Slow fashion and privilege

Over on Instagram, there’s a movement called #slowfashionoctober happening. It’s about more than just showing off the clothes you’ve sewn or knitted. There’s an important discussion about consumption patterns bundled with it, a lot of thoughtful people taking stock of what they have, considering who made it and how, acknowledging that they have too much and thinking about how their wardrobes could do more with less, committing to vote with their dollars for companies that create fashion sustainably and fairly, strategizing about how to defuse the desire to own more pretty new things. I’m very much in that headspace myself these days and I’m glad to see this unfolding in my online community.

Yesterday Bristol Ivy, whose open eyes and brave smart mouth I’ve long admired, asked us all to take a look at what this stance means in terms of our privilege, to think about who can afford slow fashion and who can’t. About who’s left out when we’re all crooning over our beautiful sweaters knit with small-batch yarns from sheep with names, because those skeins sell for the real cost of production to the farmers and local mills and dyers—none of whom is getting rich in this business—and that cost is just too great. You can read her post on Instagram, where she’s @bristolivy, and the comments from many people reacting with gratitude that she was willing to broach the topic of inequality and adding important points of their own. Ysolda Teague draws attention to economic research that shows we spend about the same portion of our income on clothing as our forebears did… but we have many more items. The trouble isn’t that quality costs too much, it’s that we’ve developed a whole culture that depends on clothing being cheap and disposable. Most people well-off enough to be using computers and smartphones (and thus participating in this conversation) expect to see their friends wearing different clothes from one day to the next. We judge each other’s adherence to trends and use that information to make choices about our social connections, and we do it from the time we’re little children. We all want what looks correct and attractive within our particular milieu. This is pretty basic human psychology, but globalization has made it far easier for people of all income levels to play the game—and at the same old ugly cost to those who manufacture our clothes in unsafe and unjust conditions, but far away where we don’t have to see it or even think about it unless a mill catches fire and kills hundreds of workers trapped inside. Before my generation, making your children’s clothes was the budget-friendly choice. Today I can buy my son a shirt for less money than the yard of fabric required to sew it. The math has gone seriously askew—it can’t be this advantageous to me unless someone’s in an appalling deficit at the making end. No wonder people want to get out of this current and class off in a nice little slow fashion eddy where everything is fairly sourced and so timelessly well crafted it will last for generations. I know I do. I have to think it would be better for everyone if we could find our way to a broader culture that valued quality above quantity (or novelty).

But here’s another tangle where I’m stuck. By editing down our wardrobes; making only what’s beautiful, serviceable, and lasting; and avoiding the temptations of the new and the now, we have to rein in our purchasing from the very independent designers, farmers, and other artisans we’re so proud to support. You couldn’t go to a yarn store and find local products fifteen years ago. Independent knitting designers existed only by the handful and relied on self-published paper newsletters to distribute their work. A community of crafters created this market out of thin air because they were willing to put up the money to buy the products even though they cost more. If many of us with the means to buy fairly priced patterns, cloth, yarn, and locally made clothing cut back, what happens to our artisans’ livelihood? How do the Bristols and Ysoldas of our community get to go on inspiring us with their brilliant art? Economists would say a contraction of the market with less successful players being weeded out is just the way things work, but I don’t think we’re so sanguine as a community. We value the human connections and the stories of regular folks living their creative dreams, and we buy from them not just because they make beautiful things but because it feels good. (I’m not sure anybody loves things that feel good more than knitters do. I suspect scientists will someday discover that the crafty gene is right next to the do-gooder gene and the one doesn’t get expressed without the other.)

In a curious alignment of threads, I’ve been digesting a historical example that brings the same questions to light. Last week a splendid book was published in Sweden and flew right ’round the world to my doorstep. It’s the first new material on Bohus Stickning to come out in twenty years, and I have been guzzling it. If you’ve never heard of Bohus knitting before, 1) apologies for the deep dive into geekdom that’s about to ensue; 2) go run a quick Google image search. You’re welcome. The gist of this story is that Bohus Stickning began as a relief effort in the late 1930s, employing rural women in one little corner of Sweden to knit garments for sale. But not just socks and hats and bazaar goods. This company shot the moon. They made gobsmackingly gorgeous couture and sold it to princesses and film stars at astronomical prices, which translated into modest but significant paychecks for the knitters. These sweaters were as exclusive and costly as mink coats, but those who could buy them did, and the artistry that flourished at this tiny little non-profit blows the roof off the whole span of handknitting history before and since. I’m not even exaggerating. Bohus Stickning had a thirty-year run, nimbly responding to fashion trends while continuing to produce wildly original designs so improbably difficult to knit that even experts were deceived about their construction. What sank this company in the end was the first wave of the forces we’ve been trying to beat back with our slow fashion movement. And you know what? The global renaissance of craft in the past two decades—and customers’ renewed willingness to pay for quality—is what has brought Bohus Stickning back in the form of painstakingly reconstructed kits to knit some of the garments yourself. They’re very expensive. They still can’t be for everyone. I wish they could, but there’s no way to cut corners with integrity.

