Like a lot of knitters, I don’t tend to think of my output in terms of monetary value (spinning is another story, as I compulsively tell myself that all of my expensive equipment helps me save money on yarn, despite the fact that I haven’t cut down on my purchases since I got my wheel). However, this week, I’ve had to try to put a price on some of my work, and I’ve run into a few problems. I think they’re symptomatic of something far bigger and more insidious than me and my socks, so I’d like to devote a bit of time and space here to unpacking them.
The socks in question are made of sport-weight yarn, and come up to the knees of a tall man, with a nine centimetre turnover to boot. This is a substantial amount of knitting. I’m not sure exactly how much, because they’ve been train and unexpected waiting knitting and I haven’t been keeping track (I’m aware that this was my first mistake). Regardless, I would estimate 16 hours per pair, at the very least.
The minimum wage for my age bracket is currently £7.20. I will spare you my rant about how this still largely doesn’t reflect the cost of living, and why should people under 25 not be paid a living wage as well, as it’s all beside the point. If we take the lower limit of time spent on these socks, the minimum labour cost are £115.20 per pair. And that’s before we take into account the cost of materials, or the notion that any profit should be included.
Now, there’s something in the previous paragraph that your eyes may have skipped over. I’m talking about the minimum wage, as well as the shortest possible amount of time spent. Knitting is a skill that I’ve taken the time to learn, albeit largely by teaching myself. Why is my immediate reaction not to put a greater value on it?
I think there’s a number of reasons for this. Firstly, much like the occupations in which I have professional or semi-professional experience (music and writing), knitting is something that people see as a fun hobby. People tend to undervalue things like that, as if “doing what you love” should be a reason to accept poverty pay. The compensation for work should in part reflect the amount of time it has taken to learn and perfect the skills required. It took time to learn how to knit quickly and evenly, follow a pattern and all of the associated technical tricks, just as I’ve spent years practising putting words in the right order, and getting to the point where I can sing well enough to consider it as a career.
Yet still people persist in asking me to do all three of these things for nothing, peanuts, or that mystical currency of “exposure”, which my landlord consistently refuses to accept in lieu of rent payments. And this touches on the second part of the problem: people are unwilling to pay the true value of hand-knitted items. Partly, this is because people don’t realise how long it takes (I can’t be the only one who’s been met with surprise when I say that I can’t turn out a jumper in a weekend), but it’s also because historically, we have been taught to undervalue needlecraft as “women’s work”. It sounds trite, but there are very few – in fact, I can’t think of any – traditionally “masculine” crafts where the disparity between time taken to produce an item and its perceived market value is so large and there’s a reason for this.1
Until relatively recently, needlework, from the time-consuming tedium of mending and straight seaming to the most elaborate of fancy-work, was done “in-house”, so to speak. It was just art of the general unpaid domestic labour that women took on, and was regarded as proof of their feminine virtue, or of their accomplishments (there is a very interesting discussion of what makes a woman truly “accomplished” in Chapter Eight of Pride and Prejudice, for anyone who wants to read more about the topic). Essentially, even if the plainer work was done by servants, pretty much all women of every social class did some form of needlework, a great deal of it without pay.
And of course, people are always reluctant to start paying for something that they’ve always got for free, so here we are.
What is really needed is a shift in perspective. At one point in her oft-quoted manual Etiquette, Emily Post observes that in some periods, “no dress was fit to be seen if it hadn’t a month or two of some one’s time embroidered on it. I really like that phrasing, the idea that elaborate needlework is a literal signifier of somebody’s time, and I plan to employ it should I need to put a price on my work in the future.
It isn’t terribly fair that the people who have historically been disadvantaged by the undervaluing of needlework are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting to fix it, but we live in a capitalist system, and history teaches us that the market never stops exploiting workers just because it’s the right thing to do. Equitable treatment is won by workers making a fuss, and being prepared to collectively withhold their labour if necessary. So if people don’t want to pay what hand-knitted socks are worth, no hand-knitted socks for them. The free market can sometimes work both ways.
1 Yes, I know mechanisation has played a part in this, but crochet cannot be done by a machine (yes, really – every piece of crochet on mass market clothing is made by hand, generally for a pittance and in exploitative conditions), and it suffers from exactly the same problems, so this clearly isn’t the whole story.