“Why is this yarn ‘radical’?” I love this question and wished I was called to answer it on more occasions. Although I’d love to think my yarn was radical because of some particularly clever design on my part, the real reason is much simpler. It’s handspun. Handmade. Hand-dyed. Handspun yarn is sometimes difficult to discover in your local yarn shop, but US made handspun is virtually impossible to find. There are lots of reasons for this: we mostly utilize more efficient machines and technology to make our yarn and we are taught that all technological advances are not only better but absolutely necessary, and in choosing outdated technology we are practically branded a social pariah or nutcase. Another reason is imported goods, but I’ll come back to this later. Onto the technology rant…
I am not a cell phone person. I regularly receive comments when it is discovered that I don’t have a cell number but what if I decided to cart around one of those early cell phones? Remember those? They were about a foot long and had a big antenna on the end, circa 1989, I’m thinking. What if instead of a Blackberry, I installed one of those really early car phones complete with huge black box and car receiver? But wait, there’s more! Let’s step further back into the dark ages…all the way to 1974, the year I was born. I’m talking CB Radios. Got a handle? Ten four, good buddy. But a CB radio isn’t quite at the same level of spinning wheel technology. Rotary phone? Shortwave radio? Party lines? Switchboards? Telegraph? These still use electricity, so I’m going to go out on a limb and compare the spinning wheel with “the lover’s phone” or tin can telephone. Remember making one as a kid? We’d take a piece of string, connect it at each end to the bottom of a cup or can, stretch it out and use the cans as diaphragms to help transmit our voices as soundwaves traveling along the taut string.
Can you imagine what might happen if, when asked for my cell number, I rifled through my shoulder bag and presented the inquiring party with one end of a tin can telephone? How eccentric! How delightfully retro! But it’s a joke, right?
I know, dear readers, that none of you would be shocked by someone sitting in front of a spinning wheel, using pedal power to put twist into fluffs of fiber. But you are knitters! Or crocheters! For pete’s sake, you make fabric with two sticks or a hook! You are already carrying a tin can telephone in your shoulder bag, so you really can’t be counted on for an “average” view. Knitting and crochet has continued to be fashionable through the ages, and although it’s no longer an absolute necessity or taught to each child in school, it’s a recognizable activity. When knitting in a coffee shop, I receive comments like “My grandma used to do that” or “I have a sister who’s totally into knitting lately.” Spinning is a different story altogether. When spinning in a coffee shop yesterday, observers expressed the typical gamet of responses. I’ve had this experience so many times, I can play a game in my head trying to guess which response the approaching person will present and am usually quite accurate. 80% have never seen it before and ask what I’m doing. Of this 80%, about a third will walk away thinking I’m a total nutter and wasting my time, the others are fascinated but most can’t imagine choosing to make yarn when one can just buy it. Also, nearly all of the men and usually none of the women will ask questions about the mechanics of the wheel and ratios, not leaving until they are nodding with satisfaction at having mastered the mystery of the machine. Of the remaining 20%, three quarters will stand about 10 feet away and speak in a stage whisper to child or husband, explaining in detail what it is that I am doing. I try not to correct them unless asked, because they’re proud to be an authority and recognize what I’m doing even if they sometimes call my wheel a loom, or say that the fiber winds around the big wheel and up into the bobbin. The remaining 5% are spinners, or used to be spinners. Sometimes they are super nice and we gleefully talk shop for a few moments, and sometimes they are braggers. You know the type…if you’ve managed to get front row seats, they remind you that they’ve had season tickets for years. Box seats, even. To sum, spinning yarn is no longer part of our reality. We don’t even recognize it in our vocabulary even though we still use words such as spinster, spin doctor…heck, we see flax seeds and flax seed oil everywhere but I’ll bet that more often than not, folks don’t know that flax is used to make linen fabric.
I think handspun feels so much different than machine spun. I use rainwater or springwater pumped 150 feet into the sink. Sometimes in the winter the water lines are frozen for weeks on end and dozens of 5 gallon buckets are hauled by hand, one at a time, from the spring and creek for dyeing days (this alone could be responsible for my miserly attitude with regards to water usage). I heat the fiber on a 1930’s gas stove and use about 5 gallons of gas a year. I also heat and dye on the woodstove. I dry the colorful roving behind my woodstove or in the sun, and I do the same with yarn blocking. Although I do use electricity for the pump and gas for the stove, this isn’t a necessity. I can easily do the whole works without relying on technological gadgetry or electricity.
