On girlie crafts, math, and science

Readers who follow me on Instagram may know that I collect quilts. In addition to being warm and delightfully practical, quilts are also beautiful, particularly in the case of handmade specimens. They require hundreds of hours of painstaking work to produce a work of art that is also a usable heirloom, and I like that sense of being a part of history, that my quilts will likely outlive me and go to a few lucky friends when I die, and that they, too, will sleep under them and lay them out on the grass to sit on while they watch the stars. While I like art, I especially love art that is also highly practical and usable, and I greatly value crafts and craftsmanship.

Quilting, and other textile arts, is a highly gendered art — the very word probably stirs up the image of a little old lady bent over her sewing machine, blue hair set in a tight halo around her head. Knitting, crochet, embroidery, weaving, and the like are all just sort of lumped together as ‘crafts,’ things that women do, things that are not art, things that also specifically involve soft, feminine, domestic skills.

Well let me tell you something about quilting.

Quilting actually involves a lot of math and science. There’s the science behind the textiles involved, between knowing which fabrics to pick, how to cut them, and how to handle them, because if you mess up, you can destroy your quilt. You need to have the math to map out a complex pattern correctly, because if you don’t, the mistake will be glaringly obvious. You need to have mechanical knowledge, to know not just how to thread and use a sewing machine, but how to maintain it, how to get it to do things that aren’t always obvious, how to fix it when something goes wrong — and yes, you can take it in for service, but you’re not going to do that for every little thing.

People in textile arts tend to have a lot of math and science skills, from chemistry for dyes to an understanding of the mathematical principles that underlie the aesthetics of quilts. It’s not just that they are physically skilled and can mechanically perform these tasks, but that they have a depth of knowledge and experience that’s formidable, and I say this as someone who is learning to sew. My learning disability — dyscalculia — is actually posing serious problems for me as I work on sewing projects, and things that crafters can figure out almost effortlessly require laborious and patient checking and double checking for me. (And sometimes a desperate text to an associate with a mangled explanation of what I am trying to do.)

First of all, crafts should be valued intrinsically, because they are art, period. Sometimes they result in practical art — quilts that can be used, pottery that can be drunk from, embroidery that will mark your garments as your own. Sometimes they don’t, and it is very much designed as display art. Either way, craft should be valued and treasured intrinsically for what it is. Why do we talk about quilts as ‘heirlooms’ rather than collected art pieces to be passed down through generations, for example? Why do speak of the paintings on my wall, which will also hopefully survive me, as ‘art’ and things I know people will take seriously when passed down, while not according the same respect to quilts?

It’s because crafts are feminised and therefore considered worthless. Even if they didn’t involve math and science, this would be bunkum, but the level of math and science involved actually makes them more challenging than a lot of ‘boy’ activities that we are supposed to take more seriously. It troubles me when I see activities like quilting or knitting called feminine, with little girls warned off them if they want to be serious about careers in STEM, when in fact they could be considered an amazing gateway drug to math and science.

Maybe if I had been involved in making crafts when I was young, I could have learned some math fundamentals that I could have built upon to work with my learning disability rather than against it — perhaps if I’d learned shortcuts and had things visually laid out for me, I wouldn’t have floundered in algebra and every higher math class, because much of the math I do while sewing actually relies on these principles. Certainly baking, another highly feminised activity, gave me a better understanding of chemistry, and I sometimes surprised people with observations on things that were common knowledge to me.

When I had surgery in 2015, this subject came up, and my surgeon told me she was a quilter. Given that she worked in plastics, this was a highly useful skill, because she sets meticulous, painstaking stitches very quickly and skillfully, thanks to her ‘hobby.’ Surgical outcomes are dependent on a huge number of things, and the same surgeon may have different results with different people, but I definitely noticed that my scarring was more even and minimal with her, because she got how things fit together, and how to conceal and minimise stitches, in a way that not every surgeon does.

We shouldn’t have to justify the existence of crafting in the first place, and we should be supportive of all young people who want to get involved in crafts. But perhaps we should be doubly so in light of the fact that crafts provide people with concrete, useful skills that they can apply to future careers. Do you still think it’s ‘feminine’ and therefore worthless when it’s preparing people for careers in medicine, in chemistry, in mechanical engineering?

Image: Quilting, Jessica B, Flickr