“All American Denim Stripes Afghan.” No joke!

"Afghans" at Value Village

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?

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Baruch rug, Afghanistan

Ersari rug, Afghanistan

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10 Responses to ““All American Denim Stripes Afghan.” No joke!”

  1. Eva Says:

    Is there bad Afghani craft at all? — Not everyone can be an artist, but obviously everyone has a need to keep her fingers busy. On the other hand, there is such a richness of quilt work and good craft in America. In Germany, we don’t have this tradition; modern quilting has been adapted from the USA. The best of traditional home craft in Germany are cross stitch samplers. And then there is excess knitting and crocheting. The complaint about useless consumation of yarn refers to us in a much higher degree. I miss a quilt tradition and the results which the best quilters show in the USA. It would be fair to compare these jewels of Afghani craft with the best of American quilts, rather than with the worst of crocheting.

  2. John Hopper Says:

    Most ‘Afghans’ would have been produced for home consumption and certainly not professionally. They were never meant to leave their domestic setting and so it seems a little unfair to criticise them when they are out of context with both their setting and time period.

    As Eva says, these Afghans were usually just ongoing projects for amateur idle hands. I also agree that it would be fairer to compare and contrast the best of American quilting with Afghani textile work, rather than some casual knit and crochet.

    However, interesting article as it throws up all sorts of questions about amateur skills and where Afgans fit into the domestic history of America.

    By the way, there are just as many unwanted crochet blankets in UK charity shops, which seems a little sad, as there must have been an element of enthusiasm in the original making which is now long gone.

  3. John Hopper Says:

    I think it is difficult to pick and choose what can be considered ‘good’ and ‘bad’ craft, who does the choosing? To many, all craft is bad. There is a common saying within the British design world, perhaps the design world in general, “craft equals crap”.

    I personally have worked within the two spheres, craft and design and I must admit that the design world works on a definite professional basis. You are qualified as a designer or you are not. The craft world is much more muddled. There is, and has been since the nineteenth century, a healthy professional craft industry in Britain, but it is hopelessly outnumbered by an enthusiastic, but very often hopelessly untalented majority of amateurs. Admittedly some of these amateurs do have natural talent, but that still leaves a lot of people out there producing unfocused, sub-standard crafts at unrealistically low prices which undercuts the professional. The consumer often goes for the cheapest rather than the best made, that’s very often a product of human nature rather than our consumer led world.

    I understand your point about North America, and you are probably right, it has become a homogenous soup of different uprooted cultures. However, the UK does not have the unbroken tradition of craft culture that you may think. The nineteenth century saw a huge drift to urban centres by the rural young who soon lost many of their traditions as they were no longer needed, so that today most British people have no interest or inclination to learn any craft skills. Many see them as ‘twee’ or pointlessly unpractical. Why learn to knit when you can buy clothes much cheaper than the yarn costs?

    I think we start treading dangerous elitest ground when we begin talking about the control of products produced by amateurs. Unless someone plans to set up some form of quality police force, I don’t see how you can prevent an individual from producing an Afghan or baby booties. Many people get immense enjoyment from being creative, and if that creativity is in the form of a crocheted blanket, it is certainly not my job to tell them to desist.

    As you say, it is a complex issue with no easy answers. Perhaps there could be a re-focusing of the enthusiasm expended in pointless throw-away craft projects, towards a more practical solution, so that instead of producing endless Afghans that no one seems to like, we can all expect more useful household items from our grannies.

    I wonder if I could get mine to build me some sturdy oak bookcases?

  4. admin Says:

    I really appreciate your viewpoint and this whole discussion. I guess my immediate reaction is that it’s a bad moment when one can almost say nothing without fear of the usual accusation of “elitism.” Over here it can be a kneejerk accusation (not in your case, but it’s out there) that functions rather the way that libel chill does in journalism: fear of it prevents anyone from saying anything. And I worry that it’s probably counterproductive in the effort to develop daily domestic skills like knitting, weaving, crocheting, sewing and printing. Craft and design are sort of a feedback loop – the better they get, the better they get. They build on themselves.

    We don’t want to be elitist at all. In our own work we try to erase the distinction between craft and high design. So much of what we liberate from Value Village is undervalued craft that we try to re-value. What’s really distressing is when we find mountains of stuff that it’s clear no one values, whether they’re elite or non-elite. It creates the opposite sort of feedback loop, a downward spiral in which craft is more and more dismissed. I just don’t think this is about elitism. We wrote in the hope that we could look toward better materials, perhaps better techniques, and more useful results – not that many are reading this blog. I wouldn’t want to legislate craft to the level of high design and therefore disqualify amateur crafters. Maybe I do want to set a challenge to crafters to raise the bar a bit, but the bar seems lower now that it has been in a long time. The curious thing about craft is that it supposedly runs counter to the prevailing dictate that we should now buy everything because it’s cheaper and faster than making it ourselves. Craft supposedly resists that. And then what happens? The same economic logic begins to permeate the craft itself: let’s make it as cheaply – and sometimes as fast – as possible. There is a contradiction in there somewhere.

