Racism in the fibre community

I’ve been a bit quiet of late and there are a number of reasons why. First and foremost 2 weeks ago one of my very elderly parents was rushed into hospital. Thankfully they’re now recovering but obviously they had to take priority over everything else including me. 

I say this not to gain sympathy although I’m truly very grateful for all the supportive DMs and comments I’ve had wishing both them and me well. It’s because I am their primary carer. That is my job.

As a result of this I’ve had a lot of catching up to do which is why I’ve only just watched THAT video on YouTube. I have no plans to link to it from here as it currently stands at over 42,000 views and I’m certainly not going to create a link that drives more traffic to it. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to you’ll need to do some work of your own by using the #notthesilentmajority #racisminknitting hashtags on Instagram, you’re sure to come to it). To be honest there’s already been so much said about it and her that I don’t think I can add to it, particularly since I’m playing catch up again. That said there are a couple of things she said that I wanted to pick up on. 

‘an intense social justice issue that started infiltrating Instagram’

Firstly this phrased was used to describe the current discussions about racism in the knitting community. They’ve certainly gained traction in the last few weeks as more and more people of colour (*POC) recount and relive painful and humiliating experiences. Many of them left me open mouthed, appalled and bloody angry though I really shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been fortunate to have had very few experiences of racism in the fibre world aside from being asked for ’n*gger brown wool for a golliwog’s hair’ (said as the customer looked up at my hair for reference) while working for Rowan as an instore Design Consultant.

Outside the fibre world I’ve had numerous experiences both subtle ‘oh your English is very good’ or ‘is it hot where you come from?’ (what, East London?) and more blatant – being called the ‘N word’ on the streets in Kent just a few years ago. Like fellow POC or anyone who has to deal with racism and discrimination let me just tell you.

Those experiences were very real for me and should I choose to talk about them no one is going to tell me that I shouldn’t. Or that talking about racism is, in itself racist. It isn’t!

Those experiences continue to be real for POC who are still being discriminated against and it will always be their/our right to talk about what they/we have experienced. They/we need to be heard and acknowledged for proper, intelligent, productive conversations to take place in order to change the fibre world into one that reflects all the people in it – minority and majority. Not just the ones who are perceived to be ‘the majority’.

As you can imagine here in the UK race isn’t a subject that’s often discussed publicly and to be honest I’ve never spoken about racism so openly and frequently before. But, as I’m no academic authority on the subject when I do, it’s as a black designer speaking purely from personal experience. So, if I’m going to do justice to my role as Keynote Speaker at this September’s Perth Festival of Yarn I’ve got a lot of reading to do. *see below

For anyone in any doubt as to whether there is racism in the knitting community. Yes, there is. Have a look at some of the experiences poc have had on @su.krita’s Instagram feed here.

Still in doubt? Well, why wouldn’t there be racism in the fibre community? It’s made up of human beings and whilst some are good, some are real shits. There are those who believe that inclusion matters. That EVERYONE is represented regardless of colour, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical ability or body shape while others only want to be part of a community where everyone looks and thinks like them. 

The ongoing IG discussion shows that it’s just not good enough to say that it shouldn’t be discussed in the knitting community because ‘it’s full of lovely fluffy stuff’ and we’re all just here to knit. Well we are here to knit but when people (including me) are:

  • asked for ’n*gger brown’ wool (I’ve never used someone’s skin tone as a colour reference)
  • asked if that’s how they knit ‘where you come from?’ (again, East London?)
  • constantly followed around yarn shops (well you know how ‘they’ steal)
  • instantly shown the cheaper yarns (because they’re assumed to be too inexperienced to be using better, more expensive yarns)
  • ignored in a yarn shop (until they spent a huge amount of money)

 they / we’re entitled to share their / our experiences of racism in the knitting community because that’s where they happened.

There are many voices calling for magazine and book publishers, yarn companies and festival organisers to do better and make changes. Mine is certainly amongst them and I’m very glad to see announcements by some major names admitting that they have fallen short and need to to better. I’m not sure however that every individual silence represents a racist and I’ll no doubt get some grief for saying so. I’ve had lengthy phone conversations in the last week with two friends one of whom is black, the other white. The black friend (let’s call her AB) has spoken out about her experiences of racism and received aggressive and critical messages for doing so whilst the white friend (let’s call her CD) is concerned about saying the wrong thing but in staying quiet realises she’s perceived as part of the silent (racist) majority. The ‘silent majority’ is the second reference from THAT video that I wanted t pick up on due to its sinister connotations. 

