Making things from scratch and cultural shifts

Photo by hello-julie via Flickr Creative Commons License

I have been doing a lot of knitting lately. I learned how to knit a year or two before Audrey was born and go through phases of knitting lots to knitting very little. (I recently finished a sweater that it took me 2 years to make!) I love knitting. I love that it is calming and relaxing. I love feeling that I have made something from just yarn and sticks. I love figuring out what my next project will be and picking out yarns and colours. Going into the knitting store and brushing my hand against all my yarn choices. Looking for softness.

I joke that I knit because I am not a crafty person. I like having a plan, a pattern, and instructions to follow. No good can come of me picking up a paintbrush. But knitting I can do. Other then music and writing, it is the only art I feel capable of.

But I have been frustrated lately. Because knitting is also DARN EXPENSIVE. One ball of yarn can cost between $4 and $15 dollars, depending on what the yarn is made of. And most projects take somewhere between 4 and 10 balls of yarn. (For the record, not all ‘balls of yarn’ are created equal… some have less or more yarn, measured both in weight and in yardage.) For example, I really want to make this pattern I saw on Ravelry (if you knit and you social media, you must get on Ravelry… great patterns and forums and all kinds of stuff. Besides, I have no friends there, so it be great if you could join me. I am lonley.) It is essentially a really cool scarf. The yarn I want to knit with is about $9 a ball and I would need about 3 balls to do this projects, which means the scarf would cost me $30. For. a. scarf. I could go to any store tomorrow and find a scarf for $10. The materials for that sweater it took me two years to make? About $80. That’s a pretty darn expensive sweater.

Yes, I could buy less expensive yarn. I am a yarn snob. I don’t do acrylic. (If anyone wants to sell me on why I should use acrylic, other then cost.. please do. I would like to hear from others what they feel the benefits are.) I like natural fibers. And I often go for things like bamboo, organic cotton, alpaca and wool. The yarn I want to knit this project from is cashmere, merino and microfiber. But I figure that a) if I am going to spend the time I want it to be nice and b) why would I spend the time and money if the quality of the yarn is going to be less then something I would buy. And I like soft yarn.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the shift from craft and making your own as something that people who couldn’t afford to buy did, to something that the only those with the time and money can do. We aren’t rich at all, but I know we are lucky in comparison to most and we have enough money that I can invest some in a craft I love. Though I have to be careful to not go on a yarn binge. But not that many years ago, the poor made their own and the rich bought. Now, we are facing a switch in that. Obviously there are very few people out there making 100% of their clothing, ect., so it is not like those who knit or sew no longer shop for clothing. So that is an other part of the shift. These types of crafts are no longer done to fill a need, but a want. And a want for a rewarding activity more then the end result.

Fabric is expensive. Yarn is expensive. Heck, organic produce is expensive.

The other part of this is of course the time. Making your own takes a lot of time and many at the low end of the income brackets have even less time then your average middle income earner.

So all these home arts; knitting, sewing, cooking, growing… are becoming the domain of the rich rather then the poor, when some 60 years ago this was the exact opposite.

I am not really sure what I think about this, except, “huh”. It seems ‘wrong’ somehow that it is more expensive to make something then to buy it. But it is also wrong how few things we repair rather then replace. Certainly there are ways around the high cost of raw materials for making things; I have heard a lot about fabric and yarn recycling… essentially going to a thrift store and buying and old sweater and unraveling it and then using the yarn to knit something new. I should try this. I do think there are still people out there that get creative with getting their hands on materials to make and repair things, just as there are still people darning their own socks because they need to.

And I get the economics behind why it is expensive. My little ball of yarn, wrapped neatly in its package, costs more because I buy it 4, 5, 10 balls at a time. Rather then a huge garment manufacturer making sweaters for some big store in the millions. You know, economy of scale stuff.

But that also goes to show the ‘real’ cost of making the goods that we get so cheap. That sweater I bought at Superstore was $25 because the materials were probably bought and manufactured in a less affluent country at a much lower cost- at the expense of that country and its people. The environmental movement has brought that concept of real cost to the discussion, but it applies to the social and economic impacts as well as the environmental.

Anyway, again, I am not sure what I think should be done or what this all means. Its just a bunch of ideas swirling around in my head while I knit.

6 responses to “Making things from scratch and cultural shifts

  1. Alexis February 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    As a fellow knitter (and general crafter) I hear you. I think knitting, and many other crafts, have made that swing from something old ladies did to something cool hipsters do and that produces a cultural, and financial, shift. Because it is now trendy to be crafty, the market has evolved and as will happen in free-market economies, producers will charge as much as they possibly can, as much as the market will support. Some of the supplies are worth it, some products are superior to others, some products are acquired at a premium because they are local, organic, one of a kind and so on, but generally, it is like everything else, the prices will rise because they can. When I do splurge on yarn (or fabric) I console myself with how many hours of pleasure the project will bring me, but how many $20 pairs of socks does a gal really need? Life is too short to work with material you don’t like, but my checkbook is too delicate to justify all those skeins of Claudia’s Hand-painted Sock Yarn.

    As for acrylics, I like them for certain projects (toys, kids slippers, charity work b/c most places want soft and washable for babies and the like) though I have found many acrylic blends to be nice. the price point comes down, but you don’t feel like you are wearing a sweater that could double as plastic armor! I am doing an adult sized sweater vest in Encore, a wool and acrylic blend. It is lovely looks like fancy wool and the whole project only cost me $25. Still more expensive than just buying a knit vest, but better than the $75 the suggested yarn would have been.

    I am Fishbabeez on Ravelry, I would love to be friends with you, and anyone else for that matter!

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  3. Ginger February 8, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    There was an article recently (well, recent-ish) in…Wired I think?…about how gardening and growing your own food is facing this same shift. That it used to be something that people did to eat, especially the poor, and now, at least in most urban/suburban venues, is something trendy.
    And now my cold medicine addled brain is shorting out on what the rest of my point was, but. Yeah, what you said.

  4. northTOmom February 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    You might be interested in a book I saw reviewed on the blog of someone I follow on Twitter. It’s called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it’s about how and why the goods we buy are so inexpensive. Here’s the link (to the blog review).

  5. Perpetua February 10, 2011 at 11:43 am

    I really love this post, because it also brings to mind something I didn’t think of before: that all the stuff we think of as “domestic arts”–knitting, crafting, and yes, growing the food you eat–takes so much time, like you said. And time is a commodity you don’t have unless you are in a certain social class (because if you’re poor/out of work, you can’t buy supplies, because they’re so expensive). So anyway, what I’m wondering is, are we returning to a version of domesticity/femininity that can only be accessed by the wealthy?

    Ack, I wish I had more time to think this comment through, but I don’t. Very thought-provoking post, K!

  6. PicPoetProse February 13, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I hadn’t really thought of this but you make so many great points here. I don’t knit but I’m kind of a scrapbook supply hoarder and pretty paper ain’t cheap 😉

    Perpetua makes an interesting point too, are we making the hobbies or crafts we think of as feminine inaccessible? Are we craft snobs? I sell scrapbook/stamping supplies and the products can get expensive. Is it fair then, that everyone wants to record memories somehow, but because scrappin’ is trendy, some moms/dads/grandmas can’t afford it?

    Sorry K, I had a coherent comment in here somewhere but it’s getting lost while I try to feed R. Great post though.

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