Textile Craft and Covid-19

Written by Lynn Abrams

Much has been written about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on craft with many mainstream and social media outlets latching on to an apparent upsurge in making during lockdown. Knitting, sewing, quilting, and embroidery in particular have enjoyed a renaissance as those of us who are ‘staying at home’ find the practices of making something with the hands both calming and productive. Mindful crafting had been promoted as an antidote to too much screen time before this crisis; now craft has been embraced as something to calm anxiety and ease the isolation that so many are experiencing. (1) Social media is awash with crafters exhibiting their projects, and knit-alongs and other participatory craft projects have been bringing together makers around the world, especially in the absence of face to face knitting groups and wool festivals. One knock on effect of all of this is that craft supplies retailers have seen a growth in demand as people go online to purchase yarn, patterns, needles and other materials. (2) And no doubt a record will be kept of this upsurge in creative making; the V&A’s ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ initiative is already on the lookout for the material culture of the pandemic which might include the home-made face masks as well as the mountains of knitted socks, scarves and mittens. (3)

Knitting as an example of mindful crafting
Knitting as an example of mindful crafting

But while many of us are taking the opportunity to learn a new craft skill or simply do more of the one we enjoy (more of this in our next blog), there is another use to which traditional making skills are being put. An army of sewers has been putting their needle skills to good use by producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at home. Up and down the country, mainly women, many of whom would formerly have been employed as home or outworkers for the ready-to-wear clothing industry, have dusted down their sewing machines and started making scrubs for NHS and care workers. (4) Skills and knowledge which have in recent years been devalued, have suddenly been discovered and valued once again in the midst of a crisis as governments around the world compete to access PPE and fail.

Even knitting is being deployed to help the Covid-effort, with people knitting hearts (to be sent to patients who are unable to see their family). And at least one project to knit the virus by Helen Brownett at the Framework Knitters’ Museum has created ‘beauty out of ugliness’. (5)

Pattern and wool for a knitting project

So far then the story has been a largely positive one of people rediscovering craft, either for their own enjoyment and relaxation, or to amuse and engage their children or to assist the national effort to ‘Save the NHS, Save Lives’.

But of course making stuff requires time and usually money and access to the necessary materials. The luxury of having the free time or money to knit that sweater or make a dress is not available to everyone. Key workers are probably finding less time to enjoy their crafts. Moreover, the resurgence of craft in the UK in the last few years has arguably been concentrated amongst the resource and time rich. The growth in the popularity of hand knitting is a case in point. While knitting can be undertaken with few tools and inexpensive yarn, there has been an upsurge in locally sourced wool, organic wool, and designer yarns. The recent interest in provenance, wool miles and authenticity – themes the Fleece to Fashion team are keen to research – has raised the profile of Scottish (and local) products but the small scale of production and the bespoke designs and products, whether that be small batches of particular rare-breed yarns or of hand-dyed skeins, mean prices are usually higher than one would pay for yarns from a large manufacturer.

Socks knitted in hand-dyed 100% North Ronaldsay wool from Orkney
Knitted in hand-dyed 100% North Ronaldsay wool from Orkney

Moreover, as craft bodies, interest groups and producers of all the accoutrements required to make things by hand have been proclaiming an upsurge in interest and online sales, at the same time the sector is already anticipating a crisis as craftspeople and microbusinesses suffer from cancellation of craft events and the closing down of retail. The Heritage Crafts Association in a survey of members found that 56% believed there was less than a 50:50 chance of their business surviving the next six months. (6)

And it isn’t only the small-scale entrepreneurs in the craft sector who are affected. Manufacturing has largely shut down. The global economic crisis that is sure to follow will likely depress spending, especially on non essentials. The restrictions on international travel will possibly impact the retail sales of the Scottish luxury knitwear brands as customers from the far east and North America stay away. It is difficult to know if online sales will take up the slack but such is the connection between the Scottish landscape and Scottish knitted textiles that it is hard to see how sales cannot be affected when customers cannot experience for themselves the jumper or blanket that so perfectly reflects the aesthetic qualities of the Scottish landscape. Textile tourism has been extremely successful in Scotland in recent years with enthusiasts from across the world joining tours to visit Scotland’s textile producing areas, from the Borders to Shetland. And Shetland Wool Week had grown exponentially since its founding in 2009, attracting knitting and wool aficionados to this small archipelago in the autumn and providing a stimulus to businesses on the islands. (7) The knock-on effects of the shut down during the pandemic will be far-reaching and not only impacting on textile producers.

Programme form a previous year to illustrate that Shetland Wool Week 2020 has been cancelled
Shetland Wool Week 2020 has been cancelled

The Fleece to Fashion team at the University of Glasgow is observing these events from the perspective of knitted textiles. While we are excited to see the upsurge in craft production and especially in knitting we are also concerned at the potential negative impact on the sector as a whole, especially in Scotland. As the centre of luxury and high quality knitted textiles and with its long history of adaptation and creativity in the face of external threats to the industry, Scotland is however, well placed to ride out the storm. (8)

[1] https://www.artshub.co.uk/news-article/features/covid-19/gina-fairley/covid-19-has-been-a-boon-for-crafts-260157 See also: https://www.countryfile.com/how-to/knitting-mindfulness-nature/, and Rachel Matthews, The Mindfulness in Knitting: Meditations on Craft and Calm (2016).

[2] https://nmpidigital.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-Impacts-on-Arts-Crafts-Retail-US.pdf

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/may/04/museum-covid-19-v-and-a-pandemic-coronavirus-objects

[4] See https://stitchedvoices.wordpress.com/2020/04/05/making-masks-reflections-on-sewing-in-times-of-covid-19/

[5] https://www.frameworkknittersmuseum.org.uk/beauty-out-of-ugliness-museums-knitted-covid-19-set-to-go-viral/

[6] https://heritagecrafts.org.uk/covid19-financial-support/

[7] https://www.shetlandwoolweek.com/about/

[8] On the history of the Scottish knitwear industry see C.Gulvin, The Scottish Hosiery and Knitwear Industry 1680-1980 (1984).