The so-called “afghan blanket” seems to go to Value Village to die. It’s hard to know which is more disturbing: the synthetic nature of the object itself, or the fact that it is still, amazingly, given everything that has happened over the last fifteen or more years, called an “afghan.” A search online to discover the origins of this craft object immediately turned up “The All American Denim Stripes Afghan.” No lie! I propose these items be called “americans” from now on. As it turns out, the “afghan” is a part of a distinctly American craft history. Oddly, even Wikipedia’s entry doesn’t bother to make mention of why its name refers to Afghanistan, but I learned elsewhere that “the afghan” was originally a thrifty item made from leftover ends of wool, and because it was colourful it was named after the justly celebrated Afghan rug tradition in what was obviously an act of deep wishful thinking. This may be uncharitable but I’m not sure that Afghanistan has ever produced an object this low in artistic integrity. If I were an Afghani, would the name for this blanket bother me? As for North America, of all the beautiful things that could be made out of the intense artisanal energies of a continent of dedicated women, why these synthetic, flammable, artistically toxic accidents of petroleum-based colour and pattern?
What’s worse about these things is that there is truly no way to re-use or recycle them. In our design studio we decided to see if we could repurpose these things after seeing literally thousands of them during years of sourcing vintage textiles at rag houses. We came up with nothing. They stubbornly resist any attempt at resuscitation, even if you’re using the “so bad it’s good” approach. The families for which these were made invariably seem to give them away, whereupon they travel from thrift shop to rag house to the dump where they stubbornly refuse to decompose. The photo above was taken recently in Value Village and it represents about 1/4 of the afghans for sale there that day.
Below are some Afghani textiles—suzanis and rugs made to last many lifetimes. Suzanis are blankets embroidered and appliqued by Afghani women that function both as quilts and wall decoration. In North America it would be nice to see an end to “afghans” made from these garish synthetic fibres, and to see fewer painstakingly-made but badly-conceived objects so steadily thrown away, but even saying so leaves one open to tiresome accusations of elitism and blah blah blah. Why does so much North American craft seem so artistically impoverished compared to craft in other parts of the world? The answer is probably obvious, lying in our settler history, industrialization and related loss of intergenerational craft tradition. However there are some counterexamples: Gee’s Bend and Amish Quilts are an exception, but an exception that proves the rule. See also these war rugs made by Afghan men who aren’t even traditional rug-makers but rather men from other professions who had nothing else to do while waiting in refugee camps. Where does design come from? What dictates its aesthetics and level of ambition?