Thoughts on consuming: soapbox confessional

Several years back, I lived in another city and the burden of student loan payments had not yet turned into an ugly beast. I had credit cards and a new job that required suits, nice blouses, cute shoes, matching handbags – well not really, but that’s how I approached it. I loved the city where I lived, but I hated my job, and there was a lot of retail therapy. When I rediscovered knitting, the retail therapy was redirected.

I feel compelled to talk about this partly due to the incredible focus on STASH that I have seen over the past few years of reading knitting blogs. I admit that my stash is out of control. I read about other peoples’ stash being out of control. Nobody complains about having trouble adding to the stash, unless other spending needs in life preempt spending on yarn and fiber. [Putting my intervention hat on: Please people, if you or someone you know regularly talks about hiding stash from husbands or loved ones, or stuffing it in the sleeves of their unused winter coats hanging in the hall closet, consider your approach or consider sitting them down and talking about what unfed need this seems to be filling…]

Then I took up spinning and bought a wheel earlier this year. Great – another hobby to eat up my spare dollars and confirm my participation in the Great Consumerist Goals of our country – right?

No. While I am still spending on yarn and fiber here and there, I am making conscious efforts (though there isn’t a button in the sidebar) to knit from stash and to support small and independent businesses when I do buy.

But I am still not going to list my inventory on Ravelry, or “flash my stash.” This does not preclude, of course, occasional photos since the reason that we are here is that we all enjoy the fibers and the colors.

And there is so much lovely stuff out there that I do have to check my impulse to keep up with the Joneses when everyone posts about their collections of STR or whatnot.

These days, I would like to focus less on cruising for great deals that may or may not turn into sweaters one day, depending on whether I actually had enough or truly liked the color.

I would like to focus more on the reasons that most of us are probably attracted to crafting. As others before me have pointed out, many of us do not have a great soundbyte response to the, “Why do you knit socks, when you can get them 3 for $5 at Target/Walmart/huge corporate outlet of choice?”

Well – the answer has to do with not going to a huge store for some of our needs. Those of us who craft are also often attracted to cooking, gardening, and other homey type activities. I find that living without a car, as I have for the past two years, has led me to evaluate how I used to spend my time when I did have a car. I went shopping. I went out to eat and drink. A lot. I didn’t spend time at home, I didn’t exercise – simply by virtue of having to walk fewer places! – or plant things or … well, create.

And creation, from one’s imagination, with materials that are pre-final product, pre-clothing, pre-restaurant meal, pre-vegetable or even pre-yarn, is the anti-consumerism.

I am not a survivalist, I have a table from Ikea and one from Jo-Ann’s, but I have furniture from the second-hand shop too, and I’ve done a bit of sanding and staining. I buy my sandwiches at the cafe at work when I’m too lazy to make lunch. But I’m always more satisfied with my own creation.

And to a large extent, I still view STASH as a positive, a pile full of potential, such as an artist’s canvas and paints.

But, you know, one can get carried away.

And, you know, necessity is the mother of invention.

At this point, I’m ready to slow down and challenge my creativity. How can I do that when I run out and purchase every book and every new yarn that’s out for every design that strikes my fancy? Plus, I’ve still got a list so long that even in five years I’ll barely make a dent. I don’t want to find myself, fifty years from now, completely overwhelmed by stash that will survive me!

Lately, I’ve been reading my stash as well. It’s time to turn inward. I’ve never been swayed by the bestseller list, but I have a decent collection (from the retail therapy days) and I know I’ll be more informed if I work my way through. There is always the public library, and I am lucky enough to have access to a university library system, if I’m not satisfied with the bookshelves.

In the past month, I worked my way through The Road From Coorain, which was all about sheep farming in the outback of Australia in the early 20th century and Jill Ker Conway’s struggle to integrate this upbringing with her academic aspirations. It seemed appropriate to read about her family making a conscious decision to go west and live off the land, farming, raising sheep, gardening when they had enough water (!!) and not gardening when they didn’t, harvesting and marketing wool, as I worked away on a sweater. Although the sweater is cotton…

Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson, and today I began Small Wonder, both collections of essays. She ruminates on some of these consumerist matters and many others, including how our need for immediate and constant access to everything we ever wanted, and consumer industry cultivation of that culture, separates us from what is really important, and from taking time to see what is around us, including nature. On a larger scale, this culture contributes to exacerbating the gap between rich and poor on a global scale, and indeed even contributes to conflict that we promote, engage in, or enable.

Certainly cause for pause.

Our generation seems to be steadily pursuing the consumerist track, but there are pockets of folks who do not want to choose this way. Many of my happy accidents, such as being car-free and purchasing a stereo second-hand, maybe should become intentional. I have friends with whom I regularly talk about starting a farm. In such a scenario, we’d track some of our clothing back even further to the sheep, and we’d be able to produce our own food. Kingsolver’s new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is about her family’s challenge to grow it, buy it in their neighborhood, or live without, over the course of a year.

