We Touch the Same Stuff: Queer Feminist Craft Praxis as Soft Circuitry – Melissa Rogers

With what methods and materials could we undertake the work of crafting something whose shape has yet to be determined? We are tasked with constructing livable worlds, making them work with imperfect fragments. Fiber craft techniques offer ways of thinking about the materiality of connection and attachment. These are real, physical practices for building the worlds in which we live, but they also help us understand the erotic labor of being in relationships with people, nonhuman animals, and things. Queer and trans feminist crafting genealogies encourage us to meditate on the actual stuff of intimate, bodily connection through fiber (Auther 2015; cárdenas 2016; Cvetkovich 2012; Vaccaro 2010). What are we touching when we touch a thing crafted by someone else’s hands? What is the substance of a relationship, even a tenuous or mostly imagined one, when a crafted object mediates it? In combination with feminist theorizations of fiber craft, the language of soft circuitry offers useful metaphors for how to remake the world. Borrowed from popular maker cultures, soft circuitry is the practice of constructing functional circuits out of flexible materials such as conductive thread and fabric as well as sewable electronic components like LEDs and motors. In the context of feminist craft praxis, soft circuitry is a queer method capable of lighting up or turning on modes of consciousness that might otherwise remain inaccessible to us. We might think of queer feminist crafting as a soft circuit: a technological pathway or schematic for feeling our way toward newly habitable worlds and ways of being.

 

 

“I Don’t Know You/Anna Mae” mobilizes a familiar quotidian object, the pillow, to imagine new ways of relating to queer feminist fiber craft’s ongoing legacies. Using vibration, a technology that facilitates queer intimacies amongst bodies and objects, this huggable pillow figures an erotic encounter with an artifact created by someone that I don’t—and will never—know. At some indeterminate point in the past Anna Mae Greene from Kersey, Pennsylvania, started but never finished embellishing and sewing together the pieces of what eventually might have been a quilt. About thirteen inches across, they comprise a white cotton hexagon embroidered with Anna Mae’s name and town in pink floss, using the stem stitch, and a six-pointed star constructed from diamonds of printed yellow cotton with a pink hexagon at the center. Ironed in preparation for assembly, the frayed edges of the fabric are creased in places, attached to each other by hand with regular stitches. Unable to let go of this unfinished, and frankly, stained and imperfect handicraft, I rescued Anna Mae’s painstaking labor from a black plastic garbage bag full of fabric in order to explore our connection, or lack thereof, via touch. Keeping the fragments intact, I used a sewing machine to attach them to a piece of similarly salvaged dark blue cotton with a floral print in bright shades of pink, on which I hand-embroidered the phrase, “I Don’t Know You but We Touch the Same Stuff.” I then filled the pillow with synthetic stuffing and installed a 5V vibrating motor—one of the sewable LilyPad Arduino components designed by Leah Buechley—attached to a felt button made with conductive fabric,v creating a simple circuit powered by two coin cell batteries that activates when the pillow is hugged. Incorporating Anna Mae’s project into my own required me to become intimately familiar with how it was made.

 

 

Rather than view the incomplete patchwork as a failure on Anna Mae’s part, I see her handiwork as a sign of her improvisational approach to craft, evidence not only of her technical skill but also her personality, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Beyond that, there is very little I can know about her from this handmade object alone. Kersey is one of many small villages in Pennsylvania that survived on milling and coal, located just north of Dagus Mines, a company town on the 36-foot wide seam of coal known as the Kittaning seam; given this, it seems unlikely that Anna Mae was a wealthy housewife with little to do, crafting for “fun.” She may have even been a child. In lieu of specific information about the context in which she crafted, I was faced with the limits of my own knowledge, forced to rely on a haptic epistemology in which I used touch and feel, as well as my familiarity with specific crafting techniques, to learn about her project. By allowing myself to be guided by someone else’s partial creative vision, in addition to my own vague ideas about who Anna Mae was, I entered into a speculative relationship with an unknown crafter, confronting the impossibility of becoming as intimate with her as I would have liked. A collaboration across time and space between an uncommunicative, possibly deceased stranger and a presumptuous materials fetishist with a compulsive need for new projects, my relationship with Anna Mae Greene is a queer one, defined by ambivalent affects and feelings whose edges are fuzzy.

I can caress Anna Mae’s stitches, experiencing the material trace of what amounts to several hours or more of her hands’ accumulated labor—the paths outlined first by her imagination and her eyes, then by her fingertips, her pencil, and the point of her needle; the twist of strands taut against woven cotton, the ends of the floss fluffy after their expert knots. I can feel the fragile fabric, semi stiff from being ironed long ago, limp and worn in other places, slowly giving up. I gingerly pick it up by the edges and support its imperceptible weight with outspread fingers. There are no loose stitches, no snarls; everything is neat, intentional, except where the discoloration and unfinished lettering betray the crafter’s careful plans. The fragment seems to float, torn from a quilt that may or not exist. Its bright colors and bold geometric motifs get lost in the busy floral patterns of the quilt made by my paternal grandmother, on the bed where, for lack of a better space, I lay out my sewing projects. My cat sometimes rests her gentle and dangerous paws on Anna Mae’s embroidery, daring me to trust her. Cats, and the crafts we practice in their watchful presence, keep us company as we queerly go about our domestic lives.


