotland which invited readers to ‘Knit Yourself a Woman’s Woolly’ (Spare Rib 1981: 28-29) decorated with gender pictograms, but there is very little reference to handcraft in the magazine from this point onwards.
Hollows (2008) explores this challenge further in her work on feminism in domestic spaces, where handcraft can be seen as problematic in both creating and perpetuating gendered inequalities. In particular, she celebrates how nurturing the self and others through craft can play a part in challenging patriarchal values and building a society based on collective community and care, but that this is often built on an essentialist view of what roles women may play. Spare Rib, as a second wave feminist publication, was caught uncomfortably in the tension between these readings of activities such as handcrafting, as they replicated ‘the assumption that domestic practices are of little social or cultural value’ (Hollows 2008: 69) and therefore of negligible political value. Similarly, Hollows suggests that the historic lens used in Spare Rib to present ideas about clothing and handcraft was a way to decommodify interest in the domestic, and place it in a more cerebral art history discourse at least ‘partially divorced from a notion of practice’ (Hollows 2013: 280), and certainly from leisure and activity for pleasure. Handcraft played an early role in the editors’ attempts to forge Spare Rib a place in feminist publications, but this could not be squared with its ongoing attempts to challenge patriarchal privilege.
The Spare Rib Manifesto (1972a) sought to provide a publication for women frustrated by the limitations of existing magazines which drew on perceptions of women as passive and confined to traditional roles. This included a commitment to women who ‘remain isolated and unhappy’ (Spare Rib 1972a: 1) and even though there were features—about Suffrage embroidery (Raeburn 1972; Parker 1975) or Beryl Weaver’s domestic activism (Brackx 1978) —which explored how handcraft could be used to alleviate or communicate some of that distress, the editors were not supportive of such messages moving forward. Hollows (2013) suggests that while the editors of the magazine were conscious of the potential of domestic practices like embroidery or knitting to communicate with their readers, they reproduced the binary opposition of a critically aware feminist and the ‘housewife,’ whose interest in handcraft appears as a betrayal.
21st century feminist readers are perhaps more likely to embrace the idea that handcraft may be a salve to women’s isolation and unhappiness identified in the Spare Rib manifesto (Parkins 2004; Hollows 2008), or for non-conformist, anti-consumption, critically aware thinking to be expressed through its practice. (Mandell, 2019) While it is frustrating to view negative attitudes towards handcraft as a lost opportunity to explore feminist thinking (Hollows 2013), it is also possible to view the work of Spare Rib in paving the way for other publications as they represented pleasure in handcrafts disentangled from perceptions of domestic oppression.
Groenevald (2016), writing on Bust magazine, focuses on the ways handcraft activities previously associated with the domestic sphere and political or creative oppression for women have been reclaimed—a shift entirely supported by Bust editor Debbie Stoller’s own Stitch ‘n Bitch publications, which encouraged feminists to ‘take back the knit’. (2003: 9) While there are still challenges and tensions in negotiating representation in feminist or traditional women’s magazines, engaging with craft is seen as part of connecting with a long heritage in publications (Groenevald 2016) and political actions in riot grrl and cyberfeminist culture. (Minahan & Wolfram Cox 2007) The discomfort with handcrafting observed in Spare Rib shifts in third wave publications, where a new generation is perhaps more open to the complex ways that activities can be political or politicised, including the rejection of binary thinking which portrays handcraft as either radical or complicit in patriarchal domesticity. (Groenevald 2016)
Handcraft in feminist publication is still held in tension: it may be presented as creative pleasure and leisure, a progressive feminist act, or a retrograde step to focus on aesthetics and histories of feminine traditional domesticity. Deans (2010) expresses concern about how feminism has become ‘domesticated’ in media representations, from the confrontational, wild radical to taking up space in more moderate, acceptable, docile ways through focus on ‘the domestic’—an idea similarly present in McRobbie’s work examining the representation of feminisms in public discourse. (2013) There is also greater awareness of the ways that class and status are entangled in handcraft as a pursuit less to do with domestic need, and more to do with choice, leisure, and privilege. (Drix 2014; Forster & Hollows 2020) Sedgwick (2020) suggests that feminist magazines including Spare Rib consistently demonstrate a problematic relationship with popular feminism and continue to be implicated with capitalism as they walk a tightrope between representations which are perceived as either excessively or insufficiently radical.
Fountain (2020), writing on the connections between queerness and craft, discusses how the materiality and flexibility of craft processes and practices ‘offer particularly fertile ground in which to “queer” narratives, imagery or materials’ (online). Drawing on the work of Getsy (2016), Fountain suggests that the potential held in engaging with craft offers opportunities to play with, investigate and reshape identities, power structures and categorisation, and explore what may be missing in representations. This may go some way towards explaining an energised attitude to handcraft in some queer culture publications which embrace its potential from acts of progressive activism to making for wellbeing. For example, the hugely popular online lesbian culture magazine AutoStraddle (2021) has celebrated forms of handcraft since its inception, and includes craft as part of its regular digital and in-person ‘meet-ups.’ Articles frequently include making ethical consumption choices through buying craft supplies from independent companies, encouragement in body positivity by sewing one’s own wardrobe, and enjoying the pleasures of crochet, cross stitch and knit. There are practical guides to inclusive sewing for all genders and body shapes (Shannon, 2017), handcraft with and for children (Rich, 2015) and cultural features (Rios 2016). Commentary on activism through craft (Parker 2020) also embraces the ways that queer communities have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic, for example in making face masks. (Friedman 2020) The presentation of handcraft here engages with both the traditional and new, suggesting that it is possible to participate in the joys of handcraft and its supportive communities without entanglement in oppression.
In initially embracing then rejecting activities such as sewing, knitting and embroidery, the writers and editors of Spare Rib were working to define feminist culture in opposition to traditional activities such as handcrafts. For many, to be feminist during the growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement meant leaving crafts associated with the drudgery of domesticity behind. However, there is more to handcraft than the oppression of the needle, as explored in its own pages in this first decade of Spare Rib. The connection between these practices and traditions and a rich cultural heritage in feminisms was used to sustain feminist ideas and identities in the magazine, even though they were not fully articulated. The potential for agency in being creative, the personal and political freedom of making clothes to fit one’s own body, the activism of subversion through stitch, and the lauding of women’s skill throughout history were all celebrated before being placed aside.
I am grateful for the work undertaken by the British Library digitisation project in offering all issues of Spare Rib online, even though these are no longer available post-Brexit. I would also like to thank staff at the reading rooms of the National Library of Scotland and Glasgow Women’s Library for providing access to complete collections in their physical archives. This article develops work first presented at the 2018 MeCCSA conference on creativity and agency, and has been honed through generous conversations with Professor Fiona Hackney, Dr Claire Sedgwick and Dr DM Withers.
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