As a widely practiced craft, knitting provides an excellent medium for study
of the dynamic of individual expression within group standards. When knitting
garments, artists balance the desire to make a personal statement against
shared notions of what constitutes a “good” garment. Knitters work with the
standards of two different groups in mind: those who make garments and
those who wear them. In this article, a fiber artist in northern New York
reveals her criteria for excellence in fiber work through one sweater made as
a birthday gift for a friend. By describing the sweater and the decisions entailed
in making it, the artist articulates aesthetic and technical preferences
and relates them to the preferences of those around her. The sweater embodies
the values of friendship and simple living embraced by many fiber artists.
Anne Burnham models the cardigan Bliss made for her as a sixtieth birthday gift.
Photo: Lamar Bliss
When Anne Burnham of Parishville,
New York, turned sixty in May 2004, she asked her friend Lamar Bliss
of Potsdam, New York, to knit her a replacement
for a well-used and well-loved
Bliss is a knitter and also a spinner.
By requesting the sweater, Burnham was
essentially asking Bliss to make a birthday gift of handmade yarn, as well as of the
finished piece of knitting. Bliss was happy
to comply: her sheep provide plenty of fleeces,
and she spends most of her spare hours
engaged in one stage or another of sweater
production. She spins and knits more than
she can wear herself, and rather than sell her
surplus production, she chooses to offer it as gifts. The sweater Bliss made for Burnham
required 200 hours to complete, from
washing the raw fleeces to binding the final
stitch off the needles. Although she is a
twenty-first-century woman, Bliss’s gift to
Burnham mimics in process what women
in the preindustrial period routinely did to
clothe their families.
In this paper, I will trace the steps Bliss
took to produce the cardigan for Burnham.
By describing the cardigan and explaining
the choices she made in its construction,
Bliss articulates the artistic values embodied
in its creation. By evaluating her work,
she also places herself within the context
of an extended community of fiber artists.
To make the case that Bliss as a fiber artist
both conforms to and diverges from the
standards of her community, I will draw
on interviews I have conducted with other
knitters in northern New York.
Knitting as Traditional
Knitting as a traditional practice fits solidly
within even the most conservative definition
of folk culture. Most knitters learn
directly from family and friends, make utilitarian
objects, and accept the standards of
their community as guides to form and color.
The advent of web sites devoted to knitting
has enlarged knitters’ communities, but
not replaced personal lessons and local knitting
groups. There has never been a time in
American history when people didn’t knit.
Through peaks and valleys of popularity, a
faithful core of knitters kept working, passing
on skills and aesthetic criteria.
Given this fact, it is surprising that so
few folklorists have studied the craft. Perhaps
Linda Pershing is correct that the field mistakenly feels that enough has been said
about “centuries-old and widely variable practices”
of needlework (1992, 334). Very few
folklorists have written about knitters at all;
even fewer have honored knitters. The nearly
300 National Heritage fellows recognized in
the twenty-two-year award program include
an impressive number of quilters and weavers,
but no knitters. This absence belies the
prevalence of knitters in American society.
As Anne Macdonald aptly demonstrates in
her social history of knitting, substantial numbers
of American women have knitted for
numerous reasons throughout the last century
(1988). Economy, virtue, fashion, politics,
and charity have all played a part in performance
and perception of knitting. Prior to the
availability of affordable mass-produced textiles,
need was the major impetus. When industrialization
removed necessity from the
equation, women continued the practice for a
variety of reasons, ranging from frugality to a
desire to be creative. Published pattern books
from the past one hundred years trace the evolution
of the ideal woman in terms of what
she will wear and what she will make for loved
ones. Although men have knitted at certain
periods in American history, knitting remains
a gendered activity. When men choose to knit
recreationally, as they have begun to do in larger
numbers recently, they are still perceived as
Knitting’s popularity tends to run in cycles,
with varying motivations underlying upsurges
at different times. During the world
wars, many Americans took up knitting needles
to provide for soldiers on the front lines.
In the 1950s, it was popular for college-age
women to knit argyle socks for prospective
spouses. Back-to-the-landers took up knitting
in the 1970s to associate themselves with
the activities of simpler times. In each case,
contemporary periodicals created and fostered
enthusiasm for knitting according to a formula
that suited the times.
