19 July 2020

The Job of a Knitter (or Yarn Substitution for Fun and No Profit)

The job of a Knitter is to take two sticks and some string and turn it into a self-contained object. It is a really fun job with truly endless possibilities. (CW: There may be some swearing because sometimes it’s the mot juste, but I’ll try to control myself; if you have a problem with that, you may be happier not reading further.)

You can use actual pins and the finest filament of thread to make miniature things. You can use telephone poles and “yarn” as thick as a sapling to make giant things. I recommend some strong visual magnification for the former and heavy duty machinery for the latter.

You can make clothes or dolls or clothes for dolls. You can knit a lacy fence or a shawl with the same lace pattern. You can knit fake food and tablecloths to lay it upon. You can knit jewelry or add beads to your knitting to look bejeweled. Scarves, hats, mittens, socks! Wigs and willie warmers! Literal vaginas. Breasts to fill an empty bra cup. Pussy hats that give you cat ears but don’t really look like any kind of puss. Skirts, shorts, dresses, vests. Sweaters!!!

Sweaters are my favorite, so for now I’m going to focus there. For the purposes of this treatise “I” am the designer (any designer really), “you” are the knitter (you are the intersection of your knitting experience, skillset, age, sex, gender, race, nationality, location, creed, political beliefs, size, shape, fiber/color/needle preferences, determination, fortitude, energy and attention levels, etc.—all of this and more make you who you are and affect your knitting adventure), “thing” is the knitted item in question (any knitted item but you and I both know I really mean sweater), and “internet” mostly means Ravelry, even though right now I’m having a hard time blithely recommending Ravelry because the redesign has caused problems for some knitters in terms of vision and accessibility, so please be careful. I’m not going to get into sweater design because that’s a different thing that I’ll probably write about later. 

Knitting a thing is a “choose your own adventure” that goes something like this:
  • Decide you want to knit something. 
  • Decide whether if it’s a particular thing you want to knit or a yarn you want to knit with or a person you want to knit for. If you’re just “I need to be knitting!”, you’ll have to figure that out in the same way (and I. see. you.). Maybe socks or a dishcloth will take the edge off?
  • For the purposes of today’s exercise you decide to knit for yourself that sweater that has caused some ... to do of late. It’s just the thing you’ve been wanting for your wardrobe, and it will push you a little on your skills. You are open minded about the yarn. You may be lucky enough to have something that will work on hand or you may be up for buying something. More on that below. 
  • You check to see if it is written for your size. It is! There is a whole other discussion we can have about what to do when this isn’t the case, but today let’s make it so for the sake of this post. 
  • You look at the yarn called for: weight/thickness (again, look for a future conversation about this because there are lots of different ways knitters/yarnies talk about yarn, and it can be confusing, so I will try to help), fiber composition, yards/meters per ounces/grams. All of these elements go into making a yarn what it is and into making the resultant fabric that you’ll get from all the knitting ahead of you. We aren’t going to get into color because it is very subjective (and fun), but it’s sort of tangential to today’s discussion. You may possess the yarn in question, or not. We will come back to yarn shortly. 
  • You look at the skills necessary to make this sweater. Not every designer includes this information (even I’m guilty of this sometimes, perhaps because I have a lot on my mind or because as a general knitting rule I believe that if you can cast on, knit, purl, and bind off, you can knit just about anything), but it sure helps when we do. Have you got the skills? If not, turn to: YouTube, books from the library (do you know about the Libby app or whatever ebook solution your local library uses - particularly great in these pandemic times), knitters on the internet (including reaching out to folks who have already knit the pattern in question), an internet knitting group (the internet is awesome for finding people who are into the same stuff as you, plus knitting), your in-person knitting group (if you have one and it is safe to gather), your LYS (again, if you have one and it is safe to visit*), the designer (who is of course the expert on the actual pattern though may not always be able to answer the question you have about your skills or what yarn to choose and whose labor you should pay for before you start asking them to work for you, assuming your question isn’t one that should be covered in the pattern description), me (I do not have all the answers but will enthusiastically go into why you probably can do it—you have been warned that I will be enthusiastic about why you should give it a go). 
  • Now you’re pretty sure you’re going to knit this pattern. It has the style you’re looking for, comes in your size, you have the skills to make it, and you think you would like the fabric resulting from the yarn in question (or similar yarn—you may also have a vision of this sweater in a very different yarn, in which case !huzzah, we are now besties! and all this will still apply). Now it is time to figure out the yarn that you are going to use to make YOUR sweater (I don’t even know how to express how excited I am about this part because it is so. much. fun!) with the information we have already gathered. 
  • The yarn specified in the pattern is what was used to make the sample. That’s the second rule of knitwear design: A pattern is a description of how to make the thing shown in the picture. (The first rule of knitwear design is “Don’t be shitty”.) You may love exactly how that sweater looks and want to knit it up in the same yarn. That is a safe bet for getting as close to what the model is wearing as you can. Then you can fork over your money to the yarnie and get on with buying the pattern and making the sweater. But! What if you don’t have the money (or don’t like those colors or are allergic to wool or just don’t want to use the yarn called for)? This is the question du jour, isn’t it. While there are certainly knitters who have the desire and means to just go for an expensive project, lots of us want or need to do something different...
*By safe to visit I mean both in these pandemic times and, unfortunately for some, places that are not welcoming to you. For those of you who have felt unwelcome in a yarn store, I am so sorry. This is a part of a larger, deeper, systemic problem that we all need to work on fixing. There are imperfect (to say the least) yarn stores the world over. Here’s hoping they can learn to do better or that capitalism does its fearsome job. At the same time I am (and I hope you are) working to make the world a better place, including awesome welcoming yarn shops and the means with which to patronize them. 

