Updated: Mar 3
In Sister’s Choice (1991), an albeit dated critical text, Elaine Showalter notes, “While the library was the austere space of the patriarchal intellect, the garden was a warm extension of the infant’s bond with the mother’s body, a space where thoughts did not have to be mustered, trained, and disciplined, but rather could wait and receive” (Showalter 30). I've thought about this statement a lot since I first read it many years ago, in part because I spent the bulk of my existence in libraries and in part because of my investment in studying the intersection of material culture and literature. I will admit that there's a part of me that continues to chafe against Showalter's characterization of the library as being a space of the patriarchy. Sure, yes, for a long period of time libraries and intellectual pursuits were the dominion of men and women were only admitted with sparing access if at all. And yes, even today, while women are becoming more and more prevalent among the population of the highly educated, work remains to be done and barriers need to be broken. I spent more than twenty years dealing with patriarchy and misogyny in academia , and when I left the rank and file of the university-employed in 2017, I honestly can't say that much headway had been made in terms of gender equality. That is, discrimination on the basis of sex continues in particularly disturbing ways. However, books were the place where I found strength. The place where I knew I could match wits with the supposed-best-of-them. The firm ground that helped build and shape me into the woman I am--one who is firm in her convictions, who values and appreciates intellectual pursuits and expertise, who will not allow anyone to diminish her accomplishments simply because they may feel intimidated or have a need to cling to their own slippery sense of entitlement. Yet, Showalter's description of the "garden" as a matriarchal space that lacked the austerity and sharp edges of the library where "domestic knowledge" was stored and disseminated does provide a useful avenue for thinking about our fiber life. Yes, I said it: our FIBER LIFE. Because, our fiber life is its own discourse community, its own intellectual circle. It has its own language (ever try to explain ssk or k1, p2 or hdc to someone?), its own shared body of knowledge (which fibers work best for particular projects, etc.), its own system of measurement (different yarn weights; various fiber blends and their effects on the resulting yarn), its own authority structures (certain designers, teachers, icons--hello, Elizabeth Zimmermann). And, we each have our own fiber library. I'm not just speaking about our pattern collection (some of us have binders, others a collection of pattern books, maybe we store everything on Ravelry, or maybe we stuff patterns into a folder or a bag somewhere). Rather, I'm thinking very specifically about our stash of yarn and fiber and our body of completed and half-completed fiber projects. In Nicole Dickson's novel Casting Off (2009), one of her characters has a room full of jumpers he made to commemorate different events and memories in his life. He had spun and dyed the yarn to match particular colors and emotions that he wanted to capture and then incorporated specific and intricate cables as metaphors for what he was trying to capture in each of the sweaters he knit. This was his library. I have both a book library and a fiber library. There are yarns in my stash that I acquired because the colors "spoke" to me, reminded me of a particular moment or emotion in my life. I have shawls I made because the pattern evoked a particular time of year or the color of the yarn made me think of some aspect of the natural world. For example, I had a skein of Nuthatch sock yarn from Sweet Sparrow Yarns that was dyed this gorgeous golden color with flecks of burgundy and chestnut brown that was called "Mabon." I used it to make a shawlette called "See You in September" which had little acorn details along the edging because the color reminded me of those early, warm, autumnal tones, and every time I see that shawlette, I'm reminded of that fact. Or, I once selected a deep forest green yarn to make a Pine Tree Blanket for a friend of mine who told me that he finds the smell of pine trees to be the best in the world. These are all parts of my fiber library, which isn't confined to a particular space or categorization system. Rather, it is both physical and transcendent. Its card catalog is in my own soul. It showcases the things I learned, the things I fudged, the things I tried in several different ways just because I could, the thoughts and feelings I had when I made them, the events when I last used them or gave them away. What a rich and intricate library it is! So, I wonder, what sorts of things make up your fiber library? Works Cited Dickson, Nicole. Casting Off. NY: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Showalter, Elaine. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.