Popular interest in knitting is currently at a
peak. In Manhattan and other large cities, knitting
cafes are a phenomenon. The yarn industry
targets young professionals who knit
stylish scarves out of expensive fibers, such
as cashmere, during their lunch hours. Throughout the United States, there are
after-school knitting clubs attended by
both boys and girls. Yarn shops host
themed knitting parties.
These steel combs are used to straighten wool fibers in preparation for spinning.
Running the wool through the combs also removes any debris left after washing.
Photo: Jill Breit
|Until recently, knitted items as objects
of display were unusual except at county
fairs and church bazaars. It is increasingly
common, however, for the work of textile
artists to be shown in art museums
and galleries and as installations in public
spaces. Maine artist Katharine Cobey uses
knitting as a medium for sculpture, draping
and molding knitted fabric to create
large three-dimensional displays. Kathryn
Alexander of New York State makes tapestries,
as well as garments noted for the
wildness of their design.
While specific intent varies considerably
among knitters, certain themes appear repeatedly
in discussions of the craft. Stress
relief is the most common reason new
knitters give for taking up needles. The
rhythmic repetition of motion in knitting
suits many who seek a meditative practice.
One knitter I know told me, “When the
world is too much with you, you need a
little knit” (Carl 2003). Bliss describes her
knitting sessions as peaceful interludes.
Easily portable, knitting is a perfect activity
for people on the go, a way to fill
idle moments riding the train or waiting in
a doctor’s office. The rhythmic motion of
knitting is mostly a matter of feel, a type of
muscle memory. Many knitters watch television
or do something else while they knit,
because they do not have to concentrate on
the work to know how it is proceeding. Unless
a pattern is particularly complex, knitters
can feel how a piece is progressing and
where they are in the process. They will feel
in their hands whether or not the tension
in the piece is consistent.
Many knitters report on the sensory experience
of their craft. Yarns are colorful and
they often smell good, but most of all they
feel good. Knitting is a tactile activity. All the
knitters I have interviewed eventually speak
about the feel of the work. Ninety-year-old
Annis Holmes has knitted steadily all of her
adult life. She told me, “I just love yarn. I
have a good feeling with it in my hand. Yarn
makes me happy” (2002). For most knitters,
whether or not a fiber feels good in the hands
is an important factor in the decision to use
it in a project. Knitters speak in terms of
whether or not a fiber has “good hand.” Literally,
this means that a given fiber is pleasant
to hold in one’s hand. The fibers will be
smooth, the heft of the yarn right. Knitters
judge right away when picking up a skein of
yarn whether or not it will feel good to knit
with it. Some compare handling yarn to the
satisfaction of petting a dog or cat.
Bliss thinks it is possible that the calming
affect reported by many knitters is attributable
not just to the steady motion of
knitting, but to the sensation of yarn moving
across the skin. As a professional massage
therapist, she is well aware of the benefits
of touch. Although she highly values
the touch of fiber, Bliss more often emphasizes
the quietness of knitting. Metal
knitting needles make a gentle clicking
sound when struck together, but many contemporary
knitters use bamboo, wood, or
nylon needles, eliminating even that click.
For Bliss, the tactile quality of knitting is
most important as a way to gauge how comfortable
the final garment will be. She takes
great care at each stage of garment production
to insure that the user will find her
work pleasant on the skin.
Making a Cardigan:
From Sheep to User
Bliss likes to make things and has done
so from the time she was a young girl. She
asked an aunt to teach her to knit when she
was seven, but she had already learned other
craft skills, such as sewing, by that time.
Knitting became one of several skills Bliss
could apply to creating items she wanted.
During an intense fascination with macramé
in the 1970s, knitting nearly disappeared
from Bliss’s repertoire, but she continued
to turn out a sweater occasionally. Always
willing to learn a new technique, Bliss during
those years learned to spin from a colleague
at the public radio station where she
worked as an announcer and producer.
Bliss lives in an old farmhouse on twenty
acres of land. Her partner had kept goats on
this property for a number of years, and when
all but one of her goats had died, they got a
sheep to keep it company. Over time, two
more sheep joined the first. This small flock
keeps the fields around Bliss’s house from
going to scrub, and she likes to see them in
the pasture. Owning sheep became the impetus
for Bliss to turn her attention in earnest to
spinning and knitting.
