I am currently sitting on my sofa eyeing my cutting table (the piece of furniture that used to be called the “dining room table.”)
I see stacks of precut bag pieces, piles of fabric scraps, gallon-sized Ziploc bags of zippers, yards of interfacing, and neatly folded bundles of fabric. It’s happy chaos being made into some kind of order, and it’s lovely to know that these bags will go out into the world and hold treasured craft projects and make people happy (because how can a bag with unicorns on it do anything but?). It’s such a direct kind of production—I control at least some of the means of production, and the supply chain is much shorter than in traditional industrial production. When you buy a skein of Republica Unicornia yarn or a bag, you know the working conditions under which the finished product was produced (me, happy, in my house, surrounded by cats, with Bob Dylan playing on the stereo). I try to source ethically-produced materials and support smaller businesses for things like dye and fabric and zippers (I do not do this perfectly, for the record).
One of the totally unintended consequences of learning how to knit was how it changed my relationship to stuff. I’ve always loved to shop: even as a child, it was one of my favorite activities. I grew up in suburbia in the ‘90s, and going to the mall was a standard weekend activity. (I am sure I remember going to Northbrook Court every single weekend when I was in high school). Until I was fifteen or so, I was too tiny to fit into regular adult-sized clothes, and when I finally grew into the size 0 at Gap, it was a revelation. I loved having new age-appropriate clothes, and that thrill has followed me into adulthood.
In my adult life, if I had the money, I would shop. When I graduated from grad school and had a proper job and financial stability, I immediately started buying all the things I hadn’t been able to afford: a pair of Docs, dresses from ModCloth, a pair of $98 Free People overalls. Since my budget had gone up, I was able to buy better-quality things, like Birkenstocks instead of crappy Target shoes, but the volume of consumption was still high. When I was feeling bad about myself (which became increasingly common in a job in which my humanity felt like a liability), a new outfit or a box from Zappos helped lift my mood. If I was going to feel like shit, at least I wouldn’t look like it.
And then I picked up knitting needles. To be sure, there was a lot of yarn-buying in those heady early days. Lots and lots of yarn-buying. And needles. And patterns. And stitch markers. And of course there was the swift and ball-winder. But I noticed if I bought a skein of yarn, I was less inclined to buy a $25 top from Target. Items became measured in their relative cost to a skein of yarn: that mug with a unicorn on it from HomeGoods was like half a skein of hand-dyed yarn. I found I’d rather have the yarn.
But the real epiphany came after I’d been knitting for just a handful of months- I was walking through the clothing section at Target and saw a cute sweater. I went over to look at it–I think it was like $29.99—and thought, “Why would I pay $30 for an acrylic sweater made in a sweatshop when I can make one for twice that and enjoy every moment of the process?”
This was like giving the finger to late-stage industrialized capitalism.
Why buy something quickly and cheaply when I can make it for more time and money is literally the opposite of American-style consumerism.
It was a revelation. To be clear, I’d never knit a sweater before. But I knew with time and patience, I’d figure it out. I did, and I’m happily knitting away on my fifth sweater since January.
The writer Michael Pollan has a rule about food that I adopted immediately: You can eat all the junk food you make yourself. The rationale makes sense to me—if you make a pie from scratch, you a) know what goes into it, and b) you won’t eat as much of it. Experience proves this—I can’t be trusted alone with a package of Oreos, but I’m fine stopping at one homemade chocolate chip cookie. There is something more satisfying in something made from scratch. You can argue it’s the ingredients, I suppose, that butter and eggs are intrinsically more nourishing than high fructose corn syrup and the like. But I think there’s something existential happening, too: that when we create things with our own two hands, we put ourselves into it. A chocolate chip cookie is more than the sum of its parts: it is made up of vanilla and brown sugar and flour, yes, but also of knowledge and know-how and memories of my mom making chocolate chip cookies and me showing up with a batch the morning after my first date with Steven and freaking him the hell out.
And fast fashion is like fast food: it fills you up, but offers little in the way of true nourishment.
If this sounds too high-minded, to be clear—I spend an inordinate amount of time and money searching for and buying fabric and saying it’s “for the business” (which it is, but it’s still a LOT) and have more yarn than I can knit with in a lifetime. I have a weakness for vintage vinyl and hand-thrown pottery, and it’s hard for me to pass up things that have unicorns on them. I do my level best to support local businesses and other makers. I recognize my privilege in having enough time and resources to make things and to buy more expensive things that other people have made.
Making more than I consume is making me deeply content in a way I don’t know that I have been in my adult life.
I’m not saying knitting is the way to happiness, but I’m not saying it isn’t, either.
Related: I’m reading this book and it’s rocking my world. I’ve recently discovered I can knit on the body of my current sweater and read on my Kindle (it makes me slower at both activities, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
George Carlin talking about stuff is one of my favorite, favorite things ever. (NSFW, obviously, because I’m recommending it and it’s Carlin.)