Why Buy, When You Can Knit?

E.O. Schaub

There are few things more abjectly humbling for a knitter, I think, than one’s first gaze upon a Shetlander knitting Fair Isle. And if that knitter is me, then figure in being just-off-the-plane jet lagged and staggering around with an “I got forty-five minutes of sleep last night” look on my face. I was, in short, agape.

It was the beginning of September and I was lucky enough to be attending a knitting conference (!) in the Shetland Islands (!!). Carol, a good friend, fellow writer and obsessed knitter whose ancestors are from the Shetland islands, (and who, it turns out, is related to a good third of the population of the town of Lerwick,) was going and she invited me to tag along.

Shetland Fair Isle Sweaters

Before I left, everyone I spoke with was extremely curious: what could a “knitting conference” possibly entail? And where the heck are the Shetland Islands? I, personally, had no idea. Being a big fan of both knitting and going new places, however, I was absolutely convinced I was going to like the answers. It was on that basis alone that I rearranged my life, forked over a truckload of moolah to the good people at Continental Airlines, and agreed to miss my children’s first week of school. (Gasp! Crappy mother alert!)

But back to me being agape. “Fair Isle” is a much-abused term which describes patterned knitting using multiple colors. You see the term bandied about with carefree abandon, used to describe everything from J. Crew pullovers to dog booties, but seeing the real thing in action is another matter altogether. Fingers fly. Incredibly intricate patterns emerge as if by magic. Often, there are no patterns in sight, because the knitter has all the relevant information… in her head.

So here I was, barely two hours on the ground of this desperately remote island just south of the Arctic Circle and already I was sitting in on a casual knitting circle that would put Madame Defarge to shame. Through the haze of my sleep-deprived brain I was listening to a discussion on the finer points of the use of a Shetland knitting belt, watching a demonstration of expert spinning, and getting the skinny on which of the two rival wool shops in town was where you got the really good yarn.

Never mind the fact that we were in the Shetland Museum, and therefore at that moment surrounded by elaborate displays of impossibly patterned sweater after impossibly patterned sweater, many of which were over 100 years old. Each one had been handed down and handed down and worn and worn and worn till the cuffs and the necks all frayed and holes began to appear like rust on a magnificent antique, not ruining it but rather the opposite: attesting to its validity as an everyday useful thing as well a n object of art. The Shetlanders are a decidedly practical people, and for good reason: in the context of this harsh climate on a tiny island where the wind blows incessantly and you are never more than three miles from the sea at any given time, art for arts sake might very logically seem foolish or even downright reckless. The logic would seem to be: if you’re going to bother making something beautiful, it might as well keep you warm too.

It’s hard to describe how it felt for me to be surrounded by so much knitting culture… in a way it felt like coming home. Everything I care deeply about was represented here: making things, beauty, slowing down, family. No one here would question why I was methodically knitting a pair of wool leggings- instead every time I took out my unfinished blob and held it up while explaining the unfinished parts it was met with appreciative ooohs and ahhhs. Small talk at cocktail hour (in the museum’s boat hall where wooden boats hang from the ceiling like the world’s largest crib-mobile) invariably began with “so- what are you making?” As I said, this was my kind of group. (Also a plus: the food at the museum cafe is excellent; I highly recommend the fish cakes.)

But… what do you do at a knitting conference? As it turns out, you knit. Picture a lecture hall filled with 150 women of varying ages, a good percentage of which are knitting while listening to presentations… on knitting. Whenever a lecturer paused at some moment in their Power Point presentation, if you listened very carefully, you could sometimes hear the needles clicking. (But were there men there? you ask. I believe there were two. One was a lecturer. The other was Carol’s 25 year old son Alex, Official Good Sport Extraordinaire, who travelled with us and provided excellent driving music via his iPad, and never once rolled his eyes that we knew about.)