When you ask Bliss why she has chosen
spinning and knitting as her primary creative
outlet, she says, “I don’t know. It’s
just there. I have those sheep: there’s this
pile of fleece. Every year they drop another
fleece on me, and you have to do something
with it.” As the couple acquired sheep,
they may have given some thought to using
the fleeces for yarn production, as the
three sheep present a palette of natural colors
for Bliss to work with: white, mottled
gray, and dark brown. These colors can be
used separately or blended to make various
shades of gray.
The sweater Bliss made for Burnham is
an Aran cardigan made from a rag wool
combining one strand of white and one
strand of soft gray wool. Aran knitting,
more commonly referred to as Irish knitting,
is characterized by the way in which
cables and other stitch patterns combine to
create a textured surface. Although Aran
knitting originated in the British Isles, it
has been adopted by knitters all over the
world. Aran sweaters are almost always knit
in a solid color, usually off-white, to highlight
the texture of the knitting. For the
purposes of design, the body and sleeves
of Aran sweaters are divided into vertical
panels, each panel displaying a different pattern
of stitches; a large center panel is typically
flanked by smaller panels, in which patterns
move symmetrically out from the center.
As in many textile traditions, the patterns
are named. Ethnic and regional variations
in pattern names are common.
Bliss is very interested in the formal elements
of her fiber work. She considers her
art to be mathematically and technically challenging.
She controls the final product by
taking charge of each step required to make
it. When Burnham asked Bliss for a handmade
sweater, she set in motion a chain of
activities. Shearing the sheep is the one step
of yarn production that Bliss does not handle
herself. Each May she hires a shearer to
remove from her sheep the coats of wool
they have been growing since the previous
summer’s shearing. After the coats of wool
are off the sheep, Bliss undertakes each stage
of yarn preparation herself, rather than send
the fleece to a commercial establishment,
where it would be processed and turned into
skeins of yarn. This adds considerably to
the time investment she makes in her garments.
Bliss was not responsible for choosing a
pattern for Burnham’s cardigan. Burnham
asked her to reproduce a sweater that had
been tested and found worthy. This is not
the usual way for knitters to approach garment
construction. Most knitters work from
published patterns. As they gain experience,
knitters often become comfortable enough
to make variations on published patterns
or to combine different patterns. Some knitters
like to make their own patterns, an option
that even inexperienced knitters can
now consider, thanks to the availability of
knitwear design software. Like vernacular
builders, knitters who design patterns work
with a corpus of “problems already solved”
(Hubka 1986). There are a limited number
of ways to attach sleeves, for example. Bliss
thinks of knitting as a process of building.
She is always aware of the three-dimensionality
of it. I asked Bliss if she ever views her
knitting as an engineering project: “Oh,
yeah, yeah; it is.” As she was knitting Burnham’s
cardigan, she always had in mind how
the pieces would have to fit together to make
Technical Standards of
As a spinner and a knitter, Bliss meets the
demands of separate folk communities. Although
there is certainly some overlap, many
spinners do not knit, and the majority of
knitters do not spin. Each activity requires a
different set of skills. The cardigan Bliss
made is subject to judgment on three levels:
how well did she process the wool she used,
how well did she spin her yarn, and how
well is the knitting done? As many folk art
scholars have noted, skill in execution is often
the arbiter of excellence. Lack of short
fibers and plant debris indicates that Bliss is
effective at handling the tools for eliminating
them. Yarn that is consistent in smoothness
and thickness indicates aptitude with
the spinning wheel. Excellent knitting requires consistent tension and even stitches,
as well as a pleasing design.
As Bliss knitted a birthday cardigan for her friend, she regularly tried on sections of it to gauge its fit. Photo: Jill Breit
While Bliss appreciates the praise of those
outside the fiber community, she subjects
her work to the scrutiny of her peers. It is
their approbation she ultimately seeks. She
does this formally by entering items she has
made in county and state fairs. Two years
ago, a vest Bliss made for her aunt took
honorable mention at the New York state
fair. The recognition was nice, but blue ribbons
are Bliss’s aspiration. She regularly attends
fairs to scrutinize the work of other
fiber artists, to see where she can improve,
and to get a sense of what the judges look
for. A competitive spirit fuels her efforts at
Bliss rarely joins spinning or knitting
meetings, preferring to work alone, but she
never works without awareness of how her
efforts might be received by other fiber artists.
