Knitting as a subculture

Karie Westermann fills her blog with the sort of thoughtful writing that is rarely seen on knitting blogs, and her most recent post has given me more than usual to chew on. Enough to actually bring my own blog out of hibernation and write my own thoughts in response.
I’d recommend reading the original post in full, because it’s good, but in short: she expresses concern that the indie craft world is becoming a commercialised, ‘aspirational’ and therefore exclusionary lifestyle; a precisely marketed consumer product masquerading as values; a shabby-chic wasteland devoid of diversity and creativity. (These are my words, not hers!)
Well, it’s not an unreasonable concern, especially for someone like Karie, who makes a living from that world. I don’t, by the way. I just do things for attention.
Personally I’m inclined to see knitting as a subculture, and subcultures always tend towards monetisation and caricature with each successive wave of adopters. That sounds terribly cynical of me doesn’t it? Bear with me, I get worse.
Meta-analysis of subcultures is a tricky thing to pin down, but if we limit it to modern aesthetic movements, then very roughly speaking they rise and fall in similar ways to fashion trends, only over a slightly longer period of time. Mea culpa, I cannot remember where I read this, but it lodged in my brain nonetheless.
There are 4 waves of a ‘successful’ subculture:
1. Innovators. A loosely connected group of people start doing something original and new. They are underground, indie, and explicitly removing themselves from popular culture as they see it. They may not even see themselves as starting a subculture.
2. Establishment. People are attracted by the ideas of the first wave, take the ball and really run with it. They get creative within the original framework, build opportunities and gain power in numbers. A style and look, and even values, become associated with the subculture, and it starts to attract public attention.
3. Sell-outs. The next wave of adopters are attracted to the public perception i.e. the look of the subculture. They are sufficiently disconnected from the first wave to be a ripe marketing opportunity. With increasing publicity comes increasing monetisation, and why not? The larger a subculture the harder it becomes for an individual to get noticed, but larger companies can still profit.
4. Assimilation. The subculture becomes large enough to count as popular culture. Assimilation is not a given; plenty of subcultures just fade away. Either way, it’s no longer a place for individualists, who splinter off and begin another subculture.

So we’ve had the scrappy revolutionaries of Stitch ‘n’ Bitch and Knitty et al. Ravelry has grown to over 3 million members and spawned many self-made successes. Does that mean we’re past the age of creativity for indie knitting and into the third wave? Will the scene collapse under its own weight? Are we succumbing to entropy?
If this bothers you then congratulations, you’re probably part of the knitting subculture.
I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, but I am trying to get to a point. If this post has emotional weight for you, then I do think it’s worth putting consideration into what you bring to this subculture. Even if you think of yourself as tiny, just someone lurking on Ravelry and buying two patterns a year, you are still determining what sells, and who gets to build their modest little hobbies into a business. You don’t think you’re noticed? Just read Bristol Ivy’s Ravelry trend breakdowns. You are noticed.
In turn, you have a role in who else gets noticed, whose blogs get popular enough to attract sponsors and build sales. And this is definitely where the privilege Karie discusses starts to rear its head.

You live in a capitalist society which has determined some demographics to be more profitable and superior to others. Are you blindly reinforcing that? Now that’s an idea that gets some people upset.
“Jesus, I’m just trying to have a hobby here! What is this! Now I have to feel bad because I’m not retweeting enough LGBT knitters? Because my Pinterest boards aren’t ethnically diverse??”
Well maybe you should feel bad! I don’t know! But you are getting the subculture you are responding to.
Maybe in the coming years the indie knitting scene won’t be sustainable. Maybe it will fracture and new non-conformists will go off in unexpected ways and we will have to start all over again. And maybe I’m wrong, because I’m not a fortune-teller. But it is a culture of sorts, and culture is only the sum of individuals like you.
Where do you think we’re going? What changes do you want to see & do you think you can be part of those changes?

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4 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

4 responses to “Knitting as a subculture

  1. Something to toss into your meta-analysis blender: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/rice-and-beans-what-is-the-difference-between-private-and-public-culture/
    It’s a little sideways since it is discussing ethnicity rather than subculture, but is also trying to think through questions of identity, authenticity, and commodification.

  2. Phew! Some food for thought there.

  3. Elaine spinningsheepfeathers

    Why does everything have to be analyzed to death?!! Just knit and be happy.

  4. Pingback: Links: 05/29/15 — Pretty Terrible

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