Racism isn’t a one sided issue and there needs to be room for discussion to allow people to examine both themselves and their behaviour in order to effect real change. As a fibre community we need to see more representation of POC teachers and vendors at fibre festivals and more indie dyed yarns and designs created by POC in the knitting and crochet publications we see on our shelves. Seeing yourself represented means that you are welcomed as part of that community. Some brands are doing the work now and currently implementing changes while others are just ignoring the issue in the hope that the talk will die down and those of us who have been banging on about this will simply go away. We won’t. 

I’ll be continuing to highlight and promote the work of POC Designers and Crafters in the fibre community….. so it looks like I’ll be talking about it for the foreseeable future. 

J x

*I am aware of the acronym for black & indigenous people of colour – BIPOC and as I do more reading to educate myself I may revise my use of POC but for now it represents people of colour in the broadest sense.

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Black people do knit & the diversknitty conversation

 

Knitting 187 cover

In this month’s issue of Knitting Magazine I’ve written an article entitled Black People Do Knit’. You can read the full article in the magazine following the links at the foot of this post so I won’t go into detail here but given the limited space available in print I felt I needed to add to it with a blog post…which may be long so prepare yourself. 

At this point I’d like to name check a couple of people who have been championing diversity and representation (in some cases long) before I joined the party so if you haven’t heard of them before or checked out their blogs then please do:

Lorna Hamilton Brown is an artist, designer, researcher, educator, highly experienced hand & machine knitter and all round knitting evangelist who wrote an MA dissertation entitled ‘Myth: Black People Don’t Knit the importance of art and oral histories fo documenting the experiences of black knitters. Lorna is an incredibly warm, passionate woman and having become friends she’s really opened my eyes to the lack of representation in the craft / yarn industry and in fact it was her that first started using the #blackpeopledoknit hashtag. I’ve posted about Lorna’s work before here  but you can find out more about her work on her website www.lornahamiltonbrown.com

Diane Ivey is an indie dyer, craftivist, blogger and the creative force behind Lady Dye Yarns based in Boston, USA. Having started her business back in 2015 she found herself one of only a few black yarnies at events like Vogue Knitting Live and has been challenging the lack of diversity through podcasts on her blog. Check them out here and whilst you’re on her website also check out her yarns…you may need sunglasses though, that woman knows the meaning of saturation and as someone who goes weak at the knees for a bright colour I’ve been drooling over them from first sight. www.ladydyeyarns.com

Monica Rodriguez lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA and started her Knits All Folks! website just last year for ‘knitters, crocheters, the yarn obsessed, and crafters who wanted to talk pop culture, community diversity, and fabulous patterns’. The website’s name comes from her husband’s nickname for her and as well as loving the humour of it I love the fact that it encourages inclusion. As part of this each month Monica explores diversity through her Variegated Yarn Tales interviews designers, yarn shop owners, knitters, crocheters, podcasters, indie dyers in fact all disciplines from every spectrum of our crafting community. Find out more on the website www.knitsallfolks.com

Nathan Taylor aka Sockmatician is a sock knitting guru, podcaster, designer, teacher, double knitting expert and musical theatre actor who first came up with the #diversknitty hashtag over on Instagram. Nathan felt that he wanted to open his IG feed up to a more diverse representation of the crafting industry and given his unstoppable need to marry words together came up with the term diversknitty to encourage knitters to connect with him regardless of colour, race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, physical ability or level of skill. Find out more about him and his work, including his new book Guys Knit over on his website www.sockmatician.com

So back to the article itself, why write it at all? Well there are those who will say that conversations like this are unnecessary and that bringing race or skin colour into knitting and craft is being divisive or perhaps even ‘political correctness gone mad’. To those people I would ask them to imagine not seeing the themselves represented on the pages of the magazines and publications they read and thinking how that would make them feel. Unwelcome? Invisible? In some way ‘less than’?…. 