Also, at a knitting conference, of course, you talk about knitting. From every possible conceivable angle. We had three solid days of twenty minute lectures, after all, so there was quite a lot to say. There was knitting anthropology, knitting economics, knitting fashion, knitting history, knitting technique, knitting humor, knitting activism and the Transformative Power of Knitting. We heard about important knitting collectors and collections. We heard about an artist’s project to complete all the UFOs (Unfinished Objects) in the world. We saw a Wooly Mammoth Tusk Warmer. We learned that “sock” is Shetland-speak for your knitting project (whether you’re knitting an actual sock or not,) as in “Tak dy sock!” (translation:“Don’t forget your knitting!”) We saw a project in which the fascinating and quirky artist Dierdre Nelson brought communities together to knit hundreds, thousands of funny little fish.

During the course of those three days burning questions were addressed, none of which I am making up, including the following:

-Did Jesus wear a knitted sweater?

-Is nostalgia a disease?

-Is a man who darns his own socks crazy?

-Can knitting save the endangered Snow Leopard?


-What is the proper definition of “steek”?

It was this last one which, as I’m sure you can imagine, caused quite an uproar involving the very controversial issue of whether or not it is ever proper to cut (!!) a sweater knitted in the round in order to create a cardigan. Names were named. It was quite brutal. We adjourned for tea.

But back to me being agape again. The Shetlanders I encountered on my trip are justifiably proud of their knitting culture. I was told that children learn knitting in school up till the age of twelve, although sadly this is slated to end soon. The museum itself is filled with historic photographs in which virtually every woman pictured is holding her knitting: the women knit while doing chores, while walking, while cooking, while shepherding, while gardening. If there was a way to knit while knitting, I’m sure the Shetland women would have figured it out. And it certainly seems that every woman you meet in Shetland today knits.

Suffice it to say that I learned more than I ever thought possible from such a venture- about knitting, about Shetland, about women. From the many jillions of words that fell on our ears over the course of the three days one particular phrase has lodged itself steadfastly in my head. It was an old-fashioned Shetland grandmother’s axiom: “Why buy, when you can make?” This is what the women in the photographs were saying to their daughters: Why buy, when you can make?

Of course, in the wake of the industrial revolution and about a hundred or so intervening years, the question is now turned exactly on its head. Today we routinely ask: Why make when you can buy? This is the question our consumerist culture asks daily, hourly. Now that we have practically all our goods made by faceless machines and invisible third-world labor, so many choices come down to a simple question of economics… And the handmade can’t win that battle by a longshot. Every knitter knows full well that it costs more to knit a homemade sweater today, not less.

To my mind, that just means all us crazy knitters and jam-makers and bread-bakers and small home-farmers have to be all the more determined to continue on our seemingly illogical path. “But why, why make when you can buy?” our culture asks, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for super cheap?”

Because, we answer, knitting things means we can make exactly what we want, exactly how we want it. Growing things means we know where it comes from. Baking and cooking and canning means we know what’s in it. Having our own animals means we know that they are having a good, cruelty and chemical-free life. It can also mean that what we are getting is the best quality of items- food and clothing- necessary to sustain our families, our bodies, our lives. But it’s really more than even that. We think for a minute.

Because, we answer, making things makes life meaningful. I knit, therefore I am.

Who would’ve thought you could learn so much just by missing the first week of school?

4 thoughts on “Why Buy, When You Can Knit?

  1. Dear Eve,

    As one of the organisers of In the loop 2 held at Shetland Museum what a superb blog, good to hear it worked! I did meet your friend and her son and yes he was a very good sport. As you say all ages even if not representative of both sexes.

    with best wishes,

  2. Hi Eve
    I enjoyed reading your blog. I’m an enthusiastic Shetland knitter but was unable to attend the conference. No reports in local press so I’ve had to rely on snippets from friends.

    I did hear that steek discussion was controversial. I never heard the word till I visited USA (in my 40s), but I have always cut Fair Isle as it’s so much quicker to keep knitting in the round. On the same visit I discovered that grafting has a ‘posh’ name. Language is always changing and I don’t care what words are used as long as people keep knitting.

    Best wishes

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