Crafty ways of making money

By WittyKnitter

In her 2006 book Thrift to Fantasy: Home textile crafts of the 1930s-1950s, Rosemary McLeod traces the history of home-based handwork in New Zealand. With beautifully detailed photography, she shows examples of women taking pride and displaying their creativity with scraps of fabric and thread, making beautiful aprons and oven clothes from hessian (usually washed sacking), embroidering traycloths and dressing table sets with images from Europe and Mexico (but hardly ever from Aoteoroa), and knitting and crocheting incredibly detailed colourwork from leftovers.

Since the 1950s the widespread knowledge that enabled women to create these objects, and to appreciate the skill that went into their making, has shrunk to a specialist knowledge held by only a few people. Handwork, at least in Western countries, has been generally considered ‘daggy’, old-fashioned, unnecessary in an age when cheap clothing and household goods (when did ‘homewares’ appear?) are in shopping centres within everyone’s reach. In the 1950s I remember my mother ‘turning the sheets’ – cutting up the centre where the sheet had worn thin, sewing the edges together and re-hemming the old centres (now the new edges). This created a hard line up the middle of the sheet, which wasn’t made of soft linen to start with, in my memory, but was stiff as canvas – but it greatly increased the length of time it could be used on a bed. When the turned sheet finally wore out again it would be cut up for rags, strips for tying up garden plants, larger ones for wiping up paint and oil, and linings for cushions, pillows and other places where it wouldn’t be seen.

I’m certainly not advocating a return to this life, in which work (women’s work, anyway) was largely marked by thrift, drudgery and an obsession with re-use. It was dreary – no wonder so many women spent any spare time they had bringing the touches of colour that McLeod describes into their lives. But our lives now are so colourful and filled with easily obtained tastes, sounds, smells and sights that it can be hard to remember the simpler pleasures of making things yourself.

There is, it is said, a boom in homemaking of many kinds. It is acceptable to cook interesting food at home – compulsory if you want to avoid having obese children. Slightly more odd, perhaps, to sew your own or your family’s clothes. But there are now businesses advertising sewing classes in the suburbs of many major cities in Australia and probably other places (try googling ‘sewing classes’ and the name of your city), and sewing machines (now renamed ‘sewing computers’) are becoming more popular consumer items.

Along with the revival of interest in sewing is a greatly renewed interest in knitting and crochet, and the products that you need to undertake this once-private home craft have become the stuff of international business. Women at home with babies pick up an old slowcooker, a second-hand ball winder and some packets of dye and order hanks of undyed yarn on the internet, often from India, China or South America, and set themselves up as a hand-dying business. More serious players, like The Wollmeise or Lisa Souza, have set themselves up for the longer haul in a serious way. It’s not clear when an ‘indie’ dyer becomes mainstream, but there is a lot of money to be made if you have the skill. The key to their ability to make money is that the internet is their shop – their marketplace is theoretically unlimited. Some have their own website; some set up a shop at etsy.com. and, if they have any nous at all they become shopkeepers at Ravelry.

Ravelry is a free international site for knitters and crocheters, spinners and handweavers. It is approaching one million members, about half of whom are in the US where it is based, with tens of thousands each in Canada, the UK, Australasia, Germany and Scandanavia, and smaller numbers in just about every other nation on the globe. It is a social networking site, with forums and friending, personal pages with your projects displayed and the facility to ‘favourite’ projects and leave public or private comments on other people’s work. But much more than that: it has a huge database backend, with user-generated listings of patterns, yarns, and the ability to see how patterns look when knitted up (many thousands of times, in some cases), or what yarns people have successfully substituted, or how a particular yarn behaves when knitted in a certain way. But underpinning Ravelry is the fact that it is a business: membership is free, but there are unobtrusive ads on all the forum pages – cheap (a few US$ a month) for retailers and targetted at the forum. So Australian designers can advertise in the Australian forums, queer dyers can advertise in the queer forums, retailers specialising in soft yarns and baby patterns can advertise in mother’s groups and so on. The site’s owners, Jess (a knitter) and Casey (a programmer), based in Boston, have built up the business in five years from a part-time job for Jess to a full-time job for both of them plus two part-time workers, who live in other US cities. At the Ravelry shop you can buy patterns (pdf download for a few dollars), hand-dyed yarn (thousands of retailers worldwide of varying skills to choose from) and knickknacks like stitch markers and hand-crafted needles. Almost all of these are only available online, and the transaction are of course painless through Paypal. The celebrity culture on the Knitternet is serious: The Yarn Harlot is a Canadian blogger and writer, who has raised over $1,012,500Cdn for MSF through her Charity Knitters Without Borders, has seven books in publication. If she is going to mention an indie-dyed yarn she now needs to warn the retailer in advance so they will not be over-run by orders, the dangers of which are discussed below.

