It’s time to be completely honest with ourselves.
I know that most of us reading right now are women.
And when we see a man who sews or quilts, we have an immediate reaction.
Especially if he’s successful.
“What is he doing here?”
“He must be gay.”
“How did he get into sewing?”
“He got that book deal because he’s a guy.”
“What’s so special about him?”
It’s understandable – to a point. Because seeing men in sewing fields “is like seeing an albino cocker spaniel,” said Kenneth D. King, the acclaimed couture designer and contributor to Threads Magazine. “They kind of stand out.”
But guess what?
When we women spout off crappy assumptions about men who sew, we’re being hypocrites.
When I was a reporter, I covered the police/fire beat. And I liked it. My other degree is in criminal justice, and I have enough books around my house about murder and autopsies and white collar crime and serial killers that nobody.had.better.die in my house. Ever. Because the police will suspect that I did it based on my library of horrors.
But, in my first reporting job, I had to fight for that beat after the previous cops reporter announced his departure – because a male reporter wanted the job as well.
I actually overheard the editor say she thought she would give it to the guy because he had also been in the military and would be better at the job of talking to the manly men.
I protested and landed the beat. And I put up with the cops showing me photos of bodies and gross stuff and driving fast around turns while I sat in the passenger’s seat of their squad cars because they were secretly trying to make me vomit. It was the mid-1990s and even then I was the first female police reporter that newspaper ever had.
To be clear, I would have puked in my mouth and swallowed rather than give them the satisfaction of seeing me get sick.
And I had to deal with getting paid less than the other guy (oddly, I found out because he showed me his pay stub and asked me to decipher the taxes that were being withheld.). Later, at another paper, I overheard a guy say that I won a certain prestigious award only “because of the subject matter.” And more than once a reporter at a smaller, but competing, newspaper described me, in a column he wrote, as “cocquettish” (i.e., flirtatious, seductive.).
I mean, seriously, people.
Couldn’t my success have been because – I don’t know – I was a dang good reporter?
But when I first saw successful guys who sewed, I had that little thought in my head, “that sewing guy is popular just because he’s a guy…”
…and then I was ashamed of myself.
I want to be judged by my work and not my gender.
And so do the men in the sewing and quilting field.
They’re men. They sew. Let’s get over ourselves.
“I know my gender has opened some doors, but it’s closed more than it’s opened,” said Thomas Knauer, a quilter, fabric designer and author of Modern Quilt Perspectives. (that’s my Amazon affiliate link for a darn good quilting book that I highly recommend).
“I say – look at my background, my work. They’re not just going to give me a book deal because I’m a guy,” Thomas said.
Thomas was a pure, theoretical artist and professor of experimental new media – essentialy art done by using “new media” like computer graphics and the like. Then he became ill….had to leave a job he loved, and discovered fabric design. For awhile he considered himself a fabric designer first and a quilter second, but now he sees himself primarily as a quilter.
I chatted with him on Skype from his temporary home in London (he’s an American, a North Easterner). Thomas is a cerebral guy, a dad with two kids – the photo near the top of this post is of him, sewing with his daughter – and he thinks a lot about gender stereotypes in the sewing industry.
Frankly, he’s felt a little beaten down by them.
The gender-specific language used in the field irritates him, to the point where he’ll drop out of a group if the leader sends out a letter or e-mail that starts with, “Hey, ladies.”
“They’re leading with the assumption that the audience is women. That sends a subconscious message that guys don’t belong,” Thomas said. “It hasn’t been horrible for me. It’s an annoyance…but it makes me not want to go to Quilt Market. It makes me increasingly reclusive.”
Thomas said he’s been left out of many small-group retreats specifically because he’s a man, and organizers don’t feel that 20-30 women would be comfortable sewing into the wee hours of the night with a guy there. He’s also been told that the women’s husbands “wouldn’t like it” anyway.
Kenneth, as well as quilter Molli Sparkles, however, have the double-whammy sewing field “differences” of being gay and being men, and gay-ness brings its own set of stereotypes and prejudices.
Kenneth has never had an issue with throwing his whole personality out there (the “D” in Kenneth D. King, he says, stands for “Diva,”) and figures if women don’t like it, then…..well, they’re missing out. He was told at the beginning of his career that he shouldn’t tell anyone that he’s gay – but he knew he was never going to “pass” as a straight guy.
We spoke by phone – his studio is located in one of the fashion capitals of the world, New York City. He shared that he began sewing for his Barbies when he was 4. His dolls drove nice cars and went to the opera and only wore evening gowns…(because why would they need anything but evening gowns anyway?).
He was a boy. And he sewed. Big freakin’ deal – it was in his blood.
He remembers seeing a note on a blog once where a woman complained that all the guys were coming into the sewing field and “ruining it.”
