Friday, November 29, 2013

why and what we knit

I've written about all the good and healthy reasons for knitting: see In defense of knitting, parts 1-10, (written between Jan 23, 2012 to Feb 23, 2013). And whether or not we know all the science discussed in those posts, we know intuitively that knitting is a good way to engage our hands and pass our time.

But if we had asked our grandmothers why they knit, they would not have talked about health benefits. They would not have said I like the meditative state knitting induces. And they would not have talked about lessons in patience. They would have talked about knitting as product, not process.

I've talked about knitting as product before, to the extent of establishing my own personal rant: knit what you wear, wear what you knit. But I have recently discovered another entree into this subject, and I'm encouraged to share it with you.

Okay, if we think about knitting purely as product, why and what do we knit? 

1. Knitting as ART
How to define knitting as ART? We know it when we see it: a piece that hangs on a gallery wall, a piece that makes a statement! a piece from one of our renowned designers (someone who exhibits in the Royal Albert Museum).

We can replicate these pieces of famous designers, or we can create something of our own--perhaps a 72-row lace shawl in a hand-dyed. The results are wonderful and much to be admired.

But when a member of the general public (MOTGP) sees one of these pieces, she (and I use the generic she here) does not think Wow, I need to learn how to knit so I can do that! She sees an art sweater as completely beyond her abilities--and perhaps not even hand-knit. Unless she knows you well, she doesn't know that lace shawl didn't come off a machine in China!

And there's another thing to be said about knitting as ART. When we wear a piece of art, we can feel as if the piece is wearing us rather than us wearing it. (I will never forget watching a woman struggle with, and then throw down, her  Kaffe Fassett coat, saying I am tired of this piece wearing me! The coat was heavy and unshaped: it was beautiful but uncomfortable.) It goes without saying that walking around in a piece of art might not be something many of us can manage?

2. Knitting as CRAFT
And what is knitting as CRAFT? We know this when we see it too. It might be the best incarnation of our most well-known knitting techniques: fairisle (and please excuse my use of the machine knitting term), intarsia, Aran, lace, double or modular knitting. All of these are express our craft in its most recognizable and most beloved fabrics.

But when a MOTGP sees one of these pieces, she will--again--not think Wow, I need to learn to not so I can do that! These pieces are also seen as beyond her abilities. Yes, she will know it's hand knit, but she will not see it as something can ever make.

AND she might see one of these garments as something she would not easily wear. Think for a moment of these high-craft pieces with their complications of stitch and/or colour. To avoid difficulties through shaping, they are most often drafted as drop shoulders. And while I frequently find myself defending the drop shoulder in classes, students will insist that they don't like it: it doesn't fit, it's uncomfortable, it's sloppy, or it has too much fabric at the underarm.

So, when we knit for CRAFT--and hone our knitting techniques to their highest level--we can make garments that are beautiful but not necessarily flattering. (I will never forget a story told by a woman who made my set-in sleeved Gray Cardigan: the first time she wore it someone said Oh how exquisite! It looks hand knit, but then I realized it couldn't be because it fits you too well.) Wrongly or not, making ill-fitting garments seems to be our reputation: I wonder if knitting purely for craft doesn't contribute to this a bit?

3. Knitting as FASHION
I remember my friend, Lee Andersen, telling us in a workshops that we needed to know why we were knitting: which of these 3 was our highest priority, art, craft, or fashion? I knew I was knitting for FASHION. And I also knew I as in the minority.

Some students thought FASHION meant HIGH FASHION, so they didn't see that as a reason to knit. But I didn't take it that way. I took it to mean fashion something with my hands that would express my personal fashion

Another reason (I was in a minority) might be that, unlike our grandmothers, we of this generation knit for process--because we can afford to, because we can (with globalization) buy what we wear. We know that purchased garment is the right colour, the right length, the right size. None of these are guaranteed with our hand knits. So we knit for art and we knit for craft--worthy reasons to spend our money on yarn and our time on knitting.