So that’s a few crafty ways to make money: dye yarn, write patterns, make little things, write witty books about knitting culture, or run a business that brings the makers together with the buyers. And you can make good money: when several designers donated 10% of their sales to Haiti earlier this year, thousands of US$ were raised. Through Ravelry you can also support your business by running a group for your customers, where they hear about new releases, share ideas and pictures of their projects made with your yarn and/or pattern, or you can ramp up the excitement if you’re running a knitting event – these are becoming very popular and people travel from Australia to the US or even the UK to attend Knitting Camps and Sock Summits. These offer a range of classes in techniques from well-known designers and teachers (celebrity fibre culture is very real),  a marketplace with handspun, handdyed yarns and patterns, and a chance to be with several hundred – perhaps over a thousand – others, mostly women, who share your interest. (Men who are successful in the fibre world are still rare enough to be accorded the status of gods, sadly.)

But this is the internet, where things are not always exactly how they seem. Celebrity culture, relative anonymity and distance combine to make the possibility of fraud very real. There was the woman who took yarn orders she couldn’t fill a few years ago, became ill, then suddenly died – except that she was seen a week later in a local shopping mall. There were the cousins who advertised a knitting event in the North-Eastern US that people booked for from all over the US, paid deposits, bought air tickets, booked accommodation. Then a car crash involving family members caused them to cancel the event – but there was no money for refunds. There was the woman, one half of an extremely popular knitting podcast, whose husband left her for another woman and cleaned out her bank account. An on-air appeal brought in money, but her husband returned, chastened, was taken back, and in celebration they bought a new bedroom suite. And quite recently a woman in the UK organised a knitting event in Stirling that headlined many of the top US designers and teachers/tutors. Except she had not quite got the immigration status of the US teachers/tutors sorted, and the first ones to arrive were refused entry. Although the few hundred people who attended felt they’d got their money’s worth, the event unravelled from there, and none of the teachers/tutors, many of whom are very small business operators, have received the full remuneration they were contracted for; some are out of pocket for their airfares (and the extra expense incurred by having to fly to Dublin while the immigration mess was sorted). Now the company at the centre of the mess has been liquidated and there is probably no money. The complications caused by most of the creditors being outside the UK and the relatively small amounts of money involved are hideous. The downside of all this, of course, is that people are much quicker to voice concern, and have the channel (through Ravelry groups) to do so. Legitimate retailers who have a sudden crisis (for example, if the Yarn Harlot’s recommendation causes a run on their product and their yarn suppliers can’t respond quickly) are in danger of being accused of fraud, and people are less likely to plan attendance at large events.

But somehow the image of women crafting, gently making something out of almost nothing, seems to persist in the face of evidence that craft on the internet is a very big business, with the usual downsides of business at a distance. All over the world, people log on the German yarn shop The Wollmeise on a Friday night Sydney time, when she does her site updates, stalking her rare colourways – and there are many people around the world who have more of her yarn stashed away than they will ever be able to knit in their lifetime. (There is a joke that some people collect yarn, and some people knit.) Ysolda Teague, a young Scottish woman, adds a new pattern to her site, and thousands of people download it through Ravelry at $6US within a few days. People from Australia and the UK fly to Portland, OR for the Sock Summit. It’s a long way from aprons made from washed coal sacks and turning sheets: craft has moved from thrift through a fantasy of glamour to a fantasy of international business success, fuelled by internet shopping, and the access to global markets, the ability to transfer money by clicking a button, the knowledge that a few people are making a lot of money, but above all by the fantasy that, by making beautiful things we will somehow become more beautiful ourselves.

32 Comments

  1. Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    That’s a fascinating story of craft-business, M-H, and the changing nature of crafting. I used to sew a lot of my own clothes, but it never occurred to me that it was craft work: it was just something that I did to save money. In more recent years, the comparative cost of clothing has dropped substantially, so if I sew anything now, it’s because I can’t find exactly what I want in clothes shops.

  2. Patrick
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Ravelry seems like a fantastic site from what I have seen of it.

    I’m certainly not advocating a return to this life, in which work (women’s work, anyway) was largely marked by thrift, drudgery and an obsession with re-use. It was dreary – no wonder so many women spent any spare time they had bringing the touches of colour that McLeod describes into their lives. But our lives now are so colourful and filled with easily obtained tastes, sounds, smells and sights that it can be hard to remember the simpler pleasures of making things yourself.

