I’ve been doing a lot of knitting lately. Right now I’m working on socks for Story, a blanket for me, mittens for my aunt, and a laceweight cardigan that I’m just going to go ahead and tell you right now will never, never be done.
For those of you who don’t knit, you might be thinking this is a practical sort of hobby. That is where you’d be wrong. There is no way I can make a sweater for the same cost at which I can just go to the store and buy a sweater. On the contrary, the hand-knit sweater will probably cost me twice as much, or more. And if you factor in the cost of my time, which is enormousâ€”one month for a pair of socks!â€”you realize that this is the least practical hobby a person could possibly have.
It’s just sort of funny, because knitting used to be not only a practical skill, but a necessary one. People used to do it, because, you know, they needed socks and sweaters. Not because they had some spare time to fill. I don’t have a total sock history breakdown for you, but I’m guessing that era ended around 1900-1920. Then there was a period where you could buy these things, but you could get them cheaper by making them yourselves. And finally we have the modern era, where mechanization produces knitted items far more cheaply than any human could. In this world, knitting has become a high-end, luxury hobby.
I kid you not. Yarns, in particular, have become luxury products, with those produced by major manufacturers looked down upon slightly compared with “hand-painted” or “indie” varieties. (It goes without saying, of course, that all those yarns available at Michael’s or Jo-Ann’s are not even worthy of consideration.) Small dyers compete to draw buyers in with sexy photographs, exclusive yarn-of-the-month clubs, and evocative colorway names like Honey Fig, Sea Glass, or Turtle Rodeo. One popular tactic used by a number of smaller dyers is to name their colorways after characters from popular novels. That way, you see the colorway and think, “Molly Weasley?Â I love Molly Weasley!” Every dyerâ€”every oneâ€”has a colorway named Lagoon.
A lot of skills have followed this same migration from practical to luxury. Way back when, the Japanese invented the aesthetic concept ofÂ wabi-sabi, which appreciates the beauty of that which is imperfect. They weren’t doing it out of a desire for a high-end lifestyle; they were doing it to make themselves content with their own products, which were cheaper but also less brightly-colored and perfectly-made than those imported from China. Today, wabi-sabi is a word you’ll here toted out in relation to things like concrete countertops, Amish furniture, and hand-pieced quiltsâ€”things that are anything but cheap. Today, an economical aesthetic concept would be something along the lines of, “Just go to Target.”
I suppose I could decry this mechanized era as robbing our lives of the individuality and charm that come with handmade goods. But that would require me to ignore the fact that mechanization allows poor people to live a life that is vastly more comfortable than they could have in earlier times. And me, too, for that matter. I’m siting here writing this post at a $130 IKEA table ($130 with 4 chairs!), which certainly couldn’t have been produced without the homogenizing evils of mechanization.
All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that the value of knitting isn’t, and never again will be, financial. For me, the value is in having a custom-fitted item made in the exact color and style I choose, and in being able to make gifts for the people I love.
Of course, I suppose if using my time economically was a big consideration for me, I never would have chosen to be a writer.