Last year, I waited in the hospital while my friend Sarah had her baby daughter via planned cesarean section. On my lap, carefully cleaned and wrapped, was a quilt I'd made for this newest member of our clan: It was made from soft flannels in pinks and browns, in the classic pattern known in quilting books as "Broken Dishes." Many blocks of four triangles are united into squares, and it's almost like an illusion when it all comes together. Do the blocks form patterns of concentric diamonds or of cascading triangles? Squint, and the pattern changes.
Once Sarah and the baby were comfortably settled in the postpartum room, and everyone else left to get lunch, I cuddled Lilianna in the quilt I'd sewn for her, upon which I'd already embroidered her name. A nurse came in, and noticed the quilt immediately. "Did someone make that?" "I did," I said. "That's beautiful! You could sell those!" I smiled, knowing I'll never do any such thing.
My mother doesn't knit or sew, and her mother didn't either. My grandmother Charlotte was an editorial assistant in New York City in the 1960s and a self-described feminist; she owned a first-edition copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Boiling frozen Green Giant vegetables and broiling steaks were about the extent of her domestic work, and she reveled in fashionable clothes and in knowing at least a little something about the books "everyone" was talking about. When I was in second grade, we guffawed together over an illustration of a grandmother in a picture book I'd taken home from school. The grandmother was white-haired (my grandmother dyed hers until she died) and sitting in a recliner with a cat in her lap (my grandmother was violently allergic) while knitting something from garish colors of yarn (my grandmother never picked up a needle in her life unless she'd been forced to). "You're not that kind of grandma, are you, Grandma?" I'd asked. "No, dearie. I'm not."
If you think it strange that the granddaughter of a 60s urban feminist and anti-domestic relishes home cooking and sewing quilts and knitting sweaters for new babies, and, yes, gardening and preserving my own foods, think again. Americans are increasingly turning toward what writer Emily Matchar, in her new book Homeward Bound, calls the "New Domesticity." It's marked by an almost militant commitment to all things DIY (do-it-yourself); by a resurgence in interest in handcrafts like knitting, sewing, and embroidery; concern about food safety and environmental sustainability that expresses itself in a mania for home-grown, home-preserved, from-scratch cooking; a distrust of government and corporations that leads to things like homebirth, vaccine refusal, and homeschooling; and a disillusionment and dissatisfaction with contemporary work culture that leads people to "opt out," filling their days instead with the kinds of homesteading work I've described along with a demanding style of parenting known as "attachment" parenting.
Matchar offers an incisive look at this cultural phenomenon. In researching the book, she's talked with hundreds of people—educated women and men who've opted out of what we think of as typical employment to live as homesteaders both urban and rural. Noting that many of the most popular "lifestyle" blogs aimed at women seemed to have a decidedly retro aesthetic—overexposed, vintage-filtered photographs of pies cooling on windowsills next to Mason jars of wildflowers; a mania for cute aprons and retro-feminine dresses (see ModCloth.com or the Soulemama.com blog)—Matchar began to realize that the New Domesticity "was about far more than hobbies or a love for retro fashion." In many ways, she noted, this return to domesticity "has become an "out" for the casualties of an exploded economy." When work hasn't "worked" for people, they've increasingly made a business of turning toward home.
Matchar notes that many New Domestics insist that their move toward home is in fact a feminist decision. But she also points out that the turn toward domesticity can have a particular appeal for "for conservative Christian women," by which she means those coming from traditions in which women's employment outside the home is discouraged. "New Domesticity can be a way of reconciling traditional lifestyles with the need for independence and creativity," she writes. "For them, New Domesticity provides the perfect blend of the traditional and the modern." Likewise, she notes, a high concentration of artisans selling their work through the Brooklyn-based online marketplace of handcrafts, Etsy, are Mormon women living in and around Utah.