Vlach has said of folk artists, “Certainly,
artists may work alone, even in seclusion,
but they will work within a socially sanctioned
set of rules for artistic production
which they expect will insure the acceptability
of their completed pieces” (1992, 20).
This is true for Bliss at each step of garment
production. While she doesn’t choose
to gather regularly with other fiber artists,
she anticipates how her work will be received
within the community of fiber artists. She
welcomes feedback even in the most casual
setting: occasionally Bliss will knit in public,
and she loves it when other knitters approach
her to comment on what she is doing.
In turn, Bliss has no hesitation about
approaching a knitter in public to ask about
the project and to respond to it.
In studying textile traditions in eastern
Newfoundland, Gerald Pocius investigated
aesthetic criteria for making hooked mats.
He uses a methodology similar to that used
by Ruth Bunzel to study pueblo pottery
(1929): he asked women who made mats
to tell him which mats were good and which
were not. Pocius felt you could not study
an artist without first investigating the community
in which that artist worked. He
found that technical skill was the most important
factor: “Women in all communities
felt a ‘good’ mat or quilt was one that
was well made. Cosmetic evaluations were
always secondary” (1979, 56).
For Bliss, it is very important that anything
she makes be well done. She wants her
products to reflect that she has mastered the
best techniques for the job. “I want to make
the improvements that make it a better garment.
If I can avoid pills, boy, that’d be great.
So, I go learn a whole new technique in spinning
and in fiber production in order to avoid
pills.” The fact that the new technique is more
time-intensive does not deter her. Trying to
understand particular characteristics of different
varieties of wool intrigues Bliss. Each
of her three sheep has different qualities to
its wool, and she experiments to see how
she can make the most of each fleece’s distinctive
Bliss is willing to rip out sections of knitting
that do not meet her expectations. The
techniques of knitting are deceptively simple.
To knit, one minimally needs two needles,
string, and the ability to knit and purl.
The most elaborate pieces of knitting in
the world are still just variations on knit
and purl. However, many things can go
wrong as the fabric develops. Applying incorrect
pressure will result in fabric that either
puckers or sags. Dropped stitches will
leave holes. Misplaced stitches disrupt a pattern.
Many knitters have told me that learning
to “rip,” or undo sections of knitting,
is one of the most important steps in becoming
a proficient knitter. In the process
of knitting and unknitting, artists develop
a grasp of the engineering inherent in the
technique. The difference between an adequate
piece of knitting and an excellent one
lies in this grasp. As one knitter commented,
“I want it to look handmade, not homemade.
Anything worth doing is worth doing
right” (Berard 2002).
Aesthetic in Practice:
Choosing a Design
Northern New York is noted for the same
brand of conservatism associated with New
England. This is not surprising, since
northern New York was settled by descendants
of early New England settlers. The
sensibilities of residents in the northern
part of New York State differ markedly
from those of residents in the southern part
of the state. A preference for understatement
expresses itself in the North Country’s
knitting community. As one knitter
commented, “In the woods, the culture is
not to stand out, to blend, not to be too
flashy” (Barsuglia-Madsen 2002). In an exhibit
of North Country knitting I curated
in 2003, the visitor favorite was a solid blue
pullover ornamented only with a subtle
band of raised stitches around the chest.
Bliss comes from an extended family of
Saint Lawrence County residents. A native
of northern New York, Bliss has internalized
these conservative preferences. In describing
her tastes, Bliss mentions another
native knitter, Barb Klemens. Noted for her
predilection for simple, unadorned garments,
Klemens ran a yarn shop in Canton,
New York, for fifty years. Bliss remarked:
I see lots of sweaters that have fancy
flourishes to them....Frankly, I
don’t really like those things. I’m kind
of like Barb Klemens. Something
that is going to look good no matter
what decade I wear it in—I like that. I
like something that is very classic,
something with good clean lines, although
my favorite sweater is very
baggy, and I snuggle up in it. That’s
the other thing I go for: is it comfortable,
something to snuggle up in?