I can’t do this on my own, but I’ll do what I can until I can finagle my way from a single girl in her own apartment into an intentional community. (As a side note, even two people together can produce quite a garden. Take a look at Mel‘s pile of veggies and photos of goods from her community-supported agriculture bin, and Amber’s garden, and buckets of berries from her mom’s garden.)

For me, that means buying locally when possible (and when finances allow – sometimes it’s more expensive, which is also a consideration); foregoing the appliances I don’t already have (for an idea, what I don’t have includes washer and dryer, dishwasher, microwave, TV, blender, toaster, coffee maker, food processor, juicer, etc. etc., so far I don’t miss most of them); and cutting down on extraneous purchasing.

Today I came across the Little Brown Dress website. The project and its follow-up, 100% Recycled Wardrobe, were solo undertakings by an artist in Seattle. The first proejct was to design and make a dress, then wear it every day for a year as a challenge to consumerism. The second phase, also one year, she describes as follows:

I am recycling, re-mixing, re-fabbing . . . spinning straw into gold as one friend puts it. . . I am wearing only things I have made myself (clothes, jewelry, shoes, underwear, bags, everything) and my source materials are things that were already in my possession – a completely closed loop, 100% recycled from my own closet.

I don’t foresee implementing such extreme policies, but I find her approach inspiring. People do this, you know. Outside ConsumerLand anyway. They wear the same outfit, they refit and retailor and reuse. My life could use some focus in this regard – develop some skills, ignore the high credit line, refuse to buy into the myths that “fashion” and consumption have manufactured, and as a very positive side effect, promote financial health.

I still have a weakness for yarn, and I have a problem with rules, i.e. as soon as I make them, I break them. So rather than rules, I may follow some intentions: If I buy, buy locally or support one-woman shows. Work from the stash. Invent, create, rather than consume. And apply this to my life outside knitting as well.

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts on consuming: soapbox confessional

  1. Really great post- I can tell you have been thinking about this for awhile. (fix the tag to my garden).
    I have been thinking so much about wanting to be closer to living- the way I feel sometimes when I am in africa- growing more of my own food and having animals around. I wonder when it will hit me that I can actually to this at some point- but to make it happen I am probably going to make some sacrifices as well. What is the trade off- if I have kids, I don’t travel as much. If I buy land and have a farm, I grow roots and stay in the same place for awhile. But the pluses are also too large to count- I live closer to the ground (literally and figuratively, no flying business class!), I learn to spin, I maybe have some sheep/llamas/alpacas, I am in the same place and live closer to my family and friends, and I get to breed eventually.
    Let’s keep this idea fresh- let’s keep remember the good stuff about buying a farm as we are stressing about cover letters to malawi and maybekindasorta fellowships to unknown places.

  2. Great stuff Heather. I am not at all immune to the wiles of goods – knitting and otherwise; but Tad & I talk about these things a lot. I like to think that in my life talking and dreaming precludes action (meaningful action), but sometimes talk is cheap too (I can talk an awful lot!) and sometimes focus is difficult. I like your plan on intentions. I’ve been really looking forward to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – did you enjoy it?

    We met a woman on our training walk this morning who is an organic farmer, raises goats for milk & cheese & will soon be making her own biodiesel and is a green architect. Hope to talk to her more, she was very interesting & inspiring.

  3. Thank you for the very thoughtful post. You really touched a chord in me. I, too, have way too much stash, and at times feel it beginning to overwhelm me. And after reading your post, and thinking a bit about it, I have the germ of an idea of what to do with all that yarn. If I can pull it together, I’ll be posting about it. Thanks for the push.

  4. Your post reminds me of some buddhist thinking – how our desire causes suffering. Definitely I could trim some consumerist fat, even though I’m not the average American mall shopper. R and I shop a bit too much at thrift stores, even, and end up accumulating too much. And I could do a better job spending my dollars locally and towards eco-friendly goods. Crafts, for me, has always been about creativity and thrift (anti-consumerism). Unfortunately, the recent renaissance in knitting, etc., has been very consumeristic; it has its pluses, though, like more access/venues for independent crafters, beautiful handpainted yarn & other natural materials, and more visibility to the craft movement. Lots of food for thought.

  5. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about a month ago and it really re-inspired me. Heathr, you’re still welcome to come up to Canada and live on our future farm. Not only will we be skilled in all sorts of food growing and preserving by then, we’ll be consciously unsanctimonius about it 🙂

    I just found out that a small grocery near us sells a lot of local produce (unlike in CH, grocery chains here don’t buy locally). Why ahve they not advertised this widely? The city I love, and came back to, is falling further down the consumerist rabbit hole. It’s taking effort to resist not our consumerist tendencies, but others’ expectations that we follow.

  6. Thanks for that. I counted my sock yarn collection to find out that I have enough to make 14 pairs of socks. I don’t think (tube socks aside) that I OWN that many socks. But, by the end of the year I will. I’m not a yarn store, I’m a knitter. 😉

  7. What a great post, Heather, thank you for writing that! My stash is not a large one, but it’s still bigger than I would like it to be. I’m not comfortable with it, so I too constantly make promises not to buy more. And I always break them. 😀 Your intentions sound really good though, I might borrow those.

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