Naniboujou Swoncho: on doubt and colorwork

My Ninilchick Swoncho

Or:

The story of a sweater that you don’t particularly like whilst making but reminds you of home halfway through and then you love it.

I love the Ninilchick Swoncho pattern by Caitlin Hunter. I loved it when it first came out and I love it now. I longed to knit this pattern immediately after it’s release back in February of 2017. I was only able to cast it on with yarn support from my knitting patron (my generous mother-in-law), which she provided back in March. However, March is not the time to knit a swoncho, so I waited until September to cast on this woolly mammoth – and it was so so satisfying.

First about this yarn: Arranmore Light from The Fibre Company. It’s soft and beautifully dyed. The tweed flecks are out-of-this-world gorgeous. It has little memory, but it drapes beautifully (you win some you lose some…). I have admired the Fibre Co. for a while, however they yarns are definitely out of my usual price range (aka $6 sweaters from the thrift store). So, after my yarn patron ordered herself a batch, she kindly (oh so generously) offered to plop some skeins in her cart for me! The only stipulation, use the skeins she already had of Raspberry red. I knew I wanted to knit the Ninilchick Swoncho asap, and with Arranmore Light weighing in at a perfect DK, it was obvious that the other skeins I chose should round out my swoncho colorwork. So starting with the Raspberry as my main color, I perused the Fiber Co site to determine which trio I should order to make the perfect Swoncho. I was leaning towards a pink and purple vibe (I unashamedly love this color combo), however, something pulled me in the vibrant primary direction. I decided on a teal blue, sunflower yellow, and basic white would compliment my Raspberry red main color. The original swoncho pattern has two lighter and two darker colors. I knew my body color would count as a dark color, so I paired it with the blue to round out the dark camp. The white and yellow both cover the light requirements.

With my four bold colors, I set out deciding which would be contrast one, two, and three. I decided contrast one should be yellow, as a cheery grounding color next to the raspberry. Contrast one is the most used contrast color in the pattern and the yellow matches the red in vibrancy while being slightly lighter in weight, so it does well to introduce the colorwork in this sweater. White would be contrast two, which provided a true contrast with the red in those beautiful and central diamond patterns. Finally, blue would be my contrast color three, which is used the least but pops the most. Deciding which colors to put where was surprisingly challenging. I felt very unsure of myself, doubting if I chose the right color placement or even the right colors at all.

Doubt was the theme of this project. At first, I doubted I would ever be able to get the yarn to cast on in the first place. My wonderful knitting patron granted that wish. Second, I doubted my ability to choose colors that would be interesting yet wearable. Third, I doubted my tension throughout the whole thing – it seemed so loose especially after knitting so many pairs of colorwork mittens. Blocking works miracles, so I knew this doubt would ease once I submerged this babe in some water. So, while I could ease some of my worries, my concern about color kept coming back, creeping into my dreams, and making the knitting process altogether unpleasant.

Through expressing my doubts to friends and the knitting internet land, my fears slowly subsided. I’m grateful for those who took my concerns seriously. Many times, I am hesitant to share my concerns or misgivings about a project for fear that I’ll be perceived as fishing for a compliment. I see the use of complements to treat concerns frequently in the comment sections of instagram – someone says something isn’t quite right about a work in progress and commenters flood in with “you look great” or “Totally love it.” However, these compliments don’t actually get at the root of what created the doubt in that current project. That doubt could be rooted in an actual technical error, or lack of knowledge. It could be rooted in physical discomfort from poor technique or poorly functioning tools. And, frequent in my case, it could be from lack of confidence in my own opinions or decisions. Positive affirmations do not change the fact that many of my doubts are rooted in insecurities about my own decision-making. In order for this doubt to evaporate, I must feel confident in my decisions. However, the compliments of others don’t lead me to identify decisions I am happy with, they lead me to decisions that make other people happy. But only seemingly happy, because these compliments are, most likely, a cultural form of addressing discomfort (push it away and move on!). Addressing concerns or doubts with compliments does not actually get at the root of our concerns, it merely covers it up and prevents us from actually having a sense of agency in the world. As a woman, and a knitter, I am all about actively participating in my world – so how I see my own agency matters. If we want to inspire ourselves and others to be active and make change in the world, it has to start with our own doubts.

