Knitting for the Apocalypse

This is a repeat, but it is at least three years old, and I haven't done a fiber arts piece in a while, so I thought I'd get us chatting. The cooler weather certainly makes me want to knit!

The title here is somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, but I do think that we knitters and crocheters, spinners and weavers have something useful to contribute to a lower-impact future - warm fingers and toes, homemade reusable cloth bags, beautiful clothing - all made from local or recycled or otherwise sustainable materials. So I thought a discussion of how to knit (and all the other useful fiber arts) sustainably was in order. I want to hear what other people are doing.

If you don't knit, and you read this for advice about how to address peak oil and climate change, you may be thinking "couldn't she have picked something even more boring to write about?" But here's one of the details the apocalyptic websites rarely include - disasters are actually really boring.

During the instant that bad things are happening there's likely to be all sorts of excitement, screaming and running about, but in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly the sort that are likely in a slow, grinding loss of stability and wealth like the one we're facing, there's an awful lot of time spent standing around. Unemployment comes. You don't have a car any more and can't go out to the movies or to get a beer. No more recreational shopping. You turn the lights way down to save money at night, so you can't read. Your sister in law and her three kids moved in and there's nowhere to go to escape. What do you do?

That's the beauty of fiber arts. They are portable, cheap (or they can be - you can blow a lot of money if you want), and accessible. They provide something to do with your hands in a dark place, or a light one, it can be complex or relaxing. Whittling and other small woodworking projects work too, but fiber arts have the advantage of using only minimally pointy things, and being permissable in places like court and planes where knives get you in trouble. Seriously, this is the way the world ends - not with a bang but with a "Mooooommm...I'm bored!" Might as well have something useful to do with your hands.

First let's talk books and patterns. I have my favorites, of course, and lots of them are just filled with pretty things. And you really could get pretty well along with a few downloaded patterns from the internet But if I had to narrow it down, I'd probably include in my knitting library the following books (this is totally because I like books, not because you need books - there are tons of free patterns out there on the internet):

1. A sock book. Ok, you don't need a sock book. One book, with one basic sock pattern will get you through your whole life. On the other hand, socks wear out fast. It will be much less boring if you have a few different patterns, and also faster if you have a variety of options for different yarn weights. You could really have almost any such book, but one of my favorite basic books is Knit Socks!. I like it because it includes a wide variety of patterns, very clear, very basic descriptions and a wide variety of yarn weights. I also love Nancy Bush's _Folk Socks_. If you don't like double pointed needles, Cat Bourdieu's _Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles_ is way better than its stupid title, and the patterns are quite nice.

2. A mitten/glove book. If you live in a cold climate (and why would you knit mittens if you didn't?), Robin Hansen's classic _Fox and Geese and Fences_ has recently been reissued, I'm told. This is, IMHO, the best mitten book for *practical,* *warm* mittens in the world. If it will keep a Maine fisherman warm while hauling lines, it will keep your fingers warm. You can still find used copies around as well - mine is starting to fall apart from too much love.

3. Or, if you wanted one book to cover all the little objects, including socks, mittens and gloves, I'd go with _Homespun, Handknit_ by Linda Ligon. This is a useful book for those making their own, but also has some lovely and practical patterns, some that are intriguing and challenging, and enough basics to keep even new knitters busy. There is a new version that is much more up to date, but not quite the bible of the old one.

4. Now you absolutely don't need any books at all to make scarves, baby blankets, afghans, washcloths, towels, etc... except a knitting stitch pattern book (actually, you don't need even that, but you might go mad with boredom making 100 stockinette washcloths). You can make 'em up on your own - they are flat rectangles, after all. I wish I owned Barbara Walker's multiple knitting stitch treasuries, but instead I have the decent _Big Book of Knitting Stitch Patterns_. Since you absolutely, positively do not need such a book, I'm being selfish in recommending Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne's _Mason Dixon Knitting_, which has a lot of patterns for cool things you can do with rectangles - felted boxes, washrags, towels, afghans. The thing is, the stuff is so cool and the book is so much fun that I'm recommending it anyway. Need is subjective here.

