Knitting Milestones

1993: Dad joined cult; Mum taught me to knit. (These two items are probably coincidental.)

2004: Learnt to cast on. And off. And knit things that were actually functional pieces of fabric rather than unintentionally scalloped dishrags.

2008: Knit first jumper. (It was my then boyfriend’s Christmas present. I ran out of time and begged my mama to seam it up for me.)

2009 – 2015: Learned colourwork, lace, knitting in the round, cables, declared sock knitting to be better than tranquilisers, fostered a yarn stash of a size utterly inappropriate for a person who lives in a very damp house, figured out that my stitch counts kept going wonky because ‘YO’ means ‘yarn over’, not ‘yarn over then knit one’ as I for some reason believed, watched in amazement as my cat ate half a ball of sock yarn, learned to wind centre-pull balls to keep yarn away from cat.

September 2016: Rail replacement buses having doubled the length of my commute, I got me some bluetooth headphones and tripled my knitting output. Silver linings, I guess.

October 2016: You guys. I have just realised I am capable of knitting and walking at the same time.

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Yarn forward, comrades!

Things I learned from reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion:

  1. Fuckloads! The evils of polyester…
  2. The fact that clothes being more expensive is no guarantee that they were made in a lovely ethical environmentally-friendly non-sweatshop kind of way…
  3. That garment maker wages could be tripled without the cost of the clothes they make being significantly increased…
  4. How dramatically our wardrobes have expanded in the Global North while the quality has steeply declined…
  5. …and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a great read, informative and fascinating and you should get yourself a copy stat.

Things I learned from reading Stitched Up: An Anticapitalist Book of Fashion:

  1. “Home-alone knitting is neithe the most efficient nor enjoyable way to make socks. It represents the triumph of individualism over collectivity.”
  2. “It is the spectre of past restrictions on life-roles and dress, encapsulated by 1950s dress, that make me work for change.”
  3. Blah blah everything will be awesome after the revolution.

I’m sorry to be snarky, but jesus, it reads like an annoying teenager who’s just heard about this totally rad dude called Karl Marx and reckons he could solve ALL OUR PROBLEMS, YOU GUYS. I rate pretty highly on the Raving Lefty scale myself, so I was super excited about reading this, but honestly I didn’t make it through the first chapter without rolling my eyes: at the shoddy writing (never has a book cried out more for a good editor), the infodumps of pretty unnecessary material (do we really need to know exactly which clothing brands are owned by which multinational conglomerate? THAT IS WHAT THE APPENDIX IS FOR, LADY) and more than anything, the bizarre logical leaps which basically all add up to “we don’t know what the Socialist Utopia will be like, because it will be unlike anything that’s ever happened before, but life will be awesome then so clothing production will be awesome too”.

(Plus, there’s that infuriating thing where all oppression is subsumed into class oppression, as if racism and sexism and homophobia and every other way humanity has devised to be shitty to each other are just manifestations of The Real Oppression, which is The Bourgeoisie Stomping On The Proletariat.  Luckily, this means that we don’t need to bother trying to unlearn racism/sexism/homophobia/et al, because they’ll naturally disappear after The Revolution. Hurrah!)

This approach dismisses any moves we might try to make the production of clothing less rubbish here and now – like anti-sweatshop campaigns, making your own clothes, sourcing eco-friendly fabrics produced by workers’ cooperatives, demanding plus-size clothing options, questioning the unbearable whiteness of the modelling industry – as petty little bourgeois distractions. They might make us feel better, but ultimately they’re more or less pointless, because everything is oppressive under capitalism so … somethingsomething the revolution.

It would be totally boss if we could solve every problem in the whole world with one fell swoop, but until then? Supporting less-rubbish approaches to production (like the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic!), buying less-environmentally-destructive clothes and fabrics (like this painfully beautiful bamboo silk at Ray Stitch!), stepping down the quantity of one’s purchasing and learning to preserve and personalise the clothes you already own… Maybe I’m getting disheartened and unstarryeyed in my old age, but at least these things are better than nothing, right?

Sure, there’s no such thing as Compassionate Capitalism, but there  is capitalism that involves sending kids up chimneys and capitalism that does not. And yes, capitalism is inherently abusive, but dismissing these small efforts as akin to the Titanic Deckchair Rearrangement Project seems like a bit of a cop out to me.

