Analyzing Needle Felting as a Discourse
What is Needle felting?
Stabbing a doll over and over again certainly seems like voodoo, but this is also what needle felters do. Needle felting is a recent craft first performed by fiber artist Eleanor Stanwood in the 1980’s when she discovered that industrial felting needles could be used by hand to create 3D objects. Since then, needle felting has experienced increasing popularity, but many people still do not know what it is. Needle felting is the act of poking wool with a barbed needle to compact or felt the wool. Much like clay, wool can be sculpted in any shape the crafter desires.
So what’s a Discourse?
From this simple and recent craft, a community of needle felters has risen and formed a Discourse. Discourse with a capital D is a term coined by James Gee, author of “Literacies, Discourses, Linguistics: Introduction.” Discourses are “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” (Gee 6) used to portray a social role. To analyse Discourses, Gee identified seven building tasks, “significance, practices (activities), identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge” (Fiano 66). Fiano used these building tasks to analyse a child’s Discourses in her paper, “Primary Discourse and Expressive Oral Language in a Kindergarten Student.” By considering Gee’s seven building tasks and using Fiano’s paper as a model, we can analyse the Discourse of needle felting. Before analyzing needle felting as a Discourse, we must determine whether or not it is a Discourse.
Does Needle Felting Really Count as a Discourse?
Once the necessary characteristics of what makes a Discourse are considered, it is clear that the needle felting community is a Discourse. James Gee describes Discourses as “‘identity kit[s]’ which come complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize” (7). The identity of needle felter is not simply composed of one who needle felts. One must also know the skills of needle felting and the language of needle felting. These traits are equivalent to acting and talking mentioned by Gee. Although needle felting lacks “costume,” it does include tools such as the needle, wool, and foam block.
The role of needle felter will be recognized so long as the other person knows what needle felting is. Needle felting is easily recognized because of the action of poking the wool with the needle. Someone in the needle felting community may recognize a beginner from an experienced needle felter through their skill level and familiarity with terminology. Gee also suggests that Discourses must be social. This is clear by his choice of words such as “social role” (Gee 6), “social identities” (Gee 7), and “social practices” (Gee 7) when he is describing Discourses. The needle felting community is indeed social in nature. Needle felters are brought together by a shared enjoyment of needle felting. They often communicate through the internet to share ideas and request advice. Needle felting can further be categorized as a secondary dominant Discourse. Gee defines secondary Discourse as a Discourse you acquire “after our initial socialization in our home community” (8). Needle felting is certainly something that you learn after initial socialization. After all, young children lack the fine motor skills required to hold and control the needle. A dominant Discourse “bring[s] with it the (potential) acquisition of social ‘goods’ (money, prestige, status, etc.)” (Gee 8). Needle felting can bring both money and status. Money can be derived through selling felted sculptures. Needle felting can also bring the status of artist. Like other art forms, understanding the sign systems of needle felting ensures proper communication.
Sign Systems in the Needle Felting Discourse
The needle felting Discourse has many specialized words that are used in few other Discourses. Such words include “roving” and “top”. These words are a part of sign systems, which is one of the seven building tasks. Sign systems, as described by Gee, are a critical element to the needle felting Discourse. Sign systems include language such as grammar and vocabulary. Gee concentrates on “how [sign systems] are used and privileged or disprivileged” (qtd. in Fiano 67). It is important for a needle felter to distinguish the different types of wool by name so they can select the correct type for their project. For example, roving is a useful wool because it can be used both for the base and for the details of the sculpture. Its versatility comes from the fibers being somewhat mixed and thus easy to felt. Top, on the other hand, is used sparingly because it felts very slowly due to all the fibers running in a single direction. If a needle felter did not understand the difference, they could try to work with top to make a base.
Using the wrong terminology is looked down upon by experienced needle felters. This is illustrated in Petal’s frustration over sellers mislabeling their wool, “MOST ROVING AVAILABLE IS ACTUALLY COMBED TOP.” Petal is upset here because roving is a useful type of wool for needle felting, but combed top, as mentioned before, is difficult to work with. Using the wrong terminology will mark a person as a beginner. A common mistake is calling “wool,” “felt.” This issue is akin to calling “bread,” “toast.” Wool, like bread, will become felt or toast only after processing it. One might mistake Petals words as scolding a beginner. Petal uses all capital letters to bring attention to her words so that beginners will be careful when selecting wool. She is not yelling at the beginner for mistaking the terminology. Being a beginner in many Discourses is seen as a negative thing, but this is not true in needle felting.
Apprenticeship in the Needle Felting Community
Beginners in needle felting are encouraged to grow rather than shunned for lack of fluency. Gee states, “the lack of fluency [of a Discourse] may very well mark you as a pretender to the social role instantiated in the Discourse (an outsider with pretensions of being an insider)” (10). Here Gee tells us that being a beginner is equivalent to being an “outsider.” While this assertion is true for some Discourses, it is not true for needle felting. Many needle felters are eager to teach aspiring needle felters, this is evidenced by the abundance of tutorial videos and websites. A website, called “The Felting and Needle Felting Forum,” is dedicated to felters, including needle felters, giving advice to other needle felters. This website welcomes beginners; in the introduction forum, there are an abundance of people willing to declare themselves as new to the craft. Experienced needle felters themselves are welcoming to beginners. When a person new to needle felting asked for assistance, an experienced user replied with encouraging words:
“Don’t worry, I’m sure most people have this problem when they first start needle felting. I know I did!” (“Newbie Needs Help”)
This interaction between beginner and expert fits into the building task “relationships.” Gee defines the building task of relationships as “relationships that are relevant in a context and how are they being enacted, recruited, and used” (qtd. in Fiano 67). In the context of needle felting, the relationship of experts and beginners is that of mentor and apprentice. By learning from an experienced needle felter, a beginner can become an expert as well. Almost paradoxically, while needle felters are eager to teach, the community values a person’s ability to innovate.
In needle felting, there isn’t one right way to do it. Infact, the community values individuality. Valuing a trait is a part of Gee’s category, significance. In the category of significance, Gee wants to find out, “how the speaker or writer is trying to give significance to things” (qtd. in Fiano 67). When looking at artifacts from the needle felting Discourse we can find plenty of significance to individuality. Petal comments “if you ask 50 different needle felters what they use, you will get 50 different answers” (Petal). Each needle felter has their own specific way to felt, down to the materials they prefer to use. This isn’t a surprising fact when we consider how new needle felting is. Needle felting by hand only started about 35 years ago. Having less than 50 years trial and error from previous needle felters, today’s needle felters are forced to seek out new and diverse ways to craft. It is possible that valuing individuality is a common trait among new Discourses.
A Trait of New Discourses
We cannot extrapolate information by concluding that all new Discourses share certain traits. Instead we can consider the recency of a Discourse as one possible reason for having certain traits. These traits, such as individuality and openness to beginners, are a sign of flexibility in the Discourse. New Discourses might have to be flexible because their Discourse isn’t fully developed. In a new Discourse, people need to figure out how it will be enacted. A Discourse is not created suddenly, rather it takes years of trial and error for a Discourse to gain a solid form. Even then, Discourses are constantly changing. New rules are added, people gain new values, and culture evolves.
As a whole, the needle felting is a creative and welcoming community. They value individuality and discourage misuse of words while encouraging beginners to grow. The flexibility of this Discourse may stem from its recency. Perhaps flexibility is a mark of new Discourses. After all, baseball couldn’t have had all the rules and gymnastics couldn’t have all the moves from the beginning.