Photography – Knitting

by Dawn Farmer

Future Sock

I knit.

I had my imagination tickled by the story of an eighty-three year old named Mrs. Abner Bartlett of Medford, Massachusetts.

Mrs. Bartlett began knitting in September 1861 and produced more than three hundred pairs of socks for Civil War soldiers by February 1865. She sent the 300th pair to Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln kindly acknowledged the pair in writing.

That’s a sock every other day for 42 months. A remarkable achievement in hand knitting Mrs. Bartlett – I hope you were buried with your needles.

I learned of Mrs. Bartlett in a charming book called Knitting America, subtitled A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art by Susan Strawn. The book is meticulous researched including historic knitting patterns and newly digitized photographs of wonderful vintage garments. The author walks the path of American history as created by the knitting needle. You do not have to knit to appreciate the value of this form of textile in our history.

In 1917 the American Red Cross standardized a knitted sock pattern for comfort kits. Two million comfort kits were organized – each with a pair of hand knit socks. Knitters made four million socks that year. Can you imagine being asked to do that today? Providing these socks probably violates trade agreements, health codes and procurement rules.

That got me thinking about the yarn I recently purchased. Two were made in Turkey, one in Australia, one in Taiwan and one was assembled in the USA of imported fibers. Do we even make yarn in the USA? There are certainly boutique yarn manufacturers and small spinning shops. My search led me to Bartlett Yarn in Maine. They make good old fashioned absolutely beautiful wool yarn from sheep farms all over the country. They spin on a 200 year old machine called a mule. They have one of the last of these machines in the USA. I hope you will visit them – you can watch the mule in operation courtesy of video clips featured “inside the mill”. It is old, clanks and has a mechanical beauty unrivaled.

The amazing part is their yarn is affordable. Where can you buy so much history for $7.00? Maybe we haven’t sold away everything yet…

16 replies »

  1. By your own description, it takes 4 days of consistent effort to produce one pair of socks, even working at a rate you call “remarkable”. Standardized, high-quality wool-blend socks can be had in mass quantities from factories for $5 a pair. There’s a reason for modernization.

    As for “buying American”, why do we need a domestic wool industry? The US produces less than 1% of wool worldwide: – it’s largely a product of countries with intensive open-grazing livestock industries. The US moved away from that economy decades ago, and it made us rich. Why should we go back to being a nation of sheep herders? As you note, there is some domestic yarn production, but more than 99% of all wool is produced elsewhere, so I would presume the vast majority of all yarn is produced elsewhere, too. For it to become a major industry again, we would have to largely remake the US economy, not to mention unleash millions of sheep on already-overgrazed lands. And why? So you can spend 4 days knitting a pair of socks that aren’t as good as ones anybody can get delivered mail-order in less time for half a sawbuck? To keep the Chinese from cornering the comfy winter footwear market and bending us to their evil will?

    Not everything is worth keeping just because it’s old-fashioned.

  2. Strange, i read no suggestion that we should all be come shepherds and live by spinning wool, nor did i read any protest against imported wool.

    I don’t know what kind of socks you wear, Mr. Keith, but the wool socks i wear cost a minimum of $20/pair and as much as $40. But i suppose that you work in an office, pushing paper (electrons) around and only get outside between buildings and the car. You obviously know nothing about grazing livestock.

    Rich? We have a lot of money, so yes i suppose we’re “rich”, but we’re not wealthy. And many of us wouldn’t make it two solid weeks without the massive support system of modernization. I think that you’re speaking from fear (that you can’t really take care of yourself) and envy (that others can provide for themselves). You’re also probably angry that the richness you put so much faith in has been vanishing like the sunset.

    Perhaps you’d find some happiness by attempting a simple task like knitting a pair of socks. You might even find some beauty in (what i’m assuming is a family business) someone making yarn out of domestic wool on an old machine and pricing it competitively. After all, there are sheep in the US and it wouldn’t make much sense to ship that wool to China for the shoddy socks that you hold up as a marvel of civilization.

    Not everyone is worth listening to just because they attempt to sound authoritative.

  3. Keith, just as most people have never worn a couture garment, you’ve obviously never worn a pair of well-made handknit socks. Your quality argument is ridiculous on its face, so no more on that.

    The wool production figures you cite are accurate, but your interpretation is superficial and uninformed. Most of that wool does not become yarn for resale, Keith. Most of it goes to textile mills and into large-production apparel, like the socks you mentioned. Whatever the pros and cons, a large American wool industry would never be built on yarn for handknitting, so you can rest easy that silly Luddites like Dawn will never rule the domestic economy.

    As for “needing” a domestic wool industry, perhaps we don’t. Do we “need” to buy anything produced locally? Do we “need” to eat organic food? The vast majority of small wool producers in the US, however, use sustainable ranching methods (no overgrazing) and local labor (hey, jobs). Downside? You tell me.

    Finally, let’s chat for just a minute about those socks you order (or sweaters, or knit fabric of any kind). Do you know how they’re made, Keith? They are knitted on knitting machines, created to duplicate existing knitting stitches: the exact same stitches developed by centuries of handknitters. Do you know how one designs a sock for mass production, Keith – or perhaps even more importantly to industry, how one designs a knitting machine? By understanding how those knitting stitches are produced, how they work together best, how they can be connected strongly and efficiently, and in the case of your socks, which finishing methods, although not as comfortable or elegant, are cheapest and still workable. Do you know how a design flaw, an error in programming, a malfunction in a knitting machine is diagnosed and corrected, Keith? By looking at the product and recognizing precisely which yarn has gone where and why that’s wrong. And now, Keith, think hard before you answer this one: Chinese or American, Aran isles or Taiwanese factories, who possesses that knowledge?

