The Design Observer Twenty

Margaret Wertheim | Essays

Susan Boyle and The Beauty of Crochet

Susan Boyle, performs on "Britain's Got Talent"

Like everyone else on planet earth I have been moved to tears by Susan Boyle's amazing performance on Britain's "Got Talent." Any of you who haven't yet watched her on YouTube, do yourself a favor. I want to reflect here on Boyle's massive appeal from a very personal point of view, for I have spent much of the last three years managing a project that harnesses the creative energies of hundreds of middle-aged female "nobodies."

In late 2005, my sister Christine and I began crocheting a coral reef, a project we started in our living room as a response to the devastation of living reefs due to global warming. From the start we envisioned this as a collective enterprise and we announced on our website that we'd welcome others who wanted to participate. Three and a half years later we have just opened an exhibition in Scottsdale AZ that contains the works of 500 people — almost all of them middle-aged women.

The "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Scottsdale Civic Center, 2009

The "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, 2007

The "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project" exhibtion in Scottsdale, comes on the heels of exhibitions in Chicago, New York, London and Los Angeles. In all of these cities we've held workshops and invited participation in the creation of this woolly environment. To our amazement thousands of women have shown up and close to 1000 have made pieces included in an exhibition. Every one of these women, has told us how important it is to them to have their work recognized and validated in an authoritative art gallery space. For most of them, like Susan Boyle, this is the first time their artistic talents have been taken seriously.

Time and again, they and other visitors to the exhibitions have been moved to tears by the vast outpouring of creative feminine energy on display. Christine and I (oursleves now technically middle-aged women) have watched with an increasing sense of awe the exponential growth of our project. When we began we thought a dozen or so people would join in. We seem to have tapped into a parallel universe of female power — I can think of no way to put this anymore, except to say that we have become the channels or mediums for what appears to be an unstoppable force.

Margaret Wertheim, a science journalist and author of physics books wrote the Quark Soup column for the LA Weekly and is currently a contributor to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as a contributing editor to Cabinet magazine. Her books include Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. she and her twin sister Christine Wertheim also founded the Institute For Figuring, an organization based in Los Angeles that promotes the public understanding of the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematic.

Why has this force not been channeled before? How is that such power and potential has gone unnoticed? Unrecognized? Unutilized? If this much of it could be channeled randomly through our living room, imagine what could be achieved with even a modicum of social support and encouragement. As I watch Boyle's astounding performance I think about the dozens of equally ignored and in some cases equally brilliant women whom it has been my privilege to observe as artists during the course of the Crochet Reef Project. I think especially of our beloved contributor Evelyn Hardin — an unemployed woman in Dallas TX who left school at 16 and is nothing short of a creative genius — though, like Ms. Boyle, nobody has seen fit to say so for the past 40-odd years.

Above: details of the "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, 2007

When Susan Boyle walked onto the London television stage on Saturday night everybody laughed. "No one is laughing now," as one of the show's judges remarked. Except in joy. Boyle's transcendent voice, issuing from her blubbery and sagging body under a mop of frizzy unruly hair, resounded off the studio walls like an angel in flight. Our spirits soar with her not merely because of the virtuoso performance but because the experience so far exceeds our expectations. Over the past three years I have had the chance to observe how many middle aged women can defy expectations when given the chance. It is with joy that I can announce that the Crochet Reef Project has just been accepted for exhibition by the Smithsonian. It will be the first time ever that the Natural History Museum will exhibit an art project.