5. If you live somewhere cold, you need a sweater book. My favorite, because of its overwhelming applicability, is Priscilla Gibson-Robson and Deborah Robson's _Knitting in the Old Way_, which shows you how to adapt almost any sweater structure to any size or shape, using any yarn or needles. I also like _The Wonderful Wallaby_ a pattern booklet from Cottage Creations. Wallaby sweaters are just about the coziest, cutest hooded sweaters on the planet. I've seen a number of them, know many people who knit them, have one on needles (for one of my sons) and am going to have to knit one for myself. It is, as the above, infinitely adaptable, and practical.

6. If you are going to knit for babies, I think it is helpful to have one book of ideas for doing so. I like Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas's _Knitting for Baby_ quite a bit, but almost anything will do. The idea is "cute ideas" to keep you entertained. The other plus of this book is that it has a giant felted tote bag pattern designed to be a diaper bag, but also useful for shopping. I can't really justify suggesting it, but there's also a geat _Farmer's Market Tote_ pattern in Falick's _Weekend Knitting_ that I've made twice now. But you don't need that book. Or any of these books. What I want them for is inspiration - of course I can knit a rectangle, but sometimes I like to see how things look.

Now what if you don't spin, or knit, or crochet or weave? How do you learn? My first choice would be from a person - find a neighbor, a friend or a family member and ask them. Or call up a senior center and ask if anyone there could teach knitting or crocheting. Or join a local stitch and bitch group and ask for help. Take a class at your knitting store. But what if that isn't possible?

Honestly, I think the next best option is to use the internet, and some of the excellent video and image options out there, like this one:

You can learn from books, but this is a visual skill - the books are sometimes useful as a reference point anyway, but I don't think learning these things from books is easy. But if you are trying to figure this stuff out from descriptions, the best ones are books and directions written for children. For example, Melanie Falick's _Kids Knitting_ and the other books in the series _Kids Crochet_ and _Kids Weaving_ are all terrific - very clear, good pictures, with instructions for making low cost materials like homemade needles and a pvc loom.

Homemade tools are great - dowels make simple knitting needles, and my homemade spindle works as well as the much fancier versions I've tried out. I've not made a loom of any sort yet, although I'd like to, so I can't discuss the merits thereof. There are also a ton of used tools out there - from cheap auctions of used knitting needles and crochet hooks to various source of pricier tools like looms and spinning wheels.

A spinning wheel is not a project for anyone but the most ambitious home woodworker, though. My personal preference (and others may have other ideas on this subject and be more right than I), if you are buying a non-local spinning wheel (in my case, non-local means "old or used," since I don't know of anyone manufacturing wheels here), I like Kromski, because all the pieces are metal or wooden. That means if it breaks, it is likely I'll be able to fix it.

One thing we might want to consider is going back to the walking wheel in some cases. While I doubt that we'll ever ose the industrial manufacture of cloth, it may be that local and artisanal yarns and clothing come back into fashion, and my own observation and discussion with historical reenactors is that the walking wheel is both quicker than the seated wheel once you are skilled, and also in some ways easier on your body, since you are not sitting all day. There's a 19th century original in good condition at an antique store near me that I can't possibly afford, but I visit it and pine occasionally. There's also the charka, which has its merits for spinning cotton, one of them being its potential cheapness and reproduceability.

walking wheel.jpg

Ok, now yarn, fleece, etc.... Stocking up for the end of the world? Planning to keep a supply coming through all sorts of hard times? My first choice would be to explore your local fleece options. Some of my favorite yarn ever cames from my friend Amy at Stone Fence Farm, who had some beautiful natural colored grey yarn spun up. I made mittens for every male I knew from them. She lives about 10 miles from me, so this is really and truly local yarn. There's a woman nearby who dyes her own using mill ends from a spinnery an hour away, and there are alpacas over the hill, although they send their yarn out to be spun, so it isn't quite as local. There are plenty of local shepherds around, and then there is the tiny amount of yarn I ever produce myself from the Romney sheep on my pasture - I just don't have time, but that, of course, would be the most local option.

Another option - buy old sweaters and unravel and reuse them. Our local goodwill will sell woolen sweaters quite cheaply. I've done this once so far, but the yarn I got was lovely once it was soaked and hung up to dry for a bit - just like new.

