Make & Hue

Made by Anonymous

Photography by Joanne Seiff, Annie Spratt, & Brigida Lourenco

Sitting by my sewing machine, there’s a white and green thick cotton ticking. That absorbent fabric is waiting to become napkins. My knitting bag always includes somebody’s mittens, waiting to be knit or mended. In my sewing basket, there are a lot of labels reading “Handmade by Joanne” or “Handmade by Mommy,” but they go mostly unused. When we make things today, many of us want to label everything. But, what does the label stand for? How does it contrast with the choice to label nothing at all?

Historically, if you wanted new clothing, you had to make it yourself. Our (mostly female) ancestors created millions of handmade garments and items for their households but rarely signed their work. Many of them couldn’t sign their work as they weren’t able to read or write. This didn’t mean our foremothers weren’t creative, intelligent individuals. They could knit sweaters, smock dresses, mend their linens, grow and cook thousands of meals, but they likely didn’t have a formal education. This wasn’t rare. Although one of my maternal great-grandmothers ran a chicken farm, grew a big garden, spoke several languages, and fed a dozen people during the Depression in the US, my mom told me once she suspected that while my great grandmother knew business and her arithmetic, she might not have been literate… in any language.

As women from more wealthy families gained access to education and higher status, they continued to do needlework. Embroidered samplers and outfitted wedding dowries were often labelled with initials, full names, and more. We can date these pieces if we have a knowledge of textile cultural trends and genealogical records… for instance, a bright colour might show the use of a chemical dye process as compared to a natural dye. We can place those family initials as belonging to the late 19th century or later, depending upon when the industrial age arrived in their region.

What distinguishes these kinds of labelled traditional handwork from the “anonymous” variety? There’s no one answer about why and how we label our work. It’s a complicated brew: culture, wealth, class, education, and even the development of our individualistic society all come into play.

For instance, some religious or cultural traditions encourage submission or humility. In those cases, it might be considered prideful to boast by putting your name on fine handwork.

Time matters, too. If you were financially well off, you had moments to embroider a fancy signature on your crewelwork… but if your family’s working class livelihood depends on knitting and selling stockings every week, as it did for many, there was no time to add identifiers.

Some young women were taught fine needlework skills as part of an upper-class education, and they signed their work to demonstrate their skills. Others’ fine skills were part of religious educational training, such as the nuns who created painstaking and time-consuming lacework. While a convent’s lace patterns became well-known, the individual nuns’ work usually didn’t.

Today, most of us don’t rely exclusively on handmade garments to get dressed every morning. We’re unlikely to spend a fortune on handmade lace embellishments. For those of us who define ourselves as makers, we also choose our own “traditions” in labelling. There are pros and cons to each position.

Some feel that each 21st-century creation should be clearly labelled. This way, our handmade signature can identify us – as one with a perfectly tailored project or one with mistakes on the wrong side. It’s a stamp of couture effort that shows it is “as good as store bought” instead of homemade. It‘s a sign of who you are and where you come from. Many of our parents and grandparents were proud to be part of a society where they were educated and middle class enough to make beautiful things because they wanted to, not because it was necessary.

In contrast, “made by anonymous” also has many positive attributes. Hearkening back to a time when everything was handmade, it might mean we can live with mistakes in our creations while submitting them to hard use. Also, skipping the label shows it didn’t come from a factory.

As a maker, I mostly abide by the unsigned tradition. Creating my work anonymously connects me to that long tradition of the mothers who have come before me.

I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, “the wrong side of textile work should look as tidy as the side presented to the world.”

Yet, I try not to make my hand knit or hand-sewn pieces become overly precious. Instead, my family wears and uses them until they wear out and end up in the mending pile for re-use!

However, it’s fair to say I straddle the fence on this. Even if I don’t put my name on everything, I’m also a knitwear designer. I cherish the value of my creations as intellectual property. My kids are probably the only ones out there sporting sweaters with two sizes of infinity signs or white sheep with black horns on an orange background. Like the old village tradition, if heaven forbid, I had to identify a family member who drowned while fishing, it would be easy to do it with my sweater knitting. Everything I make has the stamps of my quirky style even if it seems anonymous to the uninitiated without a label.

Knitting reflects our personality, style, traditions, and skills far beyond the label or signature. It’s our chance both to connect with the handmade past and to embrace a 21st-century maker-ist future. &

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