Postscript. Now after 70 million YouTube views and endless press — it's impossible to see Susan Boyle raw. She has become a bona fide Phenomenon. I'm glad I saw her before that happened, when it was genuinely possible to be moved by the sheer tenderness of a middle-aged woman defying expectations and annihilating disdain. Her impact results not just from her voice, or the song (surely a canny choice), but also from the joy of her being. She represents the triumph of what we Australians call the "dag." Every wrinkle on her face and crinkle of her unruly hair — all of which she seems so comfortable with — resists the barbie-doll ethos of our culture that weakens so many women. I agree with the show's female judge, Amanda Holden, that she should resist all efforts at beautification and Hollywood-style makeovers. When our tears flow it is not merely because of her surprising talent, but because for many women it is such a release to witness a woman so evidently and joyously in defiance of the social rules that require shabby-flabby people to be silent and slink into the shade. That takes real courage.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [25]

over 45 and unemployed woman don't think logically that's why it is not channeled. They think like this:

•shabby flabby_NO!

susan,you are having memory lapses, exercise builds body and mind.

•i had two grandmothers that could crochet anyone er...wait... um
anything on top of a table. I had to think a second.

•they both died when they were sixty. I don't know why, they were active in the kitchen and walked to the grocery store everyday. Maybe not active enough. Maybe just too tired. anyway...

•which reminds me. my aunt used to do this knotting stuff with her fingers and palm leaves. Most beautiful knotting you can imagine. No hooks/ no thread. she is a Catholic nun. They did it for palm sunday.

•which reminds me

In chicago

for arbor day they have one person makes a difference campaign and placed one Triumph Elm in the middle of michigan avenue with green ribbons knotted on the branches for ARBOR DAY.

•which reminded me to take a ribbon and tie it around my pony tail and wear it proudly

•which reminds me

I dig a pony TAIL where you can celebrate anything you want!

•and if Chicago women, maybe we can make a giant green palm leaf knotted ribbon and tie it around the pony tail of the magnificient "injun" (no harm meant, play on word engine) that's riding the horse on the other end of michigan avenue for arbor day. since his field of stinky onions has been replaced by magnificient skyscrapers. Oh and one on that Polish guy on a horse by the planetarium.

•which reminds me of the seventies

where for one day we can be flower children without the drugs and alcohol and wear dandelions or grass in our hair.

just to be silly and politically green just for one day.

Even if you think being green is lame, planting something in your back yard and a daisy chain of greens or olive branches or laurel leaves (i don't really like polyester ribbons all that much) would give new meaning to

kNOT in my back yard. kimby
four trebles in the fifth chain from hook

In another time and place Ella Fitzgerald was dismissed as not being pretty enough to be a singer but she persisted and made a fine career into middle age and beyond.

The thing that gets up my goat about the whole Susan Boyle thing is how the media jumps on it as a good news story, and how every news program, morning chat show etc is belting out how it's lovely to see an 'ugly' person sing well. Not only is it patronizing but it's hypocritical as it's the media who's pretty much to blame for a chunk of the population having an inferiority complex.


wow.. really 'experimental' design... a new age

Wow. I think this article is quite rude. "Boyle's transcendent voice, issuing from her blubbery and sagging body under a mop of frizzy unruly hair..." I fail to see the connection between her physical presence and her voice as if it is supposed to be some remarkable unheard of concept for a 'blubbery' person being able to sing. At the same time this writer tries to celebrate the 'middle aged' woman she tears her down in the same breath.

I really hope this Susan Boyle lets everything people say roll off her back. How would you like it if someone approached you with "Wow, you are incredibly ugly, almost heinous, but your voice makes up for it. Congratulations on being brave enough to show your fugly face! Don't change at all so we can all feel better about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for supporting an 'ugly' person. See! We aren't shallow!"

Good God. Do we even see our own ugliness?

I totally agree with Jenn's comment above. The media is the biggest hypocrite in our culture. First it keeps telling us that we all should look like Barbie dolls with straightened hair, or we are worthless. Then it commends a so-called 'ugly' person for having a beautiful voice. Implying, even though she doesn't look like a super-model she sings amazingly, and what a shock is that! How shallow have we become?

The article also describes her offensively. How can you say, "Boyle's transcendent voice, issuing from her blubbery and sagging body under a mop of frizzy unruly hair..."?? Even the author of this article is a victim of the Barbie doll culture.

