Race and Representation in the Craft Community

At the 2014 National NeedleArts Association trade show in Indianapolis, Diane Ivey realized that she was the only Black vendor among hundreds trying to sell their products. Ivey owns Lady Dye Yarns, a Boston-based company that creates hand-dyed yarns, accessories, and knitwear designs.

“It dawned on me then that I have encountered so many people of color who do knit but the representation in the business was not there,” said Ivey, who wrote about the yarn industry’s lack of diversity in 2015. “As a whole, I believe the yarn industry needs to do a better job at addressing the lack of diversity in our community especially among knitwear designers, speakers, and images in magazines, and by reaching out to minority-owned yarn stores and dyers.” Three years after Ivey first blogged about the lack of representation in the yarn industry, a serious dialogue has finally begun.

In January, Karen Templer, a white woman and owner of Fringe Supply Co., a Nashville-based knitting bag and notions company, blogged about her upcoming trip to India and likened the idea of visiting the country to visiting Mars. Her blog post sparked accusations of colorism, tokenism, and racism. Although Templer has since apologized profusely for her ignorance and poor choice of words, the ongoing discussion of racism in the knitting community is still gaining steam. The conversation has been particularly prevalent on Instagram, a favorite social media site for knitters to showcase their work and knitting-related business owners to advertise.

“I’m not surprised we’re having this discussion, but it’s long overdue,” Ivey said. “I care about moving the conversation forward and making sure that people of color who want to start businesses or have businesses are given the equal opportunity and access like their white counterparts.

“We have worked too hard to promote and market our businesses, and it wasn’t until [the backlash over Karen Templer’s blog] that things have become easier for us. It’s not an even playing field yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Jareesa Tucker McClure, owner of Minneapolis-based JTM Knits, told The North Star it was just a matter of time before conversations about race entered the knitting world. However, she’s surprised at how mainstream the discussion has become. “I don’t know a single person of color in fiber arts that hasn’t experienced going into a fiber shop and feeling like they didn’t belong; it can be a very lonely space,” she said, noting she was outright ignored in one yarn shop.

Majestic Sumter frequently experiences microaggressions as the only employee of color at a yarn shop in South Carolina. “People constantly ask me, ‘How did you get this job?’ Like they shouldn’t be seeing me there. Or they ask if I do any weaving like the Gullah people,” she said.

“They don’t get that Black people have been knitting, crocheting and quilting for years, but now a lot of Black people have been taught to be ashamed of having to make their own clothes.”

Crafting has played a significant role in African American history and culture. Enslaved Africans were forced to pick and spin cotton, then make clothes for their enslavers; they used limited resources to make clothes for themselves and their families using various skills, including knitting. Many emancipated people continued to make clothing as a source of income after the Civil War ended. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth traveled to refugee camps to teach recently freed people how to knit, sew, and cook to help them become financially stable. While knitting was merely an optional hobby for white women, it was a source of livelihood for people of color.

“Knitting has been in our heritage and now that we are using it as a leisure activity, we have expectations too. It’s in our DNA to craft,” Ivey said. “People of color have been at the forefront of crafting for centuries, even through my ancestors as slaves and during the Civil Rights movement.”

Scholars believe knitting originated in ancient Egypt and the Middle East, then spread to Europe through Mediterranean trade routes. The craft was later introduced to the Americas with European colonization. Today, knitting is generally viewed as a craft practiced by old white women, though the stereotype is far from accurate. “A lot of history has been wiped, completely paved over,” Sumter said. “Crafting is a cultural experience and when the culture behind it is being threatened or misunderstood, people from that culture are going to stand out and say something.”

Racism in the knitting industry isn’t new. Ivey came across a British knitting magazine from the 1940s that published a Fair Isle sweater pattern with common shade names for the recommended light colors, such as emerald and gold. The recommended dark yarn color, however, was called the n-word.

While racism in the knitting community today isn’t as overt as several decades ago, Ivey and other people of color in the industry are calling for action rather than “fake woke people” merely making claims of “listening and understanding” to avoid further involvement in the discussion.

“I see industry leads who are doing and saying the right thing, coming up with action plans, and it’s for me to allow them to do the work in the next several months to make those changes,” Ivey said. “Come this fall, my expectation is that those changes are implemented. I think it’s ample amount of time. There’s no excuse come October, November, December that these changes haven’t been made. If a corporation or an industry lead say they are doing something and if I don’t see it, I’m going to call them out.”

McClure said she’s been particularly impressed with the way Canadian knitwear designers Alexa Ludeman and Emily Wessel of Tin Can Knits have responded to the race dialogue by considering how to make images of their brand more inclusive and whose voices or products to share with their followers. Some of those changes include incorporating people of color to model their knitwear designs and promoting products made or designed by racial and ethnic minorities. “I want to buy a Tin Can Knits pattern now,” McClure said.

Ivey, McClure, and Sumter said the ongoing dialogue, especially on fiber arts website Ravelry and on social media, is helping them find knitting businesses owned by people of color to support. They also said they are cautiously optimistic about business accountability and the industry as a whole moving forward. “It’s giving me more opportunity to find a community that more closely identifies with my personal values,” McClure said.

Ivey said her business has grown since the race dialogue erupted two months ago. “There’s a stereotype that people of color don’t have money to spend, but we’re going to spend our money where we see it has value,” she said. “Take action, or we’ll take our money somewhere else or start making it ourselves.”

About the Author

Shireen Korkzan is a Midwest-based journalist and web developer. She writes articles on a variety of topics including religion, social justice, and culture. Her bylines include the Associated Press, National Catholic Reporter, Global Sisters Report, U.S. Catholic Magazine and others. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University and a bachelor’s degree in music performance from Valparaiso University.