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My Grandma’s Doilies Are Not a Joke

On April 1, the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in Philadelphia shared a post on Instagram announcing an “ambitious expansion” of their mission to “unearth the forgotten textile relics” from “Meemaw’s Attic.” Initially, several commenters expressed genuine excitement at this new venture. But as it became clear that the post was made as an April Fools’ Day joke at the expense of grandmotherly crafts, there was swift outrage from the textile community. Ageist and misogynistic attitudes that belittle makers of doilies and quilts are nothing new. But it is alarming to see the denigration of vernacular art forms perpetuated by a contemporary art museum, especially one whose stated focus is on textiles.

The FWM quickly apologized in the comment section, but the ease with which the joke was first shared is a symptom of a larger cultural issue. A quick online search for the phrase “not your grandmother’s …” brings up numerous results for exhibitions, articles, and tutorials framed as a hip alternative to our outdated matriarchs. It is no surprise, then, that many older women diminish their own domestic artistry as insignificant, as poignantly illustrated by the Icelandic-American artist Sólveig Eva Magnúsdóttir in a 2022 article for the Washington Post. As a lacemaker who is frequently perceived as a youthful anomaly, I wonder: How many gray hairs am I allotted before my work begins to be perceived as the natural extension of my age and gender, rather than as a meaningful creative pursuit? 

Learning to sew, crochet, and embroider from my mother and grandmothers as a child laid the groundwork for my career as a textile historian. While in college, I attended a quilting bee benefiting a member of the Mennonite community facing health issues with my maternal grandmother, Adella Kanagy, in Pennsylvania. When I shared that I was studying quilting in my fiber arts program, a warm chuckle rippled across the room. My professors, however, did not have a sense of humor about my affection for “craft,” a word they uttered as if poisonous. At a critique for an installation of numerous doilies that I handmade, purchased, and inherited, one professor couldn’t fathom that my project was not meant as an ironic joke, but I stood firm in my sincerity.

Sneering attitudes about domestic crafts have existed as long as the techniques themselves. Victorian authors and aesthetes Henry James and Charles Eastlake ridiculed newly popular crochet patterns as indicative of “horrible” and “wretched” taste. Meanwhile, Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery designed doily patterns to support herself before her writing career took off, and American writer Edith Wharton founded a lacemaking school in Paris for Belgian refugees during World War I. Far from the simple leisure pursuit of middle-class White women, domestic crafts often arose as a form of creative resilience in the face of economic hardship and oppression. The growth of the popularity of doilies in the mid-19th century paralleled that of the Irish crochet lace industry, which was developed as a means of survival during a famine that killed around 1.5 million people. During World War II, Japanese-Americans organized workshops to share skills in dressmaking, crochet, and fabric flower making as an outlet while forcibly interned by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In recent years, fiber art has exploded in popularity, and museums have followed suit with a refreshing crop of exhibitions. But while museums display contemporary artists who incorporate domestic textiles as raw materials into their work, thousands of handmade quilts and laces languish in their storage facilities. When will art institutions begin to pay respect to the legacies of our foremothers’ artistry? And when will we, as a culture, move beyond rigid hierarchies of value and celebrate domestic crafts in their own right? 

Artists like the late Faith Ringgold, who worked closely with the FWM, actively honored the role that her maternal ancestors played in shaping her practice. For Wafa Ghnaim, a Palestinian dress historian and founder of the Tatreez Institute, respect for elder knowledge was instilled by her mother during lessons in stitching. Oral history is central to her work, allowing the potent visual language of tatreez embroidery to be maintained in the face of violent oppression. Institutions genuinely seeking to preserve the stories of domestic linens should take inspiration from projects like the Lace Archive, launched by Italian-American artist Patricia Miranda after she was moved by the way in which the stitches of her grandmother’s lace made tangible her love, labor, and care. The Quilt Index, a digital humanities project based at Michigan State University, has amassed an online repository of thousands of photographs of quilts and maker stories. 

But there are still countless domestic textiles representing untold stories. Over years of perusing flea markets and thrift stores, I have encountered numerous textiles with handwritten notes pinned to them, an act of care by archivists of family memory. These orphaned objects have always struck me with their urgency to be remembered, and I envision a future in which their makers are uplifted rather than mocked. 

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