Is Handmade Truly Superior?

Isn’t that always the million dollar question among crafters? The discussion can get really ugly in some forums – there’s a lot of emotion involved in the thought. Anything you spend enough time on begins to reflect some of your own self-worth, and denying its value can be almost physically painful. But what about to people who were not involved in an artifact’s creation? From a broad, objective standpoint, is handmade truly superior? I won’t be posting much knitting here over the next couple weeks as I work on unpublished designs, to let’s have a nice discussion instead. Here’s what I’ve gleaned over the years of talking about it to countless crafters and non-crafters alike.

1. If there is something unusual about your body, handmade is the way to go.

Are your socks always too loose? The fingers of your gloves too long? Do you frequently have to choose between clothes that fit your waist or clothes that fit your hips (that’d be me)? Then loving, or being, a handcrafter is a beautiful, beautiful thing. No longer do you have to resign yourself to ill-fitting clothes. No more having to get all your professional clothing tailored either – at least some of it can surely be handmade! Since the truth is almost none of us are shaped like the mythical beings that mass-produced clothing is designed to fit, this is probably where the most undeniable value of handmade is.

catch

Ain’t no other way to get a fit like this.

2. If you value having something unique, handmade will give you that.

You won’t find the average crafting pattern on a department store shelf. Even if you use one of the most popular patterns from one of the most popular sources for your craft, you probably won’t choose exactly the same media and exactly the same colors as many other people. Add in individualized shape and size for your extra special body, or some tweaks and technique changes for your own personal preferences, and there’s nothing else like your masterpiece in the whole entire world. If you want unique, you’ve got it.

3. For some people, the hours of sweat, headaches, and aching wrists they know went into a sweater really do make it more valuable. These people are not the majority.

Just like your baby is always the cutest, and the smartest, your handmade piece is always superior to store-bought. To you. Others who do your craft or similar crafts will probably also appreciate just how long it took you to make your piece, and just how difficult it was (or was not). They’re also the most likely to be aware of just how much that cashmere-silk blend actually cost, although ironically that’s the part non-crafters might be more likely to care about. Every now and then you’ll find a non-crafter who does truly appreciate the love that goes into every handmade object. Typically, these people have some other frequently undervalued skill, or love someone who does. However, these people who truly “get” how much of you goes into each handmade item? They are every bit as rare and precious as the item itself. Don’t assume your new friend is one of them.

Brambleton- Whole Sock

You know you can buy those for like, $5 at Walmart, right?

4. Some items will truly not ever be as good when made at gauges and with materials accessible to handcrafters.

No handmade fabric will ever truly replace denim, leather, or any number of other fabrics. Either, like leather, the material literally can not be made by hand, or like denim, the fiber may exist but human hands simply  can not work at the necessary gauge. You will never knit a pair of pants as practical as a good pair of blue jeans, and you will never crochet a bathing suit that stays put and dries as well as a store-bought swimsuit. You just won’t.

5. You can safely expect surprise gifts to end in tears and resentment. For everyone.

It can be surprisingly difficult to identify those rare people mentioned in #3. Even if they ask you, unsolicited, to make them something that’s no guarantee they really understand what they’re asking for. If they never ask, it may be because they don’t want anything handmade, but it could also be because they do understand how big a gift something handmade can be, and they don’t feel right asking for so much. Add in the fact that art is highly personal, and what one person finds beautiful may be garish or boring to another. How many bizarro, random gifts have you gotten from well-meaning friends or relatives (the proverbial reindeer sweater, anyone?) over the years that made you wonder whether the giver actually knew you at all? Were you then resentful about having to trot the gift out every time you saw the person after? Now imagine you’re on the other side of that exchange, and the beautiful gift you put hours and hours of thought and effort into gets an, “Oh…thank you” in response. More tears and resentment. Even worse if you’re making something where sizing is important, like a sweater – more effort AND more chances to make it unusable. Trust me, it’s much happier if everyone involved knows exactly what’s going on, and everyone opted in.

Selfish knitting is more fun anyway!

Selfish knitting is more fun anyway!

So what do you think? Is handmade superior?

Progress of a Sort

I got about 75% of the edging done on the sweater. Another day or two of serious work on it would probably finish it. However, I’ve put it aside for now because this bundle of sunshine arrived Friday:

yellow

I’ve put away the green sweater and all other projects for the time being because this one is on such a nerve-wrackingly tight deadline. Knitting is also my full-time job (and then some) for the next couple weeks, although that’s something I normally try to avoid. Sadly, I’m unable to show you what I’m working on. Instead, here is a picture of a particularly spoiled goat.

goat

We found her at the county fair last night. How entitled!

In Which I Am Weak

I am still plugging away at the sweater – I finished the hem lace and the knitting part of the sleeve lace. But there’s just so. much. left.

progress

To make matters worse, my yarn support was delayed, so I don’t even have the very legitimate excuse of a deadline looming to give me a break from this sweater. I tried working on my purse socks a little extra. A Friday night trip into D.C. even gave me enough time to finish one of the socks.

green sock

But it just wasn’t enough to make me feel excited about the sweater again. And I am weak. So even knowing that (hopefully) by the end of this week I will have to put it down and work on the new design, I cast this on last night:

mitten wip

Think I can finish it by the weekend?

