Skip to main content

Behind The Stitches: Jenna Wolf

Behind The Stitches: Jenna Wolf



Many of you have been asking me my thoughts on the issues in the crafting community surrounding diversity. Though this issue is nothing new within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community. It is just now becoming a topic of conversation in other circles too. The most recent (at the time this post goes live) in a long list of disappointments in the crafting industry comes from the crafting magazine Making. The theme of their 7th edition is entitled "Desert" and features ZERO stories, write ups, patterns, or images from Indigenous makers. Insert a gif of my palm hitting my head over and over again.


This story blew up after a post from a crafter named Jenna Wolf. I could easily put out a full post on my initial reaction to this story. But while this topic is obviously very close to my heart, this story is not my story to tell. The best thing any of us can do right now is learn to listen, hear (no those are not the same things), and hand the microphone (or in this case blog) over to the voices that are so often spoken over. My hope is that by hearing this story from Jenna's perspective we can learn from our collective mistakes and do better next time.


"Portrait in my hand knit Transmute, 2017"
Sam: How long have you been crafting?

Jenna: I have been making since I was small. My parents made lots of things by hand; my mum sewed and crocheted, my dad was a peyote beader, woodworker, and developed his own photos. We were inundated with making all the time, so I almost feel like there wasn’t ever a beginning.

"Being “Phenomenally Indigenous” is always a part of all of my making because it is who I am and we never step outside of that experience."

Sam: What is your preferred craft? Who taught you?

Jenna: I seriously learned to crochet and knit in my late teenage years; my sister primarily taught me and helped me develop a deeper love for these particular fiber crafts; I think one of the motivations was proactive distraction. My dad passed away very suddenly when I was 16 and my eldest sister, already graduated from college, returned home to help. I think she figured I needed something to do with my hands, to distract me in a time of unending grief, and to give me something outside of myself to work on. She may have even understood the restorative power of knitting, but certainly didn’t share that with me at the time (insert teenage eye roll). She just sat down and taught me and I remember it being a battle at first. I was grieving and I took that out on her, unfairly, in a lot of ways. But she persisted and thanks to her, I fell deeply in love with this craft; it provides me with comfort, relaxation, focus, escapism, and even hearty frustration depending on what I need on a given day, that has lasted me long into adulthood.


"I dyed this yarn in the AZ desert; technique is a 4 month solar dye
with guajillo peppers and black beans."
When she was in college, she knit me a sweater in this gorgeous yarn spun in Vermont that was a rich merlot color. It had a rolled collar (very popular in the early 1990s!) and it was just too warm to wear; I’d sweat beyond belief every time I tried to show it off at school and felt guilty stuffing it in a drawer. I still have the sweater; she even updated it at one point to change the neckline. She worked out a lot of issues around gauge she had by knitting this sweater. I realized that sweater represented a generosity I wanted to reciprocate someday, which is why maybe I clicked with knitting and crochet pretty quickly and never quit on it.

Sam: It's kind of a big question, but how has your making practice been influenced and informed by your connection to your culture?


Peyote bead church key, 2017
Jenna: One of the most important aspects of any Indigenous art involves the intertwining of materials used, design, and the natural environment. These relationships are central to the making. As a result, I spend a lot of my own time around my makes thinking about the materials used; in more freeform making, I allow the materials to dictate the outcome, rather than trying to manipulate them to suit a particular outcome. Culture and experience as an Indigenous person doesn’t often present itself in my knitting, however, it is an important aspect of other aspects of my creative life. For instance, my peyote jewelry often pays attend to both traditional motifs as well as more contemporary designs and my hobbyist block printing and textile design are often influenced by the current political landscape for Indigenous peoples in the United States (see my NO DAPL print from 2017).

Being “Phenomenally Indigenous” is always a part of all of my making because it is who I am and we never step outside of that experience.

Sam: From your perspective, how has the crafting community treated BIWOC in the past?


PROTECT OAK FLAT hand cut block print, 2017
Jenna: I think the crafting community has, at times, unintentionally and intentionally left out BIPOC through their social landscape, business transactions, and exclusivity in supplies, tools, and patterns. There can be a general assumption that BIPOC do not have disposable income to spend on luxury materials which is bookended by a belief that if you can’t afford the latest, most exclusive fiber or bag, you aren’t worthy of membership in the dialogue or the making space. Most of the fiber influencers are white women who sell a look and experience that negates other voices, tastes, and ideas. The community actually thinks it revolves around unique looks but in reality, it’s selling a certain kind of uniformity.

Additionally, it sets a tone around if statements that create exclusionary behavior: if you don’t own a capsule wardrobe, if you don’t make one garment a week, if you don’t attend a making retreat, if you don’t always knit with…, if you don’t design…, if you can’t afford ethical fashion, if you can’t fit into the sizes provided…and on.. I’ve even witnessed knitters “othering” exclusively crocheters on Instagram. Recently, crochet has come back into “fashion”, with patterns lately seen in key publications. But, for years, I noticed and interacted with folx who held an elitist gaze that placed crocheting as “hobbyist”, which is totally absurd.