    People who know how to knit.

    Next time, pontificate about something you don’t need to Google.

  4. And yes, you ignoramus, I knit. Very, very well and for people I love. I doubt anyone will ever do the same for you.

  5. Little known fact: When I found out how cheaply I could outsource my writing to a monkey with a typewriter in Saipan, I did so. That time I used to devote to my hobby of writing is now free for shitting on those suckers who still do stuff with those monuments to obsolescence–those bony, fleshy sacks of water and gristle we like to call physical bodies–and my co-bloggers who still waste their beautiful minds on shit that they could just let other people think and write about… at very competitive prices!

  6. Kevin – Interestingly you have chosen to see this post in economic terms. That was not my purpose.

    Humans find a richness in creating. Some create with their hands and some with their minds.

    It is a humble experience for me to have access to the products of another person’s creativity. They offer me the opportunity to expand my own skills and provide me continued learning.

    This story may have been about knitting and yarn, but I hope that the next time you find yourself at your favorite bakery – think about who brought you that fresh loaf of bread.

  7. She probably knit at night, after her daily work was done, and didn’t knit during her primary productive hours of the day. I knit stuff and sell it, and most of the time I knit at night, watching tv, so I figure the labor cost is minimal, even though I spend a lot of time at it. I’m not going to save the US economy knitting socks, but everyone who comes to visit my farm, or attends one of my demonstrations or sees our sheep at the fair, gains their own appreciation for what I do, just for what it is.

  8. Jen – I just looked at your Whispering Pines site. I’m so pleased you came by to comment and share your farm.

    Your yarns that are naturally the color of the sheep are terrific. It really makes a powerful presentation to have the picture of the animal as part of the gift.

    I hope your farm brings you and your family much joy.

  9. I”m sorry you feel so defensive about your hobby. It wasn’t my intention to suggest anyone shouldn’t knit.

    I did rather think the original post was (at least partly) a comment on the economics of production, however, because it was filled with commentary and questions regarding the economics of production. Perhaps I was mistaken in taking the things you write seriously, but I can only respond to what you actually say.

    There’s a reason people knitted socks in the Civil War and WWI: soldiers needed them and they were expensive and in short supply. Government and relief agencies made a public appeal for knitted goods because that was then a practical way to get them, not because they were indulging people who just liked to knit. Soldiers still need socks (there’s an entire movement today to purchase personal supplies for soldiers in Iraq and ship them to military units), but nobody knits them – they’re easily and cheaply available by mail order. If you want to send socks to soldiers, you go on Amazon and use a credit card; in minutes you can send as many as you like, which – homely pastimes notwithstanding – simply makes a lot more sense than spending two days cobbling one sock together out of a ball of fuzz. As for the reason it’s hard to find US-made yarn, well, I explained that – I don’t see why I should be blamed for answering the question you yourself asked. And regarding “selling away history”, there’s a reason for that, too, as I also explained: almost everyone prefers the economy we have now to the one in which most Americans spent every day up to their knees in cowshit and the rest of them manufactured quaint rustic items on clanky wooden machines.

    Lots of people like to visit colonial Williamsburg; no one wants to live there. It’s cool to study the past, and to look at old-fashioned machinery and marvel at how far we’ve come. (Do note that the wooden “mule” was hi-tech for its day – it was used precisely because it was better than doing the same job by hand, and I would bet its original owner would be astounded that anyone would criticize the use of even more efficient machines in the future.) But if you wonder – as you say you do – why a largely hi-tech economy doesn’t have a major indigenous wool industry, or why there is no longer a large-scale program of home-based sock-making, the answer is the economic forces that made those things untenable decades ago. And if you complain – as you do – that the old home-front knitting programs have died out, or that we have “sold away” a low-wage industry that nobody needs or wants, and vaguely blame that on “regulations” without noticing the economic conditions that shape all those activities, well, you’re going to wind up essentially where you are: cranky and somewhat bewildered.

  10. She wasn’t complaining, nor was she suggesting that we all return to the days of whale oil lamps and making our own soap. Once again, you are reading into this post what’s in your own head – it’s a celebration, not a criticism. People who spend a great deal of time cranky, complaining and bewildered tend to find the same unpleasant tendencies everywhere they look. It’s too bad you can’t understand that, because you just wasted a great deal of verbiage defending your own rather creepily negative and utterly inaccurate interpretation of a lovely post.

    Not everything is an argument, Keith. Sometimes beauty simply is.

  11. (Hmm. Ok, this is Mrs. Djerrid. I can’t seem to log out for some reason.)

    If I want a cheap, not-gonna last very long, but it’ll be fine for work sock, I go buy some.

    If I want a perfectly fit, warm and comfy, interesting to look at sock, I knit some. And it takes me a hell of a lot longer than two days, and costs more than the store-bought. But they are my favorite socks, and I’ll wear them over and over again, as soon as they come out of the wash.

    Dawn, that yarn is lovely! I’ve been trying out different fibers; my comfiest, squishiest socks are made of corn.

  12. Mrs Djerrid – Thanks for visiting and sharing your sock story! I finished those blue socks tonight. That was a wool and silk blend. I like the casual look of the finished sock it created.

    I’ve never knit with a corn fiber, cool. I have a bamboo wool blend on the needles now. I’m attempting a more complex overall lacy pattern.

    Keep your feet warm. 🙂

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