My doubts about the colors of this sweater were only put to rest when these colors finally had some meaning. That meaning came in the form of a quick reply on instagram stories from my friend Anna who mentioned that these colors reminded her of a lodge she visited during her trip to the Minnesota north shore this past summer. While she forgot the name of the lodge, I knew it right away – Naniboujou.

I visited this stunning building when I was 12. I don’t remember much, some wildflowers, agate hunting, and the ceiling of the Naniboujou lodge dining hall. This ceiling is absolutely stunning: vibrant, geometric, and bold. The colors of this sweater mirror the feeling of the dining hall at this Minnesotan historical site. While I don’t have any strong feelings of attachment to this lodge, I do have strong attachments to Minnesota and Minnesotan history. I am especially intrigued by the facts of this ceiling. It was painted in the 1920’s by a french artist who was inspired by Cree artwork. I would like to know where this artist saw Cree artwork, which pieces he saw, and if he studied them rigorously before using them as inspiration. The lodge is also known as the “Cree” lodge, but I’m doubtful there was any involvement from the Cree people in the creation or preservation of this lodge… If anyone knows differently please comment below. The use and celebration of Native American art in this building concerns me especially because there is no mention to the present day Cree people or their interests or art. This lodge is beautiful, and it’s history is complicated. It’s more of an hommage to the luxuries of the Jazz age and modernity than any traditional people groups. The story of this lodge, like Minnesota, and all European presence in the Americas is complicated – however the complicated social history of a place cannot deter me from loving its trees, rivers, lakes, birds, and even people, no matter how complex they are.

The instant Anna mentioned the lodge, my feelings towards my Ninilchick Swoncho changed. Suddenly, I was in love with this sweater that reminded me of home (and all the complexities that come from interpreting traditional art in a modern style). This sweater also represents a kind of liberation from my own indecision and insecurities. I made something bold AND I love to wear it. I can be bold while being myself. This is a true revelation, as events in the past years have made me shrink back and protect myself rather than walk with pride. I will always be surprised by how much meaning is knit into each handmade project – hours of self-love are working their way into my soul and making me feel confident in myself and my decisions. And they say clothes are frivolous…

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Slow Fashion Ethics: Ecofeminist Ethics

The Earth needs our attention, but so do the people sewing our clothes. They come hand in hand. All of the recycled textiles in the world couldn’t save the industry if people making less than a living wage were sewing them.

Adrienne Antonson, Sustainability and STATE pt. 1

Some feminist ethics are a reaction to the failures of Kantian ethics. They disagree with Kant (and Kantian’s) about many things, but the most important disagreement is the ability to approach ethics from universal principles. Feminists claim that when Kant formulated categorical imperatives, he did not have women in mind – in fact he was only thinking about people like himself (free, land owning, white men). Kant’s rules were never meant to apply to women or people of color or children; he failed to take them into consideration when thinking about who counts as a “human.” When Kant imagined these universal principles, he failed to really think universally.

I say “some feminists” because the range of feminist ethics is wide reaching and extensive. There are various streams of feminisms, but they are all united in one goal: the liberation of women from oppression based on gender and flourishing of all humans.

One stream of feminism is heavily present in slow fashion: ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is the connection of concern for the well being of human beings with that of the environment. Ecofeminists claim that human flourishing depends on the well being of the earth – we cannot be separated from our environment. For ecofeminists, serious moral issues are directly connected to the way we treat the environment around us. This connection exists because people are part of the natural environment. Therefore, if you treat the environment a particular way you will also see human life in a similar way. If the environment is a resource that you use and can treat without certain limits, then people will also be seen in this way. So, for example, Delores Williams identifies that sexual violence towards black women is intimately connected to the practice of strip mining – while black women are seen as sexual objects, mountains will be seen only for their ability to give us coal and vise versa.