Within parameters of group taste, Bliss
has preferences of her own. She’s fascinated
by patterns in which stitches meander across
the fabric to make the design. Straight lines
of cables, common in the region’s sweaters,
bore her. She likens them to the bland
appeal of sweet candy canes. Cables are interesting
to her when they wander and intertwine
to form lattice patterns or similarly
complex designs. Bliss appreciates the decorative
possibilities of knitting and is always
on the lookout for ideas. She makes a
habit when she sees a sweater she likes of
breaking it down in her mind to determine
which features in it make it attractive to her.
She loves to watch patterns unfold as she
knits a piece. Before starting work on a
project, Bliss knits many sample swatches,
testing patterns and yarn to see what will
work for an item she has in mind.
Designs of sweaters are not the only way
Bliss expresses her standards. Repeatedly in
speaking of her work, Bliss emphasizes
comfort over appearance. When I first interviewed
Bliss, she was really enthusiastic
about knitting socks: “The joy has been the
socks because they feel really good on the
feet” (2002). She knits her socks on small
needles to assure a dense, hard-working
product, even though her hands object to
the strain. She does not use the coarser wool
of her dark brown sheep by itself in a sweater,
explaining that the result would be “like
a Guatemalan sweater that you can exfoliate
your skin with when you put it on.” She
loves the luster of pure Romney wool from
her gray sheep. In making Burnham’s cardigan,
Bliss chose to twist this wool in because
it feels so nice on the skin, even though
white would have shown the pattern off
better. By making this choice, she compromised
on the visual clarity of the sweater
for the sake of physical comfort: “I wanted
to make this more like a snuggly sweater
instead of just, oh yeah, that’s pretty.”
Bliss’s cardigan may be exquisitely made,
but it is not precious. It will not be an heirloom,
hidden in a closet to be worn occasionally.
Although its solid construction
guarantees a long life, the garment will wear
out and require patching along the way. Many
would shudder to think of a sweater requiring
200 hours of labor being worn casually,
but that is part of the pragmatism
associated with knitting in Bliss’s community.
Knitting instructor Susan Carl asserts:
“Sweaters should be worn. A hole can always
be fixed” (Carl 2002). For some knitters,
making those repairs is a responsibility
of thriftiness, another virtue prized in
northern New York. Mennonite knitter Arlene
Yousey remembers that, in her household,
“worn portions of garments were
reknit. This was part of stewardship, mandated
by God” (2002).
For Bliss, the usefulness of knitted items
sets them above objects made purely for
decoration. To make this point, she contrasts
knitting with Ukrainian-style painted
pysanki eggs: “It’s nice to look at a pysanki
egg, but okay, given the choice between an
egg and a sweater, really, which would you
choose? It’s got to be the sweater. It’s got
to be the socks. They can be so much more
incorporated into your life, and the egg is
always going to sit on a shelf.” Bliss’s ordering
of value is by no means universal.
Another person might prefer the egg, reasoning
that it is rarer, since sweaters are readily
and inexpensively available in the store.
Bliss rarely follows published patterns.
Since she is fascinated by the process of engineering
garments, she likes to figure out
the stages as she goes. Bliss enjoyed copying
Burnham’s old cardigan. She teased sections
of it apart to determine how it was
put together. The biggest puzzle for Bliss
was a pair of knit-in pockets on the front
of the original cardigan. She had never made
pockets before, and it took her several evenings
to grasp the technique. Bliss might
have saved herself time by referring to a
book or asking other experienced knitters
how to set the pockets in, but she prefers
the challenge of working it out herself. She
especially enjoys the detective work of looking
at antique pieces to uncover what a knitter
had in mind when she was working. She
likes to envision the anonymous knitter:
“It’s so neat looking at a sweater to see what
that person did.” As she knit the cardigan,
Bliss regularly checked the fit by slipping
pieces of it on herself.
Bliss did not feel obligated to reproduce
the model exactly. While the original was
off-white, she used a rag wool. In some
of the panels of the cardigan, she substituted
stitch combinations that she liked
for ones she did not. In her opinion, reproducing
Burnham’s cardigan meant
faithfulness to form, not decoration. This
attitude was consistent with Burnham’s.
