Thinkpiece #2: How Knitting Led me to Ethical Fashion

When I tell people in real life that I knit, I usually get a number of different reactions, ranging from confusion to amusement to disdain, to utter disinterest. They want to know why I would spend weeks creating a garment out of yarn that is more expensive than an entire finished sweater from places like the Gap. Shouldn't making something by hand make it cheaper than one purchased in a store? 

If you're at all interested in slow fashion or have seen documentaries like The True Cost, (or heck, if you're even reading this blog) then you probably already have an inkling of why. With Fashion Revolution Week just behind us, having asked, "Who made my clothes," and #MeMadeMay currently happening, it seems like the perfect time to talk about making one's own clothes. And since I tragically can't sew, I'll talk about knitting, and why it's so important to me.

I first learned how to knit in high school at what was basically a summer camp for nerds — CTY, for those who are familiar. "Extreme Knitting" was one of the various activities we were able to choose, and I picked it as a joke of sorts. Knitting! Like Grandma! 

My first piece was a giant accidental ruffle (not great when you're aiming for rectangle), rife with holes and mistakes, and when I took it off the needles, I burst out laughing. But I had loved the process. The meditative feel of the repetitive motions, and the proud feeling of having made something out of nothing. 

I didn't stop. I went home and looked for knitting info on LiveJournal (my online community of choice at the time), which lead me to some seriously badass crafters, the most memorable of whom was Tricia Royal of Bits & Bobbins. The Stitch 'n' Bitch phenomenon had just started happening, and knitting wasn't just your grandma's game anymore. Suddenly, knitting was rebellious, feminist, even, having been reclaimed by weirdos and punks of all kinds. It was intellectual too, with all the math and demand for technical perfection. It was the perfect vehicle for expressing my inner self and channeling my teen angst and suburban boredom.

It was actually knitting and stalking other knitters online that first got me interested in fashion and clothing in general. Many of these women had wicked senses of fashion, unlike anything I had been exposed to at the time. Where I had once only noticed whether something fit me size-wise, and was a color I liked, they would talk about construction, quality, details, silhouette. Leave it to makers to attune you to the smallest of details and most creative of styles. I suddenly became acutely aware of clothing as a means of self-expression rather than merely a way to cover the flesh, and my personal style continues to be influenced by the knitters I found online over a decade ago. 

Though I continued to knit intermittently in college, I never managed to finish many of the projects I started. I didn't have the money to buy the yarns I truly lusted after, and I wasn't satisfied with the lower quality yarns I could afford, and never ended up liking my finished products. And I didn't have the time to commit to making things when I could have been studying or logging hours in one of the many, many jobs I had in college that would pay me (yup, been hustling since way back). But I continued to read knitting blogs for a long time afterwards, as though reading about someone else knitting could be an adequate replacement for doing it myself. 

I only recently took knitting back up again, after realizing that I could finally afford the high quality, ethically-sourced, natural-fiber yarns that I had desperately wanted, and having developed a taste for fancier clothing (read: Ace & Jig) that made spending $100 on yarn for a sweater seem considerably less insane than it once had. It was like riding a bike — the movements came back to me very naturally. And I knitted with more gusto than I ever had before, pleased to be working with such fine materials. Only once you've knitted with yarn for hours and hours can you truly understand and appreciate excellent-quality materials and construction. Only then do you understand the high price of a small-batch handknitted sweater and, by extension, the value of the lives and labor of the people who brought it into existence. 

Many of the same people who gawk at $100 spent on high-quality, ethically-sourced, natural yarn to be made into a sweater, or $300 spent on an Ace & Jig piece think nothing of buying a dozen t-shirts for under $20 each, and who are most excited by seeing the smallest possible number on a price tag, without considering whether or not these are pieces that they truly love. And this is how knitting led me even further away from the lure of fast fashion. Because I understand firsthand, as a maker, why quality, expensive clothing costs what it does, and what happens when it costs far too little. 

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