Well, it's taken me a couple of weeks to getting round to posting this, but thought I should say: I passed my PhD viva! Here I am, celebrating being a doctor of knitting, wearing my thesis cardi (and homemade dress, of course).
(For the academic folk - I was very pleased to pass with minor corrections/amendments - hurrah!)
It's a little bit crazy to think that I only started writing up my thesis on 1st January... and now, at the end of the year, I'm looking forward to getting stuck in to lots of exciting new post-PhD stuff in 2014.
More on that... soon!
An important part of my thesis, and one of my favourite bits, is the metaphor I have developed of fashion as common land. In this post I'm going to outline the metaphor, and explain how it has begun to influence my thinking about individual wardrobes.
The fashion commons - the big idea
First, I'll borrow a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that explain the thinking behind this idea:
In order to explore the theme of openness in relation to fashion, I have constructed a metaphor of fashion as land. The metaphor is linked to my interest in openness because land can be managed as a commons, with its use shared between many people, or privately owned and inaccessible. I see ʻfashion landʼ as a commons, because I believe the resource needs to be open – that is, with all areas accessible – in order to meet the needs of wearers.
I find the metaphor to be productive, because it positions fashion as a resource; furthermore, it places the focus squarely on wearers, rather than ʻexpertsʼ such as designers, manufacturers, stylists or celebrities. Importantly, I find that comparing a transitory culture such as fashion with the tangible reality of land brings some hidden issues into focus and enables an activist attitude.
Now to describe the metaphor itself:
To illustrate the metaphor, I imagine a huge meadow, with the whole world of fashion superimposed upon it. Distributed around this space, I see all of the garments – new, old, fashionable, unfashionable – in existence. The size of this resource is staggering; it is estimated that in the UK, almost six billion items are hanging in our wardrobes (Gracey and Moon, 2012). On a more conceptual level, I see every desirable way of appearing through dress, throughout history: the huge diversity of archetypal garment styles, shapes and details from different geographical areas and historical periods; fabric types and their associated construction methods; and the enormous variety of ways of wearing clothes, and their associated meanings, that make up the worldʼs fashion and clothing cultures.
Fashion depends on this broad, varied, vibrant resource; new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. I see wearers – all of us – moving around the fashion meadow. Because fashion reflects preferences at a particular time, areas of the meadow are accessed at different times and by different people. The way in which individuals move around the commons depends upon the degree to which they wish to stand out or conform. Activity is not evenly spread; some areas may have enduring appeal while others become popular only for a short time, until the ʻerosionʼ of overexposure drives people away. Dant (1999: 93) describes how fashion ʻacts as a living museumʼ and ʻplays promiscuously with the pastʼ. Gibson (2000: 356) similarly describes fashion as ʻa storehouse of identity-kits, or surface partsʼ. Thus, particularly fertile areas may return to favour time after time, renewed and layered with new meanings.
In the thesis, I go on to discuss the ways in which I think the fashion commons has been enclosed through the professionalisation and industrialisation of clothing manufacture, and consider whether folk fashion - the making of clothes at home - can overcome this enclosure. At some point I'll try to summarise all that in another post!
The fashion commons and the wardrobe
Later on in the thesis, I come back to the idea of the fashion commons in relation to individuals and their wardrobes. I see the wardrobe as each person's own little section of the fashion commons - like items borrowed from a library.
Cwerner describes the wardrobe as ʻa safely stored pool of identity tokensʼ (Cwerner, 2001: 80, original emphasis); thus, we can think of the wardrobe as the wearerʼs own miniature fashion resource, from which they construct their identity each day.
Importantly, the construction of identity through dress [discussed further here] takes place during storage, maintenance and disposal of clothing, as well as acquisition and use. So, the unworn items kept in the wardrobe, items which are discarded and the things we mend can be as important for identity construction as the shiny new things that we bring home from the shops. For example:
According to Banim and Guy (2001: 205), unworn items ʻhelp provide continuity or discontinuity with womenʼs current identitiesʼ, thus playing an important role in the reflexive, continuous process of identity construction. They describe how kept clothes ʻallow women to maintain a connection with former, important aspects of themselves and their livesʼ (Banim and Guy, 2001: 207).
