I had a whole different post rankling around in my head today but then I heard something that made me a bit angry. Ok more than a bit. How about a lot. A lot angry. Oh so very angry. Sooooo mad. Someone was talking about knitting for a living. They took on projects for people and designed custom sweaters/socks/scarves/hats/mittens. When I asked how much they charged for a custom sweater she said it depended on what the customer wanted to pay. Say what?!?!? No, no, no, no, no. Not what the customer wants to pay. Please say you didn’t say that.
And that reminds me of a conversation I overheard the other day while waiting in line to pay for my groceries. It seems the checkout girl needed a skirt for an event she was going to but wasn’t going to get paid in time for her to buy one. The guy(!) doing the bagging said that he knew how to sew and he would be glad to sew one for her. She was pleased to say the least. She was very impressed that he knew how to sew and would take the time to make her something to wear. Then he said that he knit as well and could make her a nice knit skirt if she wanted. That was when it got a bit risky for me to be standing there with my keys in my hands because she sneered and said, “Who would want a hand knit skirt.” Her lip actually curled and I could see her roll her eyes. Well, not really but the implication was there.
Both of these anecdotes are examples of how hand knitting is marginalized and de-valued in our society. In the first instance she is trivializing her own hard work and in the second instance the girl is openly disdainful of the guy’s ability to knit something but impressed that he can use a sewing machine. Some people might ask what is wrong with allowing the customer to set the price for a hand knit object. Well, lets see…firstly the customer will never, ever pay what that object is worth time-wise. And secondly why would you think so little of yourself and your talent to allow anyone to take advantage of you that way? What if the amount they want to pay doesn’t even cover the cost of materials? What if all it does is cover the cost of materials? Oh no, she said she always makes sure they pay enough to cover the materials but how much more she didn’t or wouldn’t say. But considering she was allowing the customer to dictate the price, I’m sure she couldn’t have been making much per item. So for all her hard work and creative inspiration she was selling herself rather cheaply from what I could see.
I know there are some people who value the amount of work put into a handknit and they are mostly people who are creative and either knit themselves or work in the arts in some capacity. Most non-creative/crafty people have no concept of how long it can take to design, test knit, and then knit a sweater. No concept whatsoever. It’s like the time I just about fell off my chair when someone asked a friend of mine how long it took her to write her book. They offered that it must have only taken her a month or two, after all anyone can write a book. Same for musicians I know. They always get asked why anyone should buy their music when anyone who knows how to play guitar can write a song. Intellectual or creative work is really undervalued in our marketplace unless it is technology based, then, for some reason (is it because more men do it?), a lot, not all but certainly enough, of the people who do that job are paid handsomely. Very handsomely. In some cases obscenely handsomely. I know, my husband is a systems architect, although not one who is paid handsomely. More like somewhat attractively. Ok, if his paycheck were a celebrity it would be Steve Buschemi (who I adore but that’s a different post). But it’s enough for us to get by. But some of his colleagues make way too much money for what they do.
It’s different in the arts and crafts world. Artists have a hard time trying to justify the price they put on a painting. It doesn’t help when paintings like this, this, this, and this are sold for obscene amounts of money and people are left wondering why. Now I’m not saying they aren’t worth it, I am not a painter and have no idea the amount of work or what was in the painters head when inspiration struck them but most people look at them and think they could have done better themselves. And so it is for writers, 50 Shades of Grey and the Twilight saga make it harder for really good writers to sell their books. It is true that the marketplace will always cater to the lowest common denominator and if that denominator keeps getting lower and lower then it’s harder for real talent to make money unless they debase themselves as well. Anyone remember the disco era and how the Rolling Stones and David Bowie were forced by their record companies to make disco sounding records? Yeah, lowest common denominator at work. So when I hear that someone who is talented and works hard to make a quality product devalue her own work it makes me see red.