There are yarns out there that serve good causes - yarn is one of those light, dry things that isn't too awful to ship around the world, and some of the coops make a real difference in poor places. I'm fond of Malabrigo, Manos del Uruguay (which wears like Iron) and Peacefleece. I also like MangoMoon's recycled sari yarn, although it is too pricey for me to do much with. There are probably other good sources as well, as well as sources of organically raised yarn. I'm not familiar enough with all that's out there to provide a complete sourcing, and I knit mostly with wool, so I honestly don't know what is out there in terms of organic, sustainably grown cotton, politically correct alpaca, hemp, bamboo or soy. But there's such a bounty of wonderful new fibers out there that you really can enjoy yourself!

Someone once suggested that the day will come, and not too long out, when we'll carefully treasure our acrylic and polyester yarns, because they will be rare and valuable materials. Right now we're not there yet - there are good acrylics out there, but they aren't cheaper than most natural materials, and IMHO, their utility is pretty limited. They won't keep you as warm as wool, or as cool as cotton, linen or hemp. Their major advantage is that they go through the dryer - which we shouldn't be using anyway. Still, when I see sacks of the nicer cheap acrylics at yardsales, I occasionally buy them and donate them to various knitting charities. I also keep a few skeins around for teaching people to knit.

Even better than stocking up may be to make your own. Even some apartment dwellers can keep an angora bunny or two (which will become many if you aren't careful), or a dog with spinnable fur. Those of us with more land can choose from a dazzling array of sheep, camelids, goats and other critters to supply us with fleece. My personal interest is in animals that need are adapted to cold, wet climates like mine, and that are adapted for thriftiness. We're looking now for angora stock to cross with our nigerian dwarves, and we already have the aforementioned Romney sheep, which I share with a neighbor.

Seriously, folks the apocalypse, such as it will be (and I don't really believe in apocalyptic scenarios of any sort) will be boring. Bring something to do. Bring your knitting.


More like this

I read your post "The Great Sock Rant", or something like that, and became inspired to knit. I really liked your idea of unraveling old sweaters to reuse the yarn. $1-$3 wool sweaters have become my main look-for at thrift stores. The following artile does a great job of SHOWING what to look for(so you don't get little pieces that need felted together),how to take the sweater apart, and how to wash/dry the wool.…

I am currently working on cutting apart a .50 100% cotton sweater to edge for washclothes( I think I'll get 6 plus 2 mitts from the cuffed sleeve end) to go with homemade soap for presents. The sweater is a beautiful knit, fancier than what I can do now, and it is faster to crochet an edge around that to reknit.

"I don't really believe in apocalyptic scenarios of any sort"

You don't think runaway climate change as you describe in another one of today's posts classifies as apocalyptic?

As far as the non-wool fibers go, most bamboo is problematic because it's bamboo rayon, and making it involves the same water waste and toxic chemical load as any other rayon. There is such a thing as linen-type bamboo (retted and hackled fibers in the manner of flax processing) but it hasn't really made an appearance in yarns. Yet.

I don't know enough about the making of soy yarn to comment, but I can say that knitting and wearing it is an unpleasantly sticky experience. It seems to attract moisture.

Organic sustainable cotton yarn is freaking everywhere these days. It's mostly not cheap, but it's widely available if that's your thing.

The most important thing to know about acrylic is that it melts. Think about a house heated or lit in a manner than involves open flame, and now think about your children wearing acrylic. Not pretty, is it?

I personally loathe alpaca, because all those long hairs are much itchier than wool to me, but it is 3x as warm as wool and pretty cheap these days. It's no more or less sustainable than wool production--they graze, you shear 'em. Some of it's domestically produced and some of it's imported from Peru.

In trying to decide what "occupation" I can do to provide for myself and family when TWAWOKI ends, I realized that making clothing was my favorite thing to do and at which I am fairly good. I like to both knit and sew. So I have tons of books of knitting patterns, but it occurred to me that I do not have basic clothing patterns in all sizes for each gender and age, so that is my current quest. I will likely laminate the patterns or back them with something that will strengthen them for many uses in the future.