I love the quote from Adrienne Antonson included at the beginning of this post – it’s a clear example of how a slow fashion advocate connects her practice to the care of her environment. In this quote, she determines that efforts to recycle clothing fail to accomplish the goal of ethical fashion if they don’t take garments workers into consideration – the two are inseparable. Thus, an ethical approach to the fashion industry must be concerned with garment workers and materials, dyes, garment factories, and pollution.

Ecofeminists in slow fashion are concerned about the flourishing of garment workers and the environment which produces our garments. They start from the very beginning with interest in raw materials – they are concerned with the production of the cloth, how factories operate, what energy sources are drawn upon, and how clothing is transported to buyers. They are focused on livable wages for garment workers and also the cotton farmer. They are interested in reducing pollution in the dyeing cycle and when raw materials are grown. They are concerned about the end of the clothing life-cycle – they want to know what happens to a garment when it is no longer worn by it’s target audience. Is it recycled, can it decompose, will it remain on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years?

The concerns of ecofeminsts are wide reaching, as they extend beyond human wellfare to the flourishing of the earth. But, as ecofeminists claim (and I agree), our environment is inseparable from the people in it – so if we are so concerned about garment workers we must be equally concerned about the land where those garment workers call home, the farmers who grow the materials that garment workers use to make our clothes, and the place where that garment will be thrown away when it is no longer useful. Clothing has a life cycle – and ecofeminists care about every stage.

My New Moodboard

The first #slowfashionoctober prompt was to make a moodboard. Moodboards aren’t my forte. I like them for storing information, but I rarely find them useful as a whole. However, I took this week to try something different, to work out a moodboard of what feels like my style; what feels like me.

I learned that I love the look of vintage, or vintage inspired, clothing a LOT! woah, that was a surprise. Before, I probably would have called myself a casual minimalist, but after this exercise, I found myself slowly removing the minimalist street style pictures and filling my board with more wild landscapes and skirts. Now my mood board is filled with romantic images inspired by edwardian fashion combined with 1940’s tomboy’s.

I still don’t have a name for this style. North woods vintage? Off-duty museum docent? Time-travelling Laura Ingalls Wilder? I’m sure the name will come.

I found this exercise especially helpful because I just started a new era of my academic career – teaching. My graduate student style was very similar to my at-home outfits – very casual. However, I knew for my teaching role I would need to do something different for one reason: I still look like an undergraduate. If I was going to understand myself as an authoritative voice who administers grades that potentially determine student’s futures, I had to make sure I could feel authoritative standing in front of a class of student’s who look the same age as I do. This really isn’t that hard, most of them wear t-shirts and running shorts to class, but there are a few who have a bit more style. I have a few “professional” clothes in my closet, which have served me well for conferences and presentations over my time in grad school, but teaching requires a few more tops than the two I currently own.

While I could have two wardrobes: a work wardrobe and a casual one, I would rather my closet blend more between my weekdays and weekends. In the long term, this will hopefully mean I have less clothing overall and each item receives more wears.

This mood board is pointing me in a different direction than I thought I had to go, and this new direction feels more authentic. I think many of the looks on this board could still be professional enough for the classroom setting (which is much less “professional” than any corporate environment). I see white blouses, wide legged pants, and pleated/gathered skirts with waistbands – those are all teaching appropriate! I’m excited to work towards a teaching wardrobe that is both professional and cabin-appropriate.

This little board above was distilled from a larger board I’ve been creating all week. I tried to gather looks for every season, and organized it by grouping the spring and summer looks on the bottom with fall and winter looks towards the top of the board. You can see my original board below.

Slow Fashion Ethics: Kantian Ethics

“We love fashion. But we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet.” – Fashion Revolution Manifesto

Kantian ethics is one of the first ethical theories I teach in my undergraduate courses. It’s simple, has two main rules, and most people are already familiar with it (even if they haven’t heard of Kant).