(And here I am escaping the bullet list...)

First of all let’s all commit to end yarn shaming up and down the economic ladder. It sucks. You don’t know anyone else’s situation, so enjoy the yarn you have and don’t make other people feel badly about the yarn they have (and are hopefully enjoying), whether that yarn was “cheap” or “expensive”. Knitting is never a dirt cheap craft, so we can’t completely escape capitalism, though we can fight it a little by slowly and lovingly making our own favorite clothes. I still remember when it dawned on me, while learning to knit, that I might need to buy a second pair of needles. Like, needle size had not yet become a factor that I, as a knitter, would need to grapple with. Ah, the adorable naïveté of the new knitter. I’ve learned a lot since then. You probably have, too. 

There are ways to find yarn that work within your budget: KnitPicks, thrift stores (straight up yarn for sale or thrifting handmade sweaters and unraveling them), dollar stores, JoAnn’s, Michaels, WalMart, destashing via blogs/Instagram accounts/Ravelry, the sale bins at your LYS, closeouts at WEBS, and even Amazon. Some of those options are more problematic than others. Of course you have to figure out what you’re looking for (bullet point five above). There won’t always be a perfect correlation between the called-for yarn and what you can find, but if it has a similar fiber content and put up (yards/meters per ounce/gram), you can probably get a similar fabric if you can achieve gauge (yikes, we haven’t even delved into that kettle of fish). That may seem brief and glib for yarn substitution, but I want you to discover what works for YOU. 

Yarn substitution may seem mysterious, but it’s just analyzing information. If X yarn has certain characteristics (thickness, composition, length-to-weight ratio) and Y yarn does, too, then subbing X for Y should work well. If I want a sheen to my project that the sample doesn’t have, I might want to look for a yarn that has the same thickness but adds some silk or tencel into the fiber mix. The finished project will probably have some more drape to it from that fiber change, so that’s something to consider, too. These are things to learn from experience, classes (in-person, online, paid, for free), books, research, comparisons with friends, handling swatches at your LYS, and so forth. I would like to lobby hard for experience. This is a hands on craft. You have to decide what you want for your project. I can’t make those decisions for you. 