I really like non-electric technology. I also like old things, and bygone eras, and I like anything that helps me be less dependent. That’s one of the reasons I knit and crochet. I greatly appreciate handmade goods and I like the idea of being able to create what I need myself or being able to source other needed items from local people like myself. If I buy acrylic yarn at Jo-Ann’s (which of course we’ve all done from time to time), I’m depending on a whole network of non-sustainable practices and technology to bring me that yarn. The fiber itself is man-made from petroleum! The lab or factory where it is created is dependent on electricity to operate (more petroleum and coal) using machines made from mined metals and plastics (more petroleum), and the factory workers in foreign countries are paid practically nothing and working in poor conditions. It is transported (more petroleum) across the world, sent to various distribution centers before winding up at my local chain fabric store which is built with all manner of non-sustainable materials, uses far too much electricity, and pays most of their employees minimum wage. I don’t like that I can’t make a baby hat without participating in this system. If I think about it, I start to get pretty angry actually because there was a time that one could visit the local dry goods store and purchase yarn made from natural fibers, produced locally or at least in the US. It’s practically impossible to find in chain stores, and when we are able to, it’s so much more expensive!
This is true for both commercially spun yarn and handspun, particularly the handspun. Yarn companies like Manos del Uruguay are found in most larger private yarn stores and are well known for their women’s cooperative and humanitarian award winning reputation. But in Uruguay, a decent yearly salary is about $6,000. In the US, the average cost of renting a two bedroom apartment for a year costs twice that amount. Because wages are so low in Uruguay, Manos is able to wholesale their handspun yarn for about $7 per skein to yarn shops….and that’s after paying customs fees and taxes, shipping costs, administration/sales/marketing, distribution costs, and materials, so one can imagine the worker’s wage is quite low. I consider myself to be a pretty fast spinner but if I offered a comparable product for the same price, I’d be making about $3.50 an hour. Low foreign wages are also the reason that Manos was able to achieve 4 million in sales last year (70% in exports) with big name contracts such as J. Crew, Banana Republic, Bloomingdales, Ralph Lauren, and Victoria’s Secret buying the yarn at an even cheaper price, and outsourcing sweatshop labor to knit all manner of high end retail goodies.
Since most of my readers are knitters or crocheters themselves, they understand all too well the problem with imported goods. The easiest way to be taken off my handmade gift list is to compare an item I made with something purchased at Walmart for $4.99. We all know how difficult it would be to make all or even part of our living from our handwork. If we look at handknit socks for instance, we can probably estimate 10 knitting hours in the making of them. If we were to pay ourselves $11 an hour…which, just so you know, is the Federal Poverty Level hourly wage for a household of four, if we paid ourselves that wage we’d need to charge $110 for a pair of socks. And that isn’t even counting materials costs which could easily add another $100 if you were talking about locally produced, handspun sock yarn made with the same poverty level wages. Since basically no one I know is willing or able to pay $210 for a pair of wool socks, I can pretty easily draw some conclusions about our economic system and culture. Some obvious conclusions:
1. Most of us do not place an appropriate value on handmade items.
2. Our dependence on non-sustainable technology, particularly fossil fuels/petroleum, is causing us to have a distorted view of the actual value/cost of goods and items.
3. Exporting labor and manufacturing to areas like Asia and South America mean that we pay much less than we “should” be paying for goods. Again, this causes us to have a distorted view–I can get a kids t-shirt made from polyester (oil) manufactured in China for a dollar!!! Even at stores like Walmart and Target, they can be easily found for $5. If I consider this to be a “good price,” paying $15 for a US made 100% cotton one suddenly seems outrageous when in fact it is much closer to an accurate cost. $25 for a Union made, organic one….suddenly we start realizing why most folks only had a week’s worth of clothing prior to the whole car thing. They were much closer to paying the real cost of goods, whether manufactured by their own hands or at a local shop or factory.
I have this idea that pops up from time to time, about turning Yarnarchy into a real handspun yarn collective. About replacing Manos del Uruguay in yarn shops with handspun yarn made in the United States by owners all making the same living wage. About knitters understanding and valuing handspun yarn in the same way they value their own handknit items and making an effort to use sustainably produced yarn.