Okay, hear me out. I know you think knitting is just for privileged hipsters who want to show off how alternative they are by dropping a hundred bucks on silk/wool blends and then pulling it out on the bus. I know you think that any knitted garment that actually looks good probably takes a thousand years, not to mention superhuman talent and dexterity, to make. I know you guys think knitting is just for women. I know you think knitting is too expensive, too time-consuming, too hard on your carpal tunnel to be worth the trouble.
Well, the carpal tunnel I can’t help you with, but knitting doesn’t have to be expensive and time-consuming.
Here’s the deal with the sweater you bought at the mall. Each of its components – the fiber, the yarn into which the fiber has been spun, the pieces of fabric, the stitches that hold them together, the buttons, the tag – has most likely been produced by sweatshop workers. Sweatshops have become a fact of American existence. Virtually every item we wear is made by laborers somewhere on the spectrum of exploitation, whether they’re living in near-prison conditions in another country or being sexually harassed and prevented from organizing at the American Apparel building in L.A. Sweatshops don’t go away every time some celebrity launches a PR campaign against them; they’re too ingrained in the American economy, too invisible for most people to care about.
Not that the yarn and notions (buttons, zippers, needles, etc.) you buy to knit with are reliably better, unless you’re paying twenty dollars a skein for yarn spun and dyed by the sheep farmer who sold it to the yarn store. But see how many steps you slice off the chain of exploitation when you buy the garment at an earlier stage in its development? No, you won’t have the sweater as quickly as you would if you bought it finished, but you’ll know that the person who put the most work into it – you – was treated fairly.
Unfortunately, the two main problems with knitting – money and time, as I’ve mentioned – are formidable. This is because it’s still mainly considered a hobby. Stores only stock luxury yarn because, come on, you’re doing it for fun, right? And who cares if a pair of socks takes you three months – you’re only pulling it out when you feel like it! There are ways to get around these problems, though, and they both involve community. If you need 700 yards of a certain yarn to knit your sweater, but each of the 7 skeins you’ll need costs ten dollars retail, get together with a few people and try to buy a bag of it wholesale. Also, remember that more utilitarian yarns like acrylics do exist, even if the owner of your local yarn store wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole. (I was about to say “ten foot knitting needle.” See how much I care about you, that I refrain from the most painful jokes?) If time is a factor, consider buying a knitting machine. Again, community is key here. It doesn’t make sense for 10 people to each own a machine (or multiple machines – I think you have to buy a separate one for each weight of fabric you want to produce) when they could all easily share one. What if machines were housed in public spaces, so that people could rent out slots of time to work on them?
Notice that when we’re talking about the basic act of clothing ourselves, the gendering of knitting seems to fall away? You need to keep warm, right? So cover yourself. If you dudes still need convincing, check out menwhoknit.com or the patterns in Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stitch ‘N Bitch, a book dedicated to projects for men. (Unfortunately, the book is aimed at women who knit for men. This from the editor of a prominent feminist magazine.)
Now, the title of this post is “knit a sweater,” but if you’ve never knitted before, you probably want to start off with something easier. How about a potholder? This project will give you the chance to make what’s called a swatch, which is a square piece of knitted fabric that allows you to see how big your stitches are using a given pair of needles. Swatches are vital for larger projects like sweaters, where you need to match your gauge to the one stated on the pattern so that your garment comes out the right size.
To make a very simple potholder, you’ll need a pair of… let’s say size 10 needles, and a basic
acrylic cotton yarn. The needle size doesn’t matter all that much, but 10s are big enough that you can clearly see what you’re doing.
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel by teaching you to cast on, make a knit stitch, and bind off, because a million other people have done it already. Youtube has a wealth of instructional videos like this one; one Google search will give you tons more. The best book I’ve found to learn the basics (and the one that I still consult whenever I come across something unfamiliar in a pattern) is Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘N Bitch, also known as Mother of Son of Stitch ‘N Bitch. Many yarn stores offer classes, if you’d rather have a real person teach you.
To make your potholder, cast on 30 stitches. That very first row of stitches will be about half the width of the finished swatch. Knit 30 rows in garter stitch, bind off, and then use the yarn that’s hanging off the end to make a loop so you can hang your potholder up. The other end of the yarn can be woven into the fabric (see Stitch N’ Bitch or other instructions). That’s it! So easy! Now, every knitter’s gauge (the size of the stitches you produce) is different, so you may have produced a potholder that’s either way too big or way too small. Just knit it over again, adding or subtracting stitches beforehand to get the size that you want. It’s good practice. Now you know why you need to do this before you knit an entire sweater.
Next, learn the purl stitch. Then you can make a ribbed scarf. Ribbing means that you alternate between knits and purls to give your fabric an extra stretchy striped look. If you’re wearing a sweater right now, look at the cuffs of your sleeves. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, look at the collar of your T-shirt. See how there are columns of arrow-looking stitches between columns of bumpy-looking stitches? That’s ribbing.
After that comes the fun stuff like cables, lace, and color knitting like fair isle. I’ll tell you right now: it’s jaw-droppingly easy. All of it. You know that amazing shawl of your great aunt’s that had this sort of fern pattern sticking out of the fabric? That was easy. Most things require a few additional techniques like increasing and decreasing, but the only two stitches you’ll ever use are knits and purls.
But I digress – the sweater. My advice is to make a baby sweater first; that way you can learn how it’s constructed without worrying too much about how it’ll look on you or whether it’ll have been worth all that yarn you bought. Unload that sweater on an expecting friend, or save it for your young’un.
As for your own sweater, I’m not going to suggest a specific pattern for you, because you really need to knit something you like – otherwise you’ll never be excited enough about it to finish. A former roommate of mine made the Skully sweater from Stitch N’ Bitch (a loose, unisex sweater with skulls and crossbones on the sleeves). I myself am currently working on this cardigan from Knitty.com, with purple and blue stripes instead of green and blue. And you know what? I’m very tempted to try and make my own buttons to go with it.
The revolution will not be store-bought!