Please note: there are no “This sweater was made with xx yarn” labels attached to your finished knits (there are also no size labels, see my podcast for more on that). No one should care what yarn you used. They should be dazzled by your finished garment. “You knit that? Wow! I love the color(s) you chose. It fits you so perfectly. It’s so you. Which pattern is that?” If you want to share the fact that you found all the yarn for $20 and have some left over (and you love your handknit masterpiece and are never taking it off), go for it. If you want to share that it’s yarn from a talented indie dyer you just discovered (and cost a fair bit but you think it was worth it this time because you are never taking off this hand stitched masterpiece), go for it, too. Otherwise it’s no one’s business. 

It is no one’s business how much your yarn cost. IT IS NO ONE’S BUSINESS HOW MUCH YOUR YARN COST. And a “fuck you” to mean yarn snobs who look down on knitters for using less-expensive yarn. And another “fuck you” for anyone who goes around shaming people who can afford to buy a very limited edition, high-touch, hand-dyed (and/or handspan) yarn. That stuff costs money for a reason—a lot of skill, time, and effort goes into making yarn like that. Some of us save up a long time to buy it. For the record fancy fill-in-the-blank-for-fiber-or-dye-technique yarn can be wonderful. It can also be not the right yarn for your project. Experience is a great teacher (as are teachers and other knitters). 

I should also point out that I am writing this from an American point of view (in case the swearing didn’t make that clear). Location is one of the reasons I believe asking designers to suggest alternative (i.e., cheaper) yarn substitutions is work that doesn’t benefit anyone. I don’t know your needs and wants and budget and the limitations of your location. What is inexpensive and readily available in one place is almost certainly not elsewhere. Where would it end? Do I need to suggest a yarn sub for each continent? Each country? Do you want the designer to do yarn sub research for you or to design another pattern? I don’t want to dive into all the other jobs we designers have to create any knitting pattern today (‘nother post?) because the important thing about your knitting is that you are the boss. You are making the decisions to create the thing you want, the way you want it. If I tell you what you have to use, frankly that sounds more like my putting a machine to use than you getting to enjoy your knitting. YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR KNITTING. 

If you need help, you will need to ask for help. I am very aware that asking can be really hard for a wiiiide variety of reasons. Some of them are internal and others outside of yourself. Things are astoundingly imperfect here in 2020. There are lots of people working to change the world for the better (some of which may improve or do away with those reasons), but we have far to go. 

I also want to suggest in the most supportive and friendly way possible that it is also ok (and even exciting and definitely educational) to just try things out. Be brave. It is literally sticks and string and sometimes the only way to truly understand something is to do it. If you don’t like the result, you can unravel it. And then you have more yarn to knit! And you’ll have learned some stuff about you as a knitter and your needles as sticks and the yarn in question as string. Or throw it out if it makes you mad. Do keep some of that cotton or acrylic that didn’t work for you (please note: some cotton and acrylic are great), so that you can use it for stitch holders and provisional cast-ons (more on that any time - just ask). 

I also want to address some internalized misogyny that some knitters have. Some of us have been socialized to be afraid of math (there’s math in knitting, moreso knitwear design, but it’s basic and you can do it - I promise). Some of us have been conditioned to believe that handicrafts are women’s work and therefore worth less or even worthless. Some of us have been told that our bodies cannot be flattered by clothes. Some of us have been taught that we aren’t worth anything. Some of us have been conditioned not to try, which means we can’t fail or succeed. All of that is bullshit. All of it. I know that we are all sweater-worthy, that we all deserve to be proud of the work of our hands. Now you know it, too. 

You can always find new things to learn in knitting. It’s one of my favorite parts of the craft. You can knit garter stitch squares for the rest of your life, and that’s ok, too. Every stitch you make is another brick in the path of your knitting journey. Oh, the places we can go!

Yarn substitution is fun. There are so many options it’s making me giddy. Knitting is fun. You are the boss of your knitting. 

Happy knitting!
xxoo, Kathleen

P.S. There are no Knitting Police. If someone self-deputizes, please find the strength to tell them off. Or let me do it. I’ve got a pile of swears I removed from this post just waiting to be used. 

1 comment:

what do you think?