Instead of celebrating each others makes, a value system is placed upon those doing the making which is rooted in what kind of making and with which supplies. This ultimately does more harm to BIPOC than other groups and excludes them not only from the same shopping, class taking, and making experiences, but from the very conversation itself, whether in person or virtual.

"With conversations erupting in the knitting community around diversity and inclusion, I thought the editors would take care with the issue and at least have an editor’s note at the beginning around Indigenous making in the desert and it’s rich tradition."

Sam: What were your first thoughts when you heard about the theme Desert for the new edition of Making?


Solar dye vats
Jenna: I recall being captivated by a promotional image of the cover they floated to audiences a few months before release; as a subscriber from the beginning, I was immediately excited and anticipation high. I am inspired by the colors, fauna, and mesas whenever I visit and thought the issue would really speak to my love for the landscape. With conversations erupting in the knitting community around diversity and inclusion, I thought the editors would take care with the issue and at least have an editor’s note at the beginning around Indigenous making in the desert and it’s rich tradition. I thought they might interview a Native artist working in the desert like the Navajo (Diné) weaving workshop visited in Issue 7: Cold of Knit Wit Magazine (note in the Knit Wit piece by Noelle Sharp, she provides a note that she is a visitor to the Navajo weaving experience--this statement is key and a place where I’ve seen a publication do good work).


Even in the absence of inclusion conversations, the Diné are well known for their rug weaving outside the Southwest. To ignore their process and art would be a misstep in any discussions of fiber as it relates to the American desert. It is as ubiquitous as the sun and the cacti that dot the landscape.

Sam: What were your thoughts after you read the magazine?

Jenna: Utter disappointment coupled with that feeling of dread for getting my hopes up that someone would see, listen to, and include my fellow Indigenous fiber artists. I immediately vented to my partner, Sean, who is Diné, about the exclusion and he shrugged and said, “Why are you surprised by this? You should know better. This is a time honored tradition in America.” I sighed and agreed and left the magazine on the dining room table for a few days. Eventually, I reached out to a trusted friend, small business owner, and woman of color in the industry and asked her to take a second look for me.

“Did I miss something?”


SMILE AT RACISM screen print, 2016
The answer was no. The gaping hole was there. I hadn’t missed it in the four times I flipped through the magazine frantically looking for the spread on an Indigenous fiber artist or a think piece on Native Americans of the Southwest who have been influencing design for centuries.

My initial interactions with Desert No. 7 were, as follows:
Anticipation. Excitement. Disbelief. Re-exploration. Vented frustration. Disappointment. Sadness. Clarification (Hi, phone a friend!). Validation. Anger. Resentment. Recalibration. Reaching out. Thoughtful contemplation. And then action in inaction.

"It felt like they were cornering me into freeing them of any wrong doing with my patience and understanding"


Sam: What moved you to write to Making?

Jenna: I initially reached out to the magazine privately. I didn’t want to shame and blame; after all, Indigenous people, more generally, have been ignored and left out of the American conversation for hundreds of years. It’s not that Making had committed some egregious sin others have not. I thought a private message would point out a blind spot and in doing so, there would be some correction. I didn’t want to call them out on my own page; I wanted to give them space to process with me, acknowledge. And then act.


Peyote style drop earrings, 2018
Sam: What was their initial response?

Jenna: They immediately recognized the blind spot and shared they had work to do, which I valued. They explained a few vague steps they were taking--the mention of a diversity statement on their website and a future series of posts to their blog about Indigenous makers in the United States. They stressed they would look harder at future issues. However, they were quick to blame printing timelines for the exclusion; the conversation had erupted in the knitting community after Desert went to press, so there wasn’t anything they could do to include a statement or a new voice into the issue. It was this that insulted me most.

I wasn’t looking for excuses for why Indigenous voices were ignored. And I certainly didn’t feel like their justification was one I would admit to. It felt like yet another example in a long line of examples of white centered businesses in the fiber world making excuses for their blind spots. I was also thanked and a prayer hands emoji was included as closing. It felt deeply patronizing. It felt like they were cornering me into freeing them of any wrong doing with my patience and understanding--it felt like they were asking for absolution.


NO DAPL hand cut block for printing, 2017
I waited about a week for a public acknowledgement; a statement about the lack of Indigenous voices or recognition in Making. A note about what they will do in the future to work towards a more inclusive, whole publication that sees the beauty in fiber artists who not only don’t look like them, but have shaped the very landscapes to which they seek inspiration and centered themselves in a discovery, by them and for them.

And it never came. What came was repost after repost of their subscribers singing praise for the issue. And bundles of white sage (don’t get me even started…) in promotional shots over and over again. It felt like I was being doubly ignored. If I didn’t sing praises, they sure weren’t going to publicly acknowledge my concerns (and later, I learned, a bunch of others’ concerns too).

It felt like I was being ignored. Put off. It felt like I wasn’t worthy of a dialogue with them. If I wasn’t praising, I didn’t exist. Erasure. Again. This time, of a different sort.

"I wrote it because I couldn’t, in good conscience, let my people be erased from our collective experience yet again."

Sam: Are you surprised by the response you’ve received?


