It’s June, which means that I will soon have a good stretch of time in which to finish a novel. And also that I am experiencing my annual urge to make a dress. Last week I heard a wondrous lecture from Amy Elkins on, among other things, modernist women writers and craft making. Specifically, Amy talked about the way in which archives marginalize or entirely exclude other kinds of art-making from collections that focus on ‘literary’ women. We could think for a long time about the why of this, but also you should just go look at Amy’s work because it’s great.
The questions and discussion got around to the relation between writing and the actual making of books, the ways in which women writers have made physical books, intervened in or disrupted the book object. I realized I’d never thought about the way the production processes of big market publishing alienate us from our books as material objects. The physical book, as paper or digital file, is our means of distribution. We sell the words, and as soon as they are sold we are decisively separated from their embodiment.
I imagine an immediate response to this: “it’s the words that matter”. Once again, the book is the body, acted on in the absence of my own imagination. The ideas are radically separate and transcendent; the material doesn’t matter. We trade control of it for access to the means of distribution.
So yes, it’s June. I am starting to visualize a dress, and how I will make it. I make a new garment roughly once a year. A few years ago, it dawned on me that this always happens in June. The urge to do it and a good visual idea, some thinking about textures and patterns and shapes, come together and I wake up thinking about it.
Why in June? The end of the academic year must have something to do with it. I’ve been released from a mode of thinking and bodily labour (because teaching and research is absolutely physical labour) and something in my brain and my body want this other kind of making things, which is another kind of thought.
Maybe you assume dress-making is a break from intellectual work? Clearly you have not seen that ball gown Vivienne Westwood made with just one continuous seam. You have not seen Issey Miyake’s deconstructed tailoring, or thought about the relation between ideas, abstraction and feeling in the form of colour, texture and shape. How the long complicated cultural history of silhouettes allows us to say so much by juxtaposing this sleeve with that bodice.
I try to pin down how dress making is different from writing and teaching and I can’t make any explanation hold up to scrutiny. It’s a containable task; I can do it in a few weeks. But that can be said of a short story, too. It’s physical. So is writing. My writing process involves lots of visual images, things pinned up, a chaos of bits of paper all over the floor at certain points, seeing shapes and textures. Writing is also gruelling bodily work, just ask my physiotherapist.
There is something different spatially, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t really care. I just want to make this cool dress. That’s probably it. I can do something complex and generative where there is nothing much at stake. I am a writer not a dressmaker, so it doesn’t matter. It’s an escape from my creative identity. The dress will have lots of grey and blue and bits of metal and a cool crow feather collar my sister gave me a few years ago that I finally know how to use. It will have words sewn into the underskirt. It will have smocking, because my mother remembers my grandmother painstakingly smocking a dress for her.
I guess I was turning this over in my head while I slept, because I woke up and the two trains of thought had met in there. I churn out roughly a book a year (in case you were thinking the dress-making was a form of procrastination). I could make, each June, the dress of the novel. I could take back control of the material embodiment of my story, in the form of a dress!
This one will have, like I said, words sewn into the underskirt. Not because I want to represent the novel so concretely, but because in this particular novel there is a river full of words.
The embroidery is going to take ages. It would be nice if I could finish the dress and then, on days when I’m wearing it, spend moments when my hands are idle sewing the words in. I am not usually a painstaking, meticulous garment maker. My sewing is generally slapdash and impatient, but there are so many hours spent in meetings, I could just use them for embroidering these words.
Except I know that sewing in meetings is a violation of something we don’t stop to define. Probably no one would say anything directly if I took to embroidering on the clothes I was wearing in tedious meetings. I work in the UK after all. But the behaviour would definitely place me in the category of a former colleague who had a cat living in her campus office – just about mad in a markedly feminine way. I would be like that mythic lecturer I have heard about at universities here and there, but never actually seen, who knits in meetings.
So here is another piece. Some of my colleagues spend meetings, and even lectures delivered by their peers, on their phones scrolling through The Guardian online or Instagram. They are not cordoned off in the space of the mad or the gendered for this. If I make words on my garments with a needle I am acting outside the professional norm; if I spend meetings liking cat pictures on a digital device I am normal. Somehow what I’m doing in the latter case doesn’t disrupt the space.
Maybe this is about the ideology through which we see digital tech, especially web-based tech, as transcendence. It isn’t intrusive, because it isn’t really there. It is always somewhere else. The term 'cloud' is ideological. My colleagues on their phones in meetings are not considered to be disrespectful because what they are doing in the room is not felt to be in the room. It is not present in the body. Except it is. As I often tell my students: It is not a cloud. It is a dirty, loud server that sucks energy and emits worrying amounts of heat.
Amy Elkins quoted Zadie Smith, writing that Sarah Sze’s ‘Centrifuge’ was an exploded iPhone. If so, then it is also a resurrection of the body of knowledge. It makes everything inside the phone material again, makes us feel the space it takes up and the way its pieces relate to each other. These things are already happening, of course. Digital tech already takes up huge amounts of real space and material; these things are already relatively positioned, but we teach ourselves not to see that. We tell each other that it makes environmental sense to store everything in ‘the cloud’. (Spoiler: it doesn’t, necessarily.) We pretend that marking online isn’t physical labour with specific conditions that we should evaluate.
But then again we could be writing on paper with pens in meetings. We’re not, but we could be and that would be material and present, and it would be fine. So, is it just the needle that worries us? If I write words with a needle they are unmistakably gendered words. Is that the problem?
Maybe I want to make a dress every June because when I am finished I will be able to see it in the room in three dimensions. It will be unmistakably there and I will put it on my body when I’m done. I can’t do that with the words I sell, and I can’t sell the dresses because the amount of labour that goes into them would mean they cost more than the quality of my craft justifies. Anyway, I make dresses on my own body. I don’t have a dress dummy and I like wearing them myself because they fit so perfectly. They wouldn't be the same on other bodies. They are very specific.
So the room in which I make the dress of the novel will have to be at home. Whatever we define as craft, especially if it involves needles, has for a long time (not always or everywhere) been written as both feminine and unprofessional. We work hard to hide it, in archives and in our working lives.
Some day, when I am so close to retirement that there is little left at stake, I may try to explain on my Professional Development Review the role of dress-making in the annual cycle of my writing life. Certainly, I will spend my last working year or two sewing lyrical passages into my skirts in meetings. That will be okay because by then I will be an old female working a needle. I suspect there’s an exemption there, but that’s maybe a blog for another day.