Many items are kept in full recognition that they will not be worn again, at least by their present owner. However, much of the conversation that took place in my research indicated an impulse to keep clothing 'just in case'; there was an implicit expectation, or hope, of future use. On one hand, this attitude can be seen as legitimising hoarding; keeping items in case of circumstances which are unlikely to arise. However, from another viewpoint we can see the miniature fashion resource of each individual as a source of resilience; the wardrobe provides wearers with a means of dealing with the contingency of identity construction, and of fashion.
In my wardrobe project, I'm thinking a lot about these ideas. I don't buy many new clothes, because I don't want to contribute to the fashion commons becoming even more vast - I really think we have more than enough already. However, I don't think that I should be reducing my wardrobe just to those things that I regularly wear. Understanding that unworn items are important for identity helps me to feel 'allowed' to keep things I'm unlikely to wear, without feeling that I'm wasting them. Thinking of the wardrobe as a source of resilience helps me to think it's ok to keep things 'just in case' of changing context and changing preferences.
On the other hand, I'm actually happier about discarding things than I would have been before (I do have hoarding tendencies). I'm finding it helpful to think about the fashion commons as a library - albeit a huge, chaotic and uncatalogued library - with my wardrobe housing the items I have chosen to borrow at the moment. This helps me to see the process of discarding items in a positive light: returning them to the commons (via the local charity shop) for someone else to 'borrow'.
Banim, M. & Guy, A. (2001) Dis/continued selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear? In: Through the wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. Oxford: Berg, pp.203–220.
Cwerner, S.B. (2001) Clothes at rest: elements for a sociology of the wardrobe. Fashion Theory, 5 (1), pp.79–92.
Gibson, P.C. (2000) Redressing the balance: patriarchy, postmodernism and feminism. In: S. Bruzzi & P. C. Gibson eds. Fashion cultures: theories, explorations and analysis. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.349–362.
Gracey, F. & Moon, D. (2012) Valuing our clothes: the evidence base. Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Available here
In my thesis, I draw on a number of different areas which I see as parallels for fashion and clothing. For example, I use folk music as a way of framing my idea of homemade clothes as 'folk fashion', as outlined in this post.
Here, I'd like to discuss the parallels that I see between knitting and architecture, and more specifically between re-knitting and the reworking and repair of existing buildings.
The first mention of buildings in my thesis appears in a discussion of the benefits of making. Community architect Christopher Alexander involved local people in the design and construction of their own dwellings, and writes eloquently of the impact of this experience:
'They have made themselves solid in the world, have shaped the world as they have shaped themselves ... They, they themselves, have created their own lives, not in that half-conscious, underground, interior way that we all do, but manifestly, out there on their own land: they are alive; they breathe the breath of their own houses...' (Alexander, 1985: 322)
I love this quote! Various writers on craft talk similarly about the enjoyment of bringing something new into existence. For example, Roszika Parker ( 2010: xx) describes how the embroiderer 'holds in her hands a coherent object which exists both outside in the world and inside her headʼ and explains that this has a great positive impact on the sense of self. In short, knitting - like building - makes us feel alive and solid in the world.
Christopher Alexander pops up again with his writing about the repair and alteration of buildings. In The Timeless Way of Building (1979: 485), he observes that 'at every moment we use the defects of the present state as the starting point for the definition of the new stateʼ. This simple observation translates directly to re-knitting; in the projects that were made as part of the research, the issues which needed to be resolved with the garment - whether holey sleeves or an item that was felt to be boring - were central to the design discussions.
He goes on to discuss conservative repair versus tranformation, a distinction which corresponds with Richard Sennettʼs (2008: 200) ideas of static repair, which will ʻrestore the object to its former stateʼ, and dynamic repair, which will ʻchange the objectʼs current form or functionʼ. In the re-knitting project, I saw the knitters making the same distinction and showing a strong desire to improve on the original item, dynamically transforming it.