Immanual Kant (who penned the principles we now call Kantian) was a Prussian philosopher who was active in the late 18th century. He believed morality operated through these things called Categorical Imperatives – commands everyone (and he means every human being) must follow. These moral obligations are derived from human reason – which means that they are available to every person who can think.

While there are four formulations of the categorical imperatives, two are the most popular.

First – the Universalizability Principle.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

What does this even MEAN? It means if you can do it (morally speaking), then everyone can do it (also the inverse, if you can’t do it, no one else should be able to do it). In other words, you can’t be the exception to your rule. An example often given to describe this rule is truth telling. If you expect others to tell the truth at all times, you must also tell the truth at all times – no lying, no exceptions.

Let’s talk about the second principle

The Humanity Principle.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

According to this principle, you must never treat people as a means to an end, or objects to help you accomplish your goal. People are not just things that help you get what you want. Every person has their own goals and, therefore, we must take the goals of others into consideration when they help us achieve our goals.

This principle shows up frequently in conversations about slow fashion. Like the quote from Fashion Revolution above, exploiting people (using them as things to help you achieve your goal) is wrong.

There are a couple of things about the fashion industry that should be concerning according to Kant’s principle of humanity. First, human beings have lost their lives while working to achieve the fashion industry’s goal of inexpensive clothing available in high volumes. In this case, the very lives of these garment workers were considered less important than the goal- their lives were means to an end (cheap clothes). Are garment workers just bodies that put together our clothing? Are they cast aside like broken machinery when they can no longer accomplish the quota’s which producers demand? Is the humanity of garment workers recognized by the fashion industry? When people lose their lives working to achieve an industry goal – we should question if that industry respects their lives. When a large amount of garment workers lose their lives at work, it reveals that they are not valued as persons, but rather just valued for their ability to stitch together a garment – they are simply means to an end.

Now, let’s return to the first principle. Consider the garment workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. A major concern to arise out of this tragedy is the working conditions in the garment industry. Garment workers were reportedly forced to work in unsafe conditions. It seems unfair (and unethical) that Western nations should have workplace safety standards, but other nations who provide our basic goods should not. Slow fashion advocates universalize workplace safety – if we expect to have safe working conditions – everyone should have safe working conditions. If we accept imported goods, the conditions in which those goods are produced must comply to the same standards of workplace safety that we would expect from locally made goods. There can be no exceptions – exceptions are unethical.

Kantian ethics can be extended to refer not just to human beings, but to living things (this jump is made in Veganism), but this is not a commonly held belief among philosophers or Kant scholars.

Next week I’ll introduce an ethical theory that directly competes with Kant’s categorical imperatives – but is sometimes used to try to convince the fashion industry to change its habits.

Slow Fashion Ethics

Have you ever wondered what makes slow fashion ethical? Why are some of the ideas behind slow fashion “ethical” when compared to fast fashion? Why should we care about garment workers? Why is slow better than fast? Did slow fashion advocates just come up with these ideas all by themselves?

Slow Fashion, like every other ethical movement, has been influenced by classical ethical theories; some times overtly, other times unintentionally. Either way, philosophical ethical theories are at the core of our claims about slow fashion.

My PhD education has given me a multitude of resources when it comes to researching – but the most important resource I have gained is my general knowledge of classical ethical theories. So this #slowfashionoctober I thought I would share some of that knowledge with you.

Each Monday in October I will be sharing about one ethical theory that influences slow fashion. While there are a multitude of ethical theories I could choose from, the four I am sharing are considered “classical,” which generally means they have been popular ethical theories in philosophy, theology, and politics in the Western world. Some were more popular in the past, while others are more recent. These theories are by no means  the best ethical theories around (in fact, there is no consensus that any ethical theory is the best…), but they do pop up quite often in public conversations about ethics. Overall, these theories are useful tools to explain why some actions are considered moral and others immoral.

