Is Knitting an Art or a Craft?


A listener wrote in to the podcast asking us if knitting is art or craft. I started to do a little research and soon found out this is a debate in the world of professional art and art history that has many layers.

It's a question we touched the surface of when I visited the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. You can listen to that interview here. Suzanne Isken, the executive director of the museum, suggested that a trained artist has to show a certain level of skill to be considered an artist of a certain medium, as in you can't throw some yarn on your piece and suddenly call yourself a fiber artist. 

It's a question that comes up in Yarn the movie when a crochet artist is looked down upon by a painter when she is invited to exhibit her yarn art alongside his work. I spoke with The Contemporary Austin's director about how artists are using more "craft" materials when I saw the movie last fall for the first podcast field trip

The art community has been debating this topic for a while now. Not only does something like knitting fall into this discussion, but it also touches on the work of ancient cultures. Does a painted pot made by a Native American count as art if it was used to carry water? If the type of pottery has been made for centuries in the same style does that make it a craft? We've been using the same knitting stitches for years, so does that put us in the craft category only? 

Is it a matter of skill? Is it a matter of formal training? Or, is it like we touched on on the podcast, about the statement or intention of the work? If a quilt tells the story of a family's history, does that make it more of an art form versus a quilt that follows the traditional log cabin design and is meant to decorate your house? These are questions explored in an older New York Times article by Margo Jefferson: 

"People still debate the relative value of art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture). It's the utilitarian versus the high art tradition. But why must high mean better? Why can't it just describe a certain history of techniques and practices?"

According to this video, there is some discussion in the art history world to take away the terms art vs. craft away altogether to replace it with "visual arts" which would cover a wide range of arts including the formally trained, the primitive and those made in homes at quilting bees.  

We won't solve this question here, but it is certainly an interesting one to ponder. Personally, I look who came up with the idea of the thing and created something out of nothing. If I follow a person's sweater design, I'm just following directions. That designer had the vision on how to shape the design, how the yarn would work and what the piece should ultimately look like. To me, that's an art and I am a craftswoman following someone else's artistic design... until I change the design and put my own spin on it.  What do you think? Are you an artist or a craftsperson or a maker?