    Amen to basically everything in that. One thing which I don’t think you focused on but which Deborah’s comment raises is that hand-knitted products are a real luxury these days and almost never cost less than a commercial equivalent, unless you ignore the labour cost (and buy the yarn on sale!).

  3. Patrick
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Damn someone please fix the blockquote 🙁

    [ADMIN: Fixed!]

  4. Posted November 8, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Since the 1950s the widespread knowledge that enabled women to create these objects, and to appreciate the skill that went into their making, has shrunk to a specialist knowledge held by only a few people.

    I wonder at the extent to which business is booming in this area is as a result of widespread deskilling, which means that suddenly people who can do this sort of thing have a scarcity power they simply didn’t have historically (which alludes to Patrick and Deborah’s points).

    This, I think, is also relevant in light of recent news of global cotton crop failures, which may well have the effect of exposing modern people to (just a) modicum of what life was like in days gone by, when clothing was expensive, and the skill involved in making it was very widespread indeed, because it had to be.

  5. Posted November 8, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Interesting point, Patrick, about the cost of handknitting. There are many knitters who will knit for other people for almost nothing, as they undervalue their work so much. You will see baby clothes in shops sometimes for not much more than the yarn cost. These knitters are often older women, who still see their craft as a private, domestic past-time. This is often discussed in Ravelry – how much to charge if someones asks you to make something, and very few knitters would charge anywhere near even $5 an hour for their time. Of course, even a pair of socks takes most knitters at least 8 hours to make, so trying to charge $15 an hour isn’t going to fly, even if they are super-fine merino and cashmere. I blogged recently about a shop selling handknits that ‘s opened in Woollahra, an upmarket Sydney suburb, and speculated on how much she is paying her knitters.

  6. Patrick
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Well Morris&Sons in Melbourne has some extremely expensive hand-knits, and even though they are premium yarn there is quite a bit on the table for the knitter in question.

    Whilst some of them are (I am assured) quite elaborate, others (I am assured) are quite straightforward knitwork. Maybe you should check it out if you get a chance?

  7. Posted November 8, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Morris’s Sydney shop has some handknits too, mostly knitted by the staff, and you’re right, they are expensive. I’d overlooked them. But even a non-elaborate garment takes many hours and the company adds a 50% markup after costs (of course, the yarn is wholesale for them). I don’t know what the hourly rate for the knitters is, but it may not be as much as it appears. But for many knitters, that’s fine. It’s money they wouldn’t have had otherwise for work they enjoy and would probably be doing for love. And it showcases the yarns they are selling, which increases sales. By the way, I hear a rumour that the Melbourne shop is in for a facelift soon….

  8. TerjeP
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Was thinking of your book SL. I don’t think the Romans ever had the equivalent of the spinning wheel. That technology alone makes such a difference.

  9. Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Terje: the spinning wheel is Chinese (like so many other innovations). It is something I had to research, because it is likely both China and the Romans had this problem:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_level_equilibrium_trap

    That the Chinese forgot their spinning wheel, while Europe (for a very long period) lost a functioning law of contract is, I suspect, an instance of the same thing.

  10. Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    TerjeP Agreed on the technology of spinning, probably around the 10thC. Such a difference the wheel must have made. And yet… there are, today, people who love to spindle-spin. In cafes. Together. Spindles made of lovely wood can fetch up to $50 each, although you can also buy them for around $10. I’m not sure how long it takes to spin even enough for a pair of socks this way – quite a long time I’d imagine. This is the kind of niche business I’m talking about.

  11. TerjeP
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    SL – I’m not convinced by the equilibrium trap but if it’s true it suggests that innovation should be highest in places with high labour costs. Given that productivity improvements lead to increases real wages (generally) it would hence create a virtuous cycle. Liftoff would be hard to achieve but once you get it there is no looking back.

  12. TerjeP
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    WittyKnitter – as an outsider it seem like a movement devoted to doing things the hard way and seeing this as a virtue. Do they grow their own fibre?

  13. Peter Patton
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Wittyknitter

    On the gender thing, you would have been most pleased with my grandmother. She forced all 20 of her grandchildren – girls and boys – to learn how to knit. We all had to start with French knitting. The more advanced, adept, or crawlers went on to ordinary knitting and crochet.

    Her reason? To control annoying, screaming, fighting cousins who had come to stay with granny. I never got beyond French knitting. But by the time I was about 12, I had French knitted a string long enough to make into a small mat, which gran then taught me how to stitch it together on the sewing machine. Alas, by the time my voice first croaked, I was able to persuade her that outdoor pursuits would achieve her agenda more efficiently.

