I've been thinking about the ideas in this post for a long time, but Franklin's painfully astute animated video nudged me to try to put some of them into words.
The starting point for me is the startlingly wide gap between my feelings about the creation of textiles and those of society in general. Or more specifically, the gap between the online community I belong to and the community in which I live. I have all but ceased to talk out loud about what I do, because I invariably wind up feeling sheepishly defensive.
I would like to say from the start that this isn't about a personal need for reassurance or accolades, because I am really really happy with the path I'm on. I feel incredibly privileged to be part of an online community in which the creative love I pour into my work is received and understood for what it is, a community with deep roots and traditions and people to whom I can look up (way way up), whose achievements are so far beyond mine that they inspire me to dream way outside my own box.... how many artists are so lucky?
What fascinates me though, is the sheer magnitude of the disconnect that occurs when I tell people in my physical community what I do - because big gaps, especially ones that are way bigger than expected, are a really good place to look for insight. It brings up interesting questions: Since this is now my livelihood, how do I identify with it in face-to-face life? Does what I do for a living have any value or significance beyond a kind of geeky personal amusement?
To our local arts organizations, Functional = Not Real Art, so I'll always be a fringe pretender in that arena. C'est la vie. To friends and mentors in the business community, who granted me a fair degree of legitimacy for creating jewellery, the reaction I now get to the knitwear design and hand-dyed yarn business is awkward silence, and a quick change of subject.
I find that fascinating. I expected incomprehension, or unfamiliarity, but not this almost pitying discomfort.
Since food and clothing are both fundamentals of human survival, let's consider food for comparison. Someone who cooks a fabulously delicious meal from fresh ingredients is generally admired... even by folk who don't have the time, inclination or acquired skill to do the same. Making great food from scratch is a valued thing, a thing to aspire to, and the fact that it can be practiced by people at all socioeconomic levels doesn't diminish that.
Making clothes, on the other hand, is perhaps akin to picking through the dump for scrap metals - base work done by illiterate unskilled labour from "somewhere else" who are grateful to be able to feed themselves on the pennies a day earned. Expensive clothing derives its value from the space-age technology of the fabric (in the case of active or outerwear) or the conspicuous cachet of the company label. The closest our society gets to acknowledging the human factor is the celebrity status of a big name designer - even then, it is not the physical act of making that is valued.
It's the best explanation I can come up with.
Does it matter? Within the fibre community, we laugh about the muggles who don't understand our interests, band together in our shared geekiness, but is the dichotomy of invisible economic bottom-dweller and nerdy hobbyist really the sum significance of making clothing and textiles? People who write their wedding vows in Klingon** are misunderstood too, but that doesn't doom millions of people (mostly women) to lives of poverty and ill health, doesn't write off as inconsequential a group of professions incredibly diverse and rich in skill and tradition, and as old, in fact, as humanity itself.
Is there any sort of moral imperative to talk to the disinterested about the art and value of Making, of fibre and textiles, of knitting? It would be considerably less awkward to keep my work within my happy online bubble, and most days I am more than a little inclined to do just that.
Nevertheless, as I do venture out of the house on occasion, that still leaves the matter of how best to answer the dreaded question, "What do you do?"
**For the record, our wedding vows were in Greek. We speak neither Klingon nor Greek, but a travelling Tunisian hairdresser kindly translated for us. The Greek, that is. I'm pretty sure he didn't speak Klingon either.