These books tend to end with a “…and here’s what you can do!” chapter to lift the reader’s spirits after a barrage of Everything Is The Worst. Instead, Stitched Up left me feeling helpless to effect any change, because the stuff I can do was dismissed as pointless, and the stuff that the book thinks will make a difference was so vaguely defined as to be almost meaningless.

I don’t think it was intentional, but I can genuinely imagine readers coming away thinking, “okay, so if Ethical Consumption is a big con, I might as well carry on shopping at Primark”. Which I can’t imagine is going to improve the world much.

Is it unreasonable to expect the book to have a bit more of a concrete plan for Socialist Utopia (Creation Of)? I guess it’s focused more on dissecting the problem, and there is undoubtedly value in that. But when someone seems super certain that The Revolution will fix everything, I personally would like a bit more detail on what The Revolution will look like, and how we might go about getting it started.

Accusatory frocks

One of the main reasons I wanted to learn to sew was not to make new garments from new material – although, of course, this has been a major part of the learning process, and is wickedly addictive.

But the real goal was to learn these skills so that I could tweak my existing wardrobe to meet my needs and caprices. All those dresses that fit perfectly when I was 19, and oddly don’t anymore, given bodies’ curious habit of changing dimensions over the course of a decade. All those coats that were so beautiful in the charity shop window, which I had to buy even though they were two sizes too big. Blouses that fit delightfully across the shoulders but threaten to cut my belly or bust in half.

The problem with having a wardrobe full of clothes which don’t fit is that it’s so easy to start hating your body for being too big, rather than putting the blame where it belongs – on the clothes which are too small. Belle Citadel talks about this trap we all fall into, where we put off acquiring new clothes because we’re waiting for our bodies to change; her post reminded me that it’s a depressing way to live, to look at my clothes and feel that they’re accusing me of eating all the pies, while I wear stuff I don’t really like simply because it fits.

Wardrobes shouldn’t be museums of beautiful dresses with no earthly purpose. Dresses are not objets d’art. If I can’t do the zip up anymore, it is no longer an item of clothing; it is raw material.

The drive to turn all of these things into something beautiful and functional is made of one part “it’s so pretty, I can’t give it away!” to one part vague eco-guilt over the sheer volume of stuff I have accumulated over thirty years on this earth. While charity shops are a win-win option for decent quality clothes in good repair, I know I’d only end up buying more clothes to replace the ones I gave away. Plus, it still leaves the shoddy primarky stuff, and unfixably worn-out items – unlikely to be sold in charity shops, probably destined to be recycled into home insulation. Better than going to landfill, sure, but this post on recycling less struck a chord with me – if I can find a use for an old top myself, then I’m a) avoiding the environmental impact of it being recycled, b) avoiding the impact of manufacturing the thing I’d buy instead, and c) saving the money I would’ve spent buying that thing.

Thriftiness, eco-friendliness, and craftiness are all tangled together, for me: they’re not inherently coincidental (organic food usually costs more; a home-sewn polyester dress is still made of a whole bunch of oil) but, if you’re consciously trying, it’s usually straightforward to find an option which fits both values. (Craftiness isn’t a value, more a way of looking at the world, I think.) Making a meal from scratch using local, seasonal veg. Turning an unloved dress into a top you’ll wear for years. Mending it when it gets torn. When it’s worn out, slicing it into bias binding or using it as a dishrag.

I also have a vague plan of cutting up old tights and knitting them into something (rugs? Bathmats? Bags??) but honestly I’m starting to worry that before too long I’m going to end up weaving a yurt out of my own leg hair.

Reduce, reuse, repurpose

One of my favourite things about crafty types is… well, it’s hard to define. It’s a DIY attitude. It’s a slightly skewed way of looking at the world; as well as thinking “hey, I could make that”, we think “hey, that [random piece of household junk] would work really well as [super expensive fancy piece of crafting equipment]”.

Sure, there’s a world of temptation out there if you want to spend all your money on deluxe hand-carved bobbin holders made entirely from virgin unicorn horn, but you could also use toe separators.

