A Woman’s Worth and the Value of Needlecrafts

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.

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The Shawl Manifesto

Recently, I’ve seen a number of articles and social media posts about shawls. They all focused, either in passing or as a main topic, on how making shawls more wearable, or how to style them so they look less, well… shawly.

I can see where they’re coming from. Big, bold shawls in all the colours of the rainbow are an ever-popular type of knitting – they’re the perfect canvas for meandering cables, brain-melting lace or in-your-face colour contrasts. They’re one-size-fits-all, and most can be adapted to suit the amount or weight of yarn you have on hand, making them perfect for using up odd skeins or particularly special yarns. In short, shawls are fun to knit.

The wearing, though… Most people, knitters or not, don’t really see shawls as part of their repertoire. So they don’t wear them. And where does that leave us? With lots of brilliant creations that are painstakingly knitted, carefully blocked, and then neatly folded away in drawers.

It’s clear that this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, hence the recent plethora of advice on toning them down and making them blend in more easily.

Fuck that. I’m here to offer an alternative.

You can bunch your shawls up around your neck if you want, and I’m not knocking that concept per se (it’s great for staying extra warm in winter, or making wraps work with coats and other thick outerwear). But what if… What if we stopped trying to make our shawls less dramatic and embraced their, well, shawliness?

Imagine billowing down thee street in a cloud of hand-dyed merino, maybe even with some beads sparkling around the edging. Pin on a pi shawl that comes down to your knees to meet friends for coffee. Rock a glorious shawl whenever the mood takes you or the temperature suggests it.

To me, it is the perfect combination of practical and glamorous, and will always be the most elegant way to leave the house wearing what is essentially a small blanket.

What if people stare?

Maybe they will. Staring is rude, but then, rude people are an unfortunate fact of life. I’m fairly sure that people stare at me about the same amount, regardless of whether I am wrapped in yarny goodness, or schlepping to the shops in an old jumper requisitioned from the Yarn Widower. I’m not jaw-droppingly beautiful, but I haven’t broken any mirrors recently either, so I don’t think that’s got anything to do with it.

People are going to stare sometimes, so you might as well be fabulous (and cozy) while they do it. Besides, what do a stranger’s opinions matter?

Now of course, people might go further and actually make comments on your knitwear. If you don’t like those comments, may I recommend the Captain Awkward method of Letting It Be Awkward. Say “wow” or “really” with as little inflection as possible, and just look at them while they stew. They know it’s rude, and they are the ones who decided to be rude, so turn it back onto them by doing nothing. Then swish off into the sunset, wearing your shawl like a superhero cape, because that is who you are now.

What if my friends and family think I’m weird?

Then they’d be right. Knitters, like all the best people, are generally pretty weird.

While my immediate response is “to hell with them”, I’m aware it’s not that simple. Disregarding the criticism (or even gentle mockery) of those closest to us can be really hard.

There are two parts to this answer. Firstly, do you think that your nearest and dearest haven’t already noticed the knitting? Because they have. Whether it’s picking stitch markers out of the hoover or accepting that you won’t head out for the day without a half-finished sock in your bag, knitting quickly becomes a part of life. With this in mind, why should wearing a shawl be any different to wearing an amazing hand knitted jumper?

The second part of my answer is about how people perceive knitting as a craft. Knitting still has a bit of an image problem, especially when it comes to laymen (or muggles, if you prefer). Despite huge amounts of evidence to the contrary, some people still believe that knitting is purely an activity for the old and uncool, and is mainly made up of grandmothers churning out baby clothes (as if there were something wrong with this).

These people’s heads would explode if you told them about Stephen West, or the Pussyhats, or the, um, eclectic range of patterns in the “whimsies” section of Knitty.

Now, while my first line of defence is still “who cares about those people?” with a side order of “‘fuck off’ is already a complete sentence”, there’s something important I’d like to share with you.

Over the years, I’ve met a great many people with what could be described as niche interests. Not just knitters, but Morris dancers, early music lovers, LARPers, model train enthusiasts, brass band nuts and dedicated fan fiction writers, to name but a few.

And I’ve observed an overarching trend with these people, and how I respond to them. When I encounter someone who is doing (or talking about) that one thing that they love and are really good at, they come alive in a very real way. This gives them the kind of magnetism that means that I can’t help enjoying their company, even if I know nothing at all about the interest in question.

Sometimes I want to be friends with these people. Sometimes I want to be them. Sometimes I want to be on their face. I have been known to have difficulty distinguishing between the three, but that’s besides the point.

The point is that the joy and total absorption that comes when you engage with your passion makes you more sympathetic, not less.

And yes, wearing your handiwork on the regular may get you a reputation. But is there anything wrong with being “the one who’s always wearing amazing shawls”? It’s definitely better than “the person with questionable hygiene who always stands too close” or “the knuckle-cracker”, so I will take that label with pride.

Really, this has been a long and unusually earnest way of making a simple plea:don’t let your knitwear languish in cupboards and drawers. No more saving it for special occasions. Do what you love. Free the shawls.

