The rise and fall of macramé
Updated: Jun 15
What 1970's craft books teach us about change
I am obsessed with the 70's. Not the bell bottoms, lava lamps and disco music 70's. I am obsessed with women in peasant shirts who thought it a superb idea to encourage us to raise sheep so that we could shear, card and spin our own wool to weave into carpets on a gigantic loom in our living room. Or knot the wool into a shaggy beige and orange macrame wall hanging. Of if we aren't into sheep, shred our clothing into rag rugs. Never mind the time and effort.
Out-of-print 70’s craft books all operate on the same premise: creativity will set you free. At a time of extreme political and cultural transformation, craft was presented as a viable path to self-realization and by the mid 70’s, that creative path was offered to middle class women previously confined to the sedate suburban homes of the 50’s and 60’s.
Take Erica Wilson, the grand dame of 1970’s embroidery. Well-bred and trained at the Royal School of Needlework, Wilson moved to the US where she taught an impressive list of influential women included Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson’s 1973 “Embroidery Book” is an impressive volume for its blend of historical research and precise technical advice. At the time, Wilson also had a regular TV show during which she encouraged women to find their creativity. She cheerily illustrated how to experiment with bold use of color and textures and even make mistakes, right there on camera! Still, Wilson appearance was never out of place and she acknowledged women by their husbands’ names.. Creative yes. Feminism, sort of. But she was an important bridge for millions of women who had never been encouraged to be creative, let alone experiment or (gasp!) be allowed to make mistakes.
Then there’s Shirley Marein, a textile expert so versatile, that her books were published in Book Club editions. I am reading her “Creating Rugs and Wall Hangings” cover to cover. Not that I will ever weave a rug, but Marein’s prodigious understanding of textiles, combined with her approachable writing, offer an outstanding basis for further research. Unlike Wilson, Marein lists her collaborators by name and she is far more adventurous in her choice of featured artists.
Both women achieved notoriety in the 70's craft world but both, and countless others whose books I am now collecting, have been almost entirely forgotten. While it is still possible to watch of few snippets of Wilson’s TV show on Youtube, there’s hardly any information about Marein or the artists she has featured in her books. That's because the 70’s craft movement died in a whimper. The self-sufficiency of the 70's was promptly extinguished by a steady flood of inexpensive goods. There's no need to raise sheep when you can buy a sweater for $17.99 on Amazon. As for creativity, by the mid 80’s women were entering the workforce in troves. The feminine creativity shifted from home to the corporate world.
But let's not weep. If anything, the urge to get creative exceeded all expectations. It just happened that women put that energy toward creating a better live for themselves. Offered a choice between a macrame plant holder and a job, they opted for the freedom offered by a steady paycheck.
What is left of that era is a fascinating trail of technical and creative books, particularly in the textile field. The majority of these books are out of print but begging to be rediscovered.
The pendulum is now swinging the other way. We are tired of our IKEA pillows and cheap Chinese-made quilts. We want authenticity, creativity, uniqueness. And now, we have time too. Macrame is flooding Instagram. So is embroidery.
Craft is back. Handmade is in. Sheep and loom anyone?