If you’re asking yourself, “Why should I read a series on classical ethical theories in slow fashion, isn’t that boring?” Let me try to convince you otherwise with two reasons.

First, knowing about ethical theories is empowering – with the knowledge of these theories, you can understand why something is right or wrong. The meaning behind slow fashion claims is revealed. This directly relates to the second reason.

Second, knowledge about ethical theories is essential in communicating about “right” and “wrong”. When your sitting at the thanksgiving table and a discussion starts about average household textile waste, there will usually be one member of the party who inevitably says “I don’t see the problem here.” Instead of staring blankly at that individual and thinking that they’re brainless for their ignorance (which just further alienates them from ever learning about slow fashion), with the knowledge of ethical theories you can explain why the surplus of textile waste is wrong and we should change our actions.

When I teach ethics to undergraduates,  I find that the skill they appreciate most is realizing which ethical theories have influenced them throughout their lives. It’s exciting to hear that a theory exists which describes (mostly) how you see the world – this means that others think that way too!

Hopefully, these four theories will reveal new meaning behind typical slow fashion claims and empower you when you talk to others about slow fashion!

Marettimo – an exercise in beauty

I am delighted that I have a beautiful knit top to add to my collection. The Marettimo Sweater is a perfect addition to my fall/winter/spring wardrobe. When Caitlin Hunter released this pattern during the summer, I fell in love with the bold lace stripes. I wasn’t necessarily planning to cast on another short sleeve top so soon after my Tegna, but after a wild summer I decided that a little deviation from my knitting plans would qualify as self-care rather than self-destruction.

I cast on Marretimo to celebrate my birthday in August and to eliminate any extra stressors, I used only yarn from my stash. The yarn – zen yarn garden in serenity silk + – was good enough for this project. While the fiber content was perfect, I did notice that the speckles in the yarn had greater contrast the the original design. The greater contrast in the main color meant that this sweater could easily become busier than I intended. So to mitigate that, I chose to work the lace and boarder in the same color (an idea first recommended by Kyle). This simplified the sweater and made the lace section truly pop, while also allowing the speckles their time in the spotlight.

Do I love speckled yarn? no, not really, and the more I knit with it the more I think, this looks so lovely in the skein and wound in a ball but when it’s knit up, it looks a lot like those printer ink test pages… maybe it’s just this particular yarn with the contrasting speckles. I’m not totally opposed to using speckled yarn again, but it seems less likely since lately I’ve been consumed by breed-specific yarns and local fibers.

Using stash yarn always comes with challenges – my contrast color is leftover from my Zweig sweater. I assumed I would have just enough to finish the sweater – and I cut it so close. Too close, really. My sleeve lace section is lacking in a coordinating bind-off. This is the only part of the sweater I’m questionable about – do I really like the contrasting hem? should it be longer? Should I try to find a similar blue singles yarn for the hem? For now, it’s okay – and since I rarely go back and fix my knitting, it will probably be okay for the rest of time.

I made quite a few modifications – first my gauge was tighter than the pattern. So I did some calculations and cast on for the medium size. After knitting the body, I realized that the neckline was far too open for my preference, and the sweater was much longer than I intended – so I ripped back and reknit from the armholes up – resulting in a more cropped sweater. From the separation for the arm holes – I knit the size small. I also raised the front neckline by binding off more stitches for my first bind off row and eliminating two short rows on both shoulders. This neckline is perfect for me! I felt so empowered to make an adjustment that was previously too complicated for me to complete. I think modifications might be my favorite thing about knitting at the moment.

