Today I’m taking a little time to look back over my garment knitting. There has been much talk recently about elitism in knitting industry and who that serves to exclude. I raised this in a previous post and started to link to the yarn used in the hats I’d knitted to demonstrate how beautiful designs can transform what may appear unpromising yarns, vintage yarns, odd balls, leftovers and reclaimed yarns.
I was conscious that in that previous post my examples were limited to the hats that I’d knitted whilst struggling to focus on knitting anything more substantial, and feared that hats may be seen as a restrictive canvas for such a discussion. Anyone can knock up a hat out of leftovers right?
Well perhaps, but it takes some confidence and experience with the materials that those who are newer to knitting may be less comfortable with. It also assumes an amount of time available to knit and to admit defeat if that leftover actually doesn’t amount to enough to complete the project, without feeling demoralised and like you’ve wasted that very precious time you have to knit amongst all other commitments.
Garments on the other hand take so much more investment in yarn and time and the fashion within the knitting community, online at least, appears to focus around some pretty luxury and pricy yarns. So I thought I would review my garment knitting, and look at some of the things that I have knitted for myself with what I could call ‘non-contemporary’ or more ‘marginal’ yarns. As well as questioning the, ‘well that’s ok if you’re talking hats’ position in relation to making knitting more affordable and inclusive, I want to move beyond it and to create a space here, in my corner of the internet, where whole garments that did not cost a small fortune to make, can be showcased.
For a number of years there has been a taxonomy to my stash and my knitting practices. It goes something like this:
- Yarn can be bought if there is a design in mind for it – the yarn will effectively ‘pay for itself’. Whether it will pay for my time etc. and other outlays is a discussion for another day, important though that is.
- Yarn can be bought carefully if it is for gift knitting and the stash will not deliver. I like to give considered, thoughtful gifts and I hope that knitted gifts communicate this thought and the time invested. That said, I also like to choose yarns that are appropriate to the project and the recipient, which means washing and care instructions have to be clear and realistic, which is not always the case with my stash yarn.
- Knits for myself come from the stash. I have a sizeable stash accumulated over a number of years. I have been gifted yarn, have inherited a stash and I struggle to pass up a charity shop bargain regardless of whether I know what I’ll do with it at the time of purchase. In this respect my ‘personal’ stash is what I would consider more functional rather than luxurious.
This taxonomy is built on some pretty strong foundations. I am lucky enough to have disposable income that can be used for knitting. I have worked in well paid jobs although in the last few years worked freelance. Freelancing is a strange one, the irregularity of payment means actually spending money when you have it is mentally challenging because you know there will be long periods when you don’t. In effect, you could say I’m pretty ‘careful’ as a result when it comes to buying yarn. This also has a lot to do with my upbringing (rural, post-war, cash poor, working class, practical and resourceful. Add to that concerns around sustainability and a clear sense between wanting something and actually needing it and It’s a mixed bag that can be full of contradictions and mixed feelings.
My current situation is also all about transition. I’ve spoken on the blog about our move. This has been possible because for several years we have been incredibly careful about how we’ve spent our income, saving up to be able to make the choices we are now seeing through. It is a time of great excitement, uncertainty and not a little exhaustion. Whilst it is all predicated on having an income to save, it has meant that yarn has not been a priority for that income. Moreover, we will be living on a much reduced income in future, so the value of my stash will be even greater to me.
In the interests of full transparency, I did have a bit of a ‘swan song’ at EYF and splashed out on a sweaters worth of yarn for me; it was such a treat and felt really decadent after the last few years. I’m now knitting with that yarn and I’m so excited to see how it comes out. I just hope I’m not building the expectations too high…
I have also been able to build up a stash because over the last few years I’ve had space and a stable homelife. I’ve not lived in rented accommodation and had to move regularly as I did when I was younger, I’ve not lived in overcrowded, unstable accommodation or fled domestic violence, for example. Thus, I’ve had the space and time to allow my stash to grow over the years into a resource I can draw on.
This has also meant that I’m in the privileged position of being able to make particular choices in relation to my knitting, and yarn purchasing, and to enable this to align to my values and politics.
- I don’t buy new acrylic yarn. Environmentally I can’t justify it. I do knit with acrylic that has been donated to knitting groups I run or given to me, and I tend to knit it up for charities who request items made in acrylic. For example, the Hand in Hand for Syria and Hope Project blankets and some recent baby blankets for new mums and their babies in Yemen were all made from acrylic at their request.