Buildings are sufficiently long-lasting for us to see such transformations combine and develop over time. In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand quotes Brian Eno, reflecting on the appreciation he feels for buildings which change:
'We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution ... This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.' (Brian Eno, quoted in Brand, 1994: 11)
The ʻtasteʼ for evolution that Eno mentions could also apply to garments and the practice of re-knitting.
In the re-knitting project, I was struck by how often the idea of 'wholeness' came up - the need for the alterations to feel part of the garment, rather than stuck on. I was surprised, and delighted, to find Christopher Alexander discussing this idea of wholeness in relation to buildings:
'When we repair something in this new sense, we assume that we are going to transform it, that new wholes will be born, that, indeed, the entire whole which is being repaired will become a different whole as the result of the repair.' (Alexander, 1979: 485)
I agree that in each re-knitting project, a new whole is born; perhaps that's what makes it so satisfying.
Alexander, C. (1979) The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1985) The production of houses. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brand, S. (1994) How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built. New York: Viking Penguin.
Parker, R. ( 2010) The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine. London: I. B. Tauris.
Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.
The next theme from my PhD thesis that I'd like to focus on is... (drum roll please)
... my role as a designer.
I launched Keep & Share in 2004, working as a designer-maker to create seasonal collections of knitwear and selling them mainly to individual customers. In 2008 I started to support other knitters by producing patterns and running workshops and projects, while still (of course) creating my own knitwear pieces. My research project has been a continuation of that journey, exploring the ways in which I can use my design practice to facilitate and support knitters to work more experimentally, without conventional patterns. This approach corresponds with the ʻhacktivistʼ designer role described by Otto von Busch:
'This role is not the one of a classic unique genius of fashion. Instead it is in the form of orchestrator and facilitator, as an agent of collaborative change. It is not the divine creator of the original and new, but a negotiator, questioning and developing design as a skill and practical production utility ... It is a combination of designing material artefacts as well as social protocols.' (von Busch, 2009: 63)
When I reflected on the research project, I felt that the role I had developed for myself involved two strands: metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. First, let's think about the 'metadesigner' role:
In the past my primary design activity was producing ʻclosedʼ patterns for knitted garments, to be produced either by me (to sell) or by amateurs (for themselves). For this project I have been designing fragments of knit processes, gathering knowledge, developing instructions and advice, and creating a structure within which to present these resources.
This new type of activity changes my relationship with finished objects; when I design and make, I have the satisfaction of holding a new garment that I have constructed. As a metadesigner, I ʻmight never see or even be aware of the results of [my] endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needsʼ (Atkinson, 2011: 30). It is worth considering: does this new role satisfy me as a designer? I think so; by supporting and influencing the work of amateurs, my efforts can have a far greater impact than would be possible when making by myself.
Jones (1991: 205) describes this new role (as adopted by a designer of his acquaintance) in a particularly engaging way: ʻhis role, once heʼd given up part of the design function to his clients, became, as he said, that of professional encourager.ʼ
'Professional encourager' - nice, huh? OK, so now for the idea of the 'hyper-amateur maker':
In this mode, I try out the same tasks as other amateurs, working with items from my own wardrobe – but consciously permit myself to spend more time and energy, and to work with more ambition and courage, than they might feel is possible or desirable. This ʻhyperʼ approach enables me to push the boundaries of my ideas, identify problems and opportunities, and create examples that will, it is hoped, inspire others.
In my last thesis-related post, I discussed identity construction in relation to fashion. I used the same idea to reflect on my own identity:
My identity as a designer-maker has been partially dependent on distinguishing myself from amateur knitters. Like other ʻstudio craftʼ practitioners, I have used the validation of institutions such as ʻthe museum, the media, and the marketplaceʼ (Stevens, 2011: 44) in the construction of my identity.
