Chapter 4. Manifesting Material Relationships Online through Ravelry
"One connotation that craft rarely seems to evoke," writes Leigh Gruwell (2022), "is any relationship to the digital" (p. 82). To dispel the idea that craft equates to physical artifacts, the second case study addressed craft's digitality and expands Gruwell's claim that the digital and material are interconnected. To do so, Gruwell takes readers to Ravelry, a website where fiber crafters (e.g., knitters and weavers) can track projects, share patterns, and join groups based on craft type, location, or tags. But why Ravelry and not another digital platform like Facebook? Ultimately, Ravelry's user-created content encourages participants—known as Ravelers—to craft and build social connections (p. 85). Additionally, Gruwell is a knitter and uses Ravelry for her craft projects, which gave her insights into the platform and communities that a non-Ravelry user would find unfamiliar. Thus, being a participant gave Gruwell a way to rhetorically analyze the platform and conduct surveys and interviews.
The chapter focuses on two traits—radical digital materiality and reciprocity—that makes Ravelry an exemplary site for the case study and furthered new materialist rhetoric and feminist scholarship by incorporating craft agency. Online food communities also utilize these two traits. As an example, we'll look at a community to which I belong: Bake Club. Like Gruwell, I'm sharing my Bake Club experience because, as an active participant, I can use my understanding of the group to critically examine how digital materiality and reciprocity play a role.
In March 2020, New York City pastry chef Christina Tosi started Bake Club as the United States began quarantining due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day at 2 p.m. EST, Tosi used Instagram Live to teach viewers how to bake with ingredients they had in their pantry. Participants, referred to as Bake Clubbers, baked along and built relationships by using #BakeClub at a time when we were isolated from our communities (Beardsley, 2022).
According to Gruwell, radical digital materiality enacts craft agency to demonstrate that digital spaces can emphasize craft's materiality through "its interest in material things," "focus on embodied experiences," and "attentiveness to physical locations" (p. 94). Through emphasizing making and sharing, Ravelers gained craft literacies alongside social capital as they became active community members (p. 96). Similarly, Tosi (2020a) taught Bake Clubbers baking literacy by encouraging creativity. In the second Bake Club video, she stated that all you needed was imagination and "a whisk or a heck of a lot of arm muscle" (00:02:50–00:03:08). The emphasis on creating something regardless of what you have embraces radical digital materiality as Bake Clubbers focused on their embodied experience in their kitchen and shared their bakes afterward.
Secondly, Gruwell explains that Ravelry modeled reciprocity and "how to practice the kind of ethical entanglements that craft agency depends upon" (p. 83) by emphasizing that the digital and material are co-constitutive. The items Ravelers use to craft, which include tools like crochet hooks and yarn as well as their bodies, are extended and, to use Gruwell's phrase, "entangled" with the digital. Such entanglement occurs in Bake Club, too. Tosi (2020b) encouraged Bake Clubbers to practice "reverse porch pirating." She suggested we not only share our bakes using #BakeClub but also bag and deliver them to friends, family, and neighbors. Through sharing physical baked goods and posting about it on Instagram, the digital and material are a highly co-constitutive practice that embraces reciprocity through making and sharing.
Lastly, it is essential to note that Gruwell does not present Ravelry as a utopia. The site has flaws like craftivism (Chapter 3) and the 2017 Women's March (Chapter 5). Knitting is often viewed as an activity one does in their free time (p. 87). And then there's access to reliable internet (p. 88). Through her Ravelry experience and interviews, Gruwell notes that Ravelers are predominately white and tend to be middle- or upper-class women. I saw similar demographics through my Bake Club participation and interviews. I interviewed nine Bake Clubbers, most of whom could work remotely or had retired before the March 2020 quarantine. Ultimately, applying craft agency to study such communities tasks rhetoric and writing studies scholars with critically examining how race and socioeconomic status impact participation.