Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Knit a Sweater!

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!

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6 Responses

  1. whoa, that making buttons link is awesome. i never quite realized it could be as simple as “find a branch, and saw it, and drill holes in it, and sand it” but of course it is. interesting!

  2. I know, right!? I guess the one problem with it is that the wood in twigs probably isn’t as strong as the wood in limbs or trunks, so the buttons might break. Still, though, worth a try.

  3. I love this post. You make an excellent point about the value of knitting. Time won’t be so onerous too if we don’t have to have a whole bunch of sweaters, but just a couple. One of my favourite books on knitting is Knitting for Anarchists by Anna Zilboorg. You might think from this I’m a good knitter. I’m a rank beginner and I find patterns totally confusing. What I like about the book is that it tells you how to knit a sweater without a pattern. I haven’t tried that yet, I’m still working on a vest. But I also admire the artistry of Debbie New. She is amazing. What I am really excited about, though, is that I have thought about knitting as a calming new hobby rather than something practical. But it really bothers me that so much of what we buy is made in sweatshops or by practically slave labour in China. So many people have gone to the cities illegally. In China you can’t just move from one place to another, you have to have papers permitting you to do so and residency papers in your new location. Otherwise you are essentially like illegal immigrants in the U.S. And your employers can force you to work in terrible conditions for a pittance, even sleeping in crowded dormitories next to the factory. I’d rather not get my cheap goods on someone else’s back.

  4. Call me a snob but I’d avoid the acrylic for numerous reasons. Most people don’t like the feel of it and how sad to go to all the trouble of knitting a sweater only to find you can’t stand to wear it. It’s really hard on a knitter’s hands. Also, it melts so maybe not so great for hotpads. And the production of acrylic yarn is full of scary industrial pollutants. I teach dozens of people to knit every year and I never start them on acrylic if I can avoid it because it’s just not a lovely knitting experience.

    Cotton for your hot pads doesn’t cost much more, especially if you buy a 1 lb cone. There are plenty of lovely wool yarns which will get you a sweater for under $50 which isn’t a huge price to pay for an experience and a final product you love. KnitPicks.com is a great source for good-quality affordable yarn, but if you want to support your local yarn store, Cascade and Brown Sheep are often reasonably priced.

    Yarn stores have sales all the time, and you can even find great deals on yarn at thrift stores. One of my big recommendations for budget knitting is learn to love stripes. Stripes will allow you to use lots of odds and ends and give you a one-of-a-kind sweater, blanket, or pair of socks.

    For a first sweater I always recommend the top-down raglan which is easy, seamless, and can be fitted as you go along.

  5. I’d suggest cotton or wool in place of acrylic for the potholder – Sugar and Cream is a good cheap cotton (IIRC actually cheaper than Red Heart or similar acrylic yarns). Acrylic has its place, but anywhere near hot things is not one of them. Cotton and wool are very heat resistant, and I know at least wool is fire-retardant (always a good quality in the kitchen).

  6. Magpie and Maria, thanks for the tip on acrylics – I had no idea they melted so easily. I’ve updated the post.

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