Culture is defined as “ the expression of human spirit in the fields of fine arts, literature, philosophy, as well as their reflection in everyday individual and social codes and values” (Gourtsoyanni, n. d). Ethnicities and cultures all around the globe have developed different ways of artistic expression over the years and it seems that people tend to use art for its unique qualities; those of passing on knowledge and information to others, stimulating senses, and expressing and affecting emotions. Moreover, numerous forms of artistic expression, like music, visual media, literature and film provide some of the best means for modern societies to “ communicate their values and interests” (York University). Art is even used for medical and healing reasons, especially in today’s world, where professionals have conducted research, solidifying the healing powers of art in various health conditions, regarding mental health mostly (Stacey & Stickley 2010). Even though art forms are constantly changing, as they get influences from other cultures and/or develop within the same culture, it seems that in today’s world, market variables have strongly affected some artistic expressions of cultures and drive them towards extinction, regarding them as old fashioned. One of those arts is knitting, which has been closely related to the Greek culture for many centuries now. Unfortunately, the Greek “ national identity is seen ambivalently and as ultimately fragile. It is perceived to be under threat from external factors such as American popular culture and the European Union, from concepts such as multiculturalism and cultural relativism, and from internal threats such as immigration from beyond Greece’s borders.  Greece is engaged in a process of evolving from a “ mono-cultural” and homogeneous nation to a multi-cultural and heterogeneous society” (Mackridge 22). Nevertheless, my interviewee is a bright example of people continuing their ethnicity’s traditions, preserving the Greek cultural identity for as long as they can, via the art of hand knitting.
As already mentioned, art can be used for various reasons; however, my interviewee, Mrs. Maria, an old lady living a few blocks down my neighborhood, who comes from a Greek island called Kalymnos, which is quite far away from midland Greece, has demonstrated spectacular artistic skills in creative fiber arts that are not commonly seen in my country. In fact, she engages in that particular artistic expression for as long as she can remember herself. Mrs. Maria was raised in a traditional Greek patriarchal family environment, where the father was the head of the family, making decisions for the children’s future. His decisions included, but were not limited to, the children’s education, profession they would chose and who they would marry. Girls in the family had to be low-profiled and know how to handle a household. In fact, being a “ nikokira” as Greeks call a housewife meant, apart from being able to keep a household neat and tidy, that the woman should have a “ prika”, meaning dowry. The father’s responsibility regarding dowry was to save a decent amount of money and/or acreage to give the groom, while the mother’s responsibility was to educate her daughter on how to be a good wife and how to make her own dowry, which was the result of a very complex hand knitting form of art. The more dowry a girl had, the more highly sought-after bride she was in their community, and the best she knew how to hand-knit, among others, the best housewife to be she was considered to make. The art of hand-knitting was passed on from mother to daughter and it was a standard part of a girl’s education and this has been going on for many centuries. In fact, I was told by Mrs. Maria that women in Greece, mothers and housewives mainly, would knit clothes and socks for their sons and husbands who were fighting on the coldest and highest mountains, during World Wars and the Greek Civil War, to keep them warm and consequently protect from the extremely low temperatures and harsh winters.
Hand-knitting was mainly seen in middle to low classes, while the upper classes were more focused on buying products that other women would hand-knit for them, either for their own pleasure or to add more pieces to their daughter’s dowry. It had become part of the Greek cultural identity to have hand-knit creations in one’s home and it raised one’s esteem and respect within the society to have white, well-made hand-knit and a perfectly clean and tidy home. Based on the outcome of the interview with Mrs. Maria, it became obvious that hand-knitting was closely related to the Greek ethnic and cultural identity. It was deeply woven in the minds and hearts of the Greeks that this tradition had to continue and pass from mother to daughter, in order to keep their identity and traditions and not be taken in from other external influences that made the world seem the same. Hand-knitting was their way to preserve their cultural identity, alongside their traditions and language. As a matter of fact, hand-knitting had become part of the everyday life and it also had social aspects in it. Women would not only hand-knit alone in the privacy of their homes, but gather outside their homes, hand-knitting, while sitting in chairs placed in the pavements, drinking coffee, eating a special treat called “ gliko koutaliou”, talking and even singing all together traditional folk songs, especially when friends would gather to hand-knit for one’s daughter getting married soon, where wedding songs were heard all across the neighborhood. It was a social activity that allowed women to not only demonstrate their skills but also exchange opinions and new ideas on how to enhance their hand-knitting skills and how to make different patterns for their artworks. When a daughter would get married, she had to know how to hand-knit for her own daughter, if she gave birth to one and even though hand-knitting was most commonly seen among middle-aged women that had daughters, it was not so strange to see younger ones practicing that art form.
It is evident that Mrs. Maria’s work reveals memories and values of the older ages and the way older Greeks used to perceive family. It is also clear that uniformity is kept through practicing this particular art form. Taking the journey of hand-knitting in Greece and driving up to our days, one can quickly realize that such art form is under extinction. There are no norms such as the aforementioned ones, in order a woman to be considered a good housewife and “ culture that has a real impact on society manifests itself through, television, advertisement images, [and] industrial aesthetics” (Gourtsoyanni, n. d), among others, which lead to hand-knitting as Mrs. Maria knows it rather old fashioned nowadays. However, there are new, enriched and more resourceful hand-knit art expressions that tend not to replace hand-knitting, but become the means to keep something that has been part of the country’s history for too long to just forget about it. That way, we may deviate from the stereotypical way of art expression as described before, but embrace new non-traditional ways of hand-knitting with the help of technology, in an attempt to keep the Greek cultural identity.
York University. “ Culture & Expression”. Website.
Stacey G, Stickley T. Perspect Public Health. 2010 Mar; 130(2): 70-7. PMID: 20455486 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
Mackridge Peter. Cultural Difference as National Identity in Modern Greece. N. d.
Mary Thomas. ” Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book”. Print. Hodder and Stoughton, 1938.
Gourtsoyanni Melitta. Cultural Identity in Danger? Website.