The Undervalued Life-Cycle of a Sweater (and why I probably won’t knit you one*)

I made the decision to stop producing items for my Etsy shop many months ago; however, it was only recently that I determined the real cause of it. I thought the reason was that selling hand-knit items is simply “fiscally unsustainable.” The time it takes to complete a project and the cost of high-quality materials mean that the finished product must be sold at a seemingly absurd price to make any kind of profit or simply break even.

Despite this, I cannot tell you how many times over the years people have casually asked me to knit them something – casually being the offensive word here.

I have been knitting for 15 years. The items I make today, I couldn’t make 5 years ago – some of them I couldn’t make a month ago! So even if a project takes me 10 hours to complete, I should really add 15 years to that 10 hours to show a more accurate representation of the time involved in creating the items I produce today.

To be fair, I do not feel that this experience is in any way unique to knitting. Any art or handiwork, from sewing to woodworking to glassblowing, takes years and years of practice to ever master, and no matter how far along you come, you can always learn more.

So when someone casually (but seriously) says “Hey, knit me a sweater!” it’s a little hard for me not to scream sometimes. It can take months to complete a sweater, depending on the weight of the yarn, the size of the needles, and the type of design techniques used. When I try to politely explain this, they say, “Don’t worry. I’d pay you for it!”

But… it’s months of my life.

And I know that the majority of my readers (both of you) are fellow knitters, BUT I don’t think I’m preaching to the choir. I think we undervalue what we do ourselves! I see knitters selling their hand-knit items at cost of materials – charging little or nothing for the time it took to produce them. I know they may feel stuck with that price because the general buyer may not understand or appreciate the level of work and skill involved, but still – it’s a little heartbreaking to see so many of us doing that.

I was at a coffee shop this morning, and a local knitter and designer has her beautifully designed shawls on display for sale. This woman, whom I’ve never met, is in my opinion a true artist. Not a crafter or a hobbiest, but a genuine artist. She is no less an artist than a painter or a sculptor.

Not only does she designs the knitwear she creates (and then writes them in pattern-form for other knitters to purchase and attempt to replicate – no easy task!), but she also hand dyes the yarn she uses! In my opinion, she is offering the shawls in the coffee shop at a very reasonable price. She is definitely charging for her time, which is comforting to see, but I personally feel – and the general consumer would likely disagree – she would be well within her rights to charge double for such fine artwork. These are cashmere & merino wool, hand-knit, hand-dyed shawls that she designs from scratch! However, even at this reasonable price (I believe most were over $100), it doesn’t appear she has sold any despite having them on display for many months now and despite how luxuriously stunning they are.

In the bio she has with the display, she explains that each shawl may take 20-60 hours of work, and I’m so grateful that she chose to share that with the world – and that she appreciates the value in the work she performs. If I remember the write-up correctly, she is also selling them for practical purposes – to make room in her studio, which I definitely can relate to. Hence, the reason my Etsy shop isn’t closed and my prices haven’t tripled.

So whether you’re a knitter who has lost sight of how difficult this craft really is, or you don’t know the difference between a US size 3 circular and US size 00 DPN, I thought I’d break down the process of knitting a garment from start to finish for all of us to more fully appreciate everything that goes into it. Keep in mind, this breakdown does not include the many steps involved if you are able and willing to design the pattern yourself or are brave enough to … raise the sheep, sheer the sheep, process the wool, spin the wool into yarn, and dye the yarn … as many fiber artists actually do!

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The life-cycle of a knitted item:

