The crafts of women past
An activity I once rejected because of its gendered tutelage, has now revealed to me how women have been solving a Mathematical problem that has boggled many a mind, with needle and thread
I rejected 'needlework' when I was ten years old. It was a compulsory class in my coed secondary school, but only for girls. Once a week, all the boys were ushered into a separate classroom. The same 'period' was categorised by two different names, depending on your assigned sex. Boys were taught 'craft'; girls, 'needlework.'
I resented the gendered nature of this classification. I detested the fact that because I had been assigned female, my fingers were presumably biologically pre-destined to handle a needle. In this school, affiliated to the church, in Kurla, the average classroom had at least 80 kids, over-populated by most standards. Each week we were taught a different stitch, and our task was to complete a row of it on cloth canvas.
Although I learned each stitch, I was so incensed by the mandatory nature of this gendered instruction, I rebelled by outsourcing the homework to the one person I knew who had an innate talent for embroidery; my mother.
Unlike almost every classmate's mother in my school, as a private nurse, my mother worked full-time, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She carried her embroidery work with her and did it on the bus or train, or when she had free time while caring for her patient. This skill that she had been taught as a student in Portuguese-occupied Goa had accompanied her through her adult life.
My sister and I often helped her trace patterns from books onto fabric so she could decorate pillow covers, or monogram my father's handkerchiefs. She unintentionally rewarded us by making dresses for our dolls, invariably creating a whole wardrobe.
Her real forte was the cross-stitch, and she was so neat and meticulous, my needlework teacher always marvelled at how the back of the cloth was as beautiful and geometric as the front. Of course, my mother still made me learn the craft, she was not one to enable cheating. But I felt only relief when I was no longer obligated to perform womanhood. I soon moved on to acquiring other distastes, like Mathematics.
Cut to two decades later, and I find myself obsessed with crochet. Last evening, I was exhausted; I'd spent a good amount of creative energy writing an almost 2,000-word essay on Femmage — the historical practice of womanly crafts conventionally excluded from art historical discourses.
I'd also rode a public bus for the first time in months, which, in Pandemic times, can be anxiety-inducing. Yet, after our dinner of mangold (tastes like spinach) strudel and Tiramusu (both made by me), I felt last night the urge to crochet. I decided to do a Granny Square. I'd seen an ad on Instagram (you can see how the social media website has been trawling my search engine inputs to customise its advertisements) for a website that sells knitting kits. You get the pattern and the materials. It looked like a gorgeous bag made by patching together several seven or eight-inch Granny Squares. I decided last night I wanted to make this for myself.
My biggest revelation two weeks ago, when I made this classic set of stitches upon which most crochet beginners must cut their teeth, was that through centuries, women had been using needle and thread to solve either metaphorically or through relative approximation, a Mathematical problem that boggled the most intelligent 'male' minds since antiquity — how to square a circle. As I completed the second round of stitches within my initial looped circle, I found myself with a square!
Once it was large enough, I took a picture of my work and sent it to a curator friend. I had remembered a piece of correspondence we had had some time ago that had confused me at the time, particularly given my learned ineptitude for Mathematics. He had been recounting to me a conversation he'd had with an artist friend about ellipsis — those dots at the end of a sentence that signal the continuity of a thought or word or notion.
"It's a figure of speech in which the centre remains void and the words delineate a perimeter of what must be addressed," he had written. "It is a geometric figure, whose perimeter can be measured by inscribing a number of known regular polygons into it." Such a method, he said, always leaves a remainder that is unmeasurable; a marginal realm that goes unaccounted.
This incalculable grey area had come to be referred to since antiquity as 'squaring the circle'. "Measuring the perimeter of ellipsis will not exhaust the ellipsis in full," he'd written. This was how, or why, the meaning of a poem, a far more complex language and image structure than a geometric figure, cannot be exhausted.
I'm beginning to think of crochet patterns as poetic forms. As I excavate more information about what women saved and collected over centuries through craft, I am even more perplexed by its inexhaustible potential. I feel this great desire to perform crochet in public as I re-navigate my way through all that I had rejected in my youth as feminine occupations. For now, I'm following in the finger-steps of historical housewives by re-reading their crochet instructions. I'm finding, in the repetitive gestures, traces of eternity.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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