You can tell this isn't a real TED talk because there aren't any pictures or videos. But here goes.
Do you ever feel binaried out? Like you spend your days following instructions – and it’s good, in a way, because the instructions work, so everything turns out okay, and you know you’re being efficient. But you’re not quite sure what you did. And all those instructions start to nag at you from time to time because you have a vague feeling that you don’t actually understand what you’re doing.
I crochet because I get binaried out a lot.
There is something wonderful in the process of taking readily available materials, using a fairly simple tool, knowing how to use that tool, and turning that material into a finished something that I can send out into the world to be useful, knowing that it will be useful in a quiet, sturdy, rich, individual way that is not exactly like anything else.
I can do this because I learned crafts as a child, learned from my mother, who practiced crafts, not for fun, but for usefulness. Starting early, enjoying the process, and keeping it as part of my life, I look at the materials (the yarn), think about needs to be met, and figure out a pleasing way that the yarn can be arranged to meet the need, even if it's only a dishcloth. This is totally cool.
The process of stitching is rich: When I’m stitching, I’m not eating. I’m also generally not shooting my mouth off, being rude to people, not being destructive to myself, to my environment, or to my society.
The process of stitching is soothing. It is a physical contemplation. Some say it is cheaper than therapy, although I haven’t seen scientific studies to compare the two to see how each scores on specific metrics. And it’s legal.
The process of stitching is an exercise that connects my thinking brain with my small-motor-skills hands, with my environment of materials and needs. Even further, it connects me with the people who use the things I make. A world of connectivity. Again, totally cool.
Much of this can be said for other crafts, so, why crochet?
On the one hand, consider other crafts. Crafts that have been around for a long time, thousands of years – like weaving, knitting, woodworking, ceramics – all have some things in common. They started out being incredibly useful for making things that made survival easier, at a reasonable cost. Then, each became industrialized, reduced to a set of steps. It is interesting to see how much of these crafts surround us in our everyday lives. Each also retained a basic level of one-off production, now seen as an artistic medium. Here is a spectrum of activity, from mass-production to individual artistic expression. And the two ends of the spectrum feed off each other. Mass-produced goods keep from getting too cheap because there is the balance that people can still make stuff for themselves. At the same time, people can look at mass-produced goods and say, “I could do that myself!” and are encouraged to learn the crafts.
Take knitting, for example: If there were a magic wand that could make disappear everything that was knitted, most of us would not have underwear. There would be no T-shirts, very little athletic wear. A lot the fabric in our lives would disappear. That’s how much a part of our identity knitting is. Yet, at the same time, knitting guilds celebrate hand-knitting, with members who knit for themselves, for family, for friends, and for charity.
The potential of this process, removed from embellishing fabric, to create fabric was wildly popular in the 1800s. There were suggestions that the servant class should not be allowed to crochet, to prevent them from having thoughts of accomplishment beyond their station. Husbands complained that their wives were neglecting their household duties because of it. Crochet could imitate cheaply and quickly intricate forms of lace-making that had been around for centuries, yet in a new way that let the stitcher undo mistakes and rework the fabric easily.
As a cottage industry, there may have been few barriers to entry: The lace crochet needle, or hook, was made by modifying a sewing needle and sticking it into a cork for a handle. The single hook, possibly made from a worn-out sewing needle (cheap to make), took the place of all the fancy equipment of other techniques.
Yarn hooks are bigger, for stitching with yarn, and presented a technical difficulty: Even though the hook seems simple, it probably took the Industrial Revolution to be able to manufacture them with the strength, consistent sizing, and a finish smooth enough to be useful.
Once crochet developed its own identity, people started trying to imitate weaving and knitting for all kinds of clothing and household fabrics. Without a long history, though, crochet as a serious craft was, and is, still in its infancy. We are still exploring what crochet is good for. Most of the crochet we see is about the stitches – pattern stitches, stitch texture, and how the textures interact with color. In a world where we can go out and buy anything we need, cheaply and disposably - which has been more and more true over the last 200 years – crochet has been limited to an artistic identity, to be a way to have fun, for the middle class, and also as a therapy (both physical and psychological) for mentally retarded people (that's the phrase we've used) or for soldiers suffering from shell shock, battle fatigue, or PTSD, as we call it now. The focus has never been particularly on the usefulness of the finished product.