I think she is amazing the way she is, she should stay that way, because she is the most genuine and real person around, who is true to herself, and not ashamed of it. Hats off to you Susan Boyle, don't change an inch for anyone!

I think the crocheted coral reefs are absolutely extraordinary.
Rob Henning

What if Susan Boyle wants to change and this is her opportunity? People say it's great she had the courage to go up there with her frizzy hair and flabby appearance, the fallacy and hypocrisy of these statements have already been pointed out in a couple of posts. Everyone wants her to stay the way she was when she walked on that stage, but what if she doesn't want to. Would the people saying she shouldn't accept a make over do the same? Further more doesn't saying she shouldn't change her outward appearance because it would somehow make her inward nature less genuine, confirm the prejudice of appearance. In other words aren't we saying UGLY=GENUINE and BEAUTY=FAKE doesn't this message just further reinforce stereotypes.

Thanks, Margaret. That's some nice knitting! I'm with you when it comes to the untapped potential of the middle-aged woman. We are an industrious bunch and easily overlooked!

When it comes to Susan, the argument in the responses is missing the point. She stood on the stage pre-performance as a meek, uncomfortable, humble contestant, nervous and unsure of herself. Her performance showed the opposite: A strong presence and talent that was moving and inspirational. She was completely transformed when she started to sing.

As for the judgment on her appearance, I don't know who can truly say that their judgment isn't affected by outward appearances. If shapes, colours, fonts and buildings have the ability to influence us, why can't hairstyles and faces communicate with us too. We are a visual species.

it is easy for somebody who has been a model herself to point a finger on Susan Boyle's appearances. Susan is amazing talent by herself. IFF has amazing talent of finding other people's ideas and present as their own. However they do have a talent of organizing and grant soliciting for the reef project and it is true that they attrarted hundreds of middle aged women who otherwise just be lonely.

Watch how quickly this woman hires a personal trainer and stylist.

I’m sorry but what the hell was this article even about? Britain’s Got Talent? Crocheting? Harnessing the untapped power of ugly women? Seriously, this has nothing to do with design, had no social imperative, and the coral reef just looks like a bunch of unfinished crocheting thrown on top of each other. The whole article sounded to me like the author was trying to be witty but it just came out flat, insulting, and catering to the lowest common denominator. What’s next an article on how watching Biggest Loser made you want to go out and exercise femininity through a startling display of stacking bottle caps? Hey, maybe it says more NOT writing the article on how we all can grow as people, if we just hug an ugly person everyday, then writing it and patting ourselves on the back about how forward thinking we are as we crotchet a lump of shapeless anemones. Design Observer is better then this crap.

Are we all a little hysterical? The writer seems to me to be pointing out people's reaction to her, not giving her approval to or encourage, that kind of reaction. I have not followed the msm's headlines about her, but I don't see any shallowness in this writer for point out something which even Susan Boyle herself would agree with, her "shabbiness."

As far as the art, perhaps they are good, but I agree that from the photos it doesn't look impressive (except for the first pic.) Maybe you need to take better pictures?

I think the article is an interesting food for thought, as far as harnessing the power of people who are normally "sidelined," at a time when everyone seems squeezed out of energy while so many new crisis burgeon (political, environmental.)

Also, it's interesting to see a post on "art" on a design forum.

I'm guessing that is part of why there doesn't seem to be much constructive criticism focusing on the work itself, but, ironically, more criticism and *Even more* hysteria concerning the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon.

I personally know a "late-middle-aged", shabby/flabby woman who is an artist and who mostly has been sidelined because of her appearances... She is self-conscious of it, in a way, but also far from being "in denial" about it, nor does she need others to pretend her flab does not exist.

I watched the TED video. MW is a very, very beautiful scientist. And I'm okay with that because I have sons that are handsome and nerds.

Hey, it happens, too.

