Joinery, Joists and Gender
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Joinery, Joists and Gender

A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century

Deirdre Visser

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eBook - ePub

Joinery, Joists and Gender

A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century

Deirdre Visser

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Joinery, Joists and Gender: A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century is the first publication of its kind to survey the long and rich histories of women and gender non-conforming persons who work in wood. Written for craft practitioners, design students, and readers interested in the intersections of gender and labor history—with 200 full-color images, both historical and contemporary—this book provides an accessible and insightful entry into the histories, practices, and lived experiences of women and nonbinary makers in woodworking.

In the first half the author presents a woodworking history primarily in Europe and the United States that highlights the practical and philosophical issues that have marked women's participation in the field. Research focuses on a diverse range of practitioners from Lady Yun to Adina White.

This is followed by sixteen in-depth profiles of contemporary woodworkers, all of whom identify fine woodworking as their principal vocation. Through studio visits, interviews, and photographs of space and process, the book uncovers the varied practices and contributions these diverse artisans make to the understanding of wood as a medium to engage spatial, material, aesthetic, and even existential challenges.

Beautifully illustrated profiles include Wendy Maruyama, one of the first women to earn an MFA in woodworking in the US; Sarah Marriage, founder of Baltimore's A Workshop of Our Own, a woodshop and educational space specifically for women and gender non-conforming makers; Yuri Kobayashi, whose sublime work blurs boundaries between the worlds of art and craft, sculpture, and furniture; and Folayemi Wilson, whose work draws equally on African American history and Afrofuturism to explore and illuminate the ways that furniture and wood traditions shape social relations.

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Decorative Arts

Chapter OneEarly histories of women in woodworking

DOI: 10.4324/9780429345418-2
Early histories of women in woodworking are shaped by the ever-shifting dynamics between the public and private spheres. Whether in early modern Europe or in the twentieth century, women’s participation in the public sphere is contested and circumscribed; when constrained for fear that it threatened to upend the concepts of family and home, women exerted more power in the private sphere, often as consumers. In times of economic hardship, men have taken steps to further constrain women’s economic participation in the public sphere. There is, however, often a gap between narrative and reality, and even between policy and reality. The persistent cultural narrative that women are best suited to lives rooted in home and family, for example, is at odds with the reality that many women either have to, or choose to, work outside the home. Yet amidst these large-scale patterns and norms—often despite them—women have always shaped their own stories.

The legacy of Lady Yun

The earliest known woman credited in woodworking is Yun Shi, more commonly referred to as Lady Yun, who lived during China’s Spring and Autumn period (770–476 bce), which corresponds to the first portion of the Dong (Eastern) Zhou dynasty (Britannica, 2011), a time of diminishing power of imperial rule, emergent intellectual life symbolized most vividly by Confucius’ writings, and a growing significance of merchants and craftspeople. Lady Yun worked alongside her husband, Lu Ban (also called Gongshu Ban), who is recognized for his foundational work in Chinese woodworking and is widely revered in China as the father of carpentry and masonry. An illustration from the fifteenth-century carpentry manual Lu Ban Jing shows Lady Yun wielding a mallet, working side by side with Lu Ban. Significantly, she is the active maker in the image; Lu Ban stands by, observing. As their legend grew, it was frequently said that “What Lu Ban invented the Lady Yun would improve,” and that she possessed a talent in woodworking that exceeded that of her husband (Taylor, 2009–2021):
So is it not excellent and grand how our master, starting from the objects, mastered their manufacture and in the course of their manufacture fully perceived the spirit behind it? And his chaste spouse, Lady Yun …, was also blessed with heavenly skill. It is hard to enumerate one by one the objects she made, but if we compare them with those of the master, they may be even still more beautiful. Husband and wife helped each other, and thus they were able to enjoy a great and everlasting fame.
(Ruitenbeek, 1993)
It is a remarkable acknowledgment of and respect for a woman woodworker at a time when few woodworkers were ever individually credited for their work. Lady Yun’s inventive mastery and skill is evident to this day, as she is credited with, among other things, the invention of the umbrella; her best-known contribution is an object for personal use, neither furniture nor decorative but absolutely functional. It is reasonable to conclude from Lady Yun’s example that it was not entirely exceptional for there to be a woman woodworker in the field; indeed, she is noted for her mastery, not her mere existence. Yet while Lady Yun is an important forerunner, no other such early examples have endured to provide us with a more complete understanding of women’s roles in the woodshop. It is not until the late medieval period in Europe that more documented examples of women’s work with wood emerged.