Trudging Along

We had a nice little 3-day weekend here, what with Independence Day falling on a Friday. There was fire and beer and darkness and all sorts of other things that do not go well with knitting, so not much got done.

sparkler

Not much knitting, anyway.

However, in spite of that I’ve managed to complete (finally) the body and sleeves of the Sweater That Will Not End.

sweaterish

Now all that’s left is the edging. Miles and miles and miles of edging. Since Thursday I have accomplished exactly this much of it:

edging

Originally I had wanted to finish it in time for our summer vacation (we are going somewhere I will most likely want layers) but yarn support should be arriving next week for a pattern that’s on a very tight deadline, so that may not happen. At this point I don’t even care. The thought of something new to work on – even something I’ll never wear – is so ridiculously much more interesting than this slog.

What is “Easy”?

In my last post I laughed a bit about how almost all of the patterns on Ravelry are rated as “easy” by the people who knit them, and pointed out that everything is easy once you know how to do it. I also promised to write a post on how to decide whether a pattern is easy enough for you. To do that there are really only 3 things to consider.

pattern difficulty

1. Take an honest inventory of your skills.

Obviously, you need to think about what you already know how to knit (or crochet) – can you do the standard increases and decreases? Do you know how to cable? Yarn over? Change colors? Seam? Graft? There are also the sometimes less-obvious pattern reading skills to consider. Can you read a chart? Can you read the language the pattern is written in if there is no chart? Do you know what “work even” means? How about “work in pattern” or “work as established”? Do you always glance through a pattern for those “AT THE SAME TIME” instructions before you begin knitting? Do you know which decreases mirror which increases, and which decreases lean right versus left (this is useful for patterns like sweaters, which often ask you to “reverse shaping”). How well do you know these things? Can you do them without even thinking about it or does it help to have a tutorial pulled up on your laptop as a refresher? Are they totally, terrifyingly foreign?

2. Consider honestly how hard you are willing to work for this FO.

Knitting is not sports. You do not have to have a natural level of talent or athleticism to be a good knitter or to make amazing things. You do, sometimes, have to be willing to work hard and do some research. If you’d like things to fit you (or your recipient) perfectly, you’ll also need to be willing to do some math. So perhaps the most important step in deciding whether a pattern is the right difficulty level for you is how hard you are willing to work for it.

There is nothing wrong if the answer to this question is “not hard at all”. My grandmother crocheted the same exact ripple blanket, in varying colors, for the last 30 years of her life and was quite happy with it. There are plenty of totally beginner-friendly patterns out there if that’s where you decide your level of comfort will stay, and you’ll probably still be able to go decades without being forced to remake the same pattern. If you have a few more skills (particularly increasing and decreasing) that are totally natural to you, that expands your options even more.

storms close-up

Worth the work? Only you can decide.

Now, if you decide you are willing to put a bit of effort into a project, the next question is “how much”? Are you willing to learn how to cable, but want a pattern with a built in tutorial? Are you interested in knitting your very first (eek!) sweater, but need a pattern that will hold your hand through the process? Or do you already have a good collection of resources at home (books, videos, more experienced friends) to help you when you encounter an unfamiliar technique or phrase in the pattern? Are you adept at using the internet and happy to go diving through Google or YouTube for a tutorial? The world, my friend, is your oyster. It genuinely does not matter if you’ve never knit a single project before; if you are adventurous enough there is no reason your first project can’t be a colorwork hat (I know; I’ve seen it happen!)

3. Learn to make use of the information available about your pattern.

Even if you are buying a pattern online, and can’t actually see the pattern before you buy, there’s still a wealth on info out there about it. Publishers which put out a lot of patterns from a lot of different designers usually have some sort of difficulty rating system which is more reliable than knitters self-rating patterns. Some, like Knitty, still leave a fair bit of flexibility in their definitions. As a general rule, things that are entirely made of knits and purls, with minimal shaping, are “easy”. Add in some shaping, yarn overs, a few cables (either written out or charted), or more than one color on a fairly simple chart and you have an “intermediate” pattern. If you have lots of complicated, all-over cables paired with shaping? Huge charts full of every-row lace? A colorwork chart with 5 colors and an intricate, hard-to-memorize design? That’s an “advanced” pattern.

If your pattern doesn’t have a difficulty rating or you don’t quite trust the rating, consider the actual techniques being used and how much help is offered inside the pattern. Many independent designers, including myself, include a list of all the unexplained techniques in a pattern on that pattern’s Ravelry page (example). Almost every publisher and many, many designers also have lists of standard abbreviations (example), in case you run into an unfamiliar one mid-pattern. Looking at the photos of completed projects should also tell you a lot about what techniques will be in a pattern. Cables, lace, and colorwork are pretty obvious. Clothing in pretty much every form except scarf or rectangular shawl has shaping. If the clothing fits the model beautifully, it has lots of shaping and you will probably want to be willing to do some math to make it fit you just as beautifully. Some techniques, like brioche and entrelac (example, example) are harder to recognize if you are unfamiliar, but will usually be noted in the title or tags. Ravelry tags are definitely your friend.