BTW, i don't know what came first!

knitting, crocheting, tatting or fishing net knotting. If you want to compare other mathematical principals, like fractals or mapping the eighth dimension, to handicrafts, you realize that math and science has just recently become a classroom study. It has been with both men and women for the longest time.

The other way around, if you are a higher mathematician nerd, you understand higher dimensions, but maybe are having trouble coming down to the third dimensional planet earth from the sun, Look at lacemaking to see what a interconnecting web we pattern ourselves after on earth.

Come to think of it, i think that ninth planet pluto is just a edging on the tattered lace fooling us into thinking what it's shuttle is spinning round.

what i do find interesting about the math and science involved in yarn craft is that when i look to applications being developed for handheld devices, there is a huge huge unsightly void, ignorance(?) in that field.

... my how i could take up the task and share if i had a bit more programming skills or programmers had a bit more fiber -optics.

if you want to see crocheted math then look here

in Milan Design museum there was a cool exhibit with displayed crocheted hyperbolic space models among other cool things

how many million apps downloaded and not one on crochet?

mathmen, you need to give me a call

her bun has a grannysquare cover

I find the commentary about Susan's supposed ugliness bizarre. To me Madonna, for example, is uglier than Susan by far, as is Nicole Kidman these days. Susan has gorgeous hair and great bone structure. she's just a little fat from being depressed for a few years.
Ginny Desta

As a middle-aged fibre artist with perfect pitch, I really wanted to applaud this article for bringing hyperbolic crochet into the mainstream.

But as many of us suspected from the beginning, Susan Boyle is just another bad joke that most of the world fell for, and, frankly the antithesis of the coral reef.

Move on....
L.M. Cunningham

Stylist ... Check

While I found the coral reef project interesting, I would have preferred to hear something from these many participants, rather than the artificial tag to Susan Boyle for... what, web hits maybe? It directed the point away rather to the project and the real women. You could just as easily have connected it to "Golden Girls"...

Arthur Freed

so is DO more about design or about marketing? where does design want to go light years from now?

because i would have thought that such a discussion might even get a sidebar note toward the use of non euclidean geometry in trajectory science. Afterall, on April 21, 2009 they announced the discovery of the planet e orbiting in the gliese581 system.

Now how could crochet or some handicraft explain radial velocity for me? and be used in further design?

I think your Crochet Reef project is really interesting. It's aesthetically beautiful, and it also has a very strong message - both regarding the social, political and environmental issues related to the Coral Reef, but also because you use different materials to express your creativity. That's great.

However, as Arthur Freed said, I'm not sure about the connection to Susan Boyle. I mean, yes, if you compare the intention of people who participated in your project, and Susan Boyle's intentions, they're obviously connected. But the phenomenon was entirely created by a bunch of TV people who thought they needed someone "different" for the show - I'm pretty sure they staged that. Whereas your work is a real work of art, it hasn't been influenced or deviated for entertainment-only purposes.

Or maybe not? Not sure.
Daviel Lazure Vieira

Seriously what is this crap doing here? Oh wow a woman who isn't conventionally attractive as a slightly above average singing voice, lets all hail her as the second coming because a bit of footage before her performance lined her up to be a comedy bad performer.

You should all watch the latest episode of Newswipe, it sums this non-event up perfectly.

Today is January 15, 2010. Turns out Susan Boyle got that makeover after all. Her debut album has sold nearly 7 million copies and gone multi-platinum in 41 countries. She is glamorous and gracious as she sings to cheering audiences around the world. Then she comes home to her council house in Scotland, takes the bus to go shopping, and sometimes signs autographs at her gate. May your coral reef blossom as well and give as much delight.

Margaret Wertheim Margaret Wertheim, in 2003 she and her twin sister Christine (a professor at Calarts) founded the Institute For Figuring, an organization devoted to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of math, science and the technical arts. In 2009 she presented the Crochet Reef Project at TED.

Jobs | March 24