  1. You decide you want to knit a certain type of garment (or someone casually says “knit me a sweater!”). For this example, we’ll say the chosen sweater is a button-down cardigan. You likely search Ravelry.com using the following search terms: craft > knitting, category > clothing > sweaters > cardigans, age > adult (and you may from there decide to filter out a specific gender, yarn weight, number of colors used, and about a dozen other search parameters). However, you may also peruse your own pattern library (physical or digital) or go elsewhere in search of inspiration.
  2. You eventually find a pattern you cannot wait to knit, but is also within your skill-set or at least your zone of proximal development as a knitter. You purchase a downloadable PDF from a designer in Poland – which will cost anywhere from $3-$7 USD.
  3. You now try to determine your cardigan size based on the info in the pattern because this will inform how much yarn to buy. Does the pattern give the body measurements or the completed cardigan’s measurements? How much negative or positive ease (room for stretching or draping respectively) does the designer suggest? How much ease do you want? Now, size yourself (or your friend) according to what is written in the pattern.
  4. Based on the size you want to make, determine how many yards / grams of yarn you need in the yarn weight specified. You can take a shortcut here and purchase the exact brand and type of yarn suggested in the design (that info is usually provided in the pattern, much to the delight of yarn companies).
  5. If you haven’t yet chosen the yarn you want, you may need to consider fiber content. The pattern tells you the yarn weight (how thick the strands are – big fat yarn goes by terms like “super bulky” and ultra thin yarn has the interesting name of “fingering,” and there are about a half-dozen yarn weights in between and a couple that are bigger and smaller). Do you want a nice soft baby alpaca that will be cozy in the winter? It’s a great choice, but it will stretch – so you may need to reconsider your sizing – or will you? Sometimes you just don’t know until you’re finished. How about an airy linen that will be worn all year long? Well, it could wrinkle. Are you up for ironing this garment every time you want to wear it? What about a rustic, hearty Shetland wool? It’s going to be more hard-wearing for sure, but it could be “toothy” and may not be “next-to-skin,” so you’ll probably want to wear a layer under it – how will that jive with the size you’ve chosen? How about a soft merino wool with a little nylon in it to prevent pilling? It won’t drape as much, though. Acrylic? Other knitters and environmentalists may judge you. Cotton? Silk? Bamboo? Bluefaced Leicester? Yak? Cashmere? Mink? You can even collect the cat hair around your house and send it off to be turned into yarn! The list goes on, as do the pros and cons, and the cost of all the yarn required for a cardigan can range anywhere from $30 to $500, depending on what you choose. Best to check out the hundreds of projects other knitters have completed using this pattern and see what yarn they’ve used. Back to Ravelry!
  6. Now to pick the color(s). Hope you’re comfy. It’s likely the yarn you’ve chosen doesn’t come in the colorway you had in mind, so now you need to pick a different yarn or a different color. Or else your favorite local yarn shop (LYS) will be out of it but they’ll kindly order it for you… from Dublin. Or maybe there’s an online indie-dyer who has just the speckled colorway you want need, but they aren’t having a shop update for another week. In any of these scenarios, it may be another couple weeks before you can even get started.
  7. You’ve got your 6-10 skeins of yarn required by the pattern for your size (and an extra skein just in case). Now the yarn needs to be wound. High-quality yarns tend to come in “hanks.” If you try to knit straight from that, you’ll end up with a knotted mess very soon. Most LYSes will wind it for you, but if you’ve ordered it online, you’ll either have to get creative with a chair and make a center-pull ball on your own, or you can use a swift and winder should you have one. Now, after about 10 minutes you have a yarn cake! Now, just do the 9 other skeins.
  8. Time to start on the pattern, right!? False. Time to figure out your needles. Start with the suggested needle size. Hopefully you already have them because for a silky yarn you’ll perhaps want bamboo needles or for a fiber with more of a bite you may want a smooth metal, and then depending on other aspects of the pattern you may need circular, DPNs, and/or straight needles – all at specified length(s) – and hopefully what’s required is not currently taken up by another project you’re already working on. Let’s not forget that you’ll want the right kind of tip – sharp or dull?
  9. Okay, you’ve got the needles – now it surely must be time to begin this cardigan, which already would have been quicker and cheaper to simply purchase at a Parisian haute couture boutique. Nope. Not yet. It’s time to check gauge. This is the part when you’ll knit a “swatch” – typically a square of fabric that will never be used for anything at all. You may be tempted to skip this step – we’ve all done it, but after too many doll-sized sweaters and socks fit for Sasquatch, we’ve learned to test gauge. This is when you make sure that the stitches per inch created by your particular hands with this particular yarn and needle size are the same as that of the pattern design. If you have more or fewer stitches per inch, your garment will be the wrong size. Depending on whether your gauge is too large or small, you may have to adjust your needle size, your yarn, or your decision to ever take up knitting in the first place. You will continue to swatch until you’ve got the gauge right. It can be tempting to just knit a different size cardigan, but that rarely works out – the gauge is also the tension of the fabric. A loose knit will have spaces between the stitches and be very drapey and stretchy, but a tight knit will result in a stiffer fabric with less give.
  10. We’re still not truly ready to “cast-on” (aka begin the cardigan), although many of us will have done so by now because enough is enough already. First we really should review the pattern and make sure we have a general idea of what we’re up against. At this point, it’s also a good idea to either highlight or circle the instructions for the size you’ve chosen. Without doing this, you will invariably knit instructions meant for a different size and end up with a really ill-fitting cardigan. Some patterns have only a few sizes which makes it easier, but thanks to a growing reverence for the fact that humans have bodies of varying in shape and size – many patterns can have as many as 9 sizes, making it incredibly difficult to identify your intended size amid the instructions, which look something like this: *k 5 (7, 9, 11, [13, 15, 17]) rep from * 0 (1, 2, 3, [4, 5, 6]) times. You will only need to know one of those numbers in each set. Highlighter tape is your friend.
  11. Now, after what may – in all seriousness – be weeks from when you first downloaded the pattern, it is finally time to cast on (or in truth it may be the same day – you just never know, though). A cardigan with a mid-weight yarn like DK, would probably take me a month or two (from this point) to finish. I like top-down construction, so I can try it on as I go, which I think speeds up the process as you don’t have to “frog” (rip out and start over) as much. Since most cardigans are knit flat, it may take me a little longer because depending on the stitch used, I may have to knit the right side (RS) and purl the wrong side (WS), and purling takes me a little longer than knitting. If it has a texture to the fabric – anything from simple ribbing to complex Celtic cabling – it will take longer. If it involves colorwork (such as the common floral patterns from the Fair Isles of Scotland or intricate Nordic X patterns), then that too will take more time. This next leg of the journey can be downright boring at times – I might even be able to read while knitting certain sections – or it may require the utmost concentration, with absolutely zero auditory distractions and the brightest of reading lights. Eventually I end up on sleeve island. That place where everything seems so close to being complete and sleeves are narrow, so how long can it really take from here? Alas, sleeves be long, too, matey.
  12. Assuming you didn’t get bored or fed up or discover a different pattern you want to try and go through the whole process from the beginning again – only to let this one sit in “hibernation” for months (or forever) – you may be nearing the end and feeling pretty damn good about it. Let’s hope that I chose a pattern that’s knit in one piece. Otherwise, I may have to sew everything up – piecing together the two front panels of the cardigan, the back piece, and the sleeves, and then there might still be some edging to add in. This is a button-down cardigan, so we’ll have to sew on buttons (several steps could probably be added for choosing the right buttons, but I’ll spare you). Or we may not be ready for that because it may be knit in the round, which means the whole thing looks like I’ve made a pullover and not a button-down cardigan because I’m going to “steek” it, taking the terrifying step of cutting all of my hard work right down the center, praying to God that I am cutting in the correct place or else the whole thing will unravel and all of the last 60-80 hours of work is completely ruined (to date, I have not yet been brave enough to do this).
  13. Some will choose to “weave in the ends” now and some will wait until after blocking. Others, like me, will have been doing it all along as they go. Others still will never do it because God dammit I made this sweater and I’m not a weaver anyway. Weaving in the ends is how you hide the yarn ends (because remember it takes multiple skeins of yarn). The more colors and skeins you used, the longer this will take. And truly the word “weaving” is an understatement. Depending on the stitch used this can be an incredibly intricate process that takes just as much skill as the knitting itself to ensure no one will be the wiser about your shameful yarn ends.
  14. Of course at this point you will try it on (and frankly you probably have many times already); however, you’re not done yet! Now it’s time to block it. Depending on the fiber and techniques used as well as just generally how it looks at this point – you may only need to steam it, just like you would any other garment or you may need to wet block it. Or you may need to aggressively wet block it into submission, using straight pins and a mat to force it into the shape and size you had intended because some projects are just like that (especially colorwork) or despite your many swatches, the gauge was somehow still off. If it’s wool – do not even think of going near the washing machine with it. You’ll need a wool soak, and if it’s toothy wool, also a wool conditioner.
  15. After drying – which depending on the fiber can take just a couple hours or sometimes a couple days – your button-down cardigan is finally ready to wear! The rush of adrenaline and pride at this stage is worth ever second of labor and frustration and wrist pain.

