Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 17, Summer 2016
It’s time to start a summer knitting romance where time need not be of the essence.
Hopefully your summer plans include a decent smattering of lazy days to kick back, switch off and take time out from the un-fun musts in life (not the fun musts: fresh air; good conversations with interesting people; deliciously nourishing food; engaging your brain by learning exciting new things; sleeping – keep doing those in abundance). We all need proper breaks – at least a few days where we try to quiet the laundry list of to-dos in our head. Ideally the summer months are a time to lay aside our need for speed and just enjoy, well, being. And clearly there should be knitting involved.
Knitting has a funny old relationship to speed, both to onlookers and those who engage in it. There exist speed-knitting contests to decide the world’s fastest knitter, yet it is its rather slow nature that entices many of us to hand knit. Be it a way to step outside of fast-fashion, a reminder that off-screen activities exist, or a way to blissfully apply our concentration, focus and zone out, knitting knows how to hit the spot. We start slow and then we want to get quicker at it. You can work on it alone, but there are also forums and classes to help you achieve this end by matching you up with your perfect technique. With regular practice you will achieve quicker results with most things, but why not slow down? That’s what summer is for, after all.
There are only a handful of pursuits I can think of for which the marker of proficiency is being able to do it slowly. Generally, outside of the bedroom, being quick at something is interlinked with being good at it. However, to take a leaf from between the sheets, rather than racing for the finish, how about lovingly caressing your project, cradling it in your lap, savouring every stitch and forming each eyelet with gentle care, slipping slowly? Fumbling even has its place. So how about a sun-warmed, epic, languorous summer knitting romance? Slow those knits right down and be adventurous. You could stay on cloud nine from May to September. Then, like a good book, the bittersweet moment will inevitably come when your project is finished. While you’re still basking in the glow, someone will go ahead and spoil the moment by asking, “How long did that take you?” It’s happened to you too, right? No matter how romantic we get about knitting, there will always be someone to drag you straight back to clockwatching reality. I don’t begrudge the question or the curiosity it stems from, but I do find it quite odd and distracting. There are many things we choose to do that take a significant amount of time, yet no one cares to quantify them, at least not with the same regularity as a knitted item. Why is it OK to ask this about knitting? Unless you are a close friend, it is often considered rude to enquire about the timing of many other activities. When confronted with a beautiful baby (or even a funny-looking one), consider whether one would ask how long it took to make. If someone is looking particularly polished, who would deny them the right to feign effortlessness and ask them how long it took? Though tempting, and surprisingly common practice, it’s equally unhelpful to ask the heartbroken how long their relationship lasted – we all know there’s judgement in that there question.
Without picking apart the psychology of it too much, I think as human beings we’re fascinated by what others do. One of the ways to gauge commitment is by how much time someone chooses to dedicate to something. With this in mind, I try to answer the question generously and honestly, even after the 1,000th time. I fluctuate between approaches to answering. The first entails explaining: “It’s hard to tell – I don’t knit with a stopwatch by my side. Plus, it’s an activity I can partake in while doubling up on certain other necessary activities, for example sitting on the bus, in waiting rooms and chatting to my parents on the phone”. Alternatively, if I do decide to give an idea of a timeframe, I’ll say something like: “I did it over the course of two weeks. I didn’t work on it constantly, but I did do it a few hours a day”. When I happen to know specifically, I say: “40 hours give or take”. I tend to err on the side of declaring more, rather than fewer, hours. I think it’s important to disclose that things can take a long time.
Regardless of how I describe it, the curious non-knitting party usually follows up with a statement along the lines of “you must be very patient”. This is the part of the conversation that really winds me up, because, yes, when it comes to knitting (and sometimes answering questions politely), I have a wealth of patience, but it’s silly to think that means I’m a patient person across the board. I’d like to respond curtly by pointing out that I am sure there are things they do that don’t interest me enough to dedicate my time to them. Indeed, there are a million-and-one commonplace activities I can’t imagine doing or sitting through for fear of dying of frustration and boredom (especially if I didn’t have my knitting with me). Almost any sports match on telly, for instance. Grown-up conversations about buying houses and mortgages lose me at “if only we’d bought five years ago”. I have admiration for those who spend an hour plus each morning doing their hair and applying makeup – I can’t imagine giving so much time over to that method of beautifying, while I’ll gladly put in an hour a day to knitting a jumper that makes me look great (or joyously weird). Ironing takes FOREVER, so I try to ignore it. Clean, minimal houses leave me wondering whether people don’t have anything better to do.
Clocks, industrialisation and computerisation also have a lot to answer for in our obsession with how long things take. Time is money, right? Saving money takes a long time. My father is an inveterate bargain hunter, obsessed with sales, last minute markdowns, loss leaders, loopholes, misprints, multi-buys, bulk buys, coupons, points, membership cards and dividends, flash sales and introductory offers. It’s an essential skill for getting by on a budget and I’m glad I learnt the techniques. But my dad’s constant thriftiness can get frustrating. If time really was money, it might not be cost-effective. Rather than strictly a waste of time, I think this puts it in the entertainment category. I can understand the need for this shopping behaviour out on the flamboyantly capitalist high street. It’s what you’re supposed to do. Most of us are well practiced at it. It makes us feel like we’re winning just a little against the relentless onslaught of consumerism. Playing the system. People have embraced shopping with the fervour and zeal of a hobby or sport. But what effect does this shopping behaviour have when combined with our crafty hobbies? If we shop in the creative community with the same approach as we hit the supermarket, who is winning?
Constant sales, limited editions, special releases, exclusives – these things are not relaxing, they are work for those involved on both sides of the equation. Do we always need bells and whistles to get us going? In the UK we joke that if there is a queue, people will stand in it, regardless of whether they know what it’s for. It must be special! Yes, people need to be reminded and enticed to buy, especially when there’s stiff competition in a diverse market, but it seems that it is easier to sell something if people have to set their alarm clock to wake up at an ungodly hour, for example for festival tickets to go live or a yarn update. Though comparable range and quality may be reliably available next door, we opt for the exotic tryst over the staycation. Consumerist culture relies partially on the allure of scarcity and time limits.
The yarn market goes through an inverted hibernation in the summer. While winter months are hopefully both productive and fruitful, in the summer we do not venture out for sustenance as often. Summer is often thought of as a dead time in regards to knitting. Another way to think of it is that knitters are taking a moment out of the shopping frenzy to focus on their stitches and really get to know them without the distractions of commerce. It can be a time to reacquaint ourselves with our crafting passion – not just to consume, but to create. Knitting is a relationship we nurture. It provides a pleasure beyond the timed functionality of what we will get out of the union (even though the hats and scarves and jumpers are lovely). It need not even be a monogamous partnership. There are so many approaches to love. The best thing about a holiday is that you don’t need your alarm clock, and don’t need to clock in and out. No clockwatching for the day to end and no one to notice whether your lunch lasted longer than it should have. Your accountability to time dances to a different rhythm. Therefore, I’d like to ask for a summer hiatus from the question: “How long did that take to knit?” And don’t even get me started on strangers asking “Is that for me?”