Thomas Knauer is back with his second post in a new series here on the blog: Sew,Papa,Sew! Find the first post here. We hope the series is springboard for discussion about gender and sewing, both in the world of sewing and at home. The images in this post are screenshots Thomas took when he did Google image searches for “fabric for girls,” “fabric for boys,” “fabric for women,” and “fabric for men.” Take a look, read about Thomas and his quilt guild and let us know what you think about how we see boys, girls, men, and women in relation to fabric and sewing. What do these images and experiences say about our expectations?
Learn more about Thomas and his work at Thomas Knauer Sews. Thomas launched his second and third fabric collections with Andover Fabrics, Flock and Savanna Bop. (We have Savanna Bop!) Savanna Bop Flannels arrive later this summer (just in time for cozy fall pajamas!), and a fourth collection, Frippery, is also set to debut.
I walked into my first meeting of the local quilt guild and I could feel the room change. A few heads were on a proverbial swivel, but most eyes just took a surreptitious glance. No one spoke to me; I nodded a few shy hellos, but conversation seemed to falter wherever I went. I found a seat and after a few minutes someone with an official-looking name badge came over to ask if I knew this was a quilt club meeting. When I replied in the affirmative, she shuffled back to report and I sat there in silence.
So, why am I telling this story? I think it illustrates how deeply ingrained our stereotypes about sewing really are, for me and for the women at the quilt guild. Let’s face it, men around here are anomalies; there aren’t a lot of us in the industry, and there aren’t a lot of us in the community at large. We all know the reasons: at some point in childhood boys and girls get treated differently, are expected to want different things; schools, the media, family, and life in general perpetually reinforce this. It is nobody’s and everybody’s fault.
Google Image Search: “Fabric for Girls”
That said, we do a lot around here to reinforce it too. When I walked into that guild meeting I was a man first and a quilter second. Actually, my being a quilter was in question. I’m sure I exuded awkwardness, which only exacerbated the situation. I am happy to say that by my second meeting that awkwardness was gone, but first impressions matter. I know that in the quilting world, I will often be a man first.
The industry has made that abundantly clear; in marketing conversations I regularly hear the phrase, “and then you’re a man, which helps.” It pains me every time, but the industry is often all about defining differences. Heck, I wouldn’t be here writing this if I weren’t a man.
Google Image Search: “Fabric for Boys”
For the most part gender assumptions present themselves in utterly benign ways, like at my first guild meeting. It is the nature of encountering something out of the norm. I do not believe people would want to work with me if the my efforts did not have merit. My gender is just a detail, but it is always there as part of the conversation.
That said, there are times when the divide does trouble me. At this past Quilt Market, while I attended various schoolhouse sessions, I noticed just how often gender stereotypes are bandied about. Far too often I heard the phrase, “You know what we’re like, ladies,” which left me doubly troubled: are all women alike? Are men not allowed to be like that? It seemed a concept so casually used, so ingrained as to be taken as an assumption: yes indeed, we do all know what we are like.
The parallel phrase was also used regularly: “You know what guys are like.” Again, lumping all men together, and positing them as inherently different than women. Women like color and design, are attuned to details, love beautiful things while men are essentially clueless; they need to be educated and changed. Since men don’t always like what the women in their lives like (primarily due to a lifetime of being expected not to) they are cast as ignorant, as not liking the “right” things.
Google Image Search: “Fabric for Men”
Of course we all know the differences between men and women: women like shopping, pretty stuff, fine work and all things natural. They are nurturing, caring and compassionate. Men are tough and solid, they don’t care about design and fear color, they like machines and explosions and action. Men are never contemplative or soft.
And of course all of this is crap.
But unfortunately that is still largely how we operate here in the sewing world. We make fabric for girls, and occasionally for boys, and they are resolutely different. They reinforce the stereotypes that so many of us abhor. When we talk about sewing for men it is as though we are trying to learn a new language– invent something entirely unheard of– because they probably won’t like the same things women like.
I love Parson Grey. I’m not sure if I will ever use David’s fabric, but that doesn’t matter. The fabric isn’t about being fabric for men, but it responds to the lifetime of color conditioning men go through; it accepts it and then pushes those boundaries. It isn’t fabric for men; it is just good fabric that happens to be readily usable in projects for men.
But even that is only a single approach. Some men love color and others don’t. Sewing for men is like sewing for anyone– Learn what they like and sew for them, not for yourself, and hope that they like it. It is that easy, and that is the way we can really begin moving past the stereotypes. It isn’t about ignoring difference; instead it is about recognizing the real differences and commonalities. Listening to our loved ones and moving past the expectations. Our sewing lives, whether we are men or women, are full of endless rich details and we need to learn from them.
Google Image Search: “Fabric for Women”
For my daughter Bee my sewing is perfectly ordinary, though I know it is unusual in the larger world. Some day she is going to realize that, and that is okay. The trick is to keep her from accepting the stereotype, to ensure that it, and I, never become strange. In fact, I think that is the task facing all of us: to move beyond those first impressions and cursory assumptions to the things that bring us all together through our craft. That applies to us as a community, but also extends to the people we sew for.
I no longer feel awkward visiting a new guild or checking out a new quilt shop, but that is because I’ve now had a lot of practice. I’ve been lucky enough to be given lots of opportunities to unlearn a lot of my assumptions. And that’s what it takes: practice. Habits are hard to unlearn, which is why I hope Bee somehow never picks them up.
What are your thoughts? What you think about how we see boys, girls, men, and women in relation to fabric and/or sewing? How are you influenced by cultural stereotypes? What do these images and your experiences make you think about in relation to sewing?