I’ve seen lathe-turned centre-pull-ball-creating gadgets, made of beautiful, glossy, reclaimed tropical hardwood, and I will confess, I have lusted after them. But for now, I find an old loo roll does the job pretty well.

In fact, I haven’t thrown a loo roll tube away in two years, because they are enormously useful for all three of my primary obsessions.

Knitting: the magical creation of centre-pull balls, essential when knitting anywhere near a cat.

Sewing: roll up pattern pieces, pop them inside the tube, write the name of the pattern on the tube.

Gardening: cut the tube in half, then cut short snips all the way around one end. Squash the flaps towards the middle and you have a biodegradable pot, perfect for germinating your future dinner. Once the seedling starts outgrowing these modest confines, plop the whole thing in a bigger pot or into the ground – the cardboard will gently decompose, leaving you with a marvellously warm sense of eco-smugness.

Fun fact: Sainsbury’s has reduced the size of their own brand loo roll tubes. The difference of a few milimetres’ diameter has (they claim) a huge knock-on effect as it means that they can transport lots more loo roll in the same amount of space, thus reducing CO2 emissions. Which is pretty genius. The happy side effect of this, for me, is that the tubes they use are much stronger than average, meaning that you can use the same tube to make many, many centre pull balls before retiring it to become a biodegradable propogating pot.

Recycling begins at home.

Fattening geese

Because heaven knows I don’t have enough blogs that I’ve started full of enthusiasm and guiltily abandoned… But no! I’m still alive! I still care about making clothes!

But life gets in the way, doesn’t it? First I was crazy busy funding Irish ladies’ abortions, then I got really, dramatically sick (the definition of adulthood: sponging your own vom off your pyjamas at 4am for the second time that night because no other bugger’s going to deal with it for you), then work got really busy (it’s awesome, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been busy at work before), then more abortioneering… Plus autumn happened. I do really love this weather – crisp and cold and bright and sunny, all snuggly scarves and kicking up leaves – but it means that I’m more naturally drawn to curling up in bed with my knitting. Sewing predominantly involves not being covered in a duvet, which is kind of a problem for me right now.

By the time I rose from my sickbed – pale and clammy, walking in a manner reminiscent of a newborn foal – I found that the season had changed on me, and I needed to get going on the Christmas making stat.

I know. I’m the worst. We’re barely into October, and I’ve pretty much finished my Christmas shopping. My housemate was so aghast when he discovered this that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d finished knitting a pair of socks for every member of my immediate family back in February.

In my defence, last year I left this project so late that I was still knitting frantically on Christmas Eve, cursing my mother for having fallen in love with a man with such massive feet. Seriously, they are an actual foot long – twelve of your imperial inches – and honestly, knitting six inches of leg followed by twelve inches of foot, 80 stitches to a round at 7 stitches to the inch… it’s enough to make a person forswear family altogether. Or Christmas. Or knitting. Or the very act of having hands, once incipient carpal tunnel syndrom sets in.

(When I relate this, people generally make hilaaaarious jokes about the assumed correlation between foot size and dick size. “You know what they say about big feet…”, they say, eyebrows wiggling like Harry Hill after six espressos. Yeah, funny guy, I do: BIG FUCKING SOCKS.)

So: I cast on the first pair of 2016 Christmas Socks on 25th December, 2015.

I am fun at parties.

Apart from that, the mothership has expressed a desire for a kaftan to serve as a summer dressing gown (I’ve got some stripy cotton knit that will do nicely). Yes, this is a highly unseasonal gift, but her birthday’s in September, so it would be even worse then, so just roll with it.

Meanwhile, my sister, who (approvingly) described my colour-blocked Coco as looking like a Star Trek uniform, is getting her very own Redshirt. (Apparently this is a thing? Whatever, it took me about twenty seconds on google image search and ten minutes on Tissu Fabrics to find some sturdy interlock in exactly the right shade of red.)

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, my Granny’s turning 90 and has summoned all descendants to celebrate with her, so a snuggly pair of bedsocks is clearly required. This, at least, isn’t going to be a last minute dash across the finish line (she says, flicking the vicky at fate) – I got from zero to two inches on my lunch hour today. Gotta love a quick win.

So all in all, I’m right on schedule.