I have knit on commission. I’ve done it once or twice but learned quickly that if I wanted to make an income that would make it worth while no one would use my services. So I stopped doing it. My fee was the cost of materials plus 25%. And the one person balked at it. She said that since I was doing it on my own free time she didn’t see why she should pay for it. She was happy to pay for the materials but that was all. Eventually she did pay up but it really wasn’t worth it in the end simply because of all the grief she gave me. She figured that since she was paying for my time then I had to be chained to my chair and knitting her sweater from the minute I got home from work to the minute I went to bed. The other person paid me more than I asked and waited patiently for the sweater even though it was a birthday present for his mother and it was a complicated pattern. But he was grateful for it, his mother loved it and I was paid handsomely for my time and trouble.
So why are crafts so undervalued? Is it because it’s “women’s work”? Is it because it’s viewed as a “hobby”? Is it because many of us sell short our accomplishments? When someone marvels at our work do we pooh-pooh it and say it’s nothing when what we should be saying is yes it took a lot of work but it was worth it? Is it because it is hand-made and therefore viewed as inferior to mass-produced? In this day and age when sweatshops are making headlines and workers rights are being eroded daily, you would think that hand crafts would be looked on more favourably. After all, for every sweater that is hand crafted and sold in your home country, be it the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, or even India that is one less that is being made in a sweatshop. That is one more dollar being paid to a countryman who will then use that money to support another small business. And economists keep harping on the fact that small business is the backbone of a healthy economy.
For us knitters, crocheters and weavers the importance of supporting a healthy yarn industry can’t be understated for each ball of yarn supports a small farmer, a spinner, or a hand dyer. Each ball of yarn also supports a home-grown mill, a small store, an on-line seller, an independent knitter, a designer, or a magazine industry. There is so much more to this knitting thing than it just being a hobby. With more and more yarn manufacturing being outsourced to Turkey, China, India, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Peru, Romania, Brazil – all becoming their own kind of sweatshop – it is important for us to support our own. And yet we continually cut off our nose to spite our faces while we look for cheaper and cheaper yarn.
I have mentioned before that I don’t think most designers make enough off their patterns to live off of. Most designers that I know, and that includes some of the better known ones, also have a job either with a magazine, with a yarn store, teaching somewhere, touring and giving lectures or workshops…the fact is the majority seem to have a second job, whether that’s by choice or necessity. Some manage to make a good living off their efforts and in spite of the large number of free patterns available on places like Ravelry and yarn websites. I honestly don’t know how they do it but they manage. And many, many people refuse to buy something they can find for free. And that’s fine, after all for some people paying $7 for a pattern just isn’t in their budget but it’s when I hear them say, “Why should I pay for something when I can get it for free.” or “Why should I pay seven bucks for something anyone can do.” That the hackles stand up on the back of my neck. What you are doing is saying that someones hard work, creativity and inspiration are not worthy of respect but a mass-produced shirt manufactured in a sweatshop is because it’s cheaper.
It’s the same when I go to craft sales and I hear people look at a handknit and say disgustedly that it was too expensive and who in their right mind would pay $10 for a pair of handknit mittens, meanwhile they leave in their Lexus or Range Rover or a similar expensive SUV. Or they are standing looking at a beautiful handknit lace shawl and think it’s too expensive at $75 while they are carrying a Coach bag or wearing an expensive leather coat. Just because they are handknit and any fool with two hands, two pointy sticks and a bit of string could knit that if they wanted to. We have to face the fact that mass-produced knitwear and clothing have been better at promoting themselves than us hand knitters and yarn producers. We really need some good PR.
So I think it’s about time we stamped our pretty little feet and stood tall and proud and said, “I am a hand knitter and I am proud of it.” I think we need to do more visible things like the yarn bombings and the knit in public events. How about some of us Torontonians and environs knitters getting together and doing an installation for the next Illuminato or Nuit Blanche show? What if we held a fashion show or a knitwear fashion week? What if we all became pro-active knitters and every time someone says something like why are you knitting when you can just buy it we tell them that this is our way of saying “no” to sweatshops or it’s our way of saying “no” to the fashion industry. That we are doing this in protest to the obscene profits being made in the fashion industry. What if we said that instead of “because I like knitting” or “because they are warmer”. What if we said we are tired of low quality clothing that falls apart after one wash. And what if we said that we knit because we are unique individuals who are tired of the cookie cutter fashion industry that tells us what we should wear, and how we should look. Damn it, what if we just said “I am a knitter and I’m not going to take it anymore”. What then?