HerStory December 2019: Teri Rofkar

Raven's Tail

For the final HerStory of the year, we are honoring Native American artist-maker Teri Rofkar, whose Tlingit name was Chas’ Koowu Tla’a. She was born into the Raven Clan from the Snail House of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and was first introduced to traditional Tlingit weaving by her grandmother. It wasn’t until years later that she became, as she said, a “basket case,” consumed by weaving and immersing herself in traditional maker practices. Throughout her career, she explored the juxtaposition of the modern with the traditional, always striving for the connection of the traditional, but sometimes using modern techniques and technology to make a statement. Traditional Tlingit weaving is done on a very basic frame, not a loom as we know them today. For garments, mountain goat fur is the primary fiber used, and all of the dyeing is done using bark and lichen and moss that is found in the weaver’s natural surroundings. For traditional basket weaving, the weaver gathers spruce tree roots and ferns. The connection of the weaver and her materials to the natural world is just as important as the final pieces that are created.

A master at weaving in any medium, it was the traditional robes Rofkar wove that garnered the most attention. She would spend between 800 and 1400 hours on each robe, between foraging for materials, processing and dyeing the wool, using a drop spindle to hand spin all of the yarn, and then the actual weaving of the robe. She threw herself into learning traditional techniques, while retaining her modern sensibilities: “I listen to heavy metal when I work,” she explained during one interview. “Change is the one thing that is constant. Traditional arts continue because they adapt and change with society. I’m not changing the methodology. It is the same as it was thousands of years ago. My technique and my intent are still there.”

The colorway we created to honor Rofkar, Ravens Tail, is inspired by the robes she was best known for, the robes that took a year (plus) of her life to create. The Lituya Bay Robe that inspired Ravens Tail features a visual representation of the DNA strands of the mountain goat whose fiber was used to weave it. (Be sure to check out our website, so you can see the joyful photo of Teri Rofkar spinning in this stunning robe.) Rofkar passed away in 2016 at the age of 60, but her work lives on through a renewed interest in and passion for traditional weavings. When she first started weaving as an artist, there were fewer than 10 people exploring this art, but today there are many more, and they are teaching more (mostly women) to carry on this tradition. It’s what an artist like Teri would have hoped for; for an art so important to her culture to gain more ground and more practitioners.

HerStory November 2019: Alice Waters

Our November HerStory recipient is Alice Waters, who is known for her advocacy of local, organic, and healthful eating. She opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971, and helped to pioneer what’s now known as California cuisine, a food movement based around on using local and sustainable ingredients with a focus on foods in season. Immersing herself in local and sustainable food set Waters apart from much of what was happening in the food scene, and inspired her food activism. 

In developing Chez Panisse, Alice Waters realized that she had to create her own network of farmers and food producers, because the framework for organic, local foods simply did not exist. Her advocacy for organic foods arose as a matter of taste. Simply put, she discovered that organic foods just plain tasted better, and that’s why she started to use them and seek them out.

In 1996, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Chez Panisse and to further promote and expand on her own food activism, Waters created the Chez Panisse Foundation, with the mission of transforming public education by using food to teach, nurture, and empower young people. The foundation created the Edible Food Program and the School Lunch Initiative, both of which began in the Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, CA, but have been adopted by limited school districts nationwide. The Edible Food Program involves students in growing the food that is served in their school cafeteria, and promotes school gardens and gardening being incorporated into the daily curriculum. The School Lunch Initiative is focused on providing healthful school lunches to students. Waters is a vocal critic of existing American school lunch programs, and has been pushing for healthier options, based in organic ingredients. She inspired Michelle Obama’s planting of a White House garden, and was one of Obama’s inspirations in her Let’s Move campaign.

Waters continues to advocate for healthier school lunches for children in the USA. She is working to expand both the Edible Food Program and the School Lunch Initiative nationwide, and has been working toward free school lunches in all public schools in the US. She is also working with Yale University on a sustainable-food program, and is an integral part of the Slow Food Movement, which is dedicated to preserving local, sustainable, small-scale food programs around the world. Our Chez Yarn colorway is a playful celebration of good food, sustainable choices, and fibery tastiness. We hope you enjoy something local while knitting up this skein.

