Why Crochet Needs Standards
Recently I've been much preoccupied by the concept of developing standards in crochet. When the topic is broached in public forums like ravelry, many crocheters' first reaction is unease. People are fearful of having their work judged, that feedback they get might not be constructive, that those giving it may not be qualified to do so, and a host of other issues, all valid. Yet I'm certain that there is way to establish such standards, avoid the pitfalls that many fear, and that doing so would have a tremendously uplifting effect on our craft.
In my other field of endeavor, singing, there are long established standards. In opera, there are historical figures like Maria Callas, or our contemporary Renee Fleming, who set the standard for greatness. In jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Tony Bennett. Pop music -- Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston. These lists can go on and on, and some of these people would not necessarily be on everyone else's list of greats. Even though there are criteria for greatness most people would agree upon, we don't concur on whether any particular singer meets them.
What are the examples we can look to for great crochet design? Is it a question of whose style matches our own, their colors, their personality, their popularity? Are there objective things we can look for?
When someone decides to study singing, there is a body of work, techniques, and skills they must master. Singing has been around a long time, and has been taught for centuries. The first pedagogical singing books date from the 16th century, and they have been written ever since, always building on the old principals, and holding up a set of standards. These evolve over time, reflecting the tastes of particular eras in history, part of the natural evolution of every living art.
Singing and needle arts are both ancient, but the difference in how they are imparted has to do with the fact that singing reached a very high level of cultivation, where people were sought after, and paid highly, for the highest levels of expertise. Crochet, on the other hand, has had a different history. Other than the era of Irish Crochet, which was relatively brief, its outstanding practitioners have not been acknowledged publicly, nor garnered significant earnings. Unlike singing, there's been little motivation to create institutions of learning, the setting that's likely to generate explicit standards. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but they have not been well articulated.
What are the purpose and benefits of standards? When an art or discipline has explicit standards, then anyone who wishes to can weigh their work against them, know what skills they lack, and seek instruction. When they don't exist, there is absolutely no way to evaluate what one does. "Good" becomes a matter of popularity and trends, not a measure of skill or accomplishment.
Standards also help promote a strong vocabulary for discussing a subject. Without a vocabulary of terms, people are left with the feeling "Well, I don't know why I like it, but I know what I like when I see it." My singing students will say to me: I love how so and so sings, and I say WHY? Is it the quality of her voice, or her sense of drama, personality, sincerity, diction, great pitch, interesting phrasing, originality? Until I point out all these distinctions, my students often haven't thought of them. Of course once provoked, they respond with all kinds of wonderful answers. At that point, a student may realize that their technique is fine, but that they need to work on theatrics. The admired qualities represents a set of skills that have to be mastered to be a fine singer. Not every singer is equally adept at all aspects, but we agree that they are important, and we strive to get there.
The same variety of criteria prevails when people evaluate a work of crochet. One person might be concerned with perfect stitching, another with excellent fit, a third with innovative use of stitches. Yet ALL of these are viable criteria. In the work of hobby crocheters, people often lament that their finished project doesn't look like the design they see in a book or magazine, but have no idea why. Because our vocabulary for analyzing our work is undeveloped, they often don't realize it's a question of the wrong fiber, the texture of the yarn, or finishing and blocking techniques. They are often not taught to consider these aspects of crochet at all.
When we think about various designers, some excel in particular areas, others combine several in their work. That's how I learn from other designers. For example, though I don't knit, when I see a piece by Teva Durham, or Nora Gaughan, I see a master at work. First I see a very beautiful object, then delving further I see how construction and technique created the object, and how the yarn chosen enhanced it further. Having models like this to look to motivates my journey to discovering how to excel in crochet.
Our crochet models include the outstanding work of Doris Chan, Kristin Omdahl, Lily Chin, Robyn Chachula, Jennifer Hansen, Margaret Hubert, Vashti Braha, Kathy Merrick, Bendy Carter, Tammy Hildebrand, and many other amazing crochet designers, all unfolding their art before our eyes. When I consider what qualities define great crochet designers, along with the crucial one of having a vision of beauty, they are a strong sense of architecture and structure, attention to detail at the level of stitches, and a command of fibers and yarns. All these designers are also innovators, using crochet in new ways that reflect today's aesthetics.
The purpose of standards is not to create a rigid structure that everyone must adhere to. Accomplished people in every field also break the rules in order to solve new problems that arise. All living arts or disciplines must grow and change, relinquishing certain rules when they no longer reflect contemporary tastes and trends.
Once upon a time, and still in certain cultures, crochet was a skill mostly taught in the home, passed down from one generation to the next. The home was likely to be filled with beautiful, high quality crochet work, probably in the form of lace doilies and edgings on linens. When a young person began to do crochet, they knew exactly what good quality crochet looked like and would be corrected and coached by mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc, until they got their work up to that level. This kind of learning is not available to most crocheters today. It certainly is not what I experienced!
Crochet is in that nebulous world between hobby, craft, and art. Many people enjoy crochet without the need for rigor, they just love what they do. This is true of singing too -- most people are happy to be amateurs. And seriously, it's all good! There is nothing wrong with doing something strictly for pleasure. I enjoy wine but am no connoisseur, nor do I watch a movie the same way a serious film buff does. In crochet, however, I personally crave some shared standards which would enable us to evaluate and discuss work, and help those new to the craft, or wanting to improve, articulate their needs and know where to seek help.
Let me give one example of how such lack of standards has been bad for crochet: the under appreciation of doilies. It's common for people to be snide about them, as embodiments of "grandma's crochet." Doilies are no longer fashionable, not old enough to be considered antiques -- which must be at least a century old, and not hip or chic enough to attract a following like certain "period" furniture or fashions do. I've seen beautiful old needlework on Antiques Road Show, but never crochet.
Take a good look at any doily you can get at a flea market for $5 and you will see some pretty awesome handiwork. The stitching is usually beautiful, and the design concept -- extraordinary! How did the designers of them come up with these intricate patterning ideas, and know how to keep their circle flat (in the case of round doilies). This is way before computer models! Further, they represent a compendium of historical techniques: motifs, ways to attach them, ways to create all kinds of patterns and figures using stitches. In a crochet world where these qualities were specifically acknoweldged and discussed, we'd all be collecting the best doilies we could find and sharing our discoveries. Besides, a live piece of crochet is much more exciting and educational than a photo in a book. But doilies, and a lot of other examples of high level crochet, are not given their due, because the expertise that went into them is not valued, nor understood.
Another example is how new designs are judged by consumers. People looking at designs in a magazine are more likely to react to the color, or how it fits the model, or whether it's the kind of thing they'd like to make or wear, and disregard the craftsmanship required to create it. In the crochet world I imagine, crafters would be studying with excitement the stitches used, the construction, the shaping, the choice of yarn fiber and weight, trying to understand what makes a particular design work, and learn from it. Where a design is particularly ingenious, innovative, or technically well-made, the crochet public would notice and discuss it. It would be more like the singing world, where a new recording by an artist is hailed for its imagination, creativity, and technical expertise.
Dear Reader, tell me what you think about this topic. What do you admire in crochet work? What do you aspire to in your own work? Can you see the value of articulating standards, or is it a bad idea? Please share your thoughts!