Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On Becoming a Yarn Snob

There has been a rather lively dialogue among the knitting egroups lately, most especially in the KnitList and Lace Knitting, surrounding issues of yarn preferences. In today's Lace Knitters digest Gloria Penning, a lovely lady and expert on fine knitted laces and antique lace patterns, offered a thoughtful rebuttal to one of my posts. She spoke of her lifelong joy of knitting with products from such popular companies as Coats and Clark and the positive regard with which her handiwork has been received over the years. She concluded her remarks by suggesting that there were no yarn snobs in the Lace Knitters group.

I adore such dialogue among thinking people, especially where creativity is involved. Creating things with your own hands is such a personal experience-- there can be no one correct way to do whatever it is you are creating and the choice of media with one expresses creativity is likewise a matter of personal choice. But if that is the case, then why did Kimberly Chapman feel such a strong need to go on an extended rant about the virtues of Red Heart acrylic when knitting for her toddler on the KnitList the other day? Why such defensiveness over the choice to use Grandma's Big Ball or Sugar 'n Cream cottons as opposed to a DMC cordonnet or a cotton yarn with a fancy label purchased from your favorite specialty yarn retailer? Yet every few months or so, after a series of messages from knitters opining the virtues of using "fine quality" materials, the emotion-laden replies heat up on the lists. Clearly something is fueling these fiery conversations.

After a few years of observation, first among the tatters, then in beading and jewelrymaking community, and now knitting, the phenomena appears to be universal regardless of preference for creative expression. The tatters seem to have the fewest heated discussions about thread preferences. Perhaps this is because there is such an enormous difference in the ease with which the knots are created and advanced along the core thread that it doesn't take very long for novice tatters to realize that better threads make it so much easier to tat. Or perhaps its because fine quality tatting threads aren't terribly expensive and thus are accessible to most everyone. One can amass quite a stash of excellent tatting thread for a fraction of what it would cost to do likewise in knitting yarns. Tatting history may be a factor as well as our aunts and grandmothers did use cordonnet and good tatting cottons for their work, so the precedence has been set. Today's adventures include the use of color and innovative techniques or materials such as wire for contemporary tatting.

Beaders are more like knitters in their arguments over choice of materials. Here cost and accessibility are both a factor, but like tatters, beaders soon learn that less expensive, or what I call "craft quality" beads, are not such a great choice for most of their projects. Purchasing a few beads isn't too costly, but amassing a stash can be a budget buster depending on one's taste and where you buy your beads. Nevertheless most beaders quickly adopt a preference for higher quality materials. The good news is that so-called big box craft retailers have started to carry better quality beading supplies so they are accessible without having to find a LBS or resort to online ordering.

So where does that leave knitters? Are knitters a strange bunch? Perhaps, but I don't think so, especially since most knitters engage in other forms of creative expression too. But then why the fight? Maybe our knitting heritage has a great deal to do with it. I'm referring to recent history, what we know from the preceeding generation or two, at least in the United States. Let's face it, most of us were raised with Red Heart Acrylic and Knit Cro-sheen or comparable materials purchased at the Five and Dime, the predecessor to today's Walmart or JoAnn's. I well remember going to my local variety store, Whiteway, and buying crochet hooks, knitting needles, and Red Heart Sayelle to crochet my first poncho, then knit that first pair of slippers. I was so proud! It was so much fun! Those early experiences at age 8, 9 and 10 established my lifelong love for fiber arts. If I were so blessed to have my own children, I would start them off in exactly the same manner today.

And so that leads me to today's question, am I a yarn snob? I would have to say without equivocation, yes. Absolutely yes. I see it as a process of personal growth, a becoming if you will. Lest I wax too philosophical for most, let me explain in more understandable terms. Take for example the lowly hamburger. I like hamburgers. There's nothing I enjoy more than a nice fat juicy hamburger with my favorite trimmings. I prefer mine char-broiled or grilled, using freshly ground sirloin from Angus cattle, served on a toasted bun with a crispy crust out of perhaps sourdough or even ciabatta bread. Fresh mayo, bread and butter pickles, a dash of ketchup, and kosher salt and I'm a happy woman. Yum! But was I always that way? Not hardly. For many years McDonald's or those pre-formed frozen patties Mom bought wholesale from the slaughterhouse served on WonderBuns were just fine. I grew up. I matured, and so my tastes evolved as I came to experience something better. I feel the same way about chocolate. I can pass up a hundred Hershey's kisses for just one Harry & David or Godiva truffle. Similarly, I own a dozen acrylic pullovers which sit neatly folded in a plastic bin. Why? Because I'm wearing the one cashmere sweater I purchased on sale a year ago. It was my first taste of cashmere, and now I don't care for the others all that much any more. It's the same thing.

