An article has been circulating that has fueled a lot of discussion among knitters, entitled “Never Say This To a Knitter. Really, Just Don’t Do It.” What exactly are you never supposed to say to a knitter? You might think it’s a remark about him/her having too much time on their hands, or an ageist joke about who, stereotypically, is “supposed” to knit. It’s neither of those. The author, Anne Miller, argues—and many knitters agree—that the comment she least wants to hear (and does hear, often) is “You should sell your knitting!”
The first thing I noticed is that the article was published by Yahoo! Makers, which is apparently a thing that exists (neat, I guess). The headline is classic clickbait, designed to compel and stir up discussion. But the article’s thesis, that knitters are tired of hearing well-intentioned randos insist that they should commodify their craft, is familiar and resonant. I’ve heard, and felt, the same sentiment many times.
When someone tells me I should sell my handknits, I take that for what it is: a compliment. But sometimes the complimenter persists, and wants to know why I haven’t pursued this brilliant business plan already. This might be someone who, earlier, told me they never spend more than a few dollars on a t-shirt, or that they think $100 is way too much to pay for a pair of jeans. Since textiles have become one of the cheapest commodities on earth, and the people who make our clothing are increasingly denied living wages or safe working conditions, I don’t know where someone would get the idea that making clothes, by hand, is a smart moneymaking venture. That’s when it veers into uncomfortable territory, when I have to explain how much money and time actually goes into a handknit item, and how much such a thing would have to cost in order to bring in even a small profit. When I explain that I do sell patterns for my designs, and that I’m happy to teach anyone to knit who wants to learn and will pay for my time, that’s usually where the conversation ends.
So I very much relate to this piece, as did plenty of people on the WEBS Facebook page, where I first saw the article posted. Most people who comment on my knitting are not interested in having a conversation about their role, and moral responsibility, within the garment supply chain. Knitting, like any textile art, draws you closer to the beginning of that chain. Making a garment changes your perspective on clothing, and about how much of yourself you’re willing to invest in something you love.
However, sometimes we’re a little too comfortable in the assumption that knitting for fun necessarily challenges consumerism, instead of being another expression of it. I worry about this when the conversation turns, as it always does, to the costs. As Miller says, “The glorious yarn a stranger admires easily costs $20 or more per skein.” Add to that the cost of finding and buying, or creating, a pattern design, and the countless hours of actual knitting, and knitting starts to sound less like a practical vocation for plucky senior citizens, and more like a status hobby for the rich, like windsurfing.
I’m not disputing Miller’s cost calculations. I’ve spent more than $20 on a skein of yarn myself, plenty of times. Especially since I’ve had a glimpse into what it takes to run an ethical fiber farm, process wool responsibly, and bring a low-volume, niche product to market, I’m happy to pay the price for quality yarn, thoughtfully produced. But there is plenty of very serviceable yarn that costs much less, and a handmade item shouldn’t have to be expensive to be cherished.
Certainly, a knitter has a right to refuse to sell her work. She also has the right to spend as much as she wants on yarn and supplies. But if we only talk about those who knit purely for pleasure, and spend top dollar on materials, we leave most crafters out of the conversation. We create a false binary of “regular” clothes, which are supposed to be cheap and fast, and “handmade,” which are costly and slow. This binary excludes most people from access to well-made clothes, and more importantly, from developing the skills to make clothing themselves.
Like many knitters, I’m not rich. At some point, almost any crafter who doesn’t have an unlimited budget will start looking for ways to make their habit as economical as possible. Not every project can — or should — be a treasured heirloom made from expensive yarn. I’ve knit sample items for yarn stores and yarn companies; I’ve knit slippers and hats from leftovers; I’ve knit socks for babies I’ve never met. I’ve even sold some of my knits. None of this has cheapened knitting for me, nor has it lessened my enjoyment of knitting. Rather, I’ve been able to learn new techniques, experiment with new yarns, and take on fun projects that I might never have otherwise.