Burnham is a professional potter who
makes dinnerware and other functional
pieces. She appreciates utilitarian qualities,
but also wants art to reflect its maker. She
wanted her original cardigan replaced because
it was the most comfortable sweater
she had ever owned. She requested that
Bliss mimic the fit and feel of the original.
Bliss retained all attributes of the cardigan
that contributed to this end. For example,
she carefully studied the shaping of the
shoulders on the original cardigan and
shaped the shoulders in just the same fashion,
even though the method differs from
her usual shaping method. Burnham gave
Bliss license, however, to change some elements
of the pattern to combinations she
would enjoy watching unfold. The final
product incorporates a new textural quality,
but fits just as the old did.
Expressing Values in
Working with fiber as she does satisfies
Bliss on an intellectual, analytical level. She
is especially drawn to activities requiring
geometric precision: macramé, painting
pysanki eggs, knitting. When asked to describe
a pattern on a sweater, she has a hard
time doing it in a gross sense. She sees
patterns at the level of individual stitches,
so describes them in terms of how the
stitches move through them. Tracing her
fingers over stitches in Burnham’s cardigan
to show how they shift to form the
texture, Bliss becomes increasingly animated
about the motion contained within the
panels. The fiber work she does also satisfies
her on a larger level: “It thrills me that
you can start with something that looks
like fog, and turn it into something warm
For Bliss, keeping sheep and making usable
items from their wool is part of a lifestyle
choice. Quiet contemplation is important
to her and is something she is engaged
in as she spins and knits at home.
As we toured her backyard one afternoon,
Bliss joked that in kinship with the slow
food movement, she’s an adherent of the
slow clothes movement. This was not the
first time I had heard this from a fiber artist.
Joanne Seiff, a spinner and knitter in
Bowling Green, Kentucky, explained it this
way: “I also believe in sort of the slow
food movement and slow everything
movement, in that I feel like our society is
too rushed, and spinning is a way to
deconstruct what we own and make it
more valuable” (2003).
The slow food movement is a global
grassroots movement that originated in
Italy. The message of this movement is
that modern life is too busy and fast paced.
Proponents advocate a return to leisurely
meals made with locally grown products
and eaten in the company of family and
friends. Their philosophy includes a host
of other lifestyle choices favoring simplicity.
Simplicity and time to pay attention are
two things Bliss values highly. She would
likely agree with Seiff’s assessment that understanding
what goes into the production
of goods makes it difficult to take
them for granted.
Bliss has arranged her life to be able to
give uncounted hours to her art. She does
not like to keep track of the time she invests
in her projects and only did so in this
case at my request. A massage therapist,
she set her office up at home in order to
avoid commuting. She schedules appointments
around other activities in her life.
She and her partner grow a lot of their
own food, as well as flowers. When talking
about the place of fiber work in her
life, Bliss comments that she likes to watch
the sheep, that it’s a good way to use the
land, and that she enjoys introducing her
clients to the sheep. The sheep have names:
Adonis, Star, and Mildred.
The house in which Bliss lives is testimony
to the creative capacity of its occupants.
The spaces overflow with the products
of their efforts. They spend much of
their time at home making things, and these
things decorate most of the surfaces in their
house. Bliss very consciously chooses elements
of her life to satisfy her own idea of
what constitutes a good life. Necessity is
not the motivation for her spinning: “I
don’t need to do it. I make enough money;
I could go off and buy yarn like anybody
else.” Like Seiff, she enjoys the peacefulness
of the activity—“It’s just been calm and
quiet,” she remarks—and she takes pleasure
in the fruits of her labor.
Bliss’s cardigan embodies her values. It
is a product of an intimacy she has with
her land and the animals that live on it. As
Bliss says, “There’s nothing quite like putting
on a garment when you know the animal
that it came from, and you’ve seen it
all through the process.” It is this “relating
to the materials through all the senses”
(Hardy 2004, 181) that prevents Bliss’s
work from becoming an abstraction. Bliss’s
fiber work asserts her belief that time does
not equal money, a rejection of the capitalist
formula. Further, it serves as an expression
of her commitment to family and
friends. She often mentions the pleasure
of making things that will keep her loved
ones warm. This expression of values
through knitting has been studied by folklorist
Peggy Yocom in Rangeley, Maine.