Well, the thing about alpaca is that the alpaca thing is kind of a scam at this point - selling 10K livestock is a pyramid scheme. So I tend to think alpaca is kind of inherently unsustainable - but there are some people who get them better ways, or when flocks are dissolved.

I've seen some nice linen-retted bamboo recently - I'm sorry it isn't more widely available.


I tell a story about how our transition group here in Wales went about things to prepare for a low carbon future. "Some people wondered about food and started a CSA. Some people wondered about energy and are working towards having an anaerobic digester. And some people knitted socks."

I knit and spin, not just to knit and spin, which I love, but because they are a human scale and portable craft and are symbolic of all the things we need to do. Not that we all need to do all of them but there are so many things we need to do. Knitting is also great to do in meetings. Many are really boring and at the end I have another half inch of sock.

I like your idea (an older relative's advice I think you said) that we should try and do something every day that will last longer than we do and fibre crafts do just that.

Oh, yes. I'm a sixty three year old male, and I knit. I still need to learn to spin my own yarn though.

By Steve in Hungary (not verified) on 23 Sep 2010 #permalink

Yep. When TSHTF you'll find me, rifle next to me, knitting in my hands. DH always jokes that a. I would have been a sniper if I had been in the service and b. I would have the famous line "just let me finish this row" whenever the spotter alerted me :)

Today we went out shooting with friends; I made a great shot on our target - after I finished my row on the sock I'm knitting. It was my kind of day. Out with friends, the sun was shining, it wasn't too hot, got my knitting, and we're practicing our shooting.

And then when we got home, I combed and carded some Shetland fleece I'll be spinning this winter for nice warm sweaters, hats, and shawls for family.

I have complained before that knitting for me is so slow that I'd freeze before a single pair of socks got made (not to mention the likelihood that the socks would only fit Howard the Duck). Well, I have discovered that, aside from the risk of gauge problems, crocheting is for me A LOT faster than knitting - ten or twenty percent of the time to make a similar sized product, though admittedly it's not so fancy looking. Last year, I crocheted functional fingerless mitts for myself and the DH in a couple of weekends apiece, choosing the shape as I went, and then wore mine around the house all winter, whereas knitting just one pair of mitts would have taken all winter. Others who have found knitting too difficult might try crochet first.

I am working on something called the Mary/Kali project this involved creating two 13 foot deities which we intend to process. It came to me that it would be nice to have a unifying factor between them. Since not many women I know weave (one does) I decided a knitted shawl would be the answer.
We call it a Blessing Shawl and many many women are knitting prayers and blessings into it. It's really fun to see women's reaction when I ask them to knit. It really is a lost art for many but when I reassure them this shawl is improved by mistakes or variety they are reluctant to put the shawl down.
It only take a few minutes to give women the basics and this from me who has only ever knitted a scarf which took about 5 years and was never worn! The Blessing Shawl is an evolving story book of depth and colour. We are all blessed in it's creation and when we process all the women who have contributed with process with us.

I find that crochet is far more user friendly (no such thing as dropped stitches, easy to take out, easy to restart anywhere, etc.) but that knitting can be fun as well. I also am finding knitting socks toe-up to be MUCH easier than trying to set a heel the traditional way.

I have a former housemate who made herself a project to learn to knit on $5. She bought a HUGE, ugly stockinette sweater for $1, a dowel, and a pencil sharpener. Cut the dowels (she had a jigsaw), sharpen the ends, sand and oil (just olive oil), and frogged the yarn from the sweater.

Also, an old knitting magazine that my grandma had mentioned this bit of advice -- when you're pulling yarn out of an old project (the article was on how to finish other people's projects), wrap it around a coffee can, and wash and dry on the can to straighten it out.

If I could only take one knitting book through an apocalypse, it would definitely be Ann Budd's Handy Book of Patterns. It encompasses all the necessities you mentioned: socks, gloves, hats, even sweaters, and allows them to be knitted with any weight of yarn. Lots of room for customization, and literally a one-stop book for clothing your family, should other resources prove unavailable.

My wife has a knitting machine (an old Passap, fully mechanical) which is excellent for doing repetitive items very quickly.