The following article has kindly been contributed by The Knitting Magpie, an avid knitter, passionate writer and creative thinker. To read more about her work visit The Knitting Magpie.
Hand knitting: a skill, a passion, a traditional craft that has been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. But where are we with knitting today? I have been pondering over this question for some time now, with increasing interest, if not concern.
It all began with nana
I learnt to knit basic stitches somewhere around the age of three, taught by my nana who was a prolific knitter. By five I was creating herringbone blankets for my doll’s pram. I knitted my first cable sweater aged around six apparently. I imagine it was basic in the extreme with nana taking over for any shaping required.
As I got a little older I always stayed with my nana on a Friday night. Knitting on knee, cocoa and homemade cake or cookies and the late Hammer House of Horror film or Tales of the Unexpected was a late night secret treat.
Saturdays always followed the same pattern. We would catch either the bus or train into Birmingham and scour the Rag Market for treasures. It may have been a fine wool sweater attacked by moths that could be unravelled and rewound, or faded linen or cotton lawn. Adult Liberty fabric dresses could be taken apart and turned into a beautiful shell top.
My nana was widowed in 1947 with three-year old twins, my fabulous mum and my lovely Uncle David. Nana worked full time all of her life as a professional cook, she was never still.
Her sisters would help with babysitting until nursery and then school. They were a close-knit family and alternate Saturdays found all of the family gathered at Aunty Alice's in Kenilworth for high tea. Halcyon days indeed.
As you can imagine in her life there was little money for fripperies or waste although she was the most generous person you could hope to meet. There would always be fresh flowers in the sitting room and cake in the cake tin. The garden was a mix of wildflowers, vegetables and fruit. I was always taught to buy little and the best I can afford whether it be clothes or food, especially expensive items like meat.
Nana died age 87 in 2001, I still chat along to her when knitting. She was my friend and confidant as so often happens with alternate generations.
Back to the present day:
To this day, you will always find fresh flowers in my house, my husband is the horticulturist and there are vegetables and fruit in the garden. Meat is bought from a small selection of suppliers where I have done my best to ensure that animal husbandry is of the highest standard and the stock is raised organically and free range. The dog eats the same meat as us too. I can happily make one large chicken into a roast, a pie, soup and finally a couple of litres of stock.
Now understandably you are wondering what on earth I'm wittering on about given the title was to do with knitting and fast fashion. I'm getting there, bear with me as I wanted you to have some context. Because I always apply my nana's teachings not only to how I buy and make food, but also to my knitting: I love sourcing yarn from either small companies or individuals, be that from sheep to skein as is the case with The Grey Sheep Co - no affiliation just a fantastic method of production - or yarns purchased from small stores.
I search for ethical sources, both regarding animal welfare and workforce, and have been known to check with forensic zeal to the best of my ability, especially since I love my yarn hand dyed in a traditional manner. No, these yarns will not be the same price as something mass produced and dyed in huge quantities with artificial agents.
And this is where we come to fast fashion. Still with me? Excellent as I'd really like to hear your views on this. Because I have had folk say to me:
I can't afford to spend a lot on yarn.
If I'm knitting a jumper/ blanket / cardigan every couple of weeks I'd be bankrupt.
I'm never going to be able to knit complicated knitting patterns.
I'd like to knit the sorts of things you do but it takes too long.
I don't have a local yarn store.
At times I spend a significant amount on yarn however there have been times where that has most certainly not been possible. I was a nurse for my working life with no back up trust fund. I've definitely had to save for that special something. I'm not for a moment suggesting you stop feeding the family to buy skeins of sumptuousness. However, you can buy quality yarn, ethically manufactured at none stupid prices.
A knitter who I know - and like - prefers to knit from pre-packaged kits, probably 2 - 3 items coming off her knitting needles per month. And I know she is not alone which is why companies who produce kits constantly update with new stock.
Reasons NOT to knit from knitting kits
Incidentally I have absolutely nothing at all against kits, chunky yarn or standard knitting patterns, anything that gets folk into the craft gets my vote. However, if ALL you do is knit from kits even at a rate of one per month you will have a lot of variations on a theme and if you continue at that rate you will soon run out of space for your knits. I've also noticed that some folk fall out of love with them quite quickly because a newer, shinier version has come out and 'I can knock it up in a week'.
You are also unlikely to develop your skill set past a certain point as the larger companies need to cater for the majority of their target market so complexity tends to stop at a certain point. In the same way if you only ever knit items on larger knitting needles which I define as a UK 4mm / US 6, by default you are unlikely to be comfortable with fine silks or merino as something knitted on knitting needles two sizes smaller is less forgiving of tension changes and grows much slower.
Some knitters, especially newer ones have said that they like the security they get from a kit which I completely understand. A kit though is merely a knitting pattern and suitable yarn, plus or minus knitting needles. Part of the fun of knitting, however, is bending the rules, adapting a knitting pattern to suit your shape, or knitting something designed for aran weight in three different strands and see if it works. If it doesn't, pull it out and rewind. This is how you develop your skill.
‘Finer yarn, smaller needles and complicated patterns take so long’
Again, I understand this. I have zero patience, nil, nada. My solution is to have far too many projects on the go so I don't get bored with them. I'll have things available for mindless repetition, things I can knit whilst watching a subtitled drama - colourwork is brilliant for this - and something for when my brain is going to explode with things I cannot resolve, so that I have to concentrate ferociously.
I also find if one of my WIPs gets left for too long it's usually a way of telling me I'm unlikely to be happy with the finished item. I may never quite be able to articulate why, but I will take it out and stash the yarn until the right thing presents itself.
'I don't have a local yarn store'
I myself don't have a local yarn store if we are talking physical location. I probably have a dozen dotted around the UK, if you include my favourite farms and dyers. Over the last couple of years these folk have become friends and certainly close knitty colleagues.
You can develop a relationship with someone who has their own little store and community, even if it is hundreds of miles away. Virtual get-togethers on zoom make it possible these days. The way to get in is by dropping them a line, tell them what you would like to do, your competence level and if you have a pattern in mind. They will be too happy to help. And if they're not, never go back. They will also advise on suitable yarn substitutes to suite your budget. Yarn lovers love to talk yarn and even get together for virtual knit nights these days.
How to move from fast fashion to slow fashion
For me, fast fashion is only knitting items that you can finish quickly with little regard for ethical or environmental impact. Fast fashion is when you discard your quickly knit-up items as soon as they lose their 'new' status, or if you cannot imagine wearing them for years to come. I think this is the antithesis of the craft.
Next time you consider knitting a variation on something that you already have, and will complete within a month, instead find an independent pattern you love. Ask advice on yarn and skill and give it a go. You may find yourself hooked.
For me this has developed further and I tend to plan projects and purchase yarn that evoke memories. I will talk about memory pieces another time but leave you with a snapshot of this:
I bought this beautiful skein of Qiviut - which comes in its own leather pouch! - from Milli who owns Tribe Yarns in Richmond UK. The Musk Ox dates back to the ice age and is most closely related to sheep. The true name for this is Umingmak - Inuit for the bearded one. This natural fleece either shed in the wild and collected, or hand combed, is known as the golden fleece of the Artic.
I bought this along with a pattern for a lacework cowl after KnitIQ asked if I would like to write for them and accepted my first piece. I know that both knitting and wearing this will, for years to come, remind me of the new phase in my life I am entering.
If you do one new thing this year, knit something special that takes you out of your comfort zone and that will remind you of a key moment in your life. Because that is, in my eyes, the essence of this craft.