HerStory October 2019: Elsie Allen

Born in 1899, Elsie Allen spoke only her native Pomo language until the age of 11, when she was ripped from her family and forced by white American authorities to attend a boarding school for Native American children in California. After a few miserable years, she was able to leave the school and rejoin her family. It was then that she reconnected with her mother and grandmother and with the Pomo tradition of basketweaving.

The Pomo are indigenous to what is now California. They are known for their artistry in basketweaving. Baskets were essential to daily life: the Pomo didn’t have access to the clay that would have given rise to a pottery culture like many Native American tribes. Elsie was born into this rich tradition, passed down matrilineally from her mother and grandmother. As 20th century white supremacist America relentlessly encroached upon the lands and lives of the Pomo tribes, there was a very real danger that this tradition, along with the tribe itself, would fade out; even the plants used to create the baskets, considered weeds by the colonizers, were being eradicated. Added to these factors was the fact that when a revered member of the Pomo tribe dies, baskets are buried with them. When a Pomo basketweaver dies, the entirety of her work is buried with her. Thus there were not many examples of the craft for a young Elsie to use as inspiration and instruction. When Elsie’s mother was on her deathbed, she implored Elsie not to bury her life’s work, but instead to use it to further her own art. Elsie respected her mother’s wishes, and the family’s basket collection has been used to showcase the talent and artistry of the Pomo basketweaving culture. 

Throughout her life, Elsie Allen promoted Pomo women’s rights, carrying on a long-standing tradition of her tribe. She fought against racism and prejudice against Native Americans, and used her basketweaving skills to fundraise for organizations providing aid and support to Native American women and to raise awareness about Native American life and culture. She wrote books and taught workshops and worked at ensuring that the art form didn’t fade into the past. She fought for the rights of the First Nations people and was an advocate for Native women. She lived in a time of deep racism against Native Americans, but she chose to lift up her people through celebrating their amazing functional art and advocating for the human rights of her tribespeople.

Our October HerStory colorway, Pomo Basket, is a way for us to honor Elsie Allen’s work. We painted the skeins as if they were Pomo baskets, paying homage to the functional art of the Pomo tribe and to Elsie’s furthering of that art and knowledge.

HerStory September 2019: Joana Choumali

We’d love to introduce you to Joana Choumali. Her Awoulaba/Taille Fine project is so amazing, and the statement it makes about beauty standards and ideals is so powerful, that we had to share it with you all for our September HerStory. The image that most inspired the Crafted Perfection colorway we created is the final image of the project linked here: http://joanachoumali.com/index.php/projects/photography/awoulaba-taille-fine.

Joana Choumali is a visual artist based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire whose work often explores issues of identity and womanhood, mostly in African culture. She is currently delving into the use of embroidery over photography as a medium, and her most recent work is a stunning look at a town in trauma, as well as an inspiring artistic marriage of two different crafty art mediums. For HerStory, however, it’s her Awoulaba/Taille Fine project that grabbed us, and the statements the project makes about standards of beauty across the world. 

Awoulaba/Taille Fine explores the variances in standards of beauty among African and American/Western cultures using images of “perfect” body parts and Awoulaba mannequins all mixed together as indicators of a culture’s prevailing beauty ideals. In the early 2010s in Africa, mannequins began being produced/crafted that reflected a more African standard of beauty: wider hips, fuller breasts, heavier arms and legs. Called “Awoulaba,” meaning “Beauty Queens,” these mannequins were so unlike the more common “Taille Fine” (a term used to describe a more Western standard of beauty) mannequins usually seen that they inspired this project. The project blends the two in a way that is both jarring and beautiful. Choumali juxtaposed images of body parts of women in popular culture who embody different combinations of the two standards, making a powerful statement about aspirational beauty and the damage it can do. She asks of viewers the question: why are we aspiring to the generic, mannequin-like perfection society wants us to? Why not celebrate our uniqueness instead? And maybe most importantly, who is the keeper of the standards? From her website:

“They evoke the venus celebrities who embody perfect beauty in popular culture: Kim Kardashian (the white Awoulaba); Nikki Minaj (the light skinned Awoulaba); Naomi Campbell (the black Taille Fine); Lupita Niango (the black Taille Fine); and Beyonce (the light skinned Awoulaba).”

We hope you take some time to explore Joana Choumali’s visual art, and that we all realize that those standards of beauty that we aspire to are baloney. 