- I avoid super wash wool wherever possible, for environmental and social justice reasons. Superwash wool is predominantly the result of chorine based processing which is often offshored by ‘rich’ countries whose environmental standards prevent the use of this process domestically, to ‘poor’ countries with lower environmental (and often workplace safety) standards. I will buy superwash wool from charity shops however, and try to keep this for projects where I know I’ll definitely prefer a superwash wool to a hand wash yarn, e.g. baby gifts. There are also a few yarns that use non-chlorine super wash processes e.g. Rosy Green produce organic machine washable merino wool, and while a little more pricey, the difference between this and other what may be regarded as ‘premium’ yarns, is less than it was when this yarn first came to my attention. Increasingly, technological developments are leading to a greater number of organic super wash wool products in both clothing and hand knit yarns so this is an interesting area for future focus.
- I’m happy to buy and knit with vintage yarns. I’ll happy freeze yarn to prevent risk of moth infestation, splice together moth affected wool and wash years of dust and crusty spinning oil off coned vintage yarns before I use them. In this way I’m making use of a resource that has already been produced and has already largely stamped its environmental footprint. I also get to work with some pretty stunning yarns this way and share them via some of the projects I knit for others.
- I’m happy to unravel charity shop sweaters in fibres that would otherwise be a little aspirational – for example the lambswool/angora yarns knitted up into hats for myself and for donation shown in my previous post.
- I’m happy to dye or overdye yarns that aren’t a colour I would choose, whether that’s balls of yarn or yarns reclaimed from charity shop sweaters. To date I’ve used nothing more sophisticated than food colouring on my stove or in the microwave and I’ll share my methods and experience of this in another post.
With such a flexible and resourceful approach it’s perhaps not surprising I have a rather extensive stash on which to draw!
So lets have a look at what I’ve done with some of it. There’s quite a range of projects dating back to 2005, thanks to Ravelry, although please excuse the rather grainy nature of some of the pictures. (If you hover over a collage a caption will pop up from the bottom and if you click on a picture you can scroll through each collage, slide show style, with full captions visible.)
Looking back this is quite a collection of garments, all but one knitted in 100% wool, the majority of which came from charity shops and was economical, in fact to be honest most were knit for less than the price of a single 50g ball of yarn at current prices. None are knitted with the yarns recommended in the patterns, all the yarns are commercial yarns made by then big companies, although some no longer exist. None of the yarn is hand dyed (except by me) or artisanal.
As a result my personal knitting is not something I’ve really talked about that much on the blog before now. In fact I’ve felt quite uncomfortable doing so. Instead, I have shared projects (here, here, and here) from the Vintage Shetland Project knit in the recommended yarns. The book I received in return for being a sample knitter on the project and the yarn was left over from design projects or given me in return for working at shows, and helping out with social media or simply as an act of friendship.
There are many reasons for feeling uncomfortable about sharing these personal projects. In some circles it would be seen as not supporting fellow creatives. In others, this type of making does not fit into the online culture and industry where so often £20+ skeins of yarn are portrayed as the gold standard or even the ethical, community building or supportive choice. Whilst discussions about inclusion continue, there appear little recognition of how easily and increasing focus on costly yarns and an ever smaller pool of ‘superstar’ designers can contribute to the exclusion of those whose socio-economic position means they literally can’t buy into a particular, dominant construction of what that community is.
My feelings about this remain mixed and probably will for some time. I hope this post goes some way to redressing the balance. If this blog is to be the inclusive space that I want it to be, then it needs to be about the creativity we share not whether we can afford the most expensive yarns, lovely though they undoubtedly are. Our creativity can flourish in our choice of yarns, our developing understanding of fibres and how they work in patterns and how we develop a deeper understanding of our craft as we combine our yarns in various patterns. Whether our yarn comes from a charity shop, is an inexpensive or expensive commercial yarn, comes from an ethical small producer or a hand dyer, it remains the raw material through which our craft can shine, and perhaps that’s a point that it would be nice to get to, where it is our craft that shines through in our knitting rather than only our choice of yarn and its price tag.
So I think I’ll leave it there, I’d love to hear what you think.
All the best,