If you want to try a new technique, but want a pattern that will walk you through it with an incredible amount of detail and reassurance, there are terms you can search for when choosing a pattern. Look for phrases like “first+(new technique)” or “learn+(new technique)”. Patterns that are published in (paper) magazines or on blogs are also a bit more likely to have detailed explanations of non-beginner techniques.

difficulty gauge

Use these to help you decide how difficult a pattern is BEFORE you knit it.

That’s really all there is to it. Sounds manageable, right? As a final note, especially if you know that you have strong preferences for something that isn’t standard (for instance, you absolutely must have your lace instructions written and not charted, or you find the phrase “reverse shaping” morally offensive), there are designers who think the same way as you! With roughly 15,000 crochet designers and 32,000 knit designers on Ravelry, someone will have the same preferences. Find a designer or group of designers who write they way you like and/or need, and patronize them frequently. Don’t worry about all those other designers out there. They’re not writing for you.

Knitters’ Paradoxes

Ever find you have accomplished the impossible? Do you ever wish you hadn’t? Isn’t it funny how often those “wish I hadn’t” cases apply to knitting (or your fiber craft of choice)? I’m currently struggling with at least two of these…

Knitters’ Paradox #1 – The Stash Paradox

I have plenty of yarn in my stash. No seriously. My stash puts small yarn shops to shame. So how is it that in this massive pile of neatly organized yarn I have absolutely nothing to knit?

yarn storage

Seriously.

Knitters’ Paradox #2 – The Sleeve Paradox

It takes me 1-2 weeks of dedicated focus to knit the body of a mostly-stockinette sweater in medium-weight wool and my own size. It also takes me 1-2 weeks to knit a matching sleeve. For those of you following along at home, a sweater sleeve is not nearly as many stitches as a sweater body. How on earth do they always take so darn long? And no, I haven’t finished the first sleeve of my CustomFit sweater yet, thank you very much.

Knitters’ Paradox #3 – The Easy Paradox

Have you ever searched patterns on Ravelry by their difficulty ratings? Every single pattern on Ravelry is “easy”. Garter stitch scarf? Easy. Stockinette socks? Easy. Heavily cabled sweater? Easy. I know the simple answer there is that everything is easy once you’ve learned how to do it, but I prefer to think that Ravelry magically makes everything easy. More on how to choose projects you’ll personally find easy (or just the right amount of challenging) in a later post.

This sweater? Totally easy.

This sweater? Totally easy.

Knitters’ Paradox #4  – The Gauge Paradox

This is a very important project to me, and it absolutely has to fit. So, I sucked it up and knit (or crocheted) a nice, big gauge swatch. I washed it. I dried it. I treated it exactly like I will treat my final project. Then I measured it very, very carefully. If gauge didn’t match up the first time I repeated the whole process, because this is an important project darn it. Now I’m several days into knitting, and what do I have? A big old pile of frogged yarn. Because gauge swatches lie.

frogged

Dirty lying liars.

Knitters’ Paradox #5 – The Deadline Paradox

I am knitting something specific for [Christmas, a yarn company, a baby shower...choose your deadline] and it is due on a specific date. I am responsible and planned for this, so I’ve got plenty of time left when I start. Man, this project is really flying along! It’s practically pouring off the needles; at this rate I might even finish early! Two weeks to go and I’m 80% done? No problemo! Wonder what else I’ll knit with my extra time. One week to go and I’m 90% done? Huh, that sure slowed down some, but there’s hardly anything left to knit. I’ll be fine. Two days left and I’m 92% done? What? But I’ve been working on this 8 hours a day! Where exactly are all these stitches going?! Oh yeah, into the Deadline Paradox.

Have you fallen prey to any of these? What other Knitters’ Paradoxes have you encountered?

Hurry Up and Wait

Between all the waiting around at work, waiting around at the vet (routine appointments), and tons of soccer to watch, I’ve had a lot of time for mindless knitting lately. Good thing I had several long stretches of stockinette ready to go.

pink socks

The pink/purple purse socks are finally done. There was no real urgency on those, of course, since they were a purse project. Still nice to have something finished though. It makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something this month after all.

green socks

Because the pink socks are done, yesterday I cast on these lovely green beauties. The striping is a bit more subtle, except for the fat stripes of spring green thrown in amongst all the darker blue-greens and grey-greens. Still, I like green a lot more than pink, so these are making me happy so far.

mohair bastard

I finally managed to piece together the fronts and back of the mohair sweater too, and start a sleeve. It’s taking me an inordinate amount of time though, because I just do. not. feel like working on it. I think I’m still a bit bitter towards it. Luckily I’ve got a massive undertaking coming up (shhh, secrets!) that should distract me from it for the rest of the summer.

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