HerStory August 2019: Judith Jamison

August’s HerStory recipient, Judith Jamison, is a world-renowned ballet dancer and choreographer. Born in Philadelphia in the early 1940s, Judith Jamison was introduced to music at a young age. Her parents had wide-ranging musical interests, which they enthusiastically shared with young Judi, but it was dance that captured her heart. Her earliest dance teacher, Marion Cuyjet, recognized and was energized by Jamison’s immense talent. Judith was surrounded by the best of the best in dance, made even better by the fact that this danceratti was also black; the whole representation matters thing writ large. Even now, when just this past year, ballet shoes were finally made in colors that reflected brown skin tones, classical ballet and dance in America has existed more fully for white people than for people of color, so the fact that this young black girl was able to experience her passion by being taught by a woman of color, then, later, by being welcomed into and showcased by a black dance company (which she later was in charge of) is so important.

Now in her mid-70s, Jamison has transitioned to an Artistic Director Emerita status at her old dance company, but was with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for much of her career. She started as a dancer, whose failed audition for another dance company so beguiled Alvin Ailey that he offered her a position in his company, and Jamison later grew to become a close confidant and artistic muse of Ailey.  He choreographed the 1971 solo, Cry as a love letter to his mother, and specifically to be performed by Jamison. Ailey later dedicated it to “all black women everywhere, especially our mothers.” The dance solo, which Jamison had never performed in its entirety at once until the debut, celebrates feminine strength and resilience, and has been said to be very emotionally and physically taxing to perform.

Shortly before his death, Ailey asked Jamison to take over artistic directorship of his dance company. She had been building her own company, but realized that she could do such good work at the helm of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and she definitely did. She grew the company’s endowment many times over, helped launch a BFA program in collaboration with Fordham University, and was the driving force behind the building of the dance company’s permanent home, which is the largest building dedicated to dance in the USA. Her legacy is amazing and lasting, and she’s still going strong. She’s a true icon in the dance field, showcasing and uplifting the African American experience in dance and sharing her interpretation of that experience with the world. She’s won multiple awards, and continues to be recognized for her contribution to the dance world. We hope, as you knit your skein of Dancing Queen into beautiful pieces of your own art, you think about the doors this HerStory recipient opened for young black women all over.

HerStory July 2019: Amy Sherald

July’s HerStory recipient, Amy Sherald, became a household name when she was announced as Michelle Obama’s choice as portrait painter for her official First Lady portrait. Along with the artist tapped to paint Barack, they were the first black artists ever to paint official presidential portraits. Although she’s been painted (see what I did there?) as an overnight success, she’s been a working artist for decades, and has an amazing body of work. 

Sherald’s work focuses on the black experience in America. For the most part, her subjects are the only focal point in her paintings; backgrounds are mostly monochromatic (although some of her newer pieces feature backgrounds that are a part of the story the painting is telling) and it’s the person being painted you are drawn to. She exclusively paints black subjects, often stopping people in the street and asking if she can photograph them for her work, but deemphasizes their skin tone by rendering it grey (in her words, as a “way of challenging the concept of color-as-race”), while choosing bright colors and prints for their clothing and backgrounds. 

Sherald’s style has been described as “magical realism” or “stylized realism,” and she is a portrait artist, first and foremost; no landscapes for her. Her subjects seem to be gazing at the viewer, not smiling, not acquiescing, but merely existing. The result is arresting; most of her subjects look out of the painting, unapologetically themselves, not smiling for the viewer, but they are thoughtful and strong. If you haven’t seen her work, get over to her website (http://www.amysherald.com/) and spend some time looking through her portraits; they are compelling and telling. Strong and empowering.

Our July colorway, Believing in the Good, is inspired by the 2018 portrait entitled She Always Believed in the Good About Those She Loved. In it, a woman gazes out of the portrait with a look of satisfaction on her face. She’s not smiling, nor does she need to be. She wears a dark blue dress liberally sprinkled with lemons (harkening to the seminal Lemonade album by our first HerStory recipient of the year, Beyoncé). She looks like someone you want believing the good about you. It’s a stunning piece, and creating a colorway to pay homage to it was such a fabulous challenge.

