Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Review: Knitting for Peace

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Knitting for Peace

Author: Betty Christiansen

Date: 2006

Publisher: Stewart Tabari & Chang

ISBN: 1-58479-533-6

Length: 132 pages

Quote: “Knitters have…long been gathering in yarn stores and guild meetings, calling the work they do ‘charity knitting’.”

Here is some straight talk to other knitters. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that whole concept. “Charity knitting” has long tended to be perceived, to put it charitably, as bad knitting. If it were good knitting, people would use it themselves or sell it. Some knitters do, in reality, get all wrought up about doing something “altruistic” with their leftovers of yarn and time. The things that can be made from scraps of good yarn may be both useful and beautiful. Unfortunately, nobody really believes in altruism, and the effect of giving away hand knitting tends to be to lower the reputation of hand-knitted things even when they are good enough for knitters to use or sell. My generation’s “knitting for giving” spawned a genre of jokes about the hand-knitted “gift” sweater—not even the “charity” sweater, the “Christmas gift” for a relative—being the worst of all possible gifts, less desirable even than the dried-out commercially made fruitcake, because even soaking it in vodka won’t relieve the awfulness of the lumpy, ill-fitting, ill-made Christmas Sweater. This devalues all knitting, and all knitters, by association.

Am I being mean? Hard-nosed, peevish, money-minded? Maybe. I’ve also made a small but consistent profit on my knitting hobby, and I’ve also been happily married to a willing sweater model. I've also talked to people who actually say things like "I'm living on a disability pension...but I don't buy or sell hand-knitted things! I knit things for giving!" (Disabilities aren't always obvious, but this lady was walking around without a cane, driving, reading, recognizing colors, and talking normally...whatever her disability is, whatever expenses she may really need help with, her disability would not prevent her from doing quite a lot of jobs.) So, dear ladies, you can wail and wring your hands, dismiss my opinions, go on clutching your altruistic feelings through the long nights when the men for whom you’ve knitted sweaters refuse to answer their phones, and Heaven help some of you when the welfare funding runs out; or you can start thinking rationally about the function of hand knitting in the modern world, say no to that disability pension (whether you're 70 years old yet or not), and just get over your phobia of doing anything both for profit and for pleasure. Choose.

There are legitimate charities that welcome hand-knitted items. They usually have fairly rigid rules about what they will and won’t take, in order to limit the number of donated items that needy people transfer directly to the nearest landfill. For similar reasons, their rules also tend to dictate fairly simple projects that are hard for amateur knitters to mess up, made with decent quality yarns that are suitable to their intended use.

Knitting for Peace is primarily a book that explains which organizations will take beginners’ projects, which projects they’ll take, and why. It’s not exhaustive, and by now it’s ten years old, but most of the information inside is still useful.

Secondarily, it’s a book of short, cheap, simple projects that beginners can practice making for use or sale. Practice is a keyword. Because these projects are meant to use up leftover yarn fast, the realization that you may need to unravel and reknit them, or else save them for emergency middle layers you don't want anyone to see you wearing, won’t hurt as much as if you’d plunged right into the $250 designer sweater of your beginner-knitter dreams.

I’m not saying you should never knit something “for you, from me, made to show my love etc. etc. etc.” I am saying that, until you’re using and selling your own handiwork, your friends and relatives are likely to feel more embarrassed by your “love” than they are proud of your gifts. I am saying that, even if your work is just as good as the “handmade” sweaters big-chain stores get from foreign sweatshops, people need to see your work in a store window before they’ll let themselves see that it’s equally good.

So Betty Christiansen has given us this wonderful little book of practice patterns. Along with short articles about the history of knitting and charitable organizations to read while you knit the mindless bits, you get patterns for a tote bag (to felt or not), adult-size and child-size socks, a child’s to small adult’s vest, a woman-size “prayer shawl,” a kid-size shawl-or-comfort-blanket, a full-sized patchwork afghan (or you can just knit a few patches and donate those), a pet blanket, a basic cap, two fancier caps, an infant’s or preemie’s cap, a child’s sweater, stuffed toys (if you have enough scraps you can make a whole family of animals/dolls/puppets), and mittens. These are very, very simple patterns; the only ones that require any skill are the sweater and vest, which do involve picking up and knitting in different directions—in order to encourage you to try mixing different scraps for different effects. All but the preemie cap can be made with blanket-weight yarn, so you can practice with dimestore yarns until you enjoy using your work enough to invest in the yarns recommended by charitable organizations.

Yes, this means patterns for blanket-weight socks for the whole family. They’ll be on the bulky side to wear inside shoes or boots. For someone who bought oversized leather boots and plans to wear them while they shrink, chunky socks are just the thing. Otherwise, blanket-weight socks make great bedroom slippers.

The organizations’ yarn recommendations are especially valuable. Read them so you’ll understand why, if you knit some of these projects using the yarn you like, you may get a wonderful result for your own use but not for the organization’s purposes. Wool shrinks, which means it won’t stretch, droop, and fall right off a needy orphan’s cold little hands the way acrylic might do. Cotton is comfortable for wearing next to the skin, which means it’s a better choice than lovely, fluffy, but sometimes itchy mohair for a chemo cap. Acrylic survives years of institutional machine laundering, which means it may be preferable to beautiful wool or cozy cotton for a dog’s or child’s comfort blanket. Rayon is not very good for any purpose, unless you happen to fall in love with one of those rayon novelty yarns some manufacturers keep bringing out, in which case you can always knit yourself a scarf. 

I don’t part with knitting pattern books easily. Unless I’ve acquired duplicates, I keep them until I’ve knitted my way through each and every pattern. So I can tell you that for a professional knitter, using these patterns, as well as having them all conveniently bound in one place, is great fun. For years I’d been wondering what to do with some very arty thick-and-thin natural wool I’d acquired in a bag sale in aid of a charity; I made the bag. I made the basic pair of socks, which sold within the week, and a tailored pair to fit my own curvaceous calves, which I’m still letting people drool over (when they’re ready to pay, I can make additional pairs to fit them). The vest used up some impractical chenille yarn, also from a charity store. The shawl pattern inspired me to use up leftover yarn from a small jacket I’d knitted for sale and make an unmatched set for a tall mother and small daughter. Knitting one of everything in this book was a few months of fun fun fun, as discussed here:

I donate my knits to charity only when sponsors pay for that—and a sponsor actually did.

That ooey-gooey prolactin gush of "oh I wanna be a giver" that I'm urging you to resist does seem to have inspired this book, but it doesn't have to be a problem. Fear not: persevere, and you too will become a professional knitter, able to donate actual money, as well as hand-knitted tokens, to the charities of your choice.

I should mention that another weird thing happens to knitters who persevere and put price tags on our time and work. Things we knit for fun, as jokes, as protests, or for learning experiences, have a way of becoming Art. I am not making this up. More than once, something that I’ve thought nobody could possibly want (including one of the projects in this book, the way my first version came out) has sold for a higher price than I’ve put on things that I would want.

So I can honestly recommend that all knitters let this book inspire you, too, to “knit on, with confidence.” It'll cost $5 per copy + $5 per package, and Christiansen or any charity of her choice will receive $1 per copy. Payment may be sent to either address at the very bottom of the screen.