Today, March 22, is an important holiday in Kazakh culture. It’s called Nauryz (meaning “new day”), and it coincides with the Spring Equinox. The holiday celebrates the balance between day and night, harmony in nature and our lives, the beginning of new year, and peace among people. Growing up in Kazakhstan, I loved this holiday as a kid because there were so many festivities and so much good food and everybody seemed happy on this day. As an adult, it’s the holiday that always kindles hope for more balance and harmony for me. This Nauryz, I realized balance and harmony are the very things I’ve been missing in my life lately. I decided to reclaim them by writing my reflections on things that have been causing me a lot of distress lately.
The conversations of racism in the knitting community that started in January of 2019 affected me deeply. As I read posts and heard stories, I felt instant recognition. I felt like what I have been missing in my time in the knitting community, what I could not quite put a finger on, was finally being talked about -- in a language that was new, scary and cathartic to me. Scary because people were hurt and accusations were made. But cathartic because it confirmed something I had been feeling for a long time but lacked the ability to articulate it.
When I was 30 years old, I left my entire life behind and moved to a different part of the world to be with the person I love. In Kazakhstan, I valued my independence, I earned enough to support my parents and brother, I had an established circle of friends. When I arrived to the US, I had to start my life all over. Because of my visa status, I couldn’t apply for jobs, my teaching certificate was not valid here, and, on top of that, we found out we were expecting a baby. In the search for a new identity in a new place, I picked up knitting as a way to keep my mind occupied. Later knitting turned into a life-saver as new motherhood left me completely lonely and isolated. Knitting kept me awake during night-time nursing sessions, and helped me keep my sanity as I held my babies upright throughout the night due to their severe reflux. During an extremely lonely period, I started sharing my creations online. The warm feedback and compliments from strangers helped me feel a little less lonesome.
As my work gained more attention, I started to sell my knitting designs to support my hobby. As my patterns began to sell slowly and consistently (bringing in a modest income), I started to wonder if I could make this a sustainable form of income as a stay-at-home mom. What I saw on social media led me to believe that I could give this a try. On Instagram, I noticed many stay-at-home moms who seemed to have turned their passions into sustainable businesses that let them support their families and give back to their communities.
So, I worked hard to learn knitwear design -- I took online classes, read books, and knit a lot. I noticed how successful designers used certain yarns, certain brands, certain products, and had relationships and friendships with key players in the industry. I tried to keep up with the latest trends in the knitting world, tried to foster connections, and tried knitting with patterns designed by successful designers to learn from them. But it seemed like I was missing something. My pattern sales didn’t reflect the growth in my skills.
On Instagram, the posts/Stories where I shared thoughts and feelings about being an immigrant and person of color in this country got the least engagement of all my posts. Some even unfollowed me right afterwards. Just recently, I mentioned Kazakhstan in my Instagram Stories and immediately lost followers. The patterns where I’m the one modeling designs get the least amount of sales. The feeling of being an outsider kept nagging at me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I thought it was just in my head as my husband (who is white) constantly tried to reassure me that people didn’t treat me differently here because I am Central Asian, an immigrant and have a different accent.
In these past few months, I started to pay attention to how little diversity I saw among the successful people in the knitwear design world. Before, I dismissed my own feelings of being an outsider, of not seeing anyone that looked like me held up as “success”, because I thought I was the only one who had these feelings. It was too easy for me to dismiss and erase my own feelings. When I visited Stitches Midwest and Vogue Knitting Live this past year, I was in awe of the diversity and creativity of the attendees. But this diversity was not reflected in the works that were featured by the vendors, in the displays, in the teaching staff, or publications. I also started to notice how white-washed my Instagram feed had become and how little diversity I saw in the feeds of the people/companies I was following and then emulating.
Since January, big-name designers and companies started sharing how they’ll now try to be more open, inclusive, and transparent, while they then quickly moved on with their regular programming. It felt like business as usual for them. Other brands completely disregarded this subject. Social media started to feel like a big crevasse with people sharing the pain of injustice on one side and unaffected people continuing to push their patterns, yarns, and products on the other. I found myself falling into an abyss of confusion, sadness, and disappointment.
Because I felt it was important to add my voice and experience, I started to join the conversations of anti-racism and fostering inclusivity. That also led me to question my own integrity in working with people, products, and brands whose position on the matters of inclusivity were vague, which seemed to show their indifference. Some well-established figures in the knitting world started following my account and one prominent publication reached out with words of sympathy and a vague promise on collaboration in the future. Given that they never showed interest before or after this message, this felt like maybe they were paying lip-service in the hopes I wouldn’t speak out against them. A few designers and small companies I had previously established relationships with seemed to distance themselves from me (ignoring my direct messages and a drop in their engagement with me on social media). I couldn’t help but wonder, are they uncomfortable with my recent involvement in anti-racism conversations? Should I have just stayed silent and played it safe? If I had, would they still be communicating with me now? The message I took away was that I should not talk openly about the problems within the community for the fear of losing existing relationships, collaborations, and contracts; and for the fear of ever securing any future ones.