Public and private: Economics and social formations

Medieval: Private versus public

The transition from medieval (fifth to the late fifteenth century) to early modern Europe (late fifteenth to late eighteenth century) provides written and material histories for tracing the relationship between women, labor, and the woodshop. Huge social and economic upheavals rocked Europe in the late medieval period, including famines, plagues, wars, and catastrophic weather. Much as we see today, the impulse to control women’s participation in the public sector and the economy intensifies in challenging times. While conventional histories of these periods comfortably concluded that the work of women was purely ancillary to and in support of their male counterparts, researcher Suzanne Ellison argues that the lives of women were much more complicated than those histories suggest. The medieval European family workshop was the engine of the economy; crafts and trades were family businesses, and all members were involved. The economic system was based around the household workshop; both men and women participated in all facets of the family business, including fabrication in the woodshop. Women might have been seen working as stonemasons, blacksmiths, and bakers, as well as textile and woodworkers (Ellison, Women in the Workshop, 2016). Craftsmen were expected to be married, and marriage to a master craftsman conferred some social status on their wives, who worked alongside their husbands managing accounts and sales, overseeing both journeymen and apprentices in the shop, and managing the household. As part of a web of interconnected trades, from sawyers and lumber dealers to toolmakers and apprentices, the family woodshop supplied furniture for domestic and public spaces; it was a way of providing for the needs of not only one’s family, but also one’s neighbors and community. Woodworking and furniture were solidly knit into the everyday world of commerce and the production of goods for use.
Figure 1.1: Illustration from Lu Ban Jing. Translation of comic strip text: “Later on, Lu Ban created a wooden frame on this tiny sharp axe and invented the first wooden plane. Whenever he needed to plane wood, he would ask his wife, Yun, to hold the other end of the wood so it wouldn’t slide off the bench. Yun found it as troublesome because it involved two persons for a task. She came up with a clever solution to the problem: She nailed a small piece of wood on the bench to prevent the wood from moving forward. This action makes wood planing job so much easier. Thus, successors named this device as ban qi (qi is a Chinese word for ‘wife’).” Hand drawing from Lu Ban Jing, “Luban Comic Strips – (P67–70).” (Johru Bahru Furniture Association, 2012,, last accessed 12/2020)
Ellison invites her readers to think about the employment of women through the frame of the public versus private spheres. It was easier and safer for wives and daughters to take up the trade of the master craftsman at the head of their household, thus remaining in the private, family sphere. Even if incomplete training or household demands meant that a woman couldn’t get to journeyman level, she could contribute to the household income and production in the shop. However, if that master craftsman of a given family did carpentry on a building site, the women in his family were less likely to work at that site. There were women working as laborers on building sites, but those who were there were more likely related to unskilled male laborers rather than the master craftsman. They might also have been poor single women, widows, or enslaved persons (Ellison, Craftswomen and the Guilds, 2016).
When demand was high, young women might be hired to do piecework and even formally enter an apprenticeship in some cities, particularly in wood turning, one arena in which women were often allowed full participation since it was deemed more decorative than structural. Widows could continue to run the shop after a master’s death and as such participated fully in the guild. Despite few formal provisions for hiring daughters as apprentices—as there were for hiring sons—there were opportunities, and in fact, skills in craft work helped make girls and young women more marriageable. In the last quarter of the thirteenth century, the Livres des Métiers, which documented codes of the traditional Parisian crafts, indicated that five of the one hundred traditional craft guilds were headed by women, and some women were employed in almost all of them; participation in these guilds was at the high end of respectability (Weisner, 1993). For her doctoral thesis in 1995, Janice Archer did extensive work on the Livres des Métiers, creating databases and deciphering obscure terms which allowed her to illuminate more of the work done by women. Archer’s research indicated that one-third of women worked in food and clothing production—more traditionally considered feminine—and two thirds worked in the same jobs that men did (Ellison, Craftswomen and the Guilds, 2016).
The medieval craft guilds—groups of artisans in the same occupation who joined together for mutual aid and protection—dominated the organization of material production and distribution even into the early modern period. They came to hold exclusive local rights to practice and trade in that craft. In images of labor from that time, working class women were sometimes pictured doing the arduous work of farming, tending animals, and working in the fields, but when they are represented in a woodworker’s shop, they are typically pictured doing needlework at the side of their male partner’s bench and/or tending to children. Women’s employment did not fit religious or socially conservative norms and so were largely invisible in works of visual art from the period. Neither drawing nor painting from life at that time, artists were tasked with representing the social ideal for wealthy patrons who were not necessarily interested in realism, and they were generally silent on women’s role in the economy. A rare exception to this is the Balthasar Behem Codex: Printed in 1505 and published by the Guilds of Krakow in Polish, German, and Latin, it includes images that place women next to men in guild shops. In the carpenter’s shop, a woman is using a bellows to keep coals under a glue pot warm (Figure 1.3), and in the cooper’s shop women are working on casks (Figure 1.4).
Medieval and early modern writers were largely silent on women’s employment outside the home, and where they are listed in city records, women are often referred to by their father’s or husband’s last name, with terms that refer to their relation to that male—i.e. dona, femme, wench—complicating research and data gathering about the labor these women were doing. While the building trades were male-dominated, women still worked making barrels, bed frames, tables, benches, armoires, doors, windows, carts, roofs, scaffolds, and clogs. City records in thirteenth to fifteenth-century Spain, France, Germany, and England show that women were even being hired as day laborers in stone and wood construction (Ellison, Craftswomen and the Guilds, 2016). In Europe’s guild system woodcarving was a highly skilled and well-respected trade within woodworking. However, it was defined as a craft instead of a “fine art,” even when complex and beautifully realized; this distinction between the fine and decorative arts dates to the Italian Renaissance and has echoes in the discourse about craft today. Like other forms of woodworking, most woodcarving was historically done by craftspeople who didn’t sign their work and remained anonymous.
Medieval women also labored under Biblical constructions of their sex as dangerous and polluted. For example, one story in the fourteenth-century Holkham Bible goes that when the blacksmith was asked to make nails for Christ’s crucifixion he refused, but his wife agreed to do it. Stories like this reinforced the idea that there was something intrinsically untrustworthy about women. In fact, women at the time worked in the blacksmith shop, contributing to the family income, and would have continued making nails to supplement that income into the nineteenth century (Ellison, Women in the Workshop, 2016).

Early modern Europe: Economic transitions and the changing meaning of work

Cyclical changes have allowed women to enter the woodshop only to see those doors close again, as women’s opportunities for full participation in the public domain have been m...