On Devaluating Hand-Knitting

November 2013 166

It's been a couple of weeks and I've taken some time off. I have more time off soon which means I'll be away from my office for the first time since .. Christmas last year. Ahem.

I have collaborated with the very lovely Old Maiden Aunt on something which will be released whilst I am away from my office. We began plotting this almost eight months ago. It is crazy how quickly time flies. The photo shoot happened earlier this week - you can see the beautiful Glasgow tenement buildings to the left. Ah, don't let the winter sunshine fool you. It was bitterly cold.

But let us talk a bit about knitting. It's a bit of a ramble from here on in.

Earlier this week, I met a talented girl who had designed and knitted a 4-ply jumper for a client. The client had asked the girl to supply the yarn as well as design/knit it. I asked how much the girl had charged?

An entire 4-ply (fingering-weight) jumper from design conception to finished item and including the yarn. £35. Let me repeat that: thirty-five pounds.

When I asked her why she'd charged that little, she shrugged and replied: "Because the client didn't want to pay anything more and even baulked at £35". I got very, very angry at this stage. I didn't get angry at the girl because she was obviously just trying to make a little money. No, I got angry at a marketplace which so devalues hand-knitting to the point where a customer baulks at paying more than £35 for a custom piece (including materials!) and manages to get away with it. Make that a marketplace in which the customer manages to get away with it again and again because I have heard the same story many times.

That is not okay.

Why is it that hand-knitting is so devalued? Skilled artisan-makers like the girl I met are paid pennies when they should be earning pounds. Is it because hand-knitting is predominantly female-centric? Is it because history has taught the marketplace that hand-knitting is something poor people do to make ends meet and poor people can be exploited? Is it because hand-knitting is perceived as being 'a hobby' that people do between their 'real' jobs? I looked at hand-knitters and I am amazed at their skills, patience and talent. Maybe I am wrong - certainly the marketplace tells me so.

I have never knitted for money -  but I do get asked an awful lot if I am willing to take on commissions. Usually the punter wants me to whip up an aran cardigan because a machine-knitted acrylic version is deemed too expensive. When did we move from "mass produced" = inferior to "mass produced" = superior? To my mind, a one-off piece created by a skilled artisan using excellent materials should always be considered more valuable. How do we change this perception?

I am not an artisan maker and while I hesitate to label what I do, I'm probably more of an artisan makar. "Makar" is an old Scottish word for "poet" or "bard" - and I think of my knitting designs as a way of telling stories with stitches. I care about how hand-knitting is perceived and treated. I know exactly how much time and skill go into designing and writing a pattern - what does that say about my time and skill that Ravelry currently holds 122,147 free patterns? How could I possibly add value to a pattern (and price it at £3) when 122,147 patterns are free?

It's a weird job I have chosen and it is a strange industry too. All I can do is hope that you'll like my collaboration with Lilith (note: it involves an essay about cholera, false teeth and William Morris). I'll be back with a gift-buying guide for the knitters in your life. Treat them well: they are super-skilled and deserve a treat.