Image Description: Agatha Gutierrez Echenique shares some pictures of his sock knitting for his sustainable hobby feature.
I’m a huge textile fan. My friends can easily recognise me in a crowd because I’m almost always sporting two layers of oversized knitwear, regardless of the season. I think that knitted socks make or break an outfit, and even if you can’t always see mine, you can rest assured that they are patterned in some fun manner.
For these reasons, people are always unsurprised when I say that I’m a knitter. Knitting is something I do to relax: there is nothing more relaxing than cranking out a so-called ‘vanilla’ (read: easy, mindless pattern) pair of socks as a reward for writing another challenging essay for my degree. The process is repetitive and therefore meditative and the end result is comforting and creative: a little bundle of joy that serves as a reminder of a fun time every time I wear it!
But I didn’t take up knitting just because it’s incredibly healthy for you (and that’s scientifically proven!). I also took up knitting because I felt it to be the kind of hobby that, given my own wardrobe choices and subsequent purchases when shopping, would lead to a more sustainable lifestyle. I happen to be a bit cash-strapped, as I am sure many university students are. Consequently, when I did have to go clothes-shopping, if I was not thrifting, I would tend to visit those stores which were within my budget, i.e., cheap, fast-fashion stores. The unfortunate reality of those stores, however, is that they tend to use materials which have rather deleterious effects, environmentally speaking. and they employ exploitative sweatshop labour in the production of their clothing.
Given this, it was simply unconscionable to me, regardless of how infrequently I visited these stores, to continue shopping at fast-fashion chain stores. And while many of my needs could be satisfied by going thrift store shopping – there were other needs (like socks!) which were much harder to meet. Furthermore, sometimes it was nice to entertain the idea of having a custom made piece just for me. For these reasons, I thought it might be nice to take up knitting. And I’m so glad I did!
Now, I should say a couple of things about knitting for those people out there who are considering it as a hobby. For one thing, one does not start with making socks, nor even really sweaters. Most knitters start with lopsided scarves, potholders, and coasters. Making garments that fit is quite difficult, for it involves a mastery of a variety of different skills: yarn tensioning, correct gauge, mastery of multiple stitches, either sewing or knitting in the round, and blocking. So if you are considering knitting as a sustainable hobby, you should note that you’re not about to revitalise your wardrobe in a matter of months. In all actuality, it will probably be well into your first year of knitting that you will feel comfortable knitting garments for yourself.
Furthermore, while I advocate knitting as a sustainable hobby, it can also be an expensive hobby. Consider, for example, making a sweater which you could otherwise buy at a fast-fashion chain store. A sweater can take anywhere from around 6-8 skeins (read: balls) of yarn, depending on what size sweater you are making. The cost of a skein of yarn differs depending on the kind of yarn which you buy. There are sometimes arguments amidst knitters over acrylic yarn, which is the cheapest kind of yarn on the market. Acrylic yarn is synthetic yarn, made of some kind of plastic. Because acrylic yarn is created in plants that are not usually well-managed and because it’s not the kind of fibre that is biodegradable, it is not the most environmentally friendly yarn, overall. However, it is important to consider that, in particular, compared to the effects of fast-fashion, wherein there is mass-scale human labour violations in the production of clothing, probably buying skeins of acrylic yarn to make yourself a sweater is much more ethical. Natural fibres are not in everyone’s budget and that’s understandable.
However, there are some natural fibres – wool and cotton, which are quite reasonably priced and which are biodegradable and are therefore considered more environmentally friendly (though nothing is quite perfect. Raising livestock and planting cotton are both activities which use up quite a bit of water, for example – something which can contribute to desertification). In either case, buying 6-8 skeins of either acrylic yarn or wool or cotton is still anywhere from about 12-18 pounds at the cheapest (in the case of acrylic yarn) or if one is buying slightly more expensive wool yarn, the price goes up about 4 or so pounds. Furthermore, really nice yarn, like merino, cashmere, angora, or mohair can get quite expensive – think upwards of 100 pounds for a sweater.
That includes merely the price of fibre. We still have not factored in the cost of tools. Knitting needles – which to make a sweater you usually require about 2-3 different sizes of needles – range in cost from 4-6 pounds. Further, you’ll also need a tapestry needle or a crochet hook to weave in ends: add another 2-3 pounds. If you’re using a pattern and you are purchasing it from someone, you’ll need to factor in this cost as well: patterns can be free or upwards of 10 pounds, though most are around 2 to 5 pounds.
And finally: probably the biggest cost in knitting is not an actual money-cost, but a cost in time. I am currently knitting a sweater which will take me a week of straight knitting to complete. I don’t mean that I will knit sporadically for a week and then I will emerge, lackadaisically, with a completed sweater. I mean that in total I will need to have sat down and knitted for a week straight to have completed my sweater. Therefore, it will be done – maybe – by the end of this term, should my degree allow it. This hobby is not for the fainthearted!
Still, I think it is worth it because at the end of my week of straight knitting I will have produced a garment made exactly to my tastes (a goth sweater with a clown-ruffle collar!) that I also know is ethically made because I got to witness every moment of its conception. I know the maker! In a capitalistic society, most of us are totally alienated from the processes by which the things we wear, interact with, and even eat are brought to us. Knitting is one of those little hobbies in which we can put ourselves back in contact with those creative processes that make us a teensy bit more human.
With this in mind, I have a few tips to make the hobby more accessible to you. For one thing: though the section in which I discussed costs can seem a bit scary, there are many ways to reduce the price tag associated with knitting. One of these is to find people who already knit! Back in my home institution, I started a knitting club and would give my extra knitting needles to people who were interested in learning how to knit. There are probably people – especially older people in your family – who already know how to knit and have several tools associated with the craft who would be more than happy to help you on your creative journey. There are also several crafting groups associated with local churches and yarn stores which are there to help budding knitters start. All it takes is a little Googling. Furthermore, charity shops can be a good place to find cheap knitting needles and yarn – lots of people donate old tools and craft materials they no longer use.
It can be difficult to start knitting because there is a lot of information out there and you might not have a clear idea of how to start. My advice is to buy a pair of 5 mm straight knitting needles and a ball of cheap, worsted weight yarn in your favourite colour. A lot of people recommend starting with a scarf as your project – I hesitate to do so because I feel that a scarf is quite a long, tiring project and it can be easy to get discouraged at its seeming interminable-ness. Instead, it might be good just to make some little garter stitch coasters by casting on around 20 or 25 stitches and knitting until one has a nice square. Then you can have a nice set of coasters to put your mugs on in your university room! And when you feel comfortable with the motions of knitting, then you can try knitting in the round and making yourself a hat.
Finally, YouTube is your best friend when it comes to learning how to knit. There are some great tutorials by, in particular, VeryPink Knits and ExpressionFiberArts. And for those that do already know how to knit, I have a couple of extra sustainable pattern recommendations to really add to your environmental-knitting repertoire. It is possible, for example to make so-called ‘plarn’: that is to say, by cutting up strips of old t-shirts or plastic bags and tying them together, one can make plarn that can then by knit up (or crocheted) into tote bags or containers which can be used again and again. For very old garments, it’s also possible to pick apart the garments and salvage them for their yarn in order to re-knit them or use the yarn for other projects – whether it is possible to do so will depend on the garment in question and its seams.
Having said all this, I wish you the best of luck in all your sustainable knitting adventures!
Image Credit: Photos taken by Agatha Gutierrez Echenique.