My husband's grandmother—also named Charlotte—was the precise opposite of my grandmother in so many ways. She was sensible rather than stylish, and lived on a ranch where she slaughtered chickens, raised vegetables, preserved fruits, milked cows, hand-cranked ice cream, and sewed her own clothes and most of her family's, too. Yet she differed from nearly all the New Domestics that Matchar describes in Homeward Bound in one significant way: She wrote about her life and doings only in the pages of the journals her children have described unequivocally as "boring." By contrast, many New Domestics have found ways to make their pursuits pay—and, in a very few cases, to pay extremely well—by writing and blogging about them. Popular bloggers like The Pioneer Woman and SouleMama "trade on their 'just folks' identities while actually making lots of money and receiving celebrity-like levels of external validation," Matchar notes. Would it be as much fun to stay home and raise chickens and cook from scratch "if she weren't making hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue and book sales, and interacting with thousands of appreciative readers?"
But the lure of earning money by photographing and blogging their intensely "art-directed" DIY lifestyles while escaping the rat race isn't the only thing motivating New Domestics. Many of them, Matchar found, firmly believe that they're changing the world by changing how they live at home. It's not a new concept; 19th-century magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale argued that it was through domesticity that women could be enormously influential by teaching their children and gently guiding their husbands with respect to moral decisions. Harriet Beecher Stowe, herself a believer in the power of the domestic sphere to shape society, was nonetheless intent upon exercising her influence far beyond the walls of her household, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with her most famous contribution to American literature knows. Likewise, gurus of the New Domesticity—Matchar found that most adherents point to Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers as the book that motivated them toward extreme DIY—emphasize that exercising influence ("rebuilding," in Hayes's words) through teaching, blogging, and community organizing is an essential component of the DIY revolution.
Despite this turn toward activism (if teaching classes on food preservation could be called activist), Matchar is not convinced that New Domesticity, as popular and attractive as it may be, is entirely benign. "So many of the values of New Domesticity are wonderful: an emphasis on family, a DIY spirit, a concern for the environment, an unwillingness to be beholden to corporations." Still, she says, "an emphasis on DIY as a solution for social problems can disenfranchise those who don't have the time or money to DIY it." After all, startup costs can be high, and with Etsy increasingly flooded with cheap products from around the globe, it's the rare "Etsyian" that earns a living through selling his or her handcrafts.
Inviting the World Inside
Adherents of New Domesticity tend to think that their largely self-sufficient lifestyles are the answer to a range of social, political, and environmental ills. Matchar concludes, however, that by assuming that the world would be better if more people lived as they do, they ignore several important facts. For virtually all New Domestics, their lifestyle is made possible by class privilege. The labor involved in cloth-diapering, attachment-parenting, gardening, beekeeping, and home canning is a luxury that many people simply cannot attain while keeping a roof over their heads.
Matchar is also concerned that practitioners of extreme DIY are often in danger of "neglect[ing] the social good." While Matchar gives a nod to the fact that many DIYers do in fact fight for social change, she still finds that the "overall attitude of 'screw the government, I'm going to grow my own food," is dishearteningly common," a criticism that strikes me as particularly apt. Jennifer Margulis, an outspoken critic of vaccination, offers a scathing critique of American maternity care in her new book The Business of Baby, but her solutions are strikingly private, limited to suggestions on how the individual parent/consumer might make choices outside of the money- and power-corrupted mainstream. What about the people whose Medicaid doesn't allow them to choose homebirth, the people who can't afford a camera good enough to photograph their handcrafts for Esty, and the people who, far from being able to fuss about eating organic, struggle to get any sort of vegetables for their children?
Matchar is sympathetic, even admiring, of much of what's involved in New Domesticity, but balks at its solipsistic tendencies. "Let's not retreat to our homes, the way the women of the original nineteenth-century Cult of Domesticity did," she concludes. "Let's invite the world inside." While I'd argue that that "inviting the world inside" was in fact precisely what women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Josepha Hale were trying to do, much of Matchar's analysis of this cultural phenomenon is intelligent and insightful—essential reading for anyone who has ever felt inadequate or guilty for not DIYing it all.
And now I'll get back to knitting a sweater. I'm not going to blog about it, or post it for sale on Etsy. It's for another friend's baby. And I don't think I'm changing the world with each stitch. Sometimes a handcraft is just a handcraft.
Rachel Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press). She blogs at rachelmariestone.com.