NO DAPL hand cut block for printing, 2017
Jenna: I am surprised by the numerous comments I’ve read that are supportive because I’m articulate and balanced. That I was fair and gracious and generous with my time. I’m not surprised by that response, largely from white women, but that is heavy and coded. BIPOC will understand this. I didn’t want to be unfair because the artists included in the issue are talented and deserve their work to be seen, consumed, and celebrated. I didn’t want to alienate fellow makers of mine in the ways I feel BIPOC have been. But to be told I’m worthy of likes and reshares because I’m gracious, thoughtful, or conveyed my feelings really well, it’s a difficult pill to swallow.

Many of my fellow BIPOC makers reached out; not one of them mentioned graciousness, balance, agreement as it relates to fairness, or articulation. And that’s the difference. I didn’t write it looking for validation from a white audience. I didn’t write it fishing for follows or exposure or even potential jobs (thanks, I have one!). I wrote it because I couldn’t, in good conscience, let my people be erased from our collective experience yet again. I couldn’t ignore it after the many BIPOC makers have spent countless hours in recent months taking risk to share reality; they did harder work than I could imagine, and I owed them not only my support, but my engagement and ally ship in the work.

Sam: Who are some of the Indigenous, artists, designers, crafters, & makers that have inspired you?


Jenna:
@naiomiglasses Dine weaver
@dmace13, a Diné textile and weaving fine artist
@indigo_arrows, an Anishinaabe modern home goods designer
@j.okuma, an Indigenous fashion artist
@byellowtail, a Northern Cheyenne/Crow fashion designer
@indigofibershed, a NC Toisnot Tuscarora/Florida Seminole textile artist
@alymcknight, a Shoshone-Bannock painter and beader
@eliasnotafraid, a Crow beader
@ququtsunmade, a Coast Salish apothecarist
@catherinebjewellery, an English River First Nation jewelry designer
@cdickdesigns, a two-spirited Tahltan knitting designer
@native.knitter, a Diné knitter
@scienceofstring, an Indigenous knitter

“My shadow and the desert mesas while preparing a dye pot in AZ, 2013.”

Sam: What are your hopes for the crafting community going forward?

Jenna: Humility.

White makers who have large audiences to stop centering dialogue around their own experiences, their own discoveries, and their own feelings and fragilities—-could you imagine if they were suddenly erased, ignored, or left unseen by the rest of us? Recognition that the things they make may have been influenced or stolen from BIPOC. And that they need to do the work themselves and stop asking BIPOC to find their blind spots for them and absolve them of making change because they are capable of apologizing.

-Jenna Wolf

Thank you Jenna for trusting me with your story.


Comments

Popular This Month

Behind The Stitches: Joice Oveja

Behind The Stitches: Joice Oveja


Crochet with London Kaye: Book Review

I once read or watched or heard on a podcast (sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember these things. I have such an active imagination that I can read an article and then a year later swear that I watched a documentary) and in it they said the Missoni household is covered in their famous zigzags. I have a vivid image, imagined or not, of all three generations in their living room. Their rugs, couch, blankets, pillows, and outfits are covered in the zigzags. I remember thinking that was how I would love to live my life. That your passion for what you love could be so great that it simply can’t be contained in one aspect of your life. It oozes out until your whole world is consumed by it. No one visits the Missoni home and wonders what they do for a living.

I was reminded of this vivid memory or daydream while I was flipping through the pages of London Kaye’s new book Crochet with London Kaye, Projects and Ideas To Yarn Bomb Your Life. This book is more than a how-to book. While it do…

A Ripple Effect

It’s not easy to find a pattern that is flattering on so many different body types. The Ripple Bralette by Jessie Mae Martinson has become ‘the sisterhood of the traveling pants’ of the knitting world. I’ve always felt a little left out when patterns like this become popular. Mostly because of my own self imposed limitations. After spending hours praying to grow boobs and repeating the Judy Bloom song “I must, I must, I must increase my bust”, my boobs came in with a vengeance at around the age of thirteen. Unfortunately, so did the feeling that certain outfits were no longer for me. I would look at tops in magazines or on the runway and think “that would be so cute on someone else”. I had to work really hard to get to a place where I accepted my body and even harder to get to a place where I love it. Honestly I thought that was a milestone that I had passed several years ago… until the Ripple Bralette.

It popped up randomly in my search feed. So did the negative inner dialogue that I …

Yarn & The City: #WhyIMake

Making has always been in my life even if I didn't always know that at the time. Recently LoveCrafts asked bloggers to tackle this seemingly simple question. Why do you make? It seemes like the perfect opportunity for me to open up a little more and tell you about my own crafting journey. My life can be mapped out in a series of handmade objects. Not all of them were made by myself. But they all formed who I am in one way or another. A quilt made for the underground railroad, a wedding gift from a stranger, a lumpy sweater, hand-dyed hanks, and crochet mandalas. One having little to do with the other except for the fact that they all made me the maker that I am today.

Behind The Stitches: Holly O'Rourke

“As with everything, finding balance is (and will always be) a WIP... I am working on compartmentalizing and focusing, in all areas of life.”