Feeling worried and confused, I reached out to a well-known figure in the knitting world who has been a big advocate for BIPOC/POC representation. She didn’t hesitate to help me navigate a tricky situation with a yarn company that I was collaborating with. The company had stopped answering important emails pertaining to our collaborative project, and their engagement with my IG account suddenly dropped, which left me concerned that the company might be against addressing the issues of racism and that they didn’t want me speaking up about it either. Thanks to the encouragement from this ally, I got enough courage to write to this company about their behavior. It turned out to be a series of unfortunate timing coincidences, but they reassured me they were on the side of inclusivity. But, to be honest, that intent did not come through in their initial, brief generic statements on Instagram, and the business-as-usual promotional content on their feed and nothing on their website.
Just recently, one of my designs got accepted by a publication that has never featured a non-white model or a designer. I was initially so excited thinking, “Finally, I’m good enough to be accepted!” But this excitement quickly wore off because of our interactions after that. There was a serious delay with sending the contract and their “take it or leave it” response to my request for extending their extremely tight deadline (due to the delay they themselves caused) left me wondering whether they really valued me as a designer or I was merely a token minority they felt obligated to include. I wondered, do they treat all their designers this way or was their business conduct an expression of how much they undervalue me as a designer of color?
I am disappointed that the notion of “inclusivity” is commoditized in this way. As a knitwear designer who’s just starting to see the “behind the scenes” of the industry, I'm disappointed that once my design submissions get accepted, the deadlines and deliverables they expect are unrealistic, bordering on disrespectful. The time allotments for designing and knitting a sample(s) are simply untenable for designers who are either stay-at-home-parents or full-time working folks, who do knitwear design as a side hustle. Design commission payments I’ve received show me it can never become a sole income source, unless I publish an insane amount of patterns (a new design every week) or teach at many big profile fiber events. To teach at a fiber event (according to Clara Parks), a typical contract states that instructors cover the costs of travel/lodging and be responsible for filling the classes as the payment system is based on the number of students taught. Although, they may offer a stipend to partially cover the costs, to qualify for this stipend, one needs to teach 3-6 hours a day, which is often unlikely as organizers do not trust new teachers to schedule that many hours of classes per day. Clara noted herself how exploitative, though common, these contracts are, leaving newbie teachers in debt after teaching an event.
As for local yarn stores, I have visited and purchased from 4-5 that are near to where I live (Albany, NY). Although the interactions have been polite and courteous, I notice how their tone changes immediately when I inquire about possible teaching opportunities there (smile disappears from their face, and they find an excuse to end the conversation abruptly). The last one I visited told me the owner doesn’t hire anybody because she teaches all the classes herself. Quite accidentally, I overheard one of the ladies at my local Knit Night (where I’m the only person of color) share that she had been invited to teach classes at that same store. My heart sank, but I tried to brush it off thinking it’s probably an unfortunate coincidence. Is it though, or is it because as a young, Asian immigrant, I look so different from their clientele that I get automatically rebuffed? Instances like this keep happening, and I’m starting to doubt these are merely coincidences.
No one says this outright, but it seems that whenever I bring up feelings of being “other” in my Instagram account, I end up alienating my followers. I lose followers, engagement drops and sales do not happen (compared to posts where I do not mention those topics). It almost as if the knitting community does not want knitting accounts to talk about politics, identity or belonging; they prefer pretty pictures of knitting. I would love to be able to do that, too. I wish could turn off my feelings of being an outsider, but, as a person of color, I do not have that privilege. I cannot avoid being who I am or keep erasing myself for the comfort of others. I do not want to be an activist, but I do not want to be erased either.
Last week, my husband and I had yet another conversation about my place and my future in knitwear design, and I finally had to face the hard truth that I don’t think I can make a career out of this because the industry feels like a rigged game. In Becoming, Michelle Obama shares that in the nonprofit world, only privileged people can afford staying in the field because that type of work doesn’t guarantee steady income. It’s usually white folks who dominate this field because they have support systems to help them (family, connections, financial support, inheritance, etc). The knitwear design world seems similar to what she’s describing, which is why I don’t see much diversity here either. I can’t afford to keep investing my time, energy, and money in an area that seems to have no space for my full self.
Perhaps once my sons start school next year, I’ll look a for a day job and scale back on designing. Realizing this is an option for me has taken the pressure off trying to succeed in this field, which in turn is allowing me to show my true self, focus on what’s important to me and speak my truth. I’ll make whatever time I have left as a knitwear designer count and will do my best to work with people and businesses who are dedicated to fostering inclusivity. With more opportunities for honest communication and feedback, maybe we’ll reach the point when people and businesses will know what true inclusivity (acceptance, respect, transparency, trust, equity) looks/feels like and will strive to foster it in their businesses. If anything, this kind person who extended her helping hand to me during the moments of utter frustration kindled a hope that there are people who are genuinely invested in transforming this community to an inclusive one, the kind I hope to be a part of.