HerStory June 2019: Nnedi Okorafor

Our June HerStory recipient, Nnedi Okorafor, is a Nigerian-American sci-fi and fantasy writer who delves into what she refers to as Africanfuturism in her varied works. She is a second-generation Nigerian-American who spent her formative years in the midwest, kicking ass and taking names both athletically AND mathletically. She fell in love with science fiction and fantasy at a young age, and considers Nigeria, which she visits frequently, to be her muse. It was her bout with scoliosis at 13, and the resulting short-term paralyzation, that inspired her deep-dive into creative writing, and caused a “what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up” swerve from entomology to fiction writing. 

Her books, and the histories and backstories of her characters, are deeply inspired by African themes and culture, and thus are so very different than the histories and cultures that have long dominated the genres she writes in. Both sci-fi and fantasy have long been the realm of the white male, focusing on Euro-centric histories (see: JRR Tolkein, CS Lewis, etc), and it’s only recently that women and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color) have been gaining a foothold in the mainstream of these genres. Reading Nnedi Okorafor’s work, one gets a sense for the magic and mysticism that informs the lives of her characters. She deftly weaves deep-rooted tradition with far-reaching technology (as in the Binti series) or a magical world that’s co-existing quietly with non-magical society (as in the Akata Witch series). And then there’s the straight-up feminism inherent in her books. Her heroines are young women, working against a still-existent and oh, so pervasive mysogyny that threatens to stymy their abilities to reach their full potential. But, through hard work, inherent skill, and learned knowledge, they survive and thrive. Much like real-life heroines like Nnedi Okorafor.

Our June HerStory colorway is inspired by the book cover of Akata Witch, the first book in Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult series about a young woman coming into her own in a world she never knew existed (but explains so much). It’s been referred to as the “Nigerian Harry Potter,” but it’s so much more. The story is so rich and beautiful, and Sunny’s journey is so amazing and fraught with stress and tension. If you are a fan of sci-fi and fantasy (or just a fan of good storytelling), grab the book and cast on a pair of socks to honor it and Nnedi Okorafor today.  

HerStory May 2019: Emilie Flöge

Here’s the thing about our May HerStory recipient, Emilie Flöge: she was amazeballs on her own, and we are plotting out pretty much all of the sewing projects in her style as we type. But, she was one of those women lost to history, consigned to a supportive role in a man’s story. Most of us recognize the name Gustav Klimt, and even if we don’t, his iconic painting style is surely familiar. But less familiar to us is likely his companion, his partner in life AND artistic expression, Emilie Flöge. And this is a not-uncommon predicament we find ourselves in here at Knitted Wit as we explore HerStory: the artistic (or scientific, or insert-anything-here) talent of a woman is often hidden behind the man she was associated with during her lifetime. Not because she objectively has less talent, and not because her entire reason for being was to “support her man,” but because we live in a patriarchal society, shored up by white supremacy and misogyny. 

At any rate, we are in love. Emilie Flöge was a trailblazer. She eschewed the established rules of fashion design AND what a woman’s life was “supposed” to look like. She threw away restrictive corsets and close-cut silhouettes in favor of voluminous a-line dresses and empire waists. She used bright colors and bold prints. Along with her two sisters, she founded a retail store that catered to women who were also status-quo-breakers, and created absolutely amazing pieces of wearable art that broke the rules, fashion-wise. She never married, and had a lifelong partnership with Klimt that seems to have been based on mutual respect and admiration. They collaborated and inspired each other; she’s often referred to as his “muse,” but it seems more likely that each was the other’s muse, in a very egalitarian way. The reasons she’s not a household name whereas he is are multifold, but come down to what she was making (clothing for women) and what sex she was. Plain and simple. 

So, drink in the beauty of Klimt’s painting of her. Realize that the colorful and flowing pieces his subjects wore were directly inspired by the colorful and flowing pieces his life partner created. And let’s all try to learn more about these artists on the margins, and bring them to the center of the stories, where they belong. And let’s all make long, flowing dresses in honor of Emilie Flöge, ok? Our Boho Chic colorway is directly inspired by the painting Klimt made of her. She’s powerful, and beautiful, and colorful. Let’s use this colorway to make something that will reflect all that Emilie Flöge was.

HerStory April 2019: Maud Wagner

There are so many acts that, once upon a time (and not that long ago), were considered revolutionary for women. Wearing pants. Having short hair. Wanting to vote. Working outside the home. Choosing not to marry. And tattooing. Which brings us to our April HerStory recipient. (Hell, tattooing is STILL considered a revolutionary act for women, and it’s 2019!!) Maud Wagner was an American circus performer (cool!) and, more importantly for HerStory, the first known female tattoo artist in the United States.