However, I have become uncomfortable with engaging with a hierarchy that implicitly denigrates amateur activity. Knitting has evolved over centuries of activity by ʻuntrainedʼ amateurs (usually women), via communal evolution and the contributions of talented individuals, who would be recognised in their own communities but are now forgotten. When I design and knit, I am benefitting from the effort of these people, and it feels disrespectful to deny this relationship.
So, my identity now comprises three strands: designer-maker, metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. I feel that these roles allow me to sidestep the studio craft/amateur craft hierarchy and instead simply enjoy collaborating with other knitters. They allow me to explore design at a 'meta' level and at garment level, and to experiment with making at different scales, from individual stitches to complex systems.
Atkinson, P. (2011) Orchestral manoeuvres in design. In: B. van Abel, L. Evers, R. Klaassen, & P. Troxler eds. Open design now: why design cannot remain exclusive. Amsterdam, BIS Publishers, pp.24–31. [available online here]
Jones, J.C. (1991) Continuous Design and Redesign. In: J. C. Jones ed. Designing Designing. London, Architecture Design & Technology Press, pp.190–216.
Stevens, D. (2011) Validity is in the eye of the beholder: mapping craft communities of practice. In: M. E. Buszek ed. Extra/ordinary: craft and contemporary art. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, pp.43–58.
von Busch, O. (2009) Fashion-able. Gothenburg, Camino. [hard copy and pdf version available here]
It's time to pull another strand from my PhD thesis: the relationship between fashion and consumption. Yes, it's a big one! Here, I'll just try to summarise the issues...
Fletcher and Grose (2008: 1) call for ʻfashion that helps us flourishʼ. They describe how the rich culture of fashion helps us to meet our human needs for identity and participation, and argue that celebrating this positive role of fashion could improve individual well-being and allow new opportunities for sustainability to emerge.
As I went on to explain, this idea is inspiring, but not straightforward:
So - I'm interested in challenging the link between fashion and consumption, whilst celebrating fashion as a means of identity construction (what Breward and Evans call 'the fabrication of the self'). Identity construction is a key idea in my thesis:
In traditional cultures, identities are stable; for example, ʻin nineteenth-century industrializing societies, social class affiliation was one of the most salient aspects of a personʼs identityʼ (Crane, 2000: 4). We now live in a post-traditional world, and identities are less stable; in this context, we have multiple identities and the self becomes an evolving, reflexive project (Giddens, 1991).
One way in which we construct our identity is through our possessions (Belk, 1988). Because leisure and lifestyle, as opposed to work, religion and class, have become more important in constructing identity, ʻthe consumption of cultural goods, such as fashionable clothing, performs an increasingly important roleʼ (Crane, 2000: 11). Woodward (2007) describes the act of choosing what to wear as a practice of identity construction, and dressing as an act of ʻsurfacingʼ particular aspects of the self.
Shops provide us with an endless supply of new clothes, that we can use to construct our identities. However:
As Finkelstein (1991: 145) says, ʻif we are relying upon the properties of procured goods for our sense of identity, then we are compelled to procure again and againʼ.
This neatly summarises the link between the two processes of fashion, described above - a central challenge for sustainable fashion.
In my research, I found that an alternative means of identity construction was taking place, separate from consumption:
When we re-knit, we are able to mould our identity within a single garment, adding new meanings associated with the practice of making.
This project has provided some indications that alternative fashion practices – such as re-knitting – can provide the well-being benefits associated with fashion and meet our needs for identity and participation in ways which are not dependent on consumerism. While a fashion system revolving around these alternative practices would involve much less frequent consumption of new items, it need not be dull; as we have seen from the examples in this research, the process of re-knitting can intensify and energise the relationship between wearer and wardrobe.
Belk, R.W. (1988) Possessions and the extended self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (2), pp.139–168.
Breward, C. & Evans, C. (2005) Introduction. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.1–8.
Briggs, A. (2005) Response [to chapter 3]. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.79–81.
Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Finkelstein, J. (1991) The fashioned self. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2008) Fashion that helps us flourish. In: Changing the change: design, visions, proposals and tools proceedings. Turin, Italy, 10-12 July. [View pdf of full proceedings]
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Woodward, S. (2007) Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg.
I'm delighted to report that one week ago I submitted my PhD thesis for examination, entitled Folk fashion: amateur re-knitting as a strategy for sustainability.
It's really satisfying that several people have expressed a desire to read the thesis, and I'll make it available once the examination is over. However, in order to share my ideas in the meantime - and for those who might not have the time to read the full 250-page document (!) - I thought I would start to pull out some of the ideas as short(ish) blog posts.
For the first of these posts, I'm going to focus on the idea of 'folk fashion', a term that I only came up with a few months ago. In June, I saw a fantastic talk by Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records about the work of American folklorist Alan Lomax. I subsequently read The Man Who Recorded The World, a biography of Lomax by John Szwed - and was blown away by his passion and support for amateur, or homemade, music. So much of what Lomax said about homemade music in the mid-twentieth century can be translated to homemade clothes today, in terms of perceptions of status, originality, marginality, quality and aesthetics.
Here is a selection of edited excerpts from the thesis which explain a little more:
I have chosen to refer to the making and wearing of homemade clothes as ʻfolk fashionʼ; in doing so, I am linking the issues around homemade clothes with those relating to folk music. While some would define folk as either the music of the past or a commercialised style of popular music, I am using the approach of folklorists such as Alan Lomax, who see it as the music created by amateurs for their own entertainment and self-expression (Szwed, 2010). In the mid-twentieth century, Lomax was concerned that localised folk music cultures were ʻthreatened to be engulfed by the roar of our powerful society with its loudspeakers all turned in one directionʼ (quoted in Szwed, 2010: 274); I share similar concerns about folk fashion today.
Fashion depends on a broad, varied, vibrant resource [which I term the 'fashion commons']; new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. Dant (1999: 93) describes how fashion ʻacts as a living museumʼ and ʻplays promiscuously with the pastʼ. A direct parallel can be drawn with folk music: new forms emerge as cultural materials are reshaped and filtered through localised aesthetics (Szwed, 2010).
In terms of folk music, Alan Lomax saw ʻmusical diversity as akin to biodiversity; every song style that disappeared was potentially as serious a tragedy as the loss of a speciesʼ (Szwed, 2010: 390). This viewpoint resonates with the idea of cultural sustainability; I propose the same argument in terms of fashion. The impact of homogenised fast fashion on the material element of the fashion commons can already be seen, in the racks of identikit jerseywear in British charity shops.
In my experience, the desire for a ʻprofessionalʼ look is common amongst hand knitters. It suggests that makers are assessing their homemade items in comparison with the mass-manufactured garments in their wardrobes, and finding them lacking. If we look at folk music, we see the same phenomenon. Lomax (quoted in Szwed, 2010: 349) described how amateur folk singers were perceived in comparison with professional performers: ʻtheir more relaxed way of performing, which is sometimes taken for lack of accomplishment, is often simply a matter of another style and other standardsʼ.
I'm really excited about the idea of folk fashion, and exploring the parallels between amateur fashion making and amateur music-making further in the future...
Dant, T. (1999) Material culture in the social world: values, activities, lifestyles. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Szwed, J. (2010) The man who recorded the world. London: Arrow Books.
In a post on 31st December last year, I described how I was trying to write up my PhD thesis - and knit a companion cardigan - in 6 months. As I seem to be in the blogging groove right now, I thought I should report back on my progress.
Well, I haven't finished writing up, but I've made a good stab at it! I've done 6 chapters, totalling 58,000 words (not that I'm counting, or anything). I'm pacing the knitting with the writing, so - assuming I don't have to go back and significantly rework anything - the latest picture of the cardi gives a good indication of my progress towards completion.
I'm writing this just before embarking on the final major section, an analysis of all the interesting things that emerged during the Re-Knitting and Free Knitting project. I've already written two chapters about what we did, so this is my chance to pull out the less obvious findings.
