FN2N, part 8 | Towards a Caring Economy of Knitting

In my previous post I detailed some approaches to sustainable working practices that support designers and makers.   This week I will step back from knitting and crochet patterns to discuss how clothing production needs to get away from the market economy, and what that might mean for knitters, crocheters, and other clothes makers. 

The culture of market economies should have no relationship to how well a person is clothed, just as it should have no bearing on whether or not people can have homes of their own or experience domestic security.  Like food and shelter, clothing addresses basic human needs and these should not be subject to market forces.  Crafts’ rejection from our current economic model should have been the cue to explore alternatives, but instead too much time and effort has been wasted trying to fit in with a toxic system.

The creation of mass-produced clothing and yarn, with its poor quality, poor fit, inherent obsolescence, and exploitation has simultaneously created a counter-culture: that is, people who make their own clothes in an effort to escape implication in the abhorrent practices of the apparel industry.  I am avoiding the word ‘fashion’ because what I’m discussing applies to all clothing production, not only that deemed ‘fashion(able)’.  Anybody who wears clothes should be concerned with the circumstances of their creation, just as anyone who eats food should be concerned with the circumstances of its production.

Image credit: Joel Pett

The food you eat, the quality of your housing and the clothes you wear all have a significant bearing on your wellbeing.  Poverty, lack of nutritious food and a sound secure home have been proven to have ill effects on a person’s long-term health, but I would argue that poor quality clothing is equally damaging.  And I say this apart from the environmental consequences of mass production such as microplastics, soil exhaustion, animal welfare, substandard housing with flammable cladding and water depletion.

We think of clothing as something put on the body, but I would say that our clothing is ingested as readily as the food we eat: instead of heading to our stomachs, it enters the body through our brains and nervous system.  Our bodies assimilate so much from our clothes: how warm or cold are we?  How well do our clothes fit in with our lifestyles?  Do they feel comfortable next to our skin?  Do they enhance our appearance in the way we want it to?  What are they made of and why are they so comfortable?  Is the garment easy to maintain?  Will it last a long time, and could I make or buy another one if needed?  It is clear that clothing can be a source of stress as well as comfort.  The similarities between our needs for food and needs for clothing are so similar that I was surprised at the lack of statistical data on the effects of bad quality clothing on individuals.  The environmental and ecological impacts – add landfill waste and chemical pollution to the list above – are well covered, but there is no statistical data about the anxieties people feel about not having appropriate clothing to dress in, the amount of time it can take people to get ready in the morning, the impact that clothing has on a person’s self-worth, their capacity to function throughout the day, or – and this one’s for the employers – how productive they are at work.  A bad clothing diet has far-reaching consequences for one’s personal, local and global environments.

World Environment Day. let’s save the world.ecology conceptgreen city concept on paper craft die cut. Eco design – Green and Sustainable vector grass blurred background .

Because the economic focus has been on feeding or creating markets for people’s pain points about their bodies (diet industry, health insurance, niche markets for tall or plus size folk), there has been a failure to consider how much poor-quality clothing costs individual time, effort and energy, and the collective and cumulative effects of this inadequate nutrition.  The time and labour demand of market economies perpetuate cultural, social, economic and gender inequality (e.g. parental leave; gender, disability and race pay gaps: please visit the Women’s Budget Group for more), and clothing should be added to this list.

Instead, clothing production should follow principles more in line with ecological, investment and caring economies.  Good quality clothing should:

  • Fit beautifully;
  • Keep the wearer at a comfortable, seasonally appropriate temperature;
  • Last a long time;
  • Be produced with ecological and environmental care and respect;
  • Be produced under humane and fair labour conditions;
  • Allow the wearer to take pride in themselves;
  • Be accessible to ALL.

Crafts like knitting and crochet are at an advantage here because they have never really fitted into the market economy, largely due to the high labour costs that industrialists hate.  This has not rendered crafts immune to their influence (the devaluation of labour in particular; also, the repositioning of clothes making as a middle-class activity reserved for those with time and money, as opposed to the historic make-do-and-mend creative enterprise of working-class folk), but it does put the hand knitting and crochet sectors in a better position to adapt and adopt systems that support a healthier economic culture.

Image credit: SIM Economics Society

There is no escaping the labour costs involved, so instead of seeing them as a problem, see the economic systems and culture as a problem.  Solutions such as automation and fixed labour costs either fail to produce desired results or threaten survival.  Clothes making is a slow, specialist process that gives returns on long-term efficiency, not short-term speed.  Investing time and money in garments made to last is anathema to a boom-or-bust market economy greedy for money; instead, this investment supports an environment that values clothing as the necessity that it is.  Equally, working practices should reject concurrent market economy practices of self-interest and undercutting. 

Behavioural economics also has a major part to play, and financial habits need to change.  As a purchaser, it is better to reserve money for quality products made under fair conditions than being sucked into the damaging illusion that goods should be supplied on demand, no matter what, to whomever wants them.  Saving takes time, knitting takes time, but your relationship with the finished item and the professionals behind it will outstrip both.  Support people with ethics that facilitate social and economic equity.  Systemically low incomes are a symptom of cumulative financial abuse – a reverse of generational wealth – and it needs to stop.  Not extending this abuse to other people as a consequence of personal circumstance will help.  In the last post I mentioned four designers whose business models incorporate either pattern donation or pay-what-you-can models.  Enterprise like this ensures that good intentions are paid forward.

At the same time, all designers must provide information about the knitted fabric of their design so that successful yarn substitutions can be made; not all yarns are affordable.  Further, there have always been, and will always be, knitters who choose not to make their projects in the specified yarn, but neither of these points undermine the premise of yarn support.  Providing information about yarn substitution without endorsing other brands is merely open acknowledgement of a longstanding practice.

Varieties of aran weight yarn from my stash.

It follows that all knitters, regardless of how affordable knitting patterns and yarn are to them, should be confident of purchasing a high-quality, professional standard pattern that has an excellent chance of clothing most – ideally all – bodies.  I have mentioned speedy solutions such as providing upfront information about sizing, schematics, key measurements, yarn and gauge.  This provides security for designers who, for socio-economic reasons, need to set a price that reflects the true cost (read: labour) of pattern production.  Like clothes making, designing is not an exclusively middle-class pursuit propped up by affluence: bills need to be paid.  Designers not from affluent backgrounds often have a hard time setting fair prices for their work, and unknowingly compare themselves to peers whose essential income is not derived from pattern sales, but there’s a lot to be said for good value and expertise.  If you’re working hard on publishing your designs and can assure your customers of their quality, they are far more likely to pay for it.

As makers – knitters, crocheters, sewists, the list goes on – we are absolutely part of a caring economy.  This is why we feel it so viscerally when we are excluded (customers) or have our work cheapened (designers).  Or, to put it another way:

When a garment pattern is produced to a professional and inclusive standard, the designer is saying, “I care that as many people as possible can access quality clothing, and I value their custom.”

When a maker pays a price for a pattern that reflects its inherent professionalism, they are saying, “I care about the expertise that created this design, and I value its continuance.”

That’s how we get from needle to needle.

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