The Language of Wool by Elliot Maud
As a queer disabled Filipinx-American maker and wordsmith, I strive to move through the world in deliberate gentleness and fierce dedication to justice. Wool is one of my best reminders and tools for staying soft, yet strong; through it I have transmuted unimaginable pain into peace, trauma into tenderness. To get lost in my knitting feels like floating in a body-temperature pool, somewhere both within and outside myself. It feels like connecting with my inner child, breathing clarity and resilience into them.
But the act of knitting also hurts sometimes, both physically and emotionally.
When wool is held up to the intersections of race, disability, gender, sexuality, and class, treacherous obstacles arise, often disguised as flowering vines. The fibre community is an incredibly lonely place to be when the closest you can get to inclusion is to perch on the margins, peering in.
I gave up knitting altogether some years ago, having lost interest and access. Everything about fibre arts felt out of my reach. It wasn’t until early 2019, when overdue conversations on antiracism and accessibility in the fibre world began pushing through the packed soil of precedent and niceties (the seeds for such conversations being planted and watered by BIPOC fibre artists for season upon season beforehand, I should note), that I began to understand the depths of what wool could mean. How it could impact lives so, so deeply. How suddenly some of us, more of us than ever it felt, had crashed into each other and knew we were meant to be held together, to be of the same marled and growing fabric. How we were speaking, through legions and generations of stitches and rage and experience, a new-old common tongue.
I think wool can certainly hold meanings and messages that are impossible to express through any other medium. And if wool is its own language, it too has the capacity to be weaponised. Wool and English have much in common by this logic. Both worlds are constructed with whiteness as the default; both tend to assume their baselines are automatically or easily met by all when in reality they are only met by a privileged few. But both also carry the potential to be dismantled and reimagined more beautifully than we can currently comprehend.
If wool has become a colonised/coloniser’s language, then the surprise many white knitters express in my interest and literacy in wool is comparable with white people expressing surprise that I speak “such good English.” My fluency in English, while an enormous privilege, reinforces my “model minority” status (which I reject obstinately) and makes me a direct product of the systemic blotting out of human history with its notoriously white, opaquely tyrannous substance. I am painfully aware that my “eloquence” is often measured on an inherently white rubric, and as such I do not write without a sense of loss much larger than myself. Thus, I refuse to entertain these same colonial dynamics within the language of wool.
Whenever I knit there is a residual inner voice (amongst many outside forces) telling me I don’t belong, and that I am assimilating into something I don’t really want to be. Knitting, with all its warm fuzzy squishy poetic goodness, is still a harsh and oppressive tongue to me and an even sharper, less forgiving one towards many others with less privilege than me. It is “just” about knitting in the fibre world the same way it’s “just” about proper grammar in academia — which is to say, rarely.
If English is now a globalised language, why do only a select smattering of predominantly white scholars get to make and uphold the rules? The same question can be asked of ourselves regarding fibre arts (and, well, everything). What stereotypes and biases do our rubrics for goodness and success rely on? Why, if the fibre community lauds itself on its diversity and inclusivity, do so many of its members feel ostracised?
How can we represent our cultures and pour our hearts and souls into our knitting without being appropriated and commodified and tokenised?
What if we used one of the most diverse, universal mediums known to craft-kind as a decolonial agent, a mutual aid network, an amplifier for marginalised voices, a modality for active listening, a vessel for unapologetic expression of the full self? What if we expanded our vocabularies to be fully intersectional; what if our new-old language of wool is still something pliable and nebulous?
United we build our decolonised yarn stashes and cultures and dialects, with wool as an ongoing opportunity to challenge precedent and wield yet-to-be-bridled chaos into something workable. Wool in the face of fear. Wool in the hands of the revolutionaries, the stimming, the migrants, the poor, the chronically ill, the abolitionists, the accomplices, the agitators; we who are followed around or ignored at our LYS, we who are not “nice” enough, we who don’t give the store or dyer a second thought unless all of us are welcomed with our wheelchairs and canes and fat and melanin and natural hair and hijab and sensory needs and queerness and transness and otherness, too. Wool, which can and should be ripped back and recalculated and reworked over and over to hug each body just so. Yes, each.
If not together, how else will we get there? This world is a tangled and felted mess, but you cannot cut yourself out. We need the thread intact, see? We are knitting ourselves into a bright, decolonised future. Look at the love in our every stitch.
Thank you, Elliot, for your words.