I live in Bulgaria, a country where handknit slippers, socks and hats are not yet luxury items (another pro-tip for knitting on a budget: move somewhere cheap). Greasy wool yarn, grown and milled right here in Bulgaria, is sold by the kilo. Older women spread out their handknits, to sell, on tabletops and sidewalks all over Sofia. A pair of one-of-a-kind slippers can go for as little as 3 euro, while an elaborate lace tablecloth (something that would take me a month of uninterrupted work, and takes these women two weeks) might fetch no more than 40 euro. These women knit Balkan-style, picking their stitches impossibly fast, with their working yarn thrown over the backs of their necks. They are absolute master knitters. But, rather than living a hobby knitter’s dream, they sell their knits to eke out whatever extra income they can, to supplement pensions of 200 euros or less per month.
You might think that, because they have to rely on their knitting skills for survival, that these women don’t “knit for pleasure.” Most artists or crafters will attest that selling the things you make changes your relationship to them, and your relationship to your craft. But when I talk to these women, they seem to love what they do as much as any hobby knitter. Like the Americans I know, they describe knitting as therapeutic, fun, and creative. They take no less pleasure in their handiwork just because they sell it to strangers. In fact, many of them are proud that they can make money from a skill that their daughters and granddaughters often don’t bother to learn.
Here, handknits are widely available, and consequently, not treated gently. When I knit in public, no one suggests I should sell my work. Instead, people remark that their grandma makes new socks for them every winter, or that they buy all their slippers from a prolific neighbor. At the market, I like to compliment anyone I see wearing a handknit sweater, or a garment that’s been visibly mended. Usually, the wearer will beam and tell me who made or mended it for them, or if they did it themselves.
As robust as Bulgaria’s crafting culture is compared to countries more firmly entrenched in capitalism, chances are it won’t be around for much longer. Fast fashion, and cheap, imported clothes have penetrated the market here, and tastes are changing in response. High-quality garments that are meant to be mended and worn over several years are seen as a clunky remnant of communism. Like Americans, modern Bulgarians expect to pay little for clothes and throw them out when they’re tired of them.
Meanwhile, as our wardrobes become cheaper and chintzier to the point of being disposable, handmade items are increasingly commodified as luxury trinkets instead of durable necessities. The handknit slippers and socks of Bulgaria are holdovers from a generation when workers could take a day off to can their vegetables or pick their grapes (things that still happen in many villages). It wasn’t a luxury to wear handknit socks, because you or someone in your family had the time to knit them. Instead of consumers, people were crafters, and had access to quality because they had the skills and time to make it themselves. At some point, the forces of capitalism decided that we were better off devoting those crafting hours to waged labor instead, and that in a society with no personal, unmonetized time, quality would be available to those who could pay for it. As wages fall and jobs become more competitive and demanding, many people are too busy to even sit down for all their meals, let alone pursue creative, fulfilling activities. Handknit clothing is becoming a luxury item, because the time it takes to make is a luxury. As Miller says in her piece, “not everything can be bought or sold — nor should it.” Yet, that’s exactly the direction we’re headed. When skills like knitting become merely costly hobbies, then most people are priced out of something that’s useful and fulfilling for anyone, not just those people who can afford high-end yarn.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to spend $50 on yarn to make an intricate scarf for a friend. But wardrobes are not built of intricate scarves alone, and knitting will only further disappear into the fringes if that’s all we knit. On the other hand, we can’t expect knitting (or sewing, or any textile-craft) to be valued as a skill, when we live in a society that has so shamefully devalued the people who make our clothing.
You might think it’s an anachronistic treat to wear clothing that somebody made for you. In fact, the clothes you’re wearing as you read this were made, by someone, for you. Even today, all clothing is handmade, to some degree. Millions of people work in garment factories all over the less-industrialized world, making the clothes you buy (oddly, these people aren’t the ones being complimented on their craftiness). Any conversation about the value of handmade clothing is incomplete without including these workers and the items they make as well.
Ultimately, the magic of knitting, for me, is not determined by what I knit, who it’s for, or whether or not I receive money for it. The magic is that I’ve developed a skill that decreases my dependence on consumer culture, that I can practice anywhere. Imagine opening your purse and taking out a little machine that doses you with tranquilizers and spits out perfect-fitting mittens and sweaters; that’s what knitting is for me. I’m convinced that, without it, not only would I be cold, I’d be a less functional, less sane, and much less happy person. The feeling I get when I knit is something everyone needs in their lives, not just those who’ve acquired enough capital to pursue an expensive hobby. This is what I love about teaching knitting, as opposed to selling my knits: sharing that skill with others, and hopefully giving someone else the inimitable satisfaction of having created something no one can buy.