How long had the pieces of Anna Mae’s project sat in someone’s basement or attic before their creator, or one of her family members, finally decided to let them go, stuffing them into one of several large trash bags with an abundance of oddly shaped quilter’s fabrics? The embroidery on Anna Mae’s patchwork is tantalizingly unfinished, with one flourish at the top of the cursive capital ‘G’ outlined in pencil. More faded pencil marks hover around the capital ‘P’ in the abbreviated “Pa.” In addition to being incomplete, the embroidery is marred by a small rust-colored stain that washes over “Pa.” Is this why the pieces were never finished, or did the discoloration happen later, when the work was already stashed away and forgotten? Despite what Anna Mae herself may have considered imperfections—assuming, that is, that she was as critical of her work as I am of mine—I cannot help but appreciate the perfectly executed French knot she used for a period, her tightly curved and even stitches, the time that went into cutting out each of the yellow diamonds and sewing them to the hexagons while leaving the exact amount of seam allowance. Examining the pieces for clues to how they were made, I notice that one of the diamonds was missing a piece, its corner created from a scrap of matching fabric whose immaculate angles let it blend in with the others. I admire and envy quilters’ ability to impose symmetry on irregular remnants, finding a use for every last fragment that their craft inevitably produces.

The desire to relate to unknown crafters—to claim them for my own purposes, however driven by good intentions I think I might be—is troubled by the refrain, “I Don’t Know You but We Touch the Same Stuff,” which inevitably became etched into my memory during repetitive acts of stitching it in light pink cotton floss to the back of the pillow. Imagined as a direct address not just to Anna Mae but also to the innumerable anonymous crafters past, present, and future, the phrase interrupts any false sense of certainty on my part or the reader’s that we know exactly why or how anyone practices a particular form of cultural production. A disavowal that is still cautiously optimistic (“I don’t know you but”), it suggests that the only thing that might connect myself and someone like Anna Mae is the materiality of craft—the world of things (“we touch the same stuff”). Here “stuff” evokes the materials used in fiber crafts, specifically textiles used for making clothes and furnishings; it also refers to the synthetic stuffing inside the pillow. I touch the same stuff, the same fabric and thread that Anna Mae held in her hands. Anyone who hugs the pillow also touches what we have made, squeezing the stuffing that provides our soft shapes with form, dimensionality, and substance. In a sense they are hugging a space, by no means an empty one, created from the “stuff” of our collective labor.

Turning a quilt-that-never-was into a pillow made a material connection possible, creating a form that could be pressed deep into the body—that can withstand affection and other feelings. Somewhere between home decor and bedding, pillows are designed to be luxurious as well as functional; they should look and feel inviting, providing support and a comfortable place to rest. As Ela Przybylo points out in her interview with Ada Jaarsma about making pillows in an earlier issue of No More Potlucks, pillows invite us to think about “the textured ambivalences of intimacy” (2017). We perform some of our most intimate and vulnerable quotidian acts with (or on) pillows: sleeping, cuddling, having sex, being sick, easing our aching joints, feeling depressed, taking out our anger and frustration. Well-loved pillows can become quite disgusting as their prolonged proximity to bodies, human and otherwise, exposes them to dirt, hair, skin cells, bodily fluids, smoke, food and drink, and pest infestations. They are therefore leaky objects—quite literally so when the stuffing pokes through their seams—and they bear evidence of their social lives in the form of stains, weird smells, threadbare spots, and eventually the inability to hold their shape. We destroy them through daily use and sometimes, because they’ve done so much for us, we have trouble getting rid of them. Pillows cushion us from our daily failures and anxieties, physically supporting our bodies in ways that are often more dependable and less judgmental than the emotional support of some of our human companions.

Hugging “I Don’t Know You/Anna Mae” is a gesture of intimacy that brings the participant into contact with fiber, literally smushing together the products of different generations of craft in the process. The pillow has to be hugged or touched in order to activate the 5V motor inside. Muffled by fabric and stuffing, its vibration is difficult to hear or see, quieter and less powerful than that of a cell phone. In order to fully experience the work, the hugger has to expose themselves to the gesture: to a public or private performance of intimacy with the craft of at least one unknown woman, to the sometimes surprising act of taking comfort in something—the sensation of giving in, perhaps reluctantly, to softness. The vibrating motor might draw the hugger deeper into an embrace, or startle and repel them. After all, pillows are not supposed to move or purr, but to respond to our touch with passivity—to give. How does it feel to be touched back? To be surprised by the agency and power of an ordinary object that we may underestimate or overlook? To give in to touching and being touched?

 

To critically practice feminist art forms such as fiber craft is to continue to love their legacies in spite of their imperfections and limitations—to be committed, still, to their radical transformation in the present. To know such legacies intimately and to attempt to repair them is also to confront the gesture of power inherent in the desire to save or fix. Repair requires ongoing material and affective labor, but it does not always make things whole again. Some things cannot be repaired, only remade.

References

Auther, Elissa. “ ‘He is survived by his longtime companion’: Feeling in the Work of Josh Faught.” Art Practical 6.3, 26 February 2015.

cárdenas, micha. “Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms.” Scholar and Feminist Online 13.3.-14.1 (2016).

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

Vaccaro, Jeanne. “Felt Matters.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 20.3 (November 2010): 253-266.

Melissa Rogers is a queer feminist crafter, zinester, and diy art activist educator. She holds a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her dissertation, from which this essay is adapted, examines craft-based knowledge production in contemporary art worlds and commercial maker movements. Her writing and fiber art has appeared in the online journals Lateral and Hyperrhiz, the Gayle Morris Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative and Media Commons: A Digital Scholarly Network, the edited collection Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities (forthcoming, 2017), the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University Camden, and the Middendorf Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is a member of the Fembot Collective and Prototype: a feminist makerspace in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She currently works as a teaching artist in the MAKESHOP at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where she teaches woodworking, electronics, and workshops on fiber craft techniques such as weaving, embroidery, knitting, and soft circuitry.