In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In Bowling Alone, he explores the effect of the decline (collapse) of “social intercourse” or “social capital” on civic engagement and democracy. (The title comes from Putnam’s finding that more Americans are bowling, but they’re more likely to bowl alone - not in leagues.) This collapse/decline in the civic, social, political and associational life of Americans, Putnam argues, began in 1960.
Okay … I will stop before I start yammering about visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s take on Americans in 1830 and their propensity for forming associations. (One aside: deTocqueville described Michigan as the “utmost limits of European civilization.”)
What does this have to do with fiber? I couldn’t sleep the other night so grabbed some reading off the bookshelf – turned out to be Putnam’s 1995 article that led to the book. As I put it back on the shelf, one of my Piecework magazines slipped out. So the immediate connection was obvious, no?!
In some sense, fiber artists and crafters have isolated themselves or become isolated through no fault of their own. Before off-the-rack clothing became so cheap (thanks to the ability of U.S. manufactures to move their production facilities offshore into countries where they could pay workers pennies), most women were involved in – or at least knew about – the hand arts and crafts (sewing, knitting, crocheting, etc.). The number of LYS declined as the internet continued to blossom.
True, many fiber artists shop almost exclusively online and many fiber shops have lost ground to big box retail establishments. But are the fiber artists and crafters truly isolated? I’m not so sure they are – at least the ones that have internet access which gives them entry to the larger fiber universe. And sites like Ravelry certainly provide an “antidote” to the stereotype of the individual knitter rocking by the fire as she knits for her grandchildren and grandnieces.
Then, of course, there’s the actual LYSs – many of which are flourishing – which provide instant association and “social intercourse.” The other day I popped by my LYS, Artfibers. A group of customers were on their way out as I came in. I had just started chatting with the owner when I realized I had skipped lunch and better eat something before making serious fiber decisions. She suggested I go to a certain cafe where those knitters I just passed were headed. I dashed to the bistro, walked right up to the ladies and asked, “Are you the knitters from Artfibers and, if so, may I join you?” All lit right up and were pleased to have me join them.
Wow, and they were knitters with a capital K – and of course all were on Ravelry! Check out this Aeolian shawl knit by Linsky, one of the ladies at the table. One of the others in the group was almost finished knitting the same shawl, so I was able to see it on the needles. A few days later I was again at Artfibers, and there they were again! This time the incomplete shawl was now complete and blocked. Beautiful!!!!!
As it turned out, we had all planned on going to Stitches West in Santa Clara, California, so we will be carpooling!
In conclusion, maybe social scientists should take a peek at the people who make up the fiber universe. Can you imagine a new title: Crafting Alone: The Apex of Community?