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For illustrative purposes, a quick photo of me wearing a big shawl, taken by the Yarn Widower.

Songs and Sock Yarn

There’s nothing quite like waking up to a massive pile of laundry and a weirdly affectionate cat to make you realise that the holiday is most definitely over.

What’s more, this week I’ve been tackling the laundry single-handed, as the Yarn Widower abandoned me for the delights of the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, and then has to dash off to a gig in Edinburgh first thing tomorrow. Don’t feel too sorry for him, though, as he seems to have had a grand old time in Vienna.

My travels have been rather less glamorous, but the embryonic ballgown (all one and a half inches of it!) and I had a little trip to Flint Mountain on Sunday to sing in a concert. It was great fun, and there was an impressive turnout for a Sunday afternoon, even if I did have to sleep for 14 hours afterwards.

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Sadly, I was in too much of a rush to obtain conclusive photographic proof that I was in a church without spontaneously combusting, but I did take pictures of yarn and music.

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For those that aren’t familiar, the above photos show the ballgown cozying up to the Big Yellow Book, as it’s affectionately known. It’s pretty much a bible for first and second year singers at music college, and is full of a selection of Baroque songs that come with utterly ridiculous, over-the-top accompaniments courtesy of its 19th century editors. It’s completely bonkers, and therefore great fun to sing.

After I’d returned to a more or less functional state, I decided to take advantage of the extra downstairs space by bringing my wheel down so I could spin while watching trashy TV (which is so truly awful that I can’t bring myself to admit what it is).

My project for the week involved some delightful BFL roving from Countess Ablaze in the OOAK colour Tropical. Now, the lustre and long staple length of BFL screams socks to me so I did a bit of research. As the aforementioned Countess has recently pointed out, not all four ply is sock-worthy, and there’s nothing worse than spending loads of time on a pair of socks that promptly stretch out of shape or sprout holes. Particularly when you’ve gone to the trouble of spinning the yarn yourself.

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This is (half) of what I started with. I forgot to take photos until half the singles were already spun. I know, bad blogger.

BFL is already a good fit for socks, as it’s pretty tough, but I wanted to make this stuff as close to bombproof as possible, with loads of twist. Enter cable spun yarn. This involved spinning (in my case) four lots of singles, which then became two bobbins of heavily overplied two-ply.

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Excuse the poor light, but I’m a massive insomniac, so this is perfect witching hour, bore-yourself-to-sleep spinning. As I’m a chronic underplier, I ran it through the wheel twice on a high ratio to make sure. The two-ply is then plied together (i.e. in the same direction that the singles were originally spun). The result should be a really tough, rounded yarn that gives excellent stitch definition and can really take a beating.

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This is the actual end result, helpfully modelled by a local tree. It’s in a public space, so I was worried that someone would ask what I was doing, and I would have to say “photographing yarn in a tree” as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. I mean, I think it is, but it’s not really that kind of neighbourhood.

I don’t think it’s bad for a first attempt at a new spinning technique, but the real test will be how the eventual socks hold up. Patterns, anyone?

Fluid Dynamics

We have returned in one piece from a week traversing the weird and windy roads of Scotland. I am very, very tired, both from the amount of traveling and the stupid cold that followed me north. The end result of this is that I did a lot of sleeping in the car, and relatively little knitting, so I only have about an inch of ballgown.

Also, that thing I said about “lots of stocking stitch in the round? For the most part, that didn’t work out. It was clear from about a third of the way through the (924 stitch) cast on that “join in the round, taking care not to twist” was going to be nigh on impossible, and there was no way I was ripping out and starting again for something of that length.

Instead, I worked flat for 11 (I think) rows before trying to join the wretched thing, which meant that I ending up purling around the twisty roads by Loch Ness trying not to vomit. Teething troubles, shall we say.

Moving on…

We drank whisky:

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We had a cosy fire in a little cabin while the rain lashed down:

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And of course, we visited some yarn shops (and yes, also stopped to look at interesting tidal races and tea shops because that is the Yarn Widower’s thing).

Shilasdair on Skye was our first stop. They’re specialists in dyeing with plants found in the landscape around them, and if you think this means that the resulting yarns are dull or lacking in colour, then you’re in for a surprise:

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I only bought three skeins, and I consider that an act of considerable restraint.

The next yarn stop of note was in Edinburgh. Ginger Twist is a stalwart of the local yarnie scene, and I couldn’t resist going in to have a smoosh. Unfortunately, budget restraints had kicked in at this point and I could only really justify getting one skein, but isn’t it a beauty?IMG_0343

The colourway is called “Tink”, and I really hope that isn’t a prophecy.

Our friends got married outside on a bridge, mercifully during a brief interlude when the sun came out. No one objected, neither participant tried to run away or said the wrong name, and the usher didn’t lose the rings.

The Yarn Widower has been, on the whole, an absolutely delightful traveling companion. However, I cannot resist (with his permission, of course) telling you about a little incident just after we arrived on Islay.

