On Knitting, Yarn Stashing and Consumerism

I have been thinking a lot lately about stash.  This is the term that knitters use to refer to their yarn, specifically to yarn which is not currently being used, but which is stored somewhere, presumably for future use.  Some knitters will have a skein or two lying around the house; some knitters have literally rooms full of yarn.  I try to buy yarn for specific projects when I need it, though this has not always been the case, and sometimes I succumb to the urge to buy some pretty yarn just because I like it.  This means that I have yarn stashed away, but not too much in the grand scheme of things.

I must admit, however, that lately I have been finding my stash very dissatisfying, for a number of reasons.  A number of months ago, I gave into impulse and bought some yarn because it was on sale.  It was lovely yarn; I bought five skeins of it.  This yarn was laceweight and the truth is, I don’t use laceweight yarn very much.  Plus, with my hand and wrist issues, I have to watch how many hours I knit.  It would take me a year to knit up that quantity of laceweight yarn.  After I bought it, I wasted days – yes, whole days – trying to find a project to knit with this yarn.  I used search functions on Ravelry and looked at laceweight patterns until my eyes threatened to bleed, but still haven’t found a use for it.  The fact that it is sitting there, in my stash, is not providing me with joy and comfort; in fact, it makes me uncomfortable and leads to stress.

I have also spent uncountable fruitless hours trying to find ways to utilize yarn I do have, rather than buy more.  It always turns out that the yarn I have doesn’t lend itself to the projects I want to make.  I am always happier when I see a project I want to knit, find the right yarn for it, and start knitting.  I have come to a conclusion:  I don’t really like my stash.  At least, not most of it.  Before you think I am having a severe reaction to my recent non-knitting induced stress, let me qualify.  I keep left-over yarn from projects I have knit – this is good in case I need to make repairs, or in case I want to knit a matching pair of mitts or something.  I also think it is lovely to have a few projects lined up, with pattern and yarn, so that one can have variety in one’s knitting, and be able to cast on something new on a whim.  I even think it is nice to have a few special skeins that have been bought with no purpose on hand just in case.  But more than that, I find having stash becomes stressful – I feel obligated to find projects for it, even though the projects I’m drawn to are never suitable, and I am obliged to store it, which adds to my stress.

This weekend, I was looking at a forum for people to show their storage solutions for yarn.  One of the things that became clear is that there are lots of knitters who have obscene amounts of yarn.  I know that there are knitters out there who routinely turn out a garment every two weeks.  They need to buy a lot of yarn to keep up with this output.  All power to them.  But, what appalled me on this forum was the absolute glee with which knitters crowed abut their addiction to buying yarn, while admitting most will likely never get used.   I saw the term SABLE bandied around – for the uninitiated, this means Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy.  This means that you could knit every day for the rest of your life and not finish the yarn that you currently have in your stash.  In some parts of the knitting community, SABLE is a desired state, and gives you bragging rights.

I wrote a post a few years ago (you can find it here) called WIP Crazy, in which I commented on the lunacy (in my opinion) of having masses of WIPs (works in progress – knitting projects that have been cast on but are as yet unfinished).  Many of the arguments I made there, with respect to cost specifically, but also to changing tastes and trends, hold up here too.  Having a stash of yarn which you could never finish knitting, not in three lifetimes, and then adding to it frequently, strikes me not only as lunacy, but as consumerism run rampant.

To summarize so far, I find that I personally dislike having too much stash.  I also think that having WAY too much stash is pretty crazy.  I have more serious thoughts bouncing around in my head about this, which have to do with austerity and privilege.

I am a Ravelry fan, and I spend time each day reading too many threads about knitting, yarn, patterns, etc.  I like beautiful yarn, so many of the forums which I pay attention to are focused on beautiful (read: expensive) yarn.  To me, these yarns are a luxury.  I buy them.  I knit with them.  I enjoy them immensely.  But I don’t buy 40 projects worth of them, and then stuff them under the bed and hide them from my husband.   Luxury yarn is just that – a luxury, and one I have to budget for carefully.  In this age of austerity, for most knitters, yarn is a luxury at any price point.   As I read these threads, I cannot help but feel disquiet at the sheer aquisitiveness and consumerism that have taken over parts of the knitting community.

One of Ravelry’s feaures pertains to stash.  It allows knitters to keep track of their stash, and also to search through other knitters’ stashes.  This has all sorts of useful functions.  But the fact remains that once you have the ability to photograph all of your yarn and store it in an electronic database that 5 million plus knitters can see, it is inevitable that a certain amount of competitiveness will take place.  “Ooh, my stash is bigger than her stash.”  It can lead to a certain keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality.  (I am not knocking this feature; I don’t use it myself but mostly because I am too lazy to catalogue my yarn.  I see its appeal, but I also see the unintended consequences.)

For the past few years, while I have been working full-time and studying for an MBA, I have been knitting less, blogging less, and reading other blogs even less.  Still, even given the limited number of blogs which I follow, I can see that I am not the only knitter who is thinking along these lines.  My  discussion here has been about stash, specifically aquisitiveness above and beyond your capacity to knit, but many knitters and bloggers have been thinking about privilege.   Sarah Pope, of Whistling Girl Knits, wrote a very thought-provoking post on issues of consumption and privelege in the hand-knitting community.  Her post was triggered, in part, by comments from Bristol Ivy and Isolda Teague; all three were inspired to some degree by the Slow Fashion movement.   I found Sarah’s post particularly interesting because she points out the conundrum we knitters have:

By editing down our wardrobes; making only what’s beautiful, serviceable, and lasting; and avoiding the temptations of the new and the now, we have to rein in our purchasing from the very independent designers, farmers, and other artisans we’re so proud to support.

She is absolutely right about this point.  If we want the vibrancy to remain in the hand-knitting community, we need to support this community with our spending dollars.   In addition, if we care about how yarn is produced, about animal welfare, pesticide use, and fair wages, then we must buy from those producers who support these things (at a higher price of course).   Please go read Sarah’s post; she is more eloquent than I will ever be.  (She is one of the first knit bloggers I ever read, from back in the days of her previous blog incarnation.)

Karie Westermann, of Karie Bookish,  has recently been writing a lovely series called Building a Hand-made Wardrobe.  The last part is called Thinking Slow Fashion on a Budget.  In it, she addresses the issue of privilege head-on, and gives good advice and encouragement to knitters on very restricted budgets.  In her lovely way, she acknowledges disparity, both of budget and time:

It’s so easy to feel disheartened when you are still on the first sleeve of your wool-blend cardigan six months down the line, and you see someone looking swanky in their 134th unicorn yarn project of the year.

Karie advises knitters to avoid comparisons and be proud of their achievements.  I am fairly new to Karie’s blog but am enjoying it immensely.   I encourage you to read the entire series.  I definitely plan to follow her advice on how to critically examine your wardrobe.

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, a day that has always been my favorite holiday.   While I think about all of the things I am thankful for, I cannot help but notice the effects of austerity here in the UK.  Life is hard these days.   I find myself thinking that perhaps it would be good for us to try to buy what we need and use what we buy.   I love yarn.  I love beautiful yarn.  And I want to support the knitting community, including small producers and designers.  But I think I can do it without having enough stash to sink the Titanic.