Yarn, in my experience of this country, is always called ‘wool’ but tends to be made from acrylic, slightly confusingly. Yarn, or ‘wool’, usually comes in balls, you talk about balls of wool (although not necessarily of this fibre) and the language doesn’t really expand from there. Sometimes I feel that knitting in this country is a good thirty years behind the States. It shows in the language, fibre is something to do with bran breakfast cereals, a buzz word in health not knitting. No one really cares what the ball is made from and it’s not always about value either (the French term for value perhaps highlights its true meaning best, ‘un bon rapport qualité-prix‘). ‘Wool’ has to be cheap. That’s why acrylic is so popular. Mohair is best seen as a novelty yarn. Posher knitters will stick with traditional labels where wool content is likely but scratchy and who, in my humble opinion, do not at all represent that bon rapport qualité-prix. Splashing out, new fibres such as alpaca and qiviut* (yes, I’m sure that the animal isn’t a modern invention but you know what I’m getting at), indie dyers, independents, hand painted, roving, breed specific, heirloom knits … they’re all completely alien terms. Well maybe not ‘heirloom knits’, we have our own version. It’s called hand-me-downs, pass-ons. I spent my childhood in those.
Let’s return to the idea of value. Knitting is traditionally something that is done to fill a need. There is a definite attitude, perhaps engrained from war years and rationing, that you have to make do with what you’ve got. This is a good thing, we’ve all witnessed the downturn from a decade of cash splashing. But it translates in other subtler ways too. Whilst knitting and pass-ons are about filling a need, there is great parsimony. There is a reluctance to part with any money when something you already have will ‘do’ and an even greater reluctance to spend more money than is necessary. Spending money on knitting cannot be justified even when it is done strictly for the necessary, the need to clothe one’s family or they will go without. When this almost outdated need is excluded, there is even less justification for a woman to spend money on a hobby for either her own pleasure or for satisfying a perception of what a good mother/grandmother provides. Budget acrylic thrives.
However, it’s not just in the older generation that you see these traits. I am like it. Maybe it’s partly the way I was raised; maybe it’s partly my personality. I don’t like spending money. I don’t like spending money on something trivial, insignificant, not necessary. My knitting does not clothe us. It is a hobby only. Admittedly, a hobby that keeps me sane and saves the health service goodness knows how much on therapy. I cannot justify any expense on my pastime, especially not when we’ve been going through times when bread, milk and cheese have taken on proportional expense to luxuries. Therefore, I don’t have a knitting ‘budget’. I know where I can buy the cheapest acrylic.
But there’s a problem.
I’ve never been a huge fan of acrylic. It has its uses. Other than its ‘value’ status. It works for many of the items that I’ve knitted. I’ve recently been making items from ‘special’ yarns, yarns, that in my world, at least represented an investment. They are beautiful to work with. They make beautiful finished garments. Returning to acrylic was horrible, it’s plastic-y and squeaky. But it does have its uses. Especially when it comes to its ‘value’ status.
I spoke of having to challenge Old Ideas in a previous post, or alluded to it at least. The notion of having to buy the cheapest available yarn, regardless, is an Old Idea. I see it people’s other spending habits. People buy cheap clothes. I don’t mean ‘basic’ necessarily, why would you want to spend tens of pounds on a white t-shirt? Those clothes will always look cheap on them. And sadly, it might be a mean thing to say, but those people will always look ‘cheap’ in them. Investing in good clothes that fit well and look good is wise. But is again something utterly alien. I realised a while ago that I cannot and will not ever look ‘good’ in those cheap clothes. (Whether I look ‘good’ in anything is seriously debatable). I need to invest. Many years ago, I learnt a wise lesson. If you buy a skirt for a fiver and wear it once then that skirts costs a fiver. If you buy a skirt for twenty and yet wear it a hundreds time then skirts only costs twenty pence. I still have many of those clothes a decade later, despite size changes and IBS. I cannot afford to buy new clothes at all anymore. The good ones have lasted, sometimes I splash out and buy ‘good’ clothes from the charity shops. They look ‘good’. They last.
Perhaps I should apply this lesson to my yarn too. I am learning, developing, growing. I have learnt new words and terms so maybe it is time for a new ethos too. I read other people’s views on hand knitting and I’ve learnt a few things that justify ‘investment’. Spending fifty quid on yarn for one jumper seems ludicrous. (Don’t get me started on designer labels, ethics, poor materials, low quality and an arm and a leg, no thanks). Yet, what if that jumper lasted twenty years? I cannot even begin to estimate how many times you would wear but at a cost per year? Two fifty. Now that isn’t quite so bad. Usually you’d have to part with at least a tenner for some often badly cut, oddly sized acrylic special with nasty buttons.
Those knitters have other reasons to justify their investment. A shop bought jumper won’t last as long as the hand knit one mentioned above. Even if I coax and eke mine out to record times, they still don’t last well. You can shop around for a fibre and brand that pleases your ethics. You can choose a fibre that works best for you and your skin. You can customise and tailor fit your jumper so it’s just perfect. All excellent justifications. Then I’ve starting seeing everywhere (you know how it goes, you see something somewhere once for the first time and then you see it everywhere) that people think that wool keeps you warmer than shop acrylic. This would sell it to me. I have circulation problems and feel the cold. I’ve grown up with acrylic so perhaps cannot really tell the difference anymore, although I do remember being very warm the day my mother sent me to school in a wool dress, vest, t-shirt, jumper, wool tights, goodness knows what else when they said that the heating would be off (mid-winter, portacabin classroom) but then wasn’t. But I think what clinched it for me was when I read someone saying that shop bought socks last no time at all and their first knitted socks have lasted them four years so far. I have shop bought socks that are ten years old. I started doing some vague mental arithmetic as to how long I could keep a pair of knitted socks. I multiplied by four. Suddenly spending out less than a tenner on some beautiful, colourful, stripey sock yarn (which has been tempting and calling me for the last few months, every time I go into the yarn shop) seemed a good idea. (However, I just don’t want to know how old I would be when I’m still wearing them, it calls to mind that poem, when I am seventy, I will wear hand knit socks).
So this has been a long ramble about yarn, also known as ‘wool’. Well, there’s a lot of knitting in my life at the moment. Not just the actual stuff on needles either. A week or so ago I took the time to organise my knitting life. I wasn’t quite up to tackling other areas of my life, not just yet anyway. It felt somehow metaphorical, that if I could succeed in sorting out this one field then there was hope for the others. Maybe. I sorted my stash, filed my patterns, created a database, stock checked my needles (and found that some of them aren’t the size they say they are), filled in lots of useful things on Ravelry like stash and needles and generally took control. It was a pleasant feeling. (Although my husband didn’t quite appreciate the piles of patterns being neatly sorted into categories across every available surface in the sitting room including every seat of the sofa. Especially not after the third day). I felt that I had succeeded. And whilst perhaps it’s easy to say that I should have been devoting my energy and time to something more important, this is what I could manage. And I did it. I like that feeling. I like the organisation and the control, I like knowing what I’ve got and where I’m going with it (I have lots of projects up my knitted sleeve now!). I feel more confident actually. Surely, that was worth it?
All I have left to do is talk my husband into holding each of my (many) circular needles so that I can measure them properly. And I have, disturbingly perhaps, discovered that the only DPNs I own have been free with magazines. I don’t own many. This is something of a handicap to someone who has discovered the delights of i-cord and knitting in the round and who plans to go on using, and expanding, those skills in different weight yarns. I might need to make an investment.