The women she worked with made clothes
for dolls, making choices in the process
that adhered to tradition and reacted to
change. In doing this, Yocom concluded,
they “clothe the dolls in their own values”
(Yocom 1993, 129).
Making things by hand is one element
in Bliss’s formula for peace of mind. She
feels engaged, calm, and connected as she
works through each step of making a garment.
Knowing the eventual user of the
garment enhances her sense of well-being.
It pleases her that a niece and nephew called
her this past spring to ask if they could
have more handmade socks for Christmas.
I asked Bliss if she considered her cardigan
folk art. “I think you’re nuts,” was the
answer. Is it fine art, then? Bliss distinguishes
this way between the two:
If I were really good, I’d like to call it
fine art. Folk art just seems like it’s
venerable, and fine art seems like it’s
a goal to work towards—like to really
make something that’s really, really
good. Nobody sets out to be a
In responding to the question of whether
or not the cardigan she has made is folk art,
Bliss’s own identity is called into question.
If nobody aims to be a folk artist, presumably
people do aim to be fine artists.
Ann Ferrell has written that, for a piece
to be considered folk art, the “object must
grow out of some kind of tradition: of
process, of materials, or of collective aesthetics”
(1999, 10). Bliss’s cardigan qualifies
on all three grounds. The sweater was
made using the same techniques and materials
knitters have used for thousands
of years. Functionality outweighed appearance
in design decisions. Bliss worked within
the parameters of acceptability in the
fiber community in which she learned and
continues to work. The sweater was made
as a gift for a friend, who speaks of it in
the same terms Bliss does. And it springs
quite naturally from the environment in
which Bliss has chosen to live. Bliss’s commitment
to working with fibers stems partly
from the satisfaction of each step of the
process and partly from satisfaction with
how it connects to other aspects of her
Jill Breit is a folklorist whose favorite
stomping ground is northernmost
New York State. She is currently
engaged in research on the aesthetics
of back-to-the-land architecture.
Knitting as a traditional practice fits solidly
within even the most conservative definition
of folk culture. Most knitters learn
directly from family and friends...
Barsuglia-Madsen, Lis. January 14, 2003;
Canton, New York. Interview by Jill Breit.
Berard, Carole. May 22, 2002; Canton, New
York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.
Bliss, Lamar. July 10, 2002, and August 4,
2004; Potsdam, New York. Interviews by
Jill Breit. Tape recording.
Bunzel, Ruth. 1971 . The Pueblo Potter.
New York: Dover.
Carl, Susan. December 10, 2002; Potsdam,
New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.
Ferrell, Anne. K. 1999. I’m Not Handy, I Had
Mine Made: Christmas Curb Lights as Expression
of Individual and Community
Aesthetics. Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama
Folklife Association 4:9-30.
Hardy, Michele. 2004. Feminism, Crafts, and
Knowledge. In Objects and Meaning: New
Perspectives on Art and Craft, 68-85. Ed. M.
Anna Fariello and Paula Owens. Lanham,
MD: Scarecrow Press.
Holmes, Annis. May 10, 2002; Chestertown,
New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.
Hubka, Thomas. 1986. Just Folks Designing.
In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular
Architecture, 426-32. Ed. Dell Upton
and John Michael Vlach. Athens: University
of Georgia Press.
Macdonald, Anne L. 1988. No Idle Hands: The
Social History of American Knitting. New
Pershing, Linda. 1993. Peace Work Out of
Piecework: Feminist Needlework Metaphors
In Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore,
327-57. Ed. Susan Tower Hollis, Linda
Pershing, and M. Jane Young. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press.
Pocius, Gerald L. 1979. Textile Traditions of
Eastern Newfoundland. Ottawa: National
Museums of Canada.
Seiff, Joanne. November 25, 2003; Bowling
Green, Kentucky. Interview by Jill Breit.
Vlach, John. 1992. Properly Speaking: The
Need for Plain Talk about Folk Art. In Folk
Art and Art World. Ed. John Michael Vlach
and Simon J. Bronner. Logan: Utah State
Yocom, Margaret R. 1993. “Awful Real”: Dolls
and Development in Rangeley, Maine. In
Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk
Culture, 126-54. Ed. Joan Newton Radner.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Yousey, Arelene. January 14, 2003; Lowville,
New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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