Born in Kansas in 1877, Maud Stevens began traveling on the carnival circuit, perfecting her techniques as an aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist. She traveled the country, also a revolutionary act for a woman in those days. In 1904, she performed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (kind of a World’s Fair type of situation), and there she met Gus Wagner, aka The Tattooed Globetrotter. According to legend, Maud agreed to go on a date with Gus in exchange for a tattoo lesson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Before long, Maud was covered in tattoos, and the Wagners were a power couple on the carnival circuit. Maud began tattooing, along with her circus work, focusing on hand-poked tattoos as opposed to using the now-available electric tattoo guns, precursors to what we have now. She and her husband have also been widely lauded as influential in bringing tattooing inland in the United States; until they began their tattoo-and-tour situation, most tattoos were done in coastal towns. 

As anyone who has fallen headfirst into tattoo obsession (Shannon and Lorajean have both had this experience), once Maud started, she didn’t want to stop. She was covered up to her neck in tattoos, from all accounts done exclusively by either her mister or herself. She had a daughter, Lovette, who also became a tattooist (she started at age 9!), but was unique in that she was a tattoo artist with no tattoos on her own body. Maud wouldn’t allow Lovette to be tattooed by Gus, and Lovette stated that if she couldn’t get tattooed by her father, she didn’t want to be tattooed at all. 

Old Lines is our Maud Wagner-inspired color; it’s inspired by flash you would see at a tattoo shop. A kind of a tea-stained paper with traditional tattoo colors: mostly red and blue/black, with a little bit of teal and yellow poking through. We’re pretty pleased with how it came out, and are looking way forward to seeing it knit up into your lovely creations. 

HerStory March 2019: Ava DuVernay

Each month this year, we are exploring a different artistic avenue, and for March, we’re heading into the movie theater to spend a bit of time with A va DuVernay. She’s an American director, producer, and screenwriter, best known for 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Like many HerStory recipients, Ava DuVernay has a big stack of “firsts” to her name: the first black woman to win the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival (for Middle of Nowhere); the first black female director to have a film nominated for a Golden Globe (for Selma); the first black female director to have a film nominated for an Oscar (again, for Selma); the first black female director to be nominated for an Academy Award for a feature (13th); and the first black female director to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million (for A Wrinkle in Time).

Although our March colorway, Tesseract, celebrates DuVernay’s work on A Wrinkle in Time, it is her life’s work calling out racism and centering the black and female experience in America that secured her place in HerStory. Her work has even inspired what’s known as the “DuVernay test,” which is the race equivalent of the Bechdel test. (The Bechdel test is a way to look at women’s roles in films: are there solely to support the main male characters, or are they are fully-formed characters in their own right?). In 2016, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis coined the phrase the DuVernay Test, asking whether “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” It is in service to the DuVernay test that we celebrate A Wrinkle in Time for what it has done for characters of color in big film productions. Meg, the main character of the film, is a mixed-race child, and the fact that she is black is just that, a fact. Her blackness is not the central focus of the story; she’s the main character who happens to be black. 

Representation matters, and DuVernay is working every day to help ensure that representation happens. In 2010 DuVernay founded an organization called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), whose focus was to distribute films made by or focusing on black people. The driving force of her work in this organization is activism. In 2015, the company rebranded itself, and is now ARRAY, bringing into its work the elevation of women filmmakers as well. She has a podcast, The Call-In, centering and showcasing black and female filmmakers.  Last year, she launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund, whose mission is to promote inclusion and provide an opportunity for under-served communities to pursue a dream in the entertainment industry. 

She also continues to create her own projects exploring race. Her 2016 Netflix documentary, 13th, explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the US. The film’s title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery, with the exception of slavery as punishment for a crime. The film has won both critical and popular acclaim, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special in 2017. 

Ava DuVernay is a force to be reckoned with, and a still-rising star to keep your eyes on. The aesthetic beauty of A Wrinkle in Time was breathtaking, and her commitment to helping other black women rise in the entertainment field is inspiring. We hope you watch one of her films as you knit away on your Tesseract project, although, if you see the air shimmering slightly ahead of you, think twice before bounding into an alternate universe, ok? Unless, of course, the Mrs’ Who, Whatsit, and Which are there with you.