Thursday, December 13, 2012

the two dumb questions

There are two questions, incomprehensible to knitters, that we are frequently asked.
  • How much does it cost to make a sweater?
  • How long did it take to knit that?
I’ve been asked this by strangers (to be expected) but also by knitters (even yarn company owners, which really astounded me). How in the world are these reasonable questions?

As I see it, there are three ways to respond.

Response number one
Open-mouthed astonishment: as if to say Did you really mean to ask such questions? Would you like to take that moment back?

It's a valid response, but no-one learns anything. So let's move on.

Response number two
Try to get to the root of these questions.

How much does it cost to make a sweater?
  • How much does it cost to knit which sweater?
  • Do you really want to know what I spent on yarn for this cashmere piece you are admiring?
  • Do you want to know because you want to be shocked that anyone could be so impractical? Will it confirm what you’ve always suspected about me—my inane frivolousness?
  • Or do you want to know because you want it to be within your budget, something you could now consider. (I’d love to believe this last.)

How long did it take to knit that?
  • How many months, days, weeks, hours? How precise would you like me to be?
  • What’s a day’s knitting? 2 hours, 6 hours, 10 hours? Do you think I knit with a stop watch beside me?
  • Do you want to know because you want to be shocked that anyone could be so impractical? Will it confirm what you’ve always suspected about me—my inane frivolousness?
  •  Or do you want to know because you want it to be within your time allowance, something you would now consider? (I’d love to believe this last.)
I usually do some of the above, but not well, and still no-one really learns anything. So lets move on.

Response number three
I’m reading a really interesting book—The Watchman’s Rattle—about how to solve complex problems. The author discusses the five barriers we need overcome to think clearly and to save civilization.

The fifth barrier is extreme economicssimple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, that are the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions. Knitters fail the test of extreme economics when they spend money knitting something they could readily buy at a fraction of the price.

In addition, she says When business principles prevail, there is enormous pressure for individuals to respond to complex problems with great speed and efficiency. Knitters also fail this test of extreme economics when they spend hours knitting something they could readily buy in a fraction of the time.

Make no mistake. She is saying that to overcome complex problems and save civilization as we know it, we need to
  • reject the need for profit,
  • reject the need for speed.
So, what does that have to do with us?

Knitters are leaders in these exercises! The fact that we can’t answer how long and how much should be a proud moment for knitters! Why? Because, unlike the rest of the world, we will not be ruled by time or money. We do what we do because it is the right thing to do—for our minds, our health, our families, our economies (all of which are discussed in previous posts).

I would suggest that the best that humans produce—our good works, our good institutions, anything that has changed our quality of life for the better—can never be reduced to time or money.

And there’s our best answer!


  1. Hi Sally
    I just wanted to tell you that I am really enjoying reading your blog, especially the last few entries.
    Thank you so much

  2. And thanks for writing!
    I think this last entry is my favourite.
    Don't we love it when the pundits (scientist, economists, psychologists) support what knitters have always known!?
    When what they say resonates with my experience as a knitter, my immediate reaction is "Now I know that what they are saying is true."

  3. This reminds me of being asked why I've sung in choruses -- without pay. The answer, of course, is because I love it. And it's a privilege to sing the works of great composers, which I would do even if there were nobody listening.

    I knit because I love it. I love the feel of yarn in my hands, watching the colors and patterns take shape, and the zen relaxation it brings.

    Knitting the Einstein Coat was a special treat!

  4. How lovely!
    And yes, lots of lovely hours to knit that coat.
    Perhaps I should consider another one . . .

  5. I confess that I am a complete ass when it comes to knitting. Since childhood, I have tried my bloody best to knit but have failed. So don't ask me why I DON'T KNIT. THAT, to the unknitting soul, is a very loaded question because it brings up all sorts of memories of one's inadequacies, both real and imagined.

    This inability to knit even an afghan square that is, in fact, square, stems from the fact that I have an innate tendency to clutch the needles with a death grip and knit with such a wound-up frenzy that everything turns grey from the sweat of my feverish hands. Do not say that I should relax; it is impossible.

    I once shamelessly showed off by knitting a boyfriend a sweater. I think I thought that he might want to marry me when he saw how brilliant I was. (This was, of course, in the 1950s when such things seemed to matter to men!!!)

    The thing looked not bad at all but when I sewed it up and presented it to him, he couldn't get it over his head. Not even as far as his ears.

    The relationship ground to a rather miserable halt not long after that.

    There must be a learning disability specific to knitting and playing the piano, because I certainly have some major deficiency in this area. After six tortured years of piano lessons, my teacher told my mother that the whole thing had been a waste of time and money because I could not read the music and play at the same time.

    And so it is with my knitting "career", such as it was. I must LOOK at every stitch I make or I screw everything up. That is to say, I screw it up MORE than it already is. It's hell on the eyes and nerves, this type of knitting.

    I wish I could sit calmly and knit without looking. It looks so peaceful and calming in the hands of someone like Sally. But I cannot. And it is probably good for the soul to know what one cannot do as well as others.

    Thanks for the heads up, though, on what NOT to ask a knitter. Sort of like, "Why did you climb that mountain, Sir Edmund?" or "What moved you to invent the toilet, Mr. Crapper?"

    Carol Bromley

  6. I think many non-knitters still see what we do as some sort of "cost saving" activity. "Why on earth would anyone spend the time to make something that can be bought in a department store?" The non-knitters (and non-sewers) among us do not understand the concept of "process"....doing something for pure pleasure.

    I really wish you were standing behind me sometimes when I get asked these same inane questions. I need a vocal coach.

  7. Great post. Would these same people value a painting by the cost of the materials used?

    I think I'll look for that book. It sounds interesting.

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  9. Another great blog, Sally! I play violin and I used to practice 4-5 hours/day when I was little. I once was asked by a guy next door (who was attending a prestigious university at the time and I was otherwise quite look up to) why I bothered with that much work since I could just sit with a cup of tea and listen to someone else play instead. My answer was your response number one and I still don't know how to answer such question.

  10. When people ask me these questions, it's often because they want me to knit something for them and they think they can give me a few dollars plus the cost of the yarn (which they think is very low)!!!
    When I tell them the approximate cost of the yarn I used and the approximate number of hours it took to make the sweater I'm wearing, they usually drop the subject (mainly because of the price of the yarn). ;-)

  11. Where would one purchase a hand knit sweater (not one made by underage children operating an industrial knitting machine to make fabric to be factory piece worked together by other under age children out of crappy fabric) at a fraction of the cost? Not in the high shops around here I can promise you that, not 3 week gone I saw a machine knitted sweater in a shop here for over 300 dollars (100 percent acrylic, made in india.

  12. I RECENTLY saw a fashion spread in Glamor magazine for knitted clothing which started at about 1200 dollars for an item, but they were actually hand knitted by a person out of wool, or really nice yarn like mohair....I think the prices were fair , i estimated that I could have made the wool one for about 1/4 of the cost, the yarn would have cost about 300 to 400 dollars (lopi wool for 13.99 per ball at local yarn shop). I would assume that the markup on anything purchased would be about 4 to 5 times the cost to make, and I also assume I am not paying for the time it took someone to actually knit it, but this is all a guess