Gender Bender Arts and Crafts

Hi. I’m Brian and I make doilies.

I’ve made this one before; or one quite similar to it.

People look at me askance and usually edge far, far away from where I’m sitting. I crochet in public, usually in the winter. I make lace, with thread. Yarn is for wusses and wimps.

I’ve been crocheting since I was 9 or 10 years old.  My Great Grandma Mead, who lived up the hill from us in Carpenterville, Oregon (yes there existed such a town), taught me.  I would sit in her trailer and we’d talk about stuff… Family history, the knick-knacks she’d collected over the years from her travels through Carlsbad Caverns and Wisconsin’s House on the Rock, and White Sands, NM. She went all over the country with Grandpa Mead, who I never knew, on the old blue highways, and stopped at all the tourist attractions.

She was older and didn’t get around much when I knew her.  She went to school through 7th grade and never got much farther along in her schooling. She was very proud of her grandkids and great grandkids, and had crayon-art hanging on her walls–pages taken from coloring books, which she always had the grandkids sign. We talked about Nellie’s or JoAnne’s kids, and about running the gas station, long ago defunct, on the Old Highway.

Sometime around 1980, Grandma decided, after years of crocheting and knitting, to enter a bunch of stuff in the County Fair, including a massive  tablecloth, slippers, table runners, and I-don’t-know-what-else. She’d been crocheting for 70+ years, like most women of her generation, and had never bothered to put any of her stuff in the fair.  She had closets full of bedspreads and tablecloths and pillowcases and… daresay… doilies! So she submitted about a dozen things to the fair, and WON!  And won and won and won!  First price then was $3, second, $2, and third $1.  You also got the requisite Blue, red, and white ribbons with “Curry County Fair” proudly emblazoned. She won the grand champion, reserve grand champion, as well as best-in-show that year. I think it was an injection of self worth (and about $50 cash, from all her prize winnings) after decades of serving other people, she did something she herself could take pride in. She hung the dozens of ribbons the length of the  hallway.

So that was cool. I learned the lesson that, hey! Grandma’s making MONEY off this crocheting gig.  a couple years before that, I had already decided to teach myself and this was really the final push toward being serious about the craft.  The problem was, I was left handed, and despite her best efforts, she couldn’t show me how to manage thread tension, holding the hook . So I started with a chain. I could make a crochet chain, and I did… several hundred yards long. I could stretch the chain from Grandma Mead’s house to our house. For my next project I tried to do the simplest of combined stitches, what’s called a seed stitch. The thing I made was with bright orange yarn, and formed from a one-inch ring, which I crocheted round and round and round… I essentially crocheted a carrot. Or a thumb for a glove with 14-inch fingers. The first “real” project I made was a double-thick potholder. It is made on a six-inch loop, and goes round and round as if you’re making a pouch. then you sew it up. I was immensely proud of my bright red potholder, which I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother still has in her “drawer of useless crap my son made for me.”

I sat directly across from Grandma Mead, on her footstool, and mirroring her exact movements when she showed me more advanced stitches: moss stitch, the Solomon’s knot; popcorn stitches, three kinds of picots. At some point I moved from yarn to thread.  I liked the idea that I could work with a hook with a point I could hardly see. I began to make lace and never turned back.

My Junior year of high school, I won First place and Grand Champion myself, for crochet projects I entered in the County Fair.  My work went on to the State Fair, where I won First place ribbon and Reserve Grand Champion. I was both amazed, and thrilled.  First, because, as a guy, it was pretty long odds I’d even be competitive in a domain that was, for better than a century and a half, the work of nuns, paupers, and old biddies. Well let me just say, I did a little jig at the prospect of kicking their old-biddy-hineys around the State of Oregon in serious competition.

I owe it all to Grandma mead, who was my mentor in this.

For me, crochet has never been a “hidden” art because of the females-only stigma society has attached to it.  I’ve been known to crochet at airports, in bus stations and even (to the ogling stares of the VP for Academics) at the annual Faculty Retreat, at a resort lobby in Carmel, California. I only work with thread, but have to pace myself.  My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be–neither is my dexterity–and I wear myself out after a couple hours of crochet.

Crochet is a good fit for my mind. I use it as almost a zenlike therapy.  The repetitive counting and intricate stitchwork allows me to focus on something and clear my mind of worry and trouble. Especially in the round, crochet has a kind of mathematical precision that I love.  Things created ex nihilo (well, almost nihilo) always amaze me.  A 400-yard long coil of thread, and I can make anything, so long as my mind can conceive it (I generally work with published patterns just because it’s easier, but I’ve created a few pieces of my own).

I like small projects (small in Crochet World is one that takes less than 40 hours of crocheting). Since I use thread, this means I can usually produce something 24×24 inches, depending on the complexity of the work I’m doing.  Doilies are like a concept piece.  Despite the ridiculous name (Doyley was  a 17th-18th century draper in England and, I have to mention mention, was also a man), they have the advantage of being able to concentrate a few simple stitches into recognizable patterns — pineapples, pinwheels, grape clusters, and you can display, in a remarkably few square inches, a picturesque intricacy, not too unlike the Spirograph set I used to play with as a kid. It’s even a kind of architecture. It reminds me of a sort of Lincoln-log or tinker toys gestalt project, where small things build something bigger and much, much more impressive.

I haven’t entered my work into a competition for close to 30 years, but I still spend most winters with a hook in one hand, and a spool of thread next to me, twirling on a makeshift spindle. I defy anyone to laugh at this guy crocheting in an airport: if you can make stuff as awesome as I can then have at it. But until then, just sit there awhile and be amazed at the Mardi Gras of color and design I can create with nothing more than a long piece of string and a hook in my hand.

Hi. I’m Brian and I make doilies.


4 thoughts on “Gender Bender Arts and Crafts”

  1. Hi. I’m Susan. And I thought I could crochet doilies until I saw yours! Amazing!! Well, with enough practice I might improve…I look forward to the treble/double-treble pattern we’re going to make together…I just probably won’t photograph mine. 🙂


  2. There is a nice and rich history of men who: knit, crochet, weave, spin, embroider and otherwise excel in fiber arts thought to be “woman’s work.” We just are not as visible. I weave. I love it! I also consider it to be zen-like therapy to get rid of the day’s frustrations.

    I recently joined the SCA (that’s the Society for Creative Anachronism aka medieval re-enactment for the non-geeks out there) and I am happy and proud to do my weaving in public to show that not all guys in the medieval times were fighters. In fact, historically speaking, some arts that modern times believe to be “woman’s work” were done by men for centuries.

    Funny how times change. 😉

    And, your doilies are awesome! I found that I can’t crochet for more than 10 minutes before my carpal tunnel flares up and I can’t feel my fingers. So, go for it, dude!


  3. Hi! I’m Susan and I *stink* at all forms of art involving textiles. So there!

    I think it’s amazing and fabulous that you can do this.


  4. Okay, Brian– 2 things: Yarn is not either for wusses or wimps; and Knitting kicks the ass of crochet.

    Other than that, I have no issues with this post. I think you crochet beautiful pieces, and I’d never laugh at anyone doing needle work in public. I’d probably sit next to him/her and ask irritating questions while he/she was trying to count.


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