Except… it’s cold. And I have amassed a not inconsiderable stash of snuggly interlock in my nascent sewing career. And so I want to make all of the Cocos, right the hell now.

Selflessness or selfish sewing? Happy Christmas, Fam, or Happy Suffering Fuck It Is COLD Day, Han? Which will win? Watch this space.

 

 

The scarlet tide

(Not that scarlet tide.)

I turned 30 last month. I’m aware that this should have inspired a wailing meltdown about my blatant failure to have achieved Key Performance Indicators such as “get married” or “produce offspring”, but I was actually quite looking forward to it. 

Thirty sounds like the sort of age a competent adult would be, and I’ve been wanting to be one of those for ever. A 30 year old can manage her finances properly and get it together to eat three nutritious meals every single day. (And only one of those meals will be cereal.) A 30 year old can darn socks and knows where her fuse box is and can realistically assess how many tomatoes she needs to can to last her through to the next summer.

A 30 year old can do her own laundry without accidentally dyeing things that special colour known the world over as “pants left in wash”.

Yeah.

  
Oops.

See, this was supposed to be a “hey, this is a thing I made! I really like it, and here are the reasons why! It is made of stuff, and constructed in a thingy kind of fashion!” post. (Hey, I made this top! It fits me absolutely perfectly, has a jaunty nautical vibe, and wow wide scoop necks are super flattering! It is made of 4ply Drops Safran 100% cotton, which is astonishingly [worryingly…] cheap, but unfortunately does fade pretty quickly – I think this is a common issue with non-mercerised cotton, though! It’s a mash-up of the yoke from Linda in Jean Moss’s Contemporary Classics, and the waist-shaping of the Tulip Top from Debbie Stoller’s Stitch’n’Bitch: Superstar Knitting!)

But I was pre-washing some exciting crimson super-slinky jersey, like a good sewist, and filled the washing machine up with dirty clothes, like a good eco-friendly type person, and totally forgot the cardinal rule of laundry: red spreads.

(Is that actually a phrase? It seems too obvious for me to have coined it. But alas, catchy as it is, apparently it hasn’t been sufficiently embedded in my consciousness to prevent this sort of thing. Would it be weird to scrawl it on my washing machine in [red] permanent marker?)

I’ve done my best to rectify and depinkify, but despite spending about three days soaking in various solutions of vinegar, bicarb, and colour-safe bleach, the formerly white stripes remain stubbornly sunburnt looking.

So for now it is languishing dejectedly in a corner of my bedroom while I decide whether I have the courage, the endurance, and the mental fortitude required to unravel the yoke and sleeves and do them over again.

Be ye warned. Red spreads.

Save money / achieve nirvana

Every year, when the temperature creeps above freezing and the sun peeks out for more than ten minutes at a time, I begin my annual pilgrimage: the search for The Perfect Pair of Black Capris.

The Perfect Pair of Black Capris are made of stretch cotton. They sit on my natural waist, have a wide waistband, finish just below my knees, and have a little side split at the hem. Most importantly, they neither fall down or cut my belly in half.

If every purveyor of women’s clothing, offline and on, is to be believed, The Perfect Pair of Black Capris do not exist.

This does not, however, prevent me from buying about three pairs every single bloody year, convincing myself desperately that “maybe these will do?”

This, I hope, is where dressmaking will save me money in the long run. If you tot up how much the fabric and notions for a given garment cost, you’d almost always save money buying the same thing ready-made – and that’s without factoring in buying a sewing machine in the first place, let alone the time investment.

But if I can work out how to make The Perfect Pair of Black Capris – and learn some pattern cutting basics so that I can adapt my trouser block as my body changes – I can splash that cash once, and wear the resulting garment until it wears out or no longer fits. And, rather than spending every day yanking them up or wincing as the waistband digs in to my squishy bits, I can feel awesome.

It’s a big if, I’m not gonna lie. Which is why I spent a glorious August Sunday in a basement on the Essex Road measuring my arse and turning numbers into trousers.

It was the Pattern Cutting – Trouser Block workshop at Ray Stitch, and I’d super recommend it for anyone who’s more or less competent with a sewing machine and wants to create a basic trouser pattern to their own measurements, rather than going for a trial and error approach by using patterns cooked up for some mythical Average Body.

