I had a few thoughts about knitters and knitting following some posts made on IG a few days ago and felt a different perspective could help. I don’t mean any harm by writing this post, and apologise in advance for any upset, but I sincerely want to mention a few important things that could help all knitters, industry professionals and otherwise. So here goes this opinion piece.
In general, the knitting industry has suffered from being under-resourced and undervalued. Because it is not profitable by capitalist standards and criteria (high labour costs due to time taken, especially with techniques such as intarsia; high materials costs due to fibre quality or, more recently, fair trade and environmental costs due to fossil fuel usage), the handknitting industry in particular has been hit hard and been unable to keep up with technological developments such as digital pattern cutting and grading, for which fashion houses and sewing pattern companies use specialist software such as Gerber Accumark, Electra, Wild Ginger, or get enterprising with Adobe Illustrator. Consequently, it is difficult to respond timely and adequately to knitters’ valid points and concerns about the patterns they buy.
Another point, connected to the first, is that the handknitting community partly functions as a repository for anyone who doesn’t fit heteronormative, able-bodied, affluent and racist ideals of capitalism. It is a haven for people who are cut off from various walks of life, a nexus that largely succeeds in accommodating intersectionality and points of human difference that capitalism does not. It isn’t perfect, but it is more comfortable than other arts and crafts that require large and/or specialist equipment, dedicated space or expensive lessons. In short, it is accessible.
Handknitting’s accessibility is precisely why it is not mainstream, and also why it has been underfunded and under-resourced for decades upon decades. It is clear that elite fashion and clothing brands do not want or need the money of lower income families, people with disabilities, BIPOC and LGBTQIA folk among others unless their ableism compensates for their Otherness. Also, these businesses have noticed that the aforementioned people tend to be poorer anyway, so they hardly matter to the bottom line. No loss.
Instead, knitters and knitting professionals of all kinds plough their limited time, energy and money into creating a safe space that is held for them and buffers the wider rejection of capitalist society. The discussions that have taken place in the knitting community this past year – exoticism, racism, pricing, size inclusivity and accessibility (most poignantly with Ravelry, which was so valuable for so long) – are acute symptoms of the systemic problems caused by toxic capitalism and racism. We cannot forget that we are all in the same boat, and that we never had much to begin with.
This lack also means that it is impossible for us to solve all of our problems. We didn’t create them; nor did we devalue ourselves. Pricing and making a living wage will be an issue until financial inequities are addressed on a global scale. To an extent, racism, accessibility, othering and ableism can be countered with education, empathy and commitment to personal change. In other words, we can choose and work to be nicer human beings and solve problems on an individual level. Many individuals doing this makes it a collective and community effort from the bottom up. Whatever we say about each other, whatever the constructive criticism, we have to keep punching up until we hit the people and structures responsible for keeping us all down. It will take time, but baby steps forward are still stepping in the right direction.
I have an idea or two about the baby steps.
One thing that I would implement – and I will only make one suggestion, because I think that is all the handknitting industry can manage right now – is recognition and treatment of pattern grading as the specialism that it is. As alluded to above, the wider fashion industry can respond quickly because the production processes of fashion businesses are industrialised, pattern cutting and grading is largely digitalised (there are numerous grading bureaus worldwide; grading isn’t usually done in-house), and specialist software saves an awful lot of time. With handknitting, grading is largely the responsibility of the designer and the quality of the grade can vary according to background, training (accessibility again!), ingenuity and time available to develop the skills needed. This variation in quality is due to the attrition of doing two jobs at once and reveals itself in clues such as limited size ranges; avoiding complex stitch patterns, e.g. hardcore Aran jumpers; near-exclusive use of simpler dropped sleeves over set-in and raglan sleeves; avoidance of colourwork designs (hi everyone!); and avoidance of more adventurous construction techniques OR experimenting with new things that would innovate and push creativity forward. Designers would also have more time for artistry, CPD and research – and it’s abundantly clear from the comments I’ve seen that designers need more time for research and quality engagement with their fellow knitters.
In addition to grading, pattern graders also provide a much-needed extra pair of eyes and consequently quality control would improve. There would be fewer errors because designers and technical editors (TEs) wouldn’t be under so much pressure to check their own work all the time. Tricks like changing the font or background colour stop working after a while. Some of my own patterns have nearly made me cry with frustration because I literally cannot see what the TE has pointed out or remember what on earth I was trying to do at that point in the grading. The numbers start looking the same and I cannot make out my own work. Equally, when TEs support new designers with little experience (and even if not), nobody is checking their work and they feel a similar pressure.
The third and final major benefit of specialist pattern graders is that everyone gets a chance to knit the pattern! There is a full and inclusive size range overseen by a specialist who understands proportional ease, can confer with the designer about scaling the pattern panels of the hardcore Aran jumper they always wanted to design (the alternative is an unbalanced design that only looks good on a few sizes in the range), can provide input about how the fabric will behave in sizes across the entire range…so many benefits for everyone based on the addition of this much-needed person behind the scenes.
I touched on fabrication here to bring this essay back round to the most recent discussion of yarn substitution. Yes, Google does exist, and there are helpful articles and websites such as YarnSub that knitters can use to help themselves. In the dream team trinity above – designer, TE, grader – all could feed into this process. The knowledge of three people is better than one, and apart from yarn support/sponsorship arrangements that can cause conflicts of interest, this is more likely to result in better information for knitters. Speaking only for myself, I have no problem with detailing why I chose a certain yarn or fibre blend for a particular design – but overall, my knowledge of what’s available is weak. I am too time poor to do this and tend to try new yarns only when I can afford to, just as some knitters have accessibility issues that might make internet research a trying task. I certainly understand why and how specific recommendations are more reassuring than detailing the qualities of the yarn I used, but ethically speaking I can’t give them unless I’ve used the yarn in question.
As many others have pointed out, this is where test knitting comes in. Test knitting is really a garment technologist job, or at least partly so in that the test knitters/technologists use various yarns and evaluate their cost effectiveness. When the wider implications of yarn substitution are considered – representation, accessibility, not to mention the editing and problem solving in situ – test knitting is crucially important to the knitting community and test knitters should be paid. I know that many knitters volunteer themselves for designers they admire and want to support, but like sample knitting it runs the risk of being exploitative. As well as giving them the final pattern, I would want to (be able to afford to) pay test knitters or employ them on an ongoing basis – but that’s just me and I’m well aware that other arrangements exist and are agreeable all round.
So that’s it from me. Again, we never had much to begin with, but we did not devalue ourselves; that was done for us without our consent. We knitters are all in the same boat.
Any and all comments are welcome. Thank you. x