I thought a lot about this project – why I wanted to knit it – and how it might affect me. I intended this project to be an exercise in beauty, where I would forgo my typical practical intentions and knit something I did not need. In the end, after thinking about beauty, realizing that maybe this yarn wasn’t my ideal of beauty, and reworking the shaping of the neckline, I’ve come to understand my own commitments to “the beautiful” in a new way. Somehow, I had come to associate “beautiful” with something I could not have. Maybe it was because I assumed beauty came with a heavy price tag, though I’m not ready to commit to this explanation. However, choosing to make a project that was primarily valuable for its appearance (secondarily for its function) placed the creation of beauty in my hands. No longer is beauty something outside me, now I know I can make something beautiful. And the way I can accomplish this is by thoughtfully planning out a project that is both visually enticing and environmentally considerate. The ethical deeply impacts the aesthetic – I can’t separate these two. Something cannot be beautiful unless it tells the story of concern for the environment and my neighbors well-being. When I look at my handmade wardrobe, pieced together from secondhand fabrics, unravelled yarns, and local or breed-specific fibers, I can see that these qualities contribute as much to beauty as the color, weight, or design.

My exercise in knitting a beautiful project was certainly thought-provoking (and it produced a new garment!). I might try this kind of experiment again, with a different virtue rather than beauty, maybe courage or honesty. But, for now, I’m still working out how beauty impacts my creativity and my craft. I have a lot to think about.

Thrifting Tips and Tricks: Sweaters

It’s no secret, the majority of my materials come from thrifted items. The low prices and wide variety of materials make it possible for me to stock my obsessive craft hobby on a tight budget. I’ve spent a lot of time at thrift stores searching for sweaters: so here are my favorite tips and tricks for how to find quality thrifted sweaters.

  1. Season Matters (mostly). I’ve noticed that more thrift stores I encounter rotate clothes on a seasonal basis. Especially larger chain stores, like Goodwill and St Vincent de Paul, seem to only stock seasonally relevant clothes. I rarely find quality sweaters during the summer months. So I stick to cooler weather months for my sweater thrifting. However, I have found that smaller towns or locally owned thrift stores rarely have the staff to be selective about seasonal clothing – so if you are on the hunt for sweaters in the summertime, I recommend searching in a smaller/locally owned shop.
  2. Check the Tags. Very obvious tip, but checking tags for fiber content is the best way to determine if a sweater is worth it. I try to avoid those acrylic sweaters, but sometimes I’m desperate for a specific color so I’ll compromise by purchasing a fiber with some acrylic or nylon content. While that 100% wool sweater might be the prize find, don’t discount other natural fibers or blends. Some of my favorite projects are made from thrifted cotton and finding a silk or silk blend yarn always feels like finding a secret treasure. I like to keep track of the brands I find with quality materials. That way, if I’m drawn to a sweater and notice the brand is one I’ve unravelled before, its likely to be another quality sweater. This also goes the other way, I keep track of the brands whose sweaters are almost always acrylic and avoid them like the plague. Some of my most unravelled brands are LOFT (and Ann Taylor), J. Jill, and J Crew. I also jump on any Eileen Fisher sweater I can find. The one’s I avoid are typical fast fashion brands like Forever21, H&M, and Old Navy (unless I really want cotton).
  3. Explore your area. You might find that the thrift store closest to home rarely carries quality sweaters, so branch out – check out some shops in different areas. Check the next town over, the suburbs, the city center, the outskirts of town. If I’m on the hunt for a specific project, I like to devote a weekend morning or afternoon to my quest and hit up the various thrift stores in a certain area of the city. If you do take this approach I recommend bringing snacks – it can be a big day. It might be a good idea to keep a running list of shops that tend to carry quality sweaters. Keep a list on your phone or in a notebook, that way if you’re in need for a good sweater and don’t have hours of time, your list can guide you.
  4. Stick to your budget. While I’ve had the occasional failed thrift store run, more often than not I can find numerous sweaters with fibers that would love to knit with. But, even thrift stores sweaters can add up in price and could quickly get out of control. Before you even leave your house, acknowledge what you can spend on materials that day. Setting those limits will prevent you from experiencing sweater regret.

I hope these tips help you on your thrifted sweater adventures. Let me know if you have any favorite tips and tricks when you search for thrifted sweaters in the comments below. And thanks to Mia for suggesting this topic as a blog post. I hope this helps, Mia!

Happy Thrifting!