Because even if I did find The Perfect Pair of Black Capris, and bought twenty pairs for security, I’d only be set as long as I maintained the exact same shape and size: a few pounds more or less and I’d hit the ‘too tight/too loose’ brick wall and the hunt would begin again. My hope is that, once I’ve got a grounding in the basic skills required – how garments fit together, how body measurements relate to pattern measurements, how to make adjustments for my own preferences – I can stop myself from mindlessly buying More Stuff in search of an unattainable goal.

Give a man a fish, you know? Or whatever the vegetarian/female version of that aphorism may be.

Give a woman a pattern block, and her clothes will fit forever.

A resolution: pdfffffor fucks sake

You guys. I have come to a realisation.

Unless there is a solid reason to buy a pattern in pdf format (it’s free, the hard copy would be shipped from Foreign Parts,  it’s only available as a pdf and I can’t find a reasonable substitute) I am going to suck it up and buy the paper pattern.

  1. Cutting out the pattern pieces is the least fun part of any sewing project. Adding an extra step – trimming the pdf pages and sticking them together – just delays the fun still further, and, on a bad day, can be enough to make me abandon the idea of whatever I was making and go eat some cheese in bed instead.
  2. Getting the pages to line up properly is hard. No, wait, it’s not hard, it’s freaking impossible, if you’re me. I have never once managed to end up with a perfectly flat pattern sheet with all the markers politely aligned. It’s always lumpy and wonky and every one of those lumps and wonks distorts the pattern pieces and will affect the look of the garment. Given that precision is the aspect of sewing I struggle with the most, why on earth would I add an extra step, an extra opportunity for things to go wrong?
  3. I’m not broke. I’m not rich, but the difference between an £8 pdf and a £14 paper pattern isn’t going to break me. Now the first rush of obsession is slowly starting to ebb, I’m trying to spend more sensibly, more consciously. Instead of buying six pdf patterns and half a mile of the cheapest fabric I can find, better to buy one paper pattern which is perfect, and enough (decent quality, ethically sourced) fabric to make the garment.
  4. For that matter, do I actually need to buy a pattern at all? Have I looked through my sewing books and the patterns I already have? Could I take the bodice of this pattern, the skirt of that pattern, and stick in the pockets from pattern the third?

Take that, the digital revolution! I have seen the future, and it is dead trees.

Outsize

Wanna know something bizarre? I am literally Off The Charts on a lot of sewing patterns. I measure 44, 41 and 45 inches in circumference at the three traditionally vital points, and an awful lot of patterns stop at a 38″ waist.

Which wouldn’t be that bizarre if it weren’t for the fact that I wear a size 16. Which is… the average size for a woman in the UK.

Which suggests that over half of all UK women are being completely ignored by the home dressmaking industry.

What is really bizarre about this is that, the bigger you are, the more difficult it becomes to find clothes that are attractive and affordable, so making your own sounds like a plausible alternative – until you take a look at the back of your first pattern envelope, and discover that you are simply too VAST to be accommodated.

It’s not like this is entirely insurmountable – you can grade up patterns, learn about full bust adjustments, try to draft your own – but all of this is pretty daunting before you’ve even sewn your first seam. It’s easier to learn anything in stages, so first learning basic dressmaking skills, then sewing a few garments, then learning how to tweak the fit – that’s doable. But learning all of them at once? If I’d known in advance, honestly, I might have stopped before I got this addicted.

I’ve actually found that the indies are worse than big, established pattern companies in this regard: Tilly & the Buttons sizes, for example, allegedly correspond to M&S sizes 6 to 20, but the waist size on the biggest? It’s that pesky 38″ again. I shop in M&S. I wear an M&S 16. The only way all of these facts can be true is if I’m unwittingly wearing clothes which are at least three sizes too small for me. (I feel quite confident this is not the case.)

I’m told that this is not as simple a fix as you might assume – fat women’s bodies have different proportions to thin or average bodies, apparently, so it’s not a simple matter of scaling up existing patterns. That said, big clothing chains usually go up to a 22 or 24 in their regular lines, so it’s at least possible to go that far.