Ahem. Most of the sewing companies are owned by men and run by men, anyway, Kenneth pointed out. As for the sewing side, it’s often considered “women’s work” even though design tends to be based on math and geometry, which are traditionally “men’s fields.”
“It appeals to that whole engineering side of me,” Kenneth said. Fashion design “is applied geometry covering a three-dimensional shape.”
Although Kenneth is a leader in the fashion industry, he’s not been well-received in the South, he believes, because he’s gay…and not necessarily because he’s a guy.
“I am who I am,” he said. “Part of the reason I developed the reputation I’ve developed is because I am who I am. I teach a lot of what I want to know more of. The information is reliable and repeatable and I put it out in a clear and concise way.”
And that’s what learning from anyone should be all about, right?
Molli is a quilter from Oklahoma who now lives in Australia, and enjoys being – as he says – a subversive voice in the quilt industry. He started a “No Girls Allowed” quilt bee and blogs at MolliSparkles.com.
“I grew up with Grandma Sparkles making quilts. She never taught me to sew, but I definitely paid attention, and would often help her out with picking fabrics and laying out quilt blocks,” he wrote to me in an email. “I’d be her runner back and forth from the living room (design) floor and her sewing machine. High heels are not easy when you’re six years old, but you’ve got to start somewhere!”
A couple of years ago he made a quilt for his grandma to thank her for all of the kind things she did for him throughout his life…and hasn’t looked back since.
He wrote that he’s not had too many negative experiences from being a guy in a field dominated by gals, aside from being on the receiving end of what he calls “stank eye” when he suggested fabrics to a woman in a quilt shop because her choices didn’t quite, shall we say, add beauty to the quilt.
“I am fully aware I am a minority in a female dominated environment, and I have often considered that part of the recognition I have received is because of this,” he wrote. “But then I think that is a dangerous road to go down, because I don’t like playing the minority card.
“I stopped caring what other people think a long time ago,” Molli wrote. “I’ve probably had more encouragement because of my gender, than the other way around. People are often pleasantly surprised to find that there is a man behind the woman (so to speak). It is somewhat of a rarity to find men who quilt, and quilt proudly, so I’m happy to be that vocal, card-carrying, flag-waving, diva-acting man who quilts!”
There’s one common thread (ha! thread!) that I noticed when talking with all three men.
They’re all confident, and likely, they’re better at speaking their minds honestly than many women in the sewing industry.
And it might be one reason that talented guys can rise to the top while some talented women languish and flounder.
Yep. We gals who, as Kenneth observed, “want to link arms and sing kum-bay-a”
…and, to be frank….don’t always want to stand up and admit…or are slow to admit….that we’re running a business.
Ouch. It kind of hurts. But I’ve seen it. I know it. I used to be afraid to charge too much. I still am.
Kenneth was never afraid to set his rates based on his high level of skill.
If people don’t appreciate his work…
…they can move on.
I heard it in the way the men talked about themselves and the language they used – Thomas isn’t afraid of using a well-placed f-bomb.
I’m afraid to offend people.
“I am more apt to speak my mind without fear of recourse,” wrote Molli. “Ask me my opinion, and I will tell you the heart-to-the-tiara truth, baby!”
I know that when asked an opinion, I’ll try to find a way to sugar-coat it so I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
Some of these differences are ingrained in our society, like it or not.
But we can change them, at least a little, in our well-cocooned sewing universe.
“The one thing I would love to see changed is that shift in the language assumption…the leading assumption that the audience is women,” Thomas said. He understands that every group – in this case, women who sew, like to protect their own domain.
But it’s not right to assume that men can’t be great at sewing and quilting, or to demean their work when they are.
Women would help themselves if they stopped painting their own stereotypes, Thomas said. You know – joking how we hide fabric in the car from our husbands or going on about how husbands don’t know the difference between fabric and paper scissors. Those little Victorian e-card memes habitually harp on gender differences rather than start conversations that can bring us closer together.
And if a guy gets any pushback by joining a sewing class, “I would tell guys just ignore the snootiness,” Kenneth said. “If you get any pushback, say I’m here to learn something. More men would do it if more other men would jump in and get it going.”
So…of course men and women are different.
But I could hang out with the cops.
And men can sew.
We can learn from each other.
We should all have our work judged based on talent, and not on gender.
Give talented men who sew some respect, even if we’ve been a little lax with it before.
Because isn’t that what we’ve been wanting all these years for ourselves?
Deanna McCool writes for sewmccool.com. Like reading about sewing? Check out this post on what an ill-mannered sewing blogger taught me. To make sure you don’t miss a post, please follow SewMcCool by e-mail (the link is at the top of the right-hand column) or join me on BlogLovin’ – the button is just below the e-mail feed box!