Community Ties.

A’s tie is coming along nicely. I’m working it up in Debbie Bliss Aran Cashmerino and it’s already taken more than a skein (for a tie?!). To be honest, if I were to repeat the project I would use a much finer yarn. But A really likes this yarn—it’s soft and non-itchy—so hopefully he will like the tie when it’s all finished. Live and learn.

I’ve slightly altered my queue of projects to tackle. My aunt found an old pattern that belonged to her mother in the 60s. It’s this lovely pattern for girls’ school cardigans:

Sunbeam Aran Girls and Small Women's Cardigan and Lumber Jacket

My aunt’s mum made her the cardigan on the tall girl to go with her school uniform. My aunt made the point that, “in those days,” it was much cheaper to make school cardies than to buy them. Of course, anyone who knits today knows that knitting in anything other than acrylic is certainly more expensive (not to mention more time consuming) than buying clothing. But of course this brings up questions about availability of materials, and the influence of mass-production in the textiles industry. Indeed, contemporary school jumpers are (in my experience) made in acrylic. And they all seem to be machine knit. Whereas hand knitters, like me (if I can count myself among their numbers), tend not only to choose natural fibres, but to be attracted to fine wools. I’m making a generalization here, and I’m doing so without much empirical evidence or, for that matter, research.

However, what exposure I’ve had to knitting blogs, yarn manufacturers, books, and Local Yarn Stores (LYS) has shown an overwhelming occupation with the quality of yarns, and the luxe-sounding materials from which the yarns are made: “Cashmerino,” “Cotton Glace,” “Lamb’s Pride,” “Nature Spun,” “Silk Garden.” Yarn names seem concerned with communicating two qualities: luxury and the natural. It’s not too much a stretch to see how these two work together on a larger scale: a large part of contemporary luxury is narrated through “lifestyle choices.” These choices are at once indulgences and make the consumer feel as though their choices are responsible, are correct, are morally superior to another perceived consumption choice. I’ve already spoken to this, with the help of Zizek.

But at this point, I don’t want to condemn the knitting community for being attracted to beautiful materials, or for being attracted to materials that come from local sources, that are made by small, careful manufacturers. Indeed, I’m attracted to exactly the same products myself. And I’m similarly attracted to them because I can be more confident that the products I’m using have used fewer resources, if only by virtue of the fact that they haven’t been shipped long distances, and by the trust that I put in organic certifications and the honesty of small(er) businesses.

This is lazy of me. This isn’t radical enough. To be able to fully marry the practicality of craft and the rigour of critical thought I am required to undertake more profound lifestyle changes than choosing local or organic wool. This returns me to my fundamental dilemma. I don’t know if I’m willing to make the changes that would satisfy the rigour with which I should be acting. And, perhaps this idea of rigour is an infinite regression that I will never be able to fulfill.

In the meantime, though, I would like to make the lumber jacket on the left hand side (the little girl with the dog). It’s a bit small for me (the largest finished garment is only a 34″ bust), so I think I’ll just knit to a larger gauge to get a couple of extra inches.

Which brings me to a project that I have all the tools to start. The other day I bought Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘n Bitch: Superstar Knitting: Go Beyond the Basics (2009). It’s a beautiful book and all of the 41 patterns are just lovely. There’s a beautiful little cardigan, the “Sheepy Time” cardi (pg. 220, here’s the Ravelry.com site for Laurie Undis’s pattern) that I’m going to make up for my baby cousin.

Laurie Undis's Sheepy Time. Photo credit ©Workman Publishing.

So I’ve bought a few skeins of Debbie Bliss’s Fez in a lovely bright turquoise (colour 15) to match the sample piece in the book. I’ll be teaching myself how to knit back and forth in the round for this and how to knit on double-pointed needles. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Skillz.

So the night before I wrote my first blog post I began to teach myself to knit. Of course, I’m beginning with a scarf; what else do you begin with? I’m making it for my partner, A: he’s putting up a very gracious front where he tells me I’m the best ever for making him stuff, but he also knows he’s really the guinea pig. I also like to pretend I’m the best ever, for his sake.

(However he didn’t let me off the hook before telling me a horrifying story about his real-life guinea pig and the manner in which it died. I will never be the same.)

So the knitting is going well, albeit slowly. I’ve decided to make the scarf stripey by alternating the textures of the wool.

Stockinette Scarf

My first scarf. See the first row of garter stitch, then subsequent rows of alternating stockinette.

So I’m knitting 25 rows of stockinette stitch and then another 25 rows of stockinette but reversed. I really like this texture: stockinette tends to curl on all edges, so reversing the stitch has the nice effect of stopping the entire piece from curling in a single direction, and also letting the natural curl add some nice depth to the texture of the fabric. I’m also doing the last rows in garter stitch so that the edges will lie flat and not curl. I’m using an acrylic yarn for two reasons: 1) A is allergic to wool; 2) it’s not too expensive and easy to work with.

Stockinette Scarf 2

An alternate view so that the textures on the other side of the scarf are showing.

I’m not sure how long I’ll go on for, but I’d like it to be a good, long, wearable scarf. And one that won’t make A break out in hives.

I found myself staring at people’s clothes today wondering if I would be able to make them. Of course, at this stage, in most cases the answer was no. But my usual “all-or-nothing” attitude has me convinced that soon I will be able to make beautiful sweaters. For now I’ll keep plugging away with my stockinette and my acrylic.

A’s allergy to wool gives me pause for thought, as I had hoped to work with materials that were locally produced. In Ireland, it’s wool and linen that are locally manufactured, and I would have to live somewhere like India or the US to access local cotton, a natural fibre that A isn’t allergic to. I don’t feel like I should be using materials that had to be flown here: it participates in a global economy where the wealthy West is able to outsource its labour to poorer countries, not to mention its environmental impact. Of course, the problems with outsourcing labour are far more complex than my pithy statement. Taking myself out of that global economy, to whatever extent I can, doesn’t necessarily do anything to help people: if enough people felt compelled to exclude themselves from exploitative capital it would destroy the nascent economies of manufacturing nations. Which then brings me to question whether or not it is my responsibility, as an ostensible ‘citizen’ of a developed nation, to take care of the citizens of poorer nations—as though I feel some late-capitalist white man’s burden.

If my project to make my own necessities results from an ethical impulse to begin to take myself out of the capitalist system, however, then I must necessarily think ethically about the materials that I’m using. How they affect individuals and communities, the environment, animals, and how my individual decisions align with or diverge from my politics. My politics, ultimately, are my ethics, as must be the case with any political stance: for politics to have meaning they must claim themselves as some kind of right or wrong action; they must align themselves with a certain dogma in order to have any weight.

I still haven’t come to any conclusions about ethical materials, though. And I still haven’t touched on whether or not it would be ethical to depend on animals for materials—both in terms of the large-scale environmental impact of domesticated animals and in terms of whether it is ethical (at least in our day and age) for humans to treat animals instrumentally. But these are questions to be tackled another day, so that tonight I don’t convince myself to be vegan.