Modern Penelopes: Crafting as an Act of Self-Care

Engraving of a Greek red-figure pottery (skyphos) portraying Penelope and Telemachus, 5th Century BC.

Engraving of a Greek red-figure pottery (skyphos) portraying Penelope and Telemachus, 5th Century BC.

When I sat down and decided to write about crafting and what it meant to me, a memory came to my mind. It was five years ago, and I was on holiday with my friends in the countryside. Three of us were girls and could generally be found gathered in the garden in the afternoon, to read and to knit. One of their boyfriends came to us one day and snorted at the sight. “A hundred years of feminism just to have you ladies knit it all away?” Out loud, I replied that the point of feminism was precisely that we shouldn’t have to justify our hobby to a man, and silently I cursed him. Needless to say, I was not heartbroken when my friend broke up with him a few weeks later. However, this incident got me thinking. I knew, of course, that crafting in general and needlework in particular did not have a sparkling reputation. The trope is used and abused in historical YA novels: before her journey begins, the female protagonist is terrible at her mandatory needle work and is made to suffer by being kept inside with her peers, when what she truly longs for is to be outside, to learn to fight, and to finally leave behind the feminine qualities associated with any form of textile art. What could be so wrong about these qualities, (I wondered as I was refraining from stabbing my friend’s boyfriend with my needle) and what were they exactly?

To answer this question, art history came to my rescue, as it often does, and more specifically the representation of Homer’s Penelope in art, a patron saint for crafters all around the world if there ever was one. There have been dozens of representations of Penelope through the ages, from the Italian painter Francesco Primaticcio in the sixteenth century to Jules Cavelier in the nineteenth century. However, I think the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle depicted Penelope best when he represented her as a sturdy presence, akin to a Doric column. Through her weaving, she embodies the very notions of patience, care, and resilience – and my point is that these qualities should not be dismissed as un-feminist, but, in fact, celebrated as such.

The patience any form of craft requires is closely linked to the relaxation it can provide, and I would strongly suggest trying knitting to anyone who, like me, was keen on taking up meditation but found it hard to keep themselves from thinking long enough to actually do it. As academic and personal pressure runs high, my anxiety preys on me when I am most exhausted, manifesting itself as a spiral of dark thoughts that I can not seem to be able to keep at bay. I tried turning to meditation for a long time but could not find much relief there. A friend tried explaining how to properly do it – the idea was not, as I had imagined, to stop yourself from thinking completely, but, according to her, to let the thoughts pass through your mind like bubbles in a pot of boiling water, without trying to hold on to them. Unfortunately, although I did feel as though I was perpetually sitting in a pot of boiling water made of deadlines and insufficient productivity, I did not seem to be able to let go of my worries.


Then I took on knitting, and although it did not magically turn me into a zen master – if you feel like your anxiety is getting out of control and if your current situation allows it, you should absolutely get professional help – it did help a lot. Knitting, like adult coloring, engages us in a gentle and repetitive pattern, which does help me control my stream of thoughts. Be aware, though: when you associate needlework – knitting, crocheting, embroidering – to appeasement and stress relief, it can become seriously addictive. When academic pressure was at its worst last year, I couldn't go anywhere without a knitting project. I knitted in coffee shops, at the library, or (discretely) during classes. It was the only way for me to truly focus on what was happening around me and stay in the moment. The yarn was my Ariadne’s thread, if you will.

Doing something with one’s hands can also help dealing with any form of anxiety linked to the pressure or concept of productivity. We live in a society that tells us that we should be doing something useful at all times –  we should be working, studying, exercising, volunteering, cleaning our spaces, cleaning our bodies, and when we’re done… But we’ll never be done. Constantly embedded into a net of obligations that drains us of our mental and physical energy, we habitually repress our needs and forget that the only true way to recharge is to allow ourselves to rest. Crafting helped me shield myself against the guilt I was inevitably feeling whenever I tried to relax. Surely I could watch another episode of the Americans – I was not wasting my time since I was simultaneously  hand-making a friend’s birthday present. In that sense, crafting can be understood as a form of resistance to consumerism — not because material is free, or even always cheap, but because it demands that we re-think our relation to time. A hand-made product will take me months, but when it is done, it will be enriched by delayed gratification.

There is a side effect to my craft-frenzy: I want to dedicate all this time and effort to the people who are helping me through trying times. The only problem is that I am a very mediocre crafter. In fact, the first project I ever did was an embroidered tee-shirt for a friend of mine, intended to be a good luck charm for his exams. I had never embroidered anything before – but how difficult could it be? More than I thought, as it turned out. The shirt was a size too small, and the handmade motif, quite frankly, horrendous – yet my friend thanked me and wore it. I could tell that if he was ready to be seen in public and in broad daylight with the ugliest shirt on earth for my sake, I had a true friend in him. That warmed my heart more than I could say.

This is perhaps the most useful thing I learned by taking crafting as a hobby: there is power in taking pleasure in something we’re not necessarily good at. We, perhaps more than any generation before us, are constantly subjected to the accomplishments of others. This is inspiring, and can be overwhelming too — but by putting the process first, and the result second, I was creating a space for myself to breathe, a place where I could tame failure, because there was no stakes whatsoever. Allowing myself to be bad was a form of liberation.  

This leads me to my last consideration: Needlework is not only a form of art sustaining creativity. It also provides a sense of community that is closely linked to the way women have been engaging with one another for centuries. Vivian Gornick recalls her childhood in 1940s’ New York and her fascination for her neighbor’s dexterity at making lace in her wonderful memoir Fierce Attachments:  

If I counted the hours I sat at the kitchen table while Nellie made lace, they would add up to a good two or three years. I was usually there in the late afternoon, and often in the evening after supper. She worked at the lace and I watched the movement of her hook, and we fell into a way of being together. She would fantasize out loud as she worked, and I would listen, actively, to her fantasizing.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…”  was her ritual beginning. From this sentence she would spin out a tale of rescue involving love or money as easily as she unwound the silky thread from around her fingers. 

Although many centuries, and an entire ocean separate these two women, this description immediately made me think about the Queen of Ithaca and the shroud she endlessly weaves for her absent husband. Penelope is not the most popular mythological figure these days –  she does not have the rebellious streak of Antigone, nor the morbid grace of Persephone. Yet she is a fascinating character in her own right, in many ways as cunning as Odysseus. Like her husband, she subverts the system from within, and the weaving loom is intrinsically linked to the web of lies she tells her suitors. Assisted by the close circle of her handmaids, she could also be addressed as “the Great Teller of Tales”. This sense of solidarity and community found through domestic work is wonderfully depicted in Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, a retelling of events from The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

This subversion of the notion of docility, too often associated with knitting, sewing, and possibly every other textile-based work, can also be found in art. The French artist Annette Messager has, for instance, dedicated a series of embroideries to misogynist proverbs she heard around the world. Her work, adding up to thousands of other artists around the world, from Sheila Hicks and her monumental textile walls to Yayoi Kusama and her stunning installations, has helped slowly change the mentalities, and has lead the (mostly male) critics to finally accept textile creation as an art form in its own right.

It’s high time that we, crafters around the world, demand the same respect.

Milena Le Fouillé is an art historian based in Paris, France, with a specialty in nineteenth and twentieth century art and a strong taste for mythology, fairy tales and legends. She's probably hiding in a museum's cafeteria right now, reading a novel when she really should be working.