There’s a duet of questions you get asked whenever someone discovers you knitting and it goes a little like this:
“What are you knitting?”
Every knitter loves hearing this question – it’s exciting to be able to share our
obsessive habit crafty skills with people, mainly in the hopes that we’ll induct them into the Secret Society of Knitters and thereby advance our plan of introducing world peace by getting everyone to sit down and knit.
Preferably with a cuppa.
Or wine and cheese; we’re pretty flexible that way. Just… don’t bring your lacework or fair isle to these ones. And… possibly expect to un-do a lot of the knitting you do at these ones. Actually, it might be best to stick with tea.
In fact, the only time a knitter doesn’t like hearing the question What are you knitting? is if they happen to be crocheting. If you’re not sure, play it safe and ask What are you making? instead.
My response to either question is likely to run along these lines:
“I’m knitting a jumper. It’s from this amazing old 1940s pattern that I found in an op shop and it has these sweet cables running up here. I’m knitting it in 4ply, even though it calls for 3ply, but given that it’s a pattern from the 1940s and was thus designed for extremely skinny people who had been living on rationing and the nutrients found in oxygen for a decade or two, I’m hoping it might be just the trick for changing the size.”
If, by some miracle, they’ve managed to survive this explanation intact and their eyes show only minimal sign of glazing over, the second question of the duet inevitably follows:
“Who’s it for?”
Nine times out of ten, my answer is:
I’m an unashamedly selfish knitter, but a bit of guilt sometimes sneaks in with that answer. It feels as though it’s the wrong answer, for a start. Grandmas knit bootees for their grandchildren. Aunts knit blankets for their nieces and nephews. Molly Weasley knits jumpers of dubious taste for her entire family. Who am I to go around knitting things for myself?
Let’s face it: social history provides us with one heck of a precedent for selfless knitting, too. In the First World War alone, over one million pairs of hand knitted socks were sent to the troops (and they’re just the ones that were sent – even more were knitted that apparently didn’t make the grade). A glance back to twentieth century history provides us with images and stories of women and girls keeping the home fires burning and knitting socks for the boys at war (presumably in front of said fires). There’s a whole article about it here, if you’d like a read – I rather liked the bit about turning bicycle spokes into knitting needles when there were more knitters than needles. I guess if you couldn’t ride your bicycle any more, you’d have more time for staying at home with your knitting.
So knitting’s a selfless act, right? People don’t knit really things for themselves. Do they?
Oh, but we do.
Why aren’t we constantly making things for other people?
It’s not that I don’t like making things for people. You only have to look at the cacti I knitted for my work colleagues one Christmas for proof of that. (They were seriously great cacti – every single person thought they were real. Someone brought one of them back to work last week and even I thought it was real… until I took a moment and recognised it. Have a look at my instagram pic from a million years back when I was making them and see what you think.)
But the thing is knitting takes time. A knitted cactus might take you part of an evening, but a pair of socks will set you back a week. Even a quick knitter who’s given up sleeping and is doing their best to live on smoothies for meals because it frees up their hands for knitting… even they’ll still take a couple of weeks to make a jumper or a cardigan.
If we’re going to dedicate hours of our life towards making a knitted garment for someone, we’d like to know they’re going to understand the time, effort and love that went in to its construction. We also want to avoid any possible awkwardness from giving someone a gift that is completely wrong for them. (See the section on Lists below.) And if you think about it, if there’s one person I can guarantee is going to appreciate the effort I put into making a garment, it’s me. Because, well, I was the one who did it.
The thing is, not everyone appreciates or understands slow fashion. For every person who loves putting their heart and soul and every evening for a month into making a jumper, there’s another person who’s happy to run to the shops and buy one. Knitters are fashion rebels. Here we are, living in a world where you can have a brand-new wardrobe every week for next to nothing and we decide to do the exact opposite and start knitting our new jumper in the middle of Winter so it’s ready for the height of Summer, at which point we have to look at it wistfully and pack it away for another half a year.
Or, if you live in Melbourne, keep it on the top of your dresser for when Winter decides to drop in for a visit at the start of February.
At the end of the day, knitting is as practical as it is fun. If I want to stay warm during Winter, I’m going to need a jumper and since I like to make my own clothes, I have to reconcile myself to the fact that it’s going to take a while before I can turn a pile of wool into a wearable garment. Sometimes, there’ll be time to make a little something for someone, but mostly I’ll be sitting in front of the TV, savouring the delight of seeing a fair isle pattern appear row by row and imagining how it’s going to keep me warm when the jumper’s finally finished (which, yes, will probably be close to Summer at this rate).
Are knitters always selfish?
Absolutely not! Why would we waste our knitting skills when there are people out there who genuinely appreciate it? There’s nothing like throwing yourself into a project, propelled along by the excitement of being there when your friend opens your present.
That being said, every knitter has a List.
Let me tell you about these Lists. Every crafter, whether they’re a knitter or a dressmaker or a taxidermist (I assume) has one – a carefully curated assortment of people for whom you would willingly make things. Someone who’s expressed admiration for your ability to knit. Someone who seems to understand the effort and time involved. Someone who’s done something nice for you.
Someone you just like a heck of a lot.
Making things for someone on my List is always bittersweet, mostly because I put so much care and effort into the item that I usually end up wanting to keep it for myself. I’ve made and given away socks I’d love to have worn myself; a blanket I’d have loved to snuggle into; and two ruffled tea cosies topped with pom poms that I desperately wanted for my own teapots. It’s actually how I know I’ve done a good job: if I can’t bear to part with it, then it’s just right.
It can be easy to get it wrong, though, and that’s why the List is so important. How awful would it be to give someone a gift that isn’t right for them? Or something that they wear or use purely so they don’t hurt your feelings? This is why our Lists exist: not to exclude someone from receiving hand-crafted goodness but to make sure there’s minimal bruising of feelings.
How do I get on a knitter’s list?
Honestly, it’s usually luck or a combination of the knitter having some degree of fondness for you and wanting to make you something. We go through a thorough process of working out whether our potential knittee (it’s a new word I’m trying and I appreciate it may not catch on in circles that don’t include myself) will be receptive to a handmade gift. After that, we become almost indistinguishable from stalkers as we try to work out what our
victim target knittee would like or might find useful. Then we need to hit on the right colour and style.
Sometimes, we’ll take days to work out just the right question to ask that will give us the information we need without giving away our intentions. For instance, I have plans to knit a pair of socks for a colleague and I haven’t quite hit on the right way of asking what size shoe she wears. Taking away the creepy factor, there’s absolutely no way to do it in a way that doesn’t immediately give away my plans.
That being said, there’s no harm in a non-knitter trying the direct approach. I was toying with the idea of knitting something for a colleague who was leaving to pursue further study when he made things nice and clear by saying, “Would it be rude to ask you to knit me something?”
No. No, it would not be rude. It would help me a lot. He chose wool in a nice, silvery grey and I knitted him a scarf. This neatly satisfied both criteria of Selfless Knitting: a) I knew my hours of work would be understood and appreciated, and, b) the gift was going to suit the recipient, given that he’d chosen almost every aspect of it.
That’s how it’s done.
If only it was that easy to solve my sock-size issue in a way that doesn’t involve photographing my colleague’s feet from a distance with an extreme zoom lens and trying to work out their proportions. That would look every bit as weird as I imagine, wouldn’t it?
If you ever spot a knitter in the wild (or on train or at the desk next to you), do ask them what they’re knitting. We love to talk about our knitting, especially if there’s something particular about it. Just don’t be surprised if you learn we’re knitting it for ourselves!