I don’t know the right way forward, or that there is any way forward that’s righter than the rest. I have too much stuff in my closet. Some of that stuff is handmade, and I keep it because it’s handmade even though I never wear it. That’s a piece of preciousness I’ll have to get over. I’m making an effort to pare down and to think carefully about what comes in. I also have too much yarn. It’s mostly very good yarn, because I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to support what I think of as the Knit Local movement. I have exciting plans for nearly all of it, but not enough time to execute those plans. Knowing this will not always prevent me from stashing more irresistible yarn, and apparently my idea of being strict with myself about knitting from the stash I’ve got is to cart home a bag of roving so I can spin another sweater’s worth. (Because that’s a time-saving plan for sure.)

This is what I’d like to do today. It is one small thing, because I can’t begin to address the problems of inequality, exploitation, education, social pressure, corporate transparency, and what have you that freight this conversation, but I also can’t think about all of that and then do nothing. One bag of the good yarn waiting patiently for my attention is a sweater quantity of Brooklyn Tweed Shelter in a heathered charcoal shade called Soot. Ten skeins. If you care about the ideas wrapped up in #slowfashionoctober but can’t indulge in yarn like this, I would like to send it to you. (There, I’ve just pressed your “Whoo! Free yarn!” desire trigger, so if you’re also trying to stash less, I apologize.) But if this offer happens to align with your carefully honed crafting plans and wardrobe aims, send me an email—sarah@wgk.com, only spell out the blog name—with your address and I’ll post the Shelter to the first responder. If it feels right, maybe I’ll do this again with some other good yarn.


To everyone else, keep making what’s useful and beautiful—by your own lights. Keep sharing it with the rest of us. Keep inviting more people into the conversation and noticing the quiet ones. Be generous to each other. Don’t make anyone feel inferior.

ETA: The Shelter has traveled to its new home, but stay tuned—I think I’ll do this again sometime!

And we’re live!


Pascaline is now available for purchase in my Ravelry store—just follow the link here or in the sidebar. This simple but innovative wrap has an unusual sideways construction with short rows to shape the middle, producing a form reminiscent of birds’ wings. It’s edged with a small cable for subtle detail. You can work it in any yarn you like; directions are given for bulky, worsted, and laceweight gauges, and the pattern is easily hacked for sizes in between. I’ve knit it twice, once in Cascade Cloud and once in Woolfolk FAR (the umber version shown here). Julia Palmer worked up this lavender grey laceweight sample in Quince and Co. Piper.


Pascaline is pretty versatile. Each wing is 30″ long, so you can toss one or both ends over your shoulders or leave them to hang in front. Portland is currently too hot to contemplate any form of wool (excepting my Tour de France project; more on that soon—if the peloton can blast up the Pyrenees in searing heat then I can certainly suffer a sweater in my lap as I cheer them on!), but I wore both versions in Friday Harbor where the evenings were cooler. And I’d have loved to have the Woolfolk version in my suitcase for the trip we just made to the Bitterroot Mountains, I can tell you. I’m still planning a linen version in Quince and Co. Kestrel for summer wear, too. All that stockinet makes Pascaline a perfect low-attention project for movie nights and social knitting. Here are some more photos, all taken by my dad, Christopher Pope:





The laceweight version is not too large for an almost-five-year-old, either! As you can see, both kids were eager to participate in the photo shoot even though (especially because?) it was bedtime…


These days

Our first island day begins with blueberry muffins. The children, who chivvied my mother out of bed at six, helped mix them and are eager for me to try one from each batch. I’m late to come downstairs, sleeping until seven and then polishing off a quick work assignment while still abed, and they can’t wait any longer so I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go down unwashed, hair ahoo, for muffins and coffee and scrambled eggs. The sourdough starter we brought with us from Portland has bubbled out of its mason jar overnight, so I mix up the sponge and set it to rise.

After a shower, it’s off to town for the farmers’ market, origamied into the back of the Jetta between the car seats while my father drives so we don’t have to take a second vehicle. The children eat croissants and whole cucumbers and choose jam and flowers and fresh pasta. We play at the tiny playground beside the gazebo in Sunken Park before we have to go home for more food and a rest.