Before I begin, he would like me to note that we had been on the road for over ten hours that day, and several celebratory drams were taken upon arrival. He also accepts that I will dine out on this story for years.

The room at our B&B had a lovely freestanding tub, claw feet and all. As I was very tired, he gallantly offered to run me a bath. I accepted. When it was about half full, I went in to check on it. “Ow!” I cried, dipping a finger into the water. “That’s scalding!”

So as is logical, I went to turn on the cold tap. The Yarn Widower shooed me away, offering a convoluted explanation about how adding more hot water would make it cool down quicker. I expressed my doubts.

“I have a master’s degree in fluid dynamics,” he said firmly. “I know how to run a bath.”

At that point I left him to it, because I was far too tired to take argue, or even to point out that his master’s is actually in atmosphere and ocean dynamics. We may not be married, but part of any long-lasting relationship is picking your battles.

Now, I would love to say that I make it a personal rule never to take pleasure in the suffering of others, but that would be a lie. Schadenfreude is one of my favourite things, even when it involves people I care deeply about.

Even allowing for my usual cruelty and heartlessness, the cry of pain when he put a hand in the full, absolutely boiling tub was for some reason especially satisfying. If nothing else, it was proof that the laws of irony were still fully functional, and for that I am grateful.

The Total Perspective Vortex

The Total Perspective Vortex

I have a trip coming up. Two dear friends are getting married on Skye next week, and we’ve been invited. It’s a fair old trek, so naturally my first thought was travel knitting. Aside from getting to the wedding, we’re also going to explore around a bit and make a week of it.

This means lots of driving, and since the Yarn Widower gets carsick, it also means a lot of passenger time for, plenty of it on winding roads. So, I need something I can do without looking at my hands much. It also needs to be whisky-related screw-up proof: we’re going to Islay as well, so it’d be rude not to.

Lots of stocking stitch in the round seems an obvious choice. There are lots of options: plain socks, break the back of a bottom-up jumper, a plain pi shawl…

Or something else entirely.

Fans of Douglas Adams will be familiar with the Total Perspective Vortex. It is known as the worst torture to which anyone can be subjected, and was invented by Trin Tragula to get back at his wife, who frequently claimed he had no sense of proportion. The Vortex destroys the mind of anyone placed within it by showing how small and insignificant they are in relation to the whole universe. This is because, according to Adams, “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion”.

Reader, I fear I may be in need of it. What I have settled on involves a great deal of stocking stitch in the round, but on quite a grand scale. I’m making a ball gown. Out of laceweight. On 2.5mm needles (yes, I’ve checked my tension and that is the size I need). I must be mad.

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The armaments (ambient mess not included)

Some background: I’ve had the yarn and pattern (Arwen by Marie Wallin) for a while, so this isn’t totally out of the blue – I’ve just been trying to get the stamina up to dive in. In case any of you think I’m totally insane, I don’t expect to manage the whole thing in the week we’re away. Maybe give it a few years?

As a jobbing singer, I get a reasonable amount of use out of my eveningwear, and a knitted dress seems like a good antidote to chilly country churches.

So this seems like the perfect opportunity. I have 10,500 metres of yarn, which is just as well, since it’s been discontinued, and I bought it in bulk when it was on clearance – thirty balls, to be precise. That’s about twice as much as the pattern says I’ll need, but I love the colour and I like to be prepared. If you’re interested, it’s Sublime Extra Fine Merino Lace in Ikat (shade 401).

I have yarn. I have needles. I have a round trip to the Hebrides. My friends, wish me luck, wish me courage, just don’t wish me a sense of proportion. It’s the one thing I can’t afford right now.

Is this thing on?

I feel like I should be tapping a mike and squinting into a blurry webcam. That’s not quite the case, but I’ve never been very good at introducing myself. In knitting situations, I tend to just plonk myself down, pull out my needles and start talking, while completely forgetting to introduce myself. To every group of knitters I have done this to in the past, sorry, and thank you for breaking the awkward barrier to ask me my name eventually!

But to avoid that moment here, let me say first of all that my name is Jess. I’m a knitter, spinner, writer, mezzo-soprano and mad cat lady (although not necessarily in that order). I live in a house in an undisclosed location in the north of England that is full of musical instruments. At last count: two sousaphones, an orchestral tuba, two trombones, three saxophones, four clarinets, an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, an electric keyboard, two flutes and an unknown number of tin whistles.

Not all of them belong to me. I have found this, along with the four and a half bikes that are not mine either, to be excellent leverage when negotiating for yarn storage space.

More years ago than I care to admit, my editor told me: “You should start a blog. See if people want to read what you have to say.”

I don’t think she envisioned knitting being in the plan, and neither did I at that stage, but nevertheless, here you go. A Blog. Ximena, I’m sorry it took me so long, but thank you for the encouragement.

And thank you, if you’re reading this. Do check back soon. If I can work out how, there may even be pictures.