We’re getting close to exploring the craft for what the fabric can do. Compared to knitting (with which crochet almost shares the most basic elements of yarnovers, pull-throughs, and inserts as the key elements), crochet makes a fabric that is textured and sturdy. Knitting, in comparison, makes a fabric that is lightweight and elastic. Put in a negative light, crochet makes a fabric that is thick and heavy, and knitting makes a fabric that is wimpy and thin. Focusing on the stitches – the textures – and the few materials associated with crochet, there hasn’t been much emphasis on the properties of the fabric and the wider range of possible materials.
The use of crochet by Margaret and Christine Wertheim in constructing artistic coral reefs is a step in a new direction. There’s a great TED talk about that from 2009.
Now, with so much of our lives and our work being impacted by big data and the efficiency of not only industry but automation and artificial intelligence, it’s easy to get binaried out. We have become very efficient at being efficient. One the one hand, efficiency has been seen as an unalloyed good: Industrial efficiency over the last hundred years has lifted the human population out of poverty, raised the global standard of living, to a degree never before seen. On the other hand, there have been costs, both to the environment and to the quality of our lives as workers. Lots of folks are working on the environmental bit, but I want to address the meaningful work bit here.
The nature of efficiency is to remove the human element from manufacturing or any other process. This can leave workers in a position where their work is dehumanizing – not meaningful work – and challenges them to search to regain their sense of humanity outside of work (if they have the time to do that). For some workers, there is comfort in the idea that the company they work for is doing really good work – but that is the company's, not the worker’s, work. What is strange is that while marketing sends us on a wild goose chase after happiness, the most efficient way for humans actually to realize that they are happy is by doing meaningful work: work that resonates, is useful, that involves understanding the methodology – the opposite of following instructions - and that is supported/appreciated by the group.
In this process of becoming more efficient through scaling up everything, we have managed to go from a society that asks, “Why spend good money buying something ready-made when you can make it better so easily at home?” to “Why waste your time trying to make something when you don’t know how and you can buy it so easily at the store?” We’ve gone from being problem-solver members of groups to being consumer individuals. And money - a man-made construct that does not exist in nature - is essentially the only socially acceptable problem-solving methodology, in addition to being a significant indicator of social status.
Granted, anything useful you can make in crochet, you can go out and buy, ready-made, efficiently produced, most likely from someplace outside the US, for less money, most likely by some method other than crochet. So why crochet anything useful?
Unlike knitting, crochet is not binary – it hasn’t been industrialized. It is complex at a basic level, with five basic stitches, compared to the one basic stitch in knitting. There is no crochet machine. Crochet is subversive that way. A human being crocheting is a lot like a 3-D printer making something. But just because a 3-D printer can make useful stuff, why should I hand over to a machine the most efficient way for me to be happy? Is the imperative for mass production worth the cost of our humanity?
Crocheting some of the stuff I use every day makes me feel good, empowered – I’m doing my little bit to reduce the impact of mass-production in my life. And there’s no machine that can replace what I am doing.
But there's an interesting thing beyond that: When lots of people do things for themselves, corporations start to notice – they may focus on some our improvements for their products so they can sell more, or at least retain market-share. When people don’t make the stuff they use, mass-producers can increase their own efficiency and reduce costs by simplifying what they make – which can make their products less useful for us. And if we aren’t making our own stuff, we don’t notice that the stuff we buy isn’t as useful as it could be.
Notice the effect of the slow-food movement on the food industry. Mass producers of food figured out that we crave salt, sugar, and fat – all of which are necessary, in small amounts, for survival. In large amounts, which is profitable for mass-production, these same ingredients are linked to obesity, cancer, and heart disease. As people realize how easy it is to grow and cook – and to understand how to grow and cook – nutritious food, mass-producers of food are now starting to make their own products more nutritious.
And to top all this off, when children learn problem-solving methodologies (through play, not just through following instructions) in the family (the natural basic unit of society), they take into adulthood the empowering understanding that there is probably a way to deal with other problems and needs they face in life. They understand to look for ways, rather than simply to hire someone else to do it for them.
Now, I can’t make all the stuff I need. But there’s a balance between mass production and individual production. If we all spend some of our time making some things that are useful - even if it is something as small and simple as a dishcloth - together we keep that lively balance going to make life better for everyone, with the side effect of being happy.