Apart from the crappy effect this has on those of us who are average-and-beyond, it just seems a strange choice for pattern companies to cut their potential customer base in half – especially when the half they’re excluding are the ones most likely to be dissatisfied with their ready-to-wear options.

So until I become competent at dressmaking, learn pattern drafting, and launch my own line of inclusive sewing patterns… I’ll complain about it on the internet, I guess.

Retro

Of course, now I’ve started thinking about crafting and feminism, I’m probably never going to stop…

When I was 17, my then boyfriend bought me a t-shirt which read “I have too many daydreams to be a housewife”. He interpreted this as “I have too many daydreams of being a housewife”. Ironically, given my love of both baking and feminism, both sentiments were equally appropriate.

Oceans of ink have been spilt worrying about whether the modern crafty/DIY revival – how we’re all into dressmaking and keeping chickens and canning our own homegrown heirloom tomatoes – is symptomatic of a more worrying nostalgia, for gender roles that are as restrictive as 50s undergarments.

For me, knowing how to make my own clothes is like knowing how to make my own dinner, put up a shelf, or grow courgettes: apart from the ethical issues involved in outsourcing all of those jobs, being able to handle them myself is a mark of competence, of adulthood. I grew up in a very DIY kind of family – we made our own bread, built our own greenhouse, grew our own veg, and, memorably, made our own play-doh. (The blue was really tasty.) So having a working knowledge of how to cover life’s basic needs – how to feed and clothe myself, as close to ‘from scratch’ as possible – is an ingrained part of my image of being  a grown up.

This is not in any way to say that I think everyone should have the same hobbies as me – dressmaking isn’t exactly cheap to get started in, and it takes a long time to get cost effective; having the space to grow your own food is a huge luxury; not everyone has the time and energy to make their own pasta sauce. Plus lots of people find some or all of these deeply boring, and good for them: I’m not into policing how other people feed or clothe themselves. This is just a rumination on why I, a Strident and Shrill Feminist, choose to dedicate most of my spare time to domestic pursuits. 

I made my first loaf of sourdough a couple of years ago. I remember the sense of utter awe when it came out of the oven: if you mix flour and water, you get glue. If you mix flour, water, and yeast, you get a miracle.

And then I thought: for hundreds of years, bread has been the staple food of English people. How is it that I made it to the age of twenty fucking eight without learning how to make it? How have we created a society where people know how to build a social media presence but would have no idea how to feed themselves if Hovis went out of business?

Unless I fancy freezing to death or getting lifted for indecent exposure, I need to wear clothes. Buying clothes which were made by women in the Global South who were paid shit wages, were subject to sexual harassment and faced getting fired if they fell pregnant, does not strike me as the more feminist approach.

I’m not arguing against any and all specialisation; I don’t know how to rewire a house or drive a train or do any of a thousand other jobs that other people do and on which I rely. I might know how to make a jumper from a couple of sticks and a ball of string, but if you gave me a sheep, I wouldn’t be able to turn it into yarn.

You have to draw a line somewhere. I get that. I just think the line has been drawn closer to the ‘outsourcing skills necessary for the continuation of life’ end of the spectrum than I’m personally comfortable with.

(Plus, I sometimes fantasise about how after the zombie apocalypse I’m gonna turn Finsbury Park into a communal farm, and knowing how to make clothes and can tomatoes will make me a pretty useful member of the survivors’ collective.)

So no, I don’t think we’re going to smash the patriarchy with the power of cross stitch, but that doesn’t mean that I’m capitulating to a regressive Betty Crocker vision of femininity every time I sit down at my sewing machine. An appreciation of 50s silhouettes does not have to go hand in hand with a yearning for the days when Men Were Men and Women Were Given No Legal Protection Against Being Raped By Their Husbands, you know?

More than anything, this smells like a moral panic to me: whatever women are doing, someone is going to write a Trend Piece worrying about What It All Means. Sexting! Cupcakes! Rainbow parties! Making jam! Vajazlling! Oh, the humanity!

If we’re wearing skinny jeans and taking selfies, we’re vapid and overly sexualised; if we’re wearing poodle skirts and baking scones, we’re spoiled “postfeminist” brats who don’t know how good we have it in the 21st century.

Whatever we do, we’re doing it wrong. So I’ll be over here, doing what feels right.