The empowerment of ‘making stuff’

Case study

Since 2010 Karie Westermann has worked as an independent award-winning knitwear designer in the handknitting industry. She writes about the intersection between making, disability, mental health, body positivity and the empowerment of ‘making stuff’. Karie teaches regularly both within the UK and across Europe with a focus on how craft can transform lives. She also provides professional hand-knitting advice for museums, universities and other institutions.

She has built a community which counts around 20,000 people around the globe, primarily in the UK, Ireland and the US.

Clothes tell stories about who we are — both to the world around us as well as ourselves. Yet fashion is often an area where women are made to feel ‘less than’ — particularly if our bodies do not fit into the high street idea of what an average body looks like.

While the crafts sector — in particular dressmaking and handknitting — is well-suited to push back against pervasive ideas about beauty and idealised bodies, it has largely relied upon mainstream branding to promote itself. Thin, white, young, and able-bodied cis women promote yarn brands and sewing machine in magazines, trade shows, and social media alike.

The craft revival started off in imageless fora, then moved to specialist sites such as US-based Ravelry where users could admire each other’s work by clicking on project pages, before finally landing on Instagram. The Age of the Image has hit crafts, and the images are easily recognisable because they are images of lifestyle magazines, of advertisement, and of aspiration. These images are now being produced by prominent makers who are almost-like-us and whose lifestyles seem attainable if we just make what they make and buy what they make. As art historian James Fox notes: “images get in the way of reality”.

The potential of ‘making stuff’ has become somewhat lost in the sea of mainstream aspiration which is particularly poignant as making & craft communities often function as social and safe spaces for people who do not fit the ‘thin, white, young, able-bodied and heteronormative’ narrative. The tension between the aspirational branding and the lived realities of makers has resulted in ongoing debates about accessibility, intersectionality, racism, exoticism, diversity, and inclusivity. Who belongs in these highly curated spaces and who feels unwelcome?

The paradox is this: through ‘making stuff’, it is possible to reject  ‘thin, white, young, able-bodied and heteronormative’ narratives. There is freedom and confidence to be found in the ability to make something that fits and affirms your understanding of your Self. Knitting and making are more than just about keeping warm (or looking aspirational) — they are personal social commentary and social history writ by ordinary/extra-ordinary people.

Making stuff is powerful; making stuff gives agency. Making stuff transforms. Making stuff makes something out of nothing. Making matters.

Karie Westermann is currently reworking her inclusive sizing range from seven adult sizes to sixteen. Her designs also include notes on how to modify her patterns for a more personalised fit. She runs workshops that encourage creativity and imagine crafts as a way of story-telling (and particularly an embodied form of storytelling). Workshops are not just skill-builders; they become creative spaces in which participants tell their own stories and explore how their bodies mark the items they wear.

She is mentoring younger makers (many of which have gone on to be published despite no formal training) and is advocating for openness regarding the challenges disabled bodies meet within the making and craft communities. There is a strong need to recognise that clothes do not erase the bodies underneath nor do clothes remove societal barriers. For that reason (and several other) Karie continues to use herself as a model for her knitting patterns: showcasing a middle-aged, plus-sized body as positive and including her mobility aids as needed.

She also continues to write about making as a tool of resilience — particularly important in light of current world events — and is in the early stages of assembling her second knitting book which will in part be about craft, feminism, self-acceptance and agency.

Workshops include “Knitting the Landscape” which lets participants of any ability explore inner and outer landscapes through the medium of knitting; “Pattern Writing for Designers” which helps non-writers tackle technical writing; and “Introduction to Shetland Hap Shawls” which places a Scottish textile tradition in context as well teaching the basic skills required to tackle a heritage project.

Find out more

Visit Karie Westermann’s website to find out more about her workshops, designs, writing, and mentoring.


Twitter/Instagram: @kariebookish

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