Seeing your garment that was once just an idea and then some yarn and now looking just like anything you’d find at a clothing store (or perhaps even nicer!) is so incredibly rewarding and only those who have done it can fully appreciate it. And that is why:

No. I most likely will never – I mean never – knit you a sweater.*

I honestly don’t think there’s a price you could pay me. I do hope to make a sweater for my boyfriend someday (but maybe not until we have been together long enough to become immune to the “sweater curse“). However, that’s with the knowledge I will get to see it in our closet and admire my handiwork whenever I want, and also make sure he doesn’t do something absolutely stupid like put it in the washing machine. And I’d make one for my very best friends (or my mother if she actually wore sweaters), but the number of hand-knit-sweater worthy people in my life is probably fewer than 5. I am not sorry about that – in fact, I feel lucky for it because many people would rightfully say their number is 0 and no knitter could blame them for it.

In fairness, I have countless hat-worthy friends, and somewhere in between the sweater-worthy and the hat-worthy is a moderate number of people who are sock-worthy. Part of this is because, lest we forget, I also have to trust that these folks will care for the garment properly – hand washing it if necessary, not hanging it in the closet but folding it neatly so it won’t stretch. For my own sanity, I’ll give them a lavender sachet to keep the wool-eating moths away.

And then every night when I say my prayers I will include that each of my knit-worthy friends don’t wear their items too often so it doesn’t pill. Maybe it’s better if they never wear it and just display it on a shelf as an art installment. In fact, why don’t I just hold onto it so it stays safe.

Do I sound like a total snob? I hope not. I hope you can recognize that much of this was actually not exaggeration or hyperbole – this really what goes into knitting a sweater, and I suspect the same amount goes into using any medium to conjure a great many other items. I hope that when someone in your life knits you something, even if it’s a simple fisherman’s hat that only took a few hours from cast-on to bind-off, I hope you can feel so much more loved in the knowledge that you are a knit-worthy friend. Because one thing that only makers know is that when we create something with our own two hands for another person, all throughout the process – whether it’s while the dough is rising in the oven or the final coat is setting in the kiln – all throughout every step of the way, we are holding you in our heart. We are considering what you will like and what we should modify to suit what we know your preferences to be. We are making it just right for your body or your hands or your belly. We are truly thinking of you during every stitch.

And I hope, having read this, you will let the creator know that you recognize it didn’t just take a number of hours or dollars, it took a great deal of prep time and forethought. And in reality, it likely too years.

 

 

*unless you are a baby – then you get all the sweaters.

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