Over the past few months, I've transcribed the many, many hours of workshop recordings, and summarised then to compress hundreds of pages of conversation about cardigans to a more manageable size. Now, I get to code - yay! - these summaries and pull out some of the fascinating strands.
And knit the second sleeve.
My new deadline (as it was all along, really) is to submit my thesis by the end of September. Here goes...
I felt it was time for a thesis update. I started writing up on 1st January, and I'm aiming to finish by 1st July. (That's a bit of a stretch goal, but it's how I roll.)
When I started, I made myself a colour-coded time plan for the first few months/chapters, the like of which has not been seen since GCSE revision days. I'm still on track, though I've fallen off the colour-coded bandwagon now. A few weeks ago, I decided I could jettison a whole chapter, and two weeks, from my plan - but then realised the same content would need to pop up in other chapters.
So, now I'm aiming to have the first four chapters finished by the end of March, or thereabouts. It's going well, as the structure of those chapters is firmly in place. It's just that the skeleton needs fleshing out in places, and to do this, I need to finish my transcription marathon and also hunt around for some references.
Today, I delighted myself by making a new diagram, showing the sessions in my research, the topics and activities covered, the chapters these topics/activities contribute to, and the research aims the chapters contribute to. It's helping me to think ahead to the later chapters, which I'll start in April.
Meanwhile, the thesis cardigan is coming along nicely. As my end of March deadline represents half of my writing time, and the first four chapters will take up half of the 80,000 words I have to write, I'm aiming to get half of the cardigan, aka the body, done by the same time. Here you can see it knitted up to the armhole... very satisfying.
As I mentioned in my last post, I started writing up my thesis on 1 January, and I'm aiming to finish by 1 July. I've got a strict timetable drawn up - and I'm pleased to say that I've managed to stick to it so far!
I've finished chapter 1 - an introduction to the epic themes behind my research (summarised by the word cloud above). I'm also keeping up with my thesis cardigan (as explained in my last post) - here, you can see it after the chapter 1 welt section.
I've just started on chapter 2 - a review of fashion theory literature, with some 'vignettes' from my own data woven in - and commenced the next bit of my cardi.
Progress report in two weeks!
Tomorrow is a big day. I'm going to start writing my PhD thesis, and I am aiming to finish by 1st July - giving me six months. Parts of the thesis are already written in draft, but there's lots of editing and reworking to do, as well as writing large swathes of it from scratch. Those will be the most fun, as they're based on the data from my research knitting workshops that I've been running since September.
To help give me a sense of progress as I write, I'm going to knit a cardi at the same time. Each section of the cardi will link to a chapter - so I'll be starting with the welt, aka the introduction! The cardi I'm knitting is testing/illustrating one of my re-knitting treatments: copy. I'm copying one of my very favourite cardis, a vintage handknit that I bought at the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena in 2005. It's a lovely shape - partly, I think, because it has no side seams. In preparation for knitting the cardi, I have copied the stitch pattern and knitted a number of samples to get the tension just right. I just need to wind my yarn (from cones into balls) and I'll be ready to start tomorrow.
Along with writing my thesis, I've got plenty of other exciting stuff planned for 2013 - mostly PhD-related. I'm organising an AHRC-funded skills development project on Creative Research Methods, in collaboration with David Gauntlett at University of Westminster. I'm giving papers at two conferences: Futurescan and Crafting the Future. And I'm writing a chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, edited by Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham.
In between all that, I'll be knitting orders, running workshops and blogging more often!
Looking back, 2012 has been a really good year. I've had work exhibited in WOW: Wonder of Wool and the Art of Knit and Stitch, and Made in the Middle, an exhibition of contemporary craft from across the Midlands. We had a successful summer tour with the Knitting Tent, I launched the new Keep & Share website (a long time in the planning), ran a great project with over-60s craft group Young at Heart with mac in Birmingham... and travelled across Europe by train to Moscow!