Now I don't always get to eat my favorite version of the hamburger and I do still wear my acrylic sweaters. I even eat Hershey's kisses. Maybe it's because cashmere and Godiva and fancy hamburgers aren't my everyday routine that I appreciate them so much. I don't think any less of people who love McDonald's or think acrylic sweaters from Walmart are the best thing in the world. Everyone knows Hershey's kisses are wonderful. Nor do I think less of folks who only knit with Red Heart or Sugar 'n Cream. Hey, I patronize those businesses and have some of that yarn in my stash too. Sorry, I'm fresh out of Hershey's kisses but I was recently gifted with a tub full of Harry & David truffles by a thoughtful mother who knows good chocolate will help me get through these final days of my dissertation. But if someone asks me where to get a great hamburger in Knoxville, Tennessee I'm not going to send them to Mickey Dee's, but I will tell them about a nifty little place on the banks of the Tennessee river where they have tiered decks overlooking a marina and their blue-cheese burger is to die for. Yup, I'm gonna send them to Jenna's. If someone asks me about fine cotton threads, I'm gonna tell them to look for Flora or Manuela or DMC cordonnet. If they want laceweight yarn, I'm gonna brag about ColourMart cashmere and KidSilk Haze because they are just like fine dining. And on that rare occasion when I do go out to eat, or buy yarn for a lace shawl that I hope will be a joy to knit, delightful to wear, and an heirloom to pass on to future generations, I want it to be the best I can afford. And if that makes me a snob, yarn or otherwise, so be it. After all, like beauty, snobbery is in the eye of the beholder. I don't consider myself to be a snob. If others do, then so be it. It is their privilege to have an opinion-- I don't have to share it. So let the dialogue continue... and knit on! And I will continue to espouse that life is too short to knit with crummy yarn. Please pass the truffles!


KnitSanity said...


I came to your blog from the Lace Knitters Yahoo group. I agree with you but I would not call you a snob. Snob implies that you look down on others and that does not seem to be the case. To me you seem more like a yarn connoisseur than a snob.

AlisonH said...

(As I sit here on a slightly-chilly day with a cashmere sweater over my shoulders that I bought used via Ebay for five bucks...)

I love how you presented this. I love, too, that the internet makes it possible to snag bargains on yarns from time to time that one might never afford otherwise. It's easy to be a yarn connoisseur, for instance, with baby alpaca at a buck a ball (long sold out now, I'm afraid.)

Lynette said...

I agree with knitsanity about terminology. "Snob" has negative connotations while words like connoisseur or aficionado impart more of worldly air.

You definitely have a point about how your yarn tastes can change as you mature with the knitting craft. However, I think there's an economic aspect that makes many knitters defensive about using the less fancy yarns. They can still have connoisseur preferences but may not be able to afford to indulge in them.

Very nice op-ed, I enjoyed reading it.

Kimberly Chapman said...

The rant was actually about LYSs and how it's unfair of some people on knitlist to post against those who shop online or in chain stores. By saying I alone went on a rant, you are being completely unfair and taking my words out of context: as a reply to a previous thread in which people did say snobby things about yarn and shopping choices.

I laid out exactly why my particular LYSs don't cater to my needs in terms of hours of business, child-friendliness, and yarn selection. I made it very clear that I'd be happy to shop there if they had more convenient hours, as LYSs in other cities do. I also said that I'd love to be able to come and check out some of the more expensive yarns, but that the stores' own business methods have precluded me from doing so.

So to use my name in your blog as being a representative of yarn arguments is disingenuous and unfair. You have made personal mention of me and tied it to being called a yarn snob, when I made no mention of you or anyone else's name in relation to that term. It was unnecessary to mention my name in relation to the discussion, but if you felt you had to, the least you could have done was to include my full post and a link to the thread they were responding to, in order to demonstrate the context in which they were written.

The particular part of my post speaking to the use of inexpensive yarns also addressed that I use them for baby toys which must be durable, washable, and come in bright colours. Just as you say you enjoy the occasional McDonald's burger, so too I'm sure if McDonald's was the best choice in a given situation you'd be willing to go there. In my case, inexpensive, easily available acrylic and cotton are the best choices. If I was knitting fine garments, I would not choose such yarns. But I'm not knitting garments, and using expensive, hand-wash-only yarns for toddler toys is as foolish as using Red Heart Supersaver for garments.

I never said people shouldn't buy expensive yarns or that they shouldn't shop in LYSs, simply that those things don't suit my current needs.

I would appreciate it if you insist on bringing my name into a post like this again that you do me the courtesy of keeping it in fair context. If you truly "adore such dialogue among thinking people, especially where creativity is involved" then you ought to elevate your own discourse to that level and not throw people's names around in such an unfair, erroneous manner.

So your readers can judge for themselves:


PICAdrienne said...

I agree with the previous comments, you do not come off as as snob, but appreciative.

However, there are those who do not present this issue so calmly and rationally. Additionally, some projects are not 'worth' the additional cost of nicer yarns. I know I am going to use the least expensive cotton yarn I can find for making dishcloths for our church. Why, I know they are not going to be taken care of properly. Also, when I knit for my Mom, well, she raised sheep as a kid, and hates wool. I did knit her a beautiful scarf out of an alpaca blend. She also wants things that are machine wash and dry, not a wool friendly environment. My grown neices, who love the luxury items, they get the nicer stuff. Knitting a toy for my 8 month old nephew, the requirements, machine wash and dry and drool proof. Acrylic it is, nice acrylic to be sure, has to be soft for the baby, but easy care.

People get passionate about things they care about, and there have been some remarks made that make it almost seem as if the poster is of the opinion that if someone can't use the best of the best, they don't deserve to be knitting.

Where I live there are three LYS's within easy driving distance, two are warm and inviting and one is not welcoming. They all have lovely yarns, but at two, they understand that not all projects can be made of the finest quality materials. Those are the two I like to walk into, the third, I go there when I can't find what I am looking for at the other two shops.