I started knitting as a child of seven and was taught by my West Indian mother who learnt when she came to the UK in the late 1950s and throughout my childhood she’d knit, sew and crochet with a high level of skill. Whilst studying textile design at Art College it was apparent that I was the only black student specialising in knit but it never occurred to me that this was because black people don’t knit, after all I did and so did Mum. And, as a black knitter I’ve never felt that I didn’t ‘fit in’ or felt discouraged from working as a knitwear designer. However something that the IG discussion has thrown up and that I also took from Lorna’s dissertation is that representation is very important. I grew up in the 1970’s in a household where my mother was a crafter but I don’t remember ever seeing one picture of a black person knitting or crocheting in any textbook or painting. As a child this wouldn’t have discouraged me from taking it up as a hobby but I’m bloody stubborn and had it not been for Mum, it certainly wouldn’t have encouraged me.  

During the 14 years I lived in Scotland which has a rich knitting tradition I never found that people were surprised that as a black person I could and did knit. In fact there was much more comment about the way that I knitted – I’m a sort of Continental knitter who throws rather than picks. There no one every said to me ‘oh black people don’t knit’. In that time though I do remember the British designer Ann Kingstone once remarking whilst we were at a yarn event that I was probably the only black hand knitwear designer she knew of working in the craft industry. To be honest this was over 10 years ago and at the time I was neither offended or surprised at her comment. (Just to put this into context Anne, as well as being a genuinely lovely person, is a white designer who has used black models to showcase her work for a number of years). Apart from US designer Shirley Paden I also found it difficult to name another black designer working in the UK or abroad. 

Thankfully things have changed quite a bit in the past decade….or so I thought. I recently posed a couple of questions through my Instagram account (@jeanettesloan) asking how many black knitwear and crochet designers people could name.

Initially the response in terms of names was pretty slow but once it gained a bit of traction the response to the post itself was pretty overwhelming. Obviously no one had asked the question before and a lot of black or non white knitters were glad that at last it had been voiced.  There was a mix of both pattern based and product based designers but what really struck me was that the vast majority of them were based outside of the UK. So in some ways things have changed, but in others we have a long way to go. 

Another thing that came up during the online discussion was how a number of black knitters found that they were treated badly in yarn shops by owners who subscribed to the idea that black people don’t / can’t knit and so weren’t serious customers and not worth engaging with.  (Check out Gaye Glasspie’s brilliant ‘Dear Yarn shop owner post’ here). As a black former yarn shop owner in the very white city of Edinburgh I never prejudged a potential customer based on whether they knitted or crocheted. Or their skin colour or skill level. Everyone was welcome.

I’m fortunate that as a knitwear designer and yarn customer I’ve never felt that my work wasn’t taken seriously or that my hard earned cash wasn’t as good as the next customer’s because I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know what I was buying. It’s important that every knitter deserves to feel like that. 

So what have I’ve learned from the #blackpeopledontknit discussion?

Firstly, and obviously saying ‘black people don’t knit’ it just isn’t true. There are a lot more of us black knitters out there than you may think. What the IG conversation proved was that actually there are thousands of black and non white knitters out there although this isn’t reflected in most of the major knitting publications we see on in print or online. This started out specifically as a conversation about black knitters and I’ve chosen to use my voice as a black woman who knits and designs to speak out about my experiences. But, as was mentioned in the comments on IG there are Asian people that knit too so in the article I started to use the acronym ‘POC’ for people of colour which seemed more fitting in terms of both defining and capturing the spirit of #diversknitty. 

Secondly representation of those non white crafters is essential. We need to see ourselves in the magazines and books that we buy not only as designers, writers and models but as indie dyers, spinners, photographers, publishers and tech editors too. 

Lastly in my IG post I invited people to comment with the names of black knitwear and crochet designers and I’ve found there’s definitely a demand for some kind of database or resources where knitters of all colours can find their work. I’ll be adding what I have so far to this  blog, probably as a new page. So watch out for an post before the week is out. 

What we need to be both mindful and careful of is not to see this discussion as a reason to be divisive or exclusive. It’s about being inclusive and encourage the truly huge knitting community to represent everyone regardless of their gender, sexuality, physical ability or colour. You can join in the conversation over on Instagram by using the hashtags below or just leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you

#knitterofcolour

#blackpeopledoknit

#blackknittersofinstagram

#blackyarndyersofinstagram

#blackcrocheters

#diversknitty

Link to print edition here

Link to digital edition here

Link to subscribe here

J x