  14. Posted November 8, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I have just learned something I did not know, Peter. Ah, the wonders of Google:

    http://www.knitting-and.com/knitting/tips/spool-knit.htm

  15. Posted November 8, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    TerjeP If they don’t grow it they would try to buy it from the grower. But that’s difficult in Aus, because the lack of water makes it difficult to process woollen fibre – it’s mostly done in China. But you can (of course!) buy pre-dyed fibre ‘batts’ on the internet for spinning. There is also a movement (quite snobby, in its way) to always know the breed(s) of sheep that the wool has been shorn from.

    To me, a lot of this comes under the heading of ‘first world problems’. Sure, it’s nice to get ‘back to basics’ and ‘know the animal’ that the fibre came from. But it’s really quite self-indulgent in a global sense.

  16. Posted November 8, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Peter, I think that lots of boys learn to knit (or do french knitting, anyway). But it’s not really an easy thing for adult men to own up to. A lot of women tend to fawn on men who knit – I suppose a cynic might say that for straight men it’s a good way to pick up chicks with sticks. For gay men it can be a real pain. There is a men’s knitting movement, and in the US they have a couple of men’s knitting retreats every year. There has been one in NZ and one in Aus too, in the last couple of years.

    I don’t really care if my knitting companions are men or women; I’m interested in skills and techniques. There is one man in the US who knits, writes well and draws rather good cartoons: Franklin Habit. He also writes very well on the problems of being a man who knits.

  17. Peter Patton
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    WK

    Fortunately, all the fathers of the 20 cousins never said a word to gran about her disciplinary strategies. For them, success at placating hordes of screaming children was worth any cost. The proof was the ease with which the cousins would take – what inevitably became – their knitting competitiveness back home with them, where the parents were delighted whenever their sons would take out their wooden cotton rod [SL, that French spool looks far too fancy for the more rustic Pattons].

    A French-knitting 10 year old boy is a 10 year old boy who is not playing “knock and run” or taking the “Injun” neighbors hostage, tying them up under the house, until the Injuns released one of the “cowboys'” they held hostage. 😉

  18. Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I believe that the object that SL posted is called (at least in the US) a ‘knitting nancy’. 🙂 We used to use wooden cotton reels with four little nails hammered into them – you probably did too, Peter.

  19. Mel
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The wife makes dresses for bridesmaids. She actually gets paid pretty well for this job, mainly because she comes from a tailoring background and has been dressmaking since age eleven, so she is extremely fast and accurate.

  20. TerjeP
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    But it’s not really an easy thing for adult men to own up to.

    I learnt to knit as a child. And at high school sewing was compulsory in the first two years. Although it was rotated with home economics (cooking). However I have not sewed or knitted (beyond the occasional button repair) for years. My sons have done some knitting though. It’s good for fine motor skills.

  21. Patrick
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never learnt to knit, but theoretically I could take up something like spinning, which would lead to complementarity.

  22. Peter Patton
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Terje

    Maybe we should start

    The Real Men’s Knitting Club

    We could knit nice jumpers which say

    Only Real Men Knit

    🙂

  23. Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Too late, Peter. You’ll have to join the movement and buy the video.

  24. Peter Patton
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Oh, isn’t that priceless! 🙂

  25. TerjeP
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Peter – real men have moved beyond any concern regarding slogans that outline what real men do.

  26. Patrick
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    There is a book out there: Men who knit and the dogs who love them. It was awful, really.

  27. Posted November 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, I’ve seen that. It really was dreadful – matching jackets for dogs and their owners. But the fact that it could even get published seems to say something about this strange market.

  28. Posted November 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    M-H
    great blog post.

    Adding to the men who knit/spin conversation. The more I talk to people, the more I find out the war and post war generation craft labour was often evenly split amongst the genders, and there was no shame or cringe factor involved then. It was a matter of need. M-H, when we were in Napier and were spinning in public, I had so many men come and talk to me about how they often spun the yarn and their wives knitted in the evenings.

  29. Mel
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Never been into knitting but I enjoy flower arranging. I’m like a little girl when I’ve picked some nice flowers from the garden and arrange them either for the home or as a gift 🙂

  30. Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Just to interject a bit – I used to work at Morris and Sons, so I can shed some light on their pricing. (I’ve had this discussion on Ravelry before.) They’re not in the business of selling finished knitted items. They only commission samples because it (really) helps sell wool and patterns. The problem is that there is always a customer who HAS to buy the sample. So they put a price on it that is high enough to cover the hassle of having to recommission the garment to be reknitted. So yes, those prices are deliberately way higher than non-knitters expect… but the pieces still sell. (In terms of what they pay for knitting, it wasn’t much. I think the knitter got a “per ball” amount with some extra for complexity, etc.)

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