While Jolyon finally takes his nap (not in his bed, not in my bed, but on a stack of quilts on the floor in the closet), Ada plays with the dogs and trails her grandparents as they hang up the swings. I bring my knitting outside and proctor the dogs’ rumpus down at the wallow that was meant to be a pond but never quite filled. It’s a big deer print of shallow water in the woods, with real deer prints all over the muddy isthmus between the pools.

Photos - 3333

Photos - 3317

Ada joins me to watch the dogs run and splash. The sun is strong and we make for the shade of the rising ground beyond the wallow. I’m barefoot and I follow gingerly, avoiding the thistles, the trailing blackberry, and then the baked ridges where the interstices of dog toes have printed the clay and dried hard and sharp.

Photos - 3331

A tiny flash of movement on the ground I’m watching so warily—it’s a tree frog and I’m calling to my girl with such urgency that I can see she doesn’t know whether there’s wonder or trouble. She hops after the tiny frog and her quick fingers dart to encircle him. It’s her first time catching one and she’s deft but gentle, aware that he’s fragile and as keenly alive as she is.

Photos - 3326

Photos - 3329

The dogs are stampeding around the east wallow so she releases him at the edge of the western pool, which is full of his tadpole cousins, some already sprouting hind legs. She is fizzing with excitement—we both are—and suddenly there’s another tiny froglet leaping just ahead of her sandals. They’re sheltering in the deep cracks in the clay, down where the mud is still damp and cool, and we marvel at their wee black eyes and pert snouts and extraordinary tiny toes.

Photos - 3330

We wash the muddy dogs. I manage two more rows on my lace shawl before I hear wailing from the closet upstairs. I carry my sweaty, dozy boy down to view the installment of the see-saw, newly improved with handles.

Photos - 3345

We play outside. We go for a walk down the hill and back again, sampling salmonberries, thimbleberries, trailing blackberries and blackcaps. I give a lecture on nettle identification. (The dog doesn’t listen and suffers for it.) These are the bones of an education for island childhood. There are all kinds of delights if you know where to look, and one or two things not to touch.

Photos - 3361

Home again, we make salad and cook the pasta. Dad mixes gin and tonics. The kids play with the napkin holders carved in the shapes of African animals. And then it’s bedtime. We read Paul Bunyan and Horton Hatches an Egg. We sing “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” and “The Marvelous Toy.” We kiss the grandparents and try to wind down for the night.

The yawning windows admit the purling gyre of thrush song, the insistence of robins, and the occasional breath of cooler air wafting upslope through the trees. The children are a welter of damp curls and sticky limbs, still too hot and full of the day for sleep. The light lasts here at midsummer; not as it does in the simmer dim of Shetland or the neverdark of the highest latitudes, but longer than my little ones’ internal clocks can compass.

I lie down with them in turn on their twin mattresses, lightly stroke my girl’s bare arms in the way she likes. She murmurs and nuzzles and then collides with sleep, plunges abruptly into snoring, slobbering slumber. My boy is wide awake, owl eyed in the cool blue light. He makes room for me in his bed. We lie face to face and I close my eyes, setting a good example.

He whispers things into his memory bank: shards of song and science, snippets of myth and hypothesis. Some spiders live in spider webs and other spiders live in the dirt. Once I saw a tiny spider web and it had a black spider. His body was black becept his feet was dark brown. Spiders don’t have a tail. A frog doesn’t have a bottom, so how does he pee?

I peek and he is staring out the window at the sky. The divided lights and madrona branches are reflected in his wide pupils. I remember this. He has slipped backward into my own childhood and we are one three-year-old, awake long after bedtime and watching the cast of the summer evening in the woods on a little island surrounded by the sea. Quarters of hours sift by and still he’s whispering. Tickle, fickle, pickle. Dog and frog rhyme. I’m a big girl and I can help him dig a lot of clams fast so we can hurry up and go to Buck’s Harbor. Every set of utterances is stoppered with his thumb.

An hour has passed when he surrenders, drifting gently into stillness and quiet. Mt. Baker is beginning to slough the abalone colors from its flanks and the sea and sky are about to meld in the queer precise evenness of twilight. I put the heavy blue Dutch ovens in to bake the sourdough loaves for tomorrow, sit in the gathering dark in the living room and watch the lighthouses wink on across the strait. All is not really well, not with all the trouble in the world and the claws of cancer once more reaching for people I love. Perhaps this summer idyll is my way to push back against the helplessness. There’s so much I can’t do to keep my folk and other people’s equally cherished folk safe. But I can give my little ones this remarkable place, these ordinary blessed days of frogs and thimbleberries and homemade bread and the summer sea. And maybe that’s enough for right now.