BUT, as said earlier, we don't produce pieces that a MOTGP recognizes as attainable or wearable. So if we knit for FASHION, might this change. And what would those attainable and wearable pieces be?

Look in your closet: what do you wear most often? Simple shapes? Solid colours? Pieces that fit? Pieces with something of interest that raises them beyond the purely simple?

These are the things that express my personal fashion. And I can tell you that rarely do I wear a hand knit without a MOTGP (a sales person in a women's clothing store, a customer in a shoe store, a stranger at an airport, a member of the cleaning staff at a hotel, a waitress in a restaurant) stopping me to say  
  • I love your top / vest / sweater!
  • Where did you get it?
  • You KNIT IT? It doesn't look hand knit!!!
  • Was it difficult? 
  • Could I do it?
Or some version of the above. Every time. And I'm going to make a major assumption here by asking if this is not a reaction we'd all--at least occasionally--want?

How do we get that reaction? For every piece we knit as ART, for every piece we knit as CRAFT, we should knit one piece for FASHION! They won't be the most interesting or technique-heavy pieces we knit, but we--knitters, our community, our craft, and the MOTGP--will all be better for it!


  1. I am definitely a three. For myself, I knit what my wardrobe needs, and it is in the style that suits me best. I truly don't understand process knitting. For others, I knit what they need, but it has to suit my sense of style, or I won't enjoy it. Over the decades, I have found that the high concept things don't get worn enough to warrant the time and money spent. My current favorite is a plain black silk sweater which incorporates everything I know about what suits me best. No one knows I knit it myself, but many people ask where it came from.

    1. You are expressing exactly what I feel!
      But do you think we are in a minority?

    2. Of course we are in the minority or there wouldn't be so many people knitting cupcakes and clothes for their cats that make them look like mice! But I don't really dress like anyone else either and I expect to be in the minority so I don't care. But I think some of my clothing of choice is kind of arty, so its probably really a blend. I want my functional clothing to be one of a kind, interesting, stylish (not in style), but fit me well, be wearable over several years...I don't ask much!

  2. Very interesting post. Which brings me to a thought that I have had quite often lately. I am wondering why sometimes fellow knitters do not remark on what I am wearing when it is clear that I have knit it ( they have watched me knit on it week after week). What does that say about what I am wearing?

    1. Interesting. And are these your knitting friends? Kind of relates to the previous comment--"No-one knows I knit it myself." It would be terribly sad to think that knitters' are only impressed by (and comment on) knitting as ART or CRAFT.

      Reminds me of when I was knitting with a friend--who was knitting ART. (She's a fabulous knitter and teacher.) I was knitting an EINSTEIN COAT. Some non-knitters came by. My friend introduced me as "a famous knitter." They looked at what I was knitting, then at what she was knitting, and were completely baffled by how she introduced me.

  3. I'm definitely a fashion knitter. I have only so much time for this activity, so I want it to count. The clothing I make is to be worn, and fits into the life and wardrobe of the intended wearer. The non-clothing items are made to be used, and fit into the activities and home of the user.

    That said, I'm always looking for ways to use interesting bits of Art or Craft in a wearable garment. For example, eventually I will find a way to use my knitted Cthulhu motif in a sweater. That I will wear.

    When I get together with other knitters, it's usually in the context of regular meetings. We frequently don't comment much on what the others are wearing. We're talking instead about what we're working on at the moment. The things being worn were talked about back when we were making them.

    I have local friends who do more Art or Craft knitting than I do. I celebrate those projects, but I'll admit I'm probably more excited about the fashion pieces.

    And when I do need Art? I go grab a pencil or paintbrush, which I was indulging in long before I learned to knit.

  4. I think you and I have identical experiences, and you express this very articulately!

  5. "We know that purchased garment is the right colour, the right length, the right size". This is not my experience and, in fact, that is the reason I tend to knit garments for myself--they will be the right color, the right length, the right size. Otherwise, I agree with you on the categories, etc.

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