    I was really talking about the qualitative difference, which I think most people can agree on, between the everyday products of pre-modern artisanal traditions and so many of the products of current-day craft hobbyists. There probably isn’t much point in lamenting it, but it does seem to be a fact that de-skilling and desensitization has taken place, and just as you say this is the result of our commodity economy in which much cheaper goods can be made elsewhere by slave-wage workers, as well as the fact that we are out of the habit of understanding textiles in the way people used to, when they actually raised the crops and animals, produced the fibres, and then produced their own textiles from them. We now buy the cheapest polyester possible. Why not buy wool or cotton for twice the price and spend longer making one item, rather than two? It’s not purely economics, I don’t think. I think it’s something else. I was looking at photos on Flickr of women making Afghan suzanis and they’re just heartbreakingly beautiful, so painstakingly made. Many of these women are technically what we could call amateurs, from what I can tell. For that matter, I’m technically an amateur, no formal training in textiles whatsoever.

    We may mostly be in agreement, I’m not sure.

  5. Eva Says:

    It could be so much better. Yes, the standard of amateur craft sometimes is a shame. And you can’t tell them it’s bad, they are proud of it and not interested in examples of good craft and design. We have the wish to create something, the time to do it and material, sometimes all of it. In this case, money is not abundant (if it is, there is a lack of time in most cases). There are good examples of beautiful things in books and on the internet. There are tutorials with videos how to do it. Best conditions for good craft. We complain about unemployment and things getting more expensive. We have begun treasuring environmental thoughts and use wood, paper, cotton, wool. We have warm flats and light in the night. Better conditions than our ancestors. Yet, craft is on a sad standard.
    I try to imagine slow craft. Use valuable material, let it grow slowly and work thoroughly. When I felt I had “idle” hands, I started wool embroidery to make a piece last long and look interesting. I started studying traditional patterns from my parents’ home country. After using up my grandmother’s stock of wool, I needed more wool and went out to buy it.
    There was none.
    This material did not exist any more. All I could by was attic-found material from E-bay.
    They don’t like it, I learnt. Today’s embroiderers don’t like it to go so slowly.
    And this is the clue why it doesn’t work today.
    People want to finish each piece fast. They want to show it and use it very soon after having the brilliant idea to create it. And they don’t want to keep it. They grow tired of it, however beautiful it may have seemed to them in the time of producing it, no, at the moment of having the idea.
    Please don’t apologize for your posting. I can feel the same anger about this waste of time, energy and material. WOMBAT, as they say in the quilting world, waste of material, batting and time.
    What an interesting debate! I really enjoyed reading it. This is why I love this blog.

  6. admin Says:

    WOMBAT! That’s fantastic. Thanks, Eva.

  7. valerie sotiropoulos Says:

    You should look at the blog knit- a -square, they send crochet and knitted squares to south africa to be sew up for children that have aids to keep them warm many of these children have nothing and a blanket to keep them warm means a lot to them and they are appreciated, people from all over the world are sending knitted and crocheted squares. it also helps many women there to have something to give them hope they meet together to sew them up which they like doing.So you should not discourage people from making these things for charity. The lady who started it is from south africa and saw how cold the children were some are homeless!. Also I have read how a simple crocheted blanket sent to a native american reservation by a lady who makes blankets for them she has native american blood in her too, kept the women she sent it too from freezing to death. The recipient told her it was your blanket that kept me alive that night. I live in England and thought you should know this.

  8. Kathleen Says:

    I have mixed feelings reading your post; as a knitter and crocheter I too have been dismayed by the huge amount of handmade items seen in charity shops,mostly because it seems obvious nobody is going to buy most of this stuff, not when they can buy brand-new made-in-China quilts and fleece blankets for the same price as used items these days; it should be going directly to people and places that need it – homeless shelters, women’s shelters, hospices, etc., if it’s in good enough condition; fretting about the design and colour choices not being asthetically pleasing is a bit elitist on your part when there are so many people in the world who simply need an extra blanket on their bed at night. Living in places with cold winters and no central heating I needed at least 4 heavy blankets or quilts over me to be warm enough to get to sleep. When it’s that cold you tend not to care too much about how pretty your blanket is. Children, sick people and old people feel the cold even more acutely. I have given afghans to charities like Blankets for Canada, Project Linus, and Afghans for Afghans (a great organization; rather than fretting as you do about the correctness of the terminology they focus on actually HELPING the people of Afghanistan get through their vicious winters). Maybe my afghans will end up in the rubbish or in a charity shop someday, but I can live with that possibility; charitable giving is always a leap of faith. Personally I don’t like acrylic much but a well-made afghan in worsted weight yarn can still provide plenty of warmth and has the benefit of being fully machine washable and dryable; many places like those I mentioned can’t accept wool items for this reason and also because of allergies. They’re really not as bad as you make them out to be. And BTW, afghans can be and still are made of wool and they are exceptionally warm and durable. I still have a multicoloured “granny square” afghan my own grandmother made in the 1960s. She learned to crochet during the Second World War when nothing was wasted. Yeah, these items are not high art, but that doesn’t mean they are not beautiful, useful, meaningful and made with great humility and love.

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