Handmade things have had a stigma attached to them at times. Jokes about itchy, oversized sweaters in garish colours from your great aunt, Von trap style matching outfits as a child (possible even made out of old curtains if you were really lucky!) fluffy coat hangers covered in that weird nylon tape stuff! Maybe you've been the recipient of some handmade article that is made with love but really screams “made at home by an amateur” from a well-meaning friend or relative.
For my daughter, as a teen, the four words that would fill her with horror were “I could make that!” It was the phrase that would tumble out of my mouth when shopping and she would show me some tiny skirt with an elastic waist. She now uses that phrase on me when we are shopping together...touché!
For her it was the need for instant gratification and getting that shop-finished look, and I did understand…but you know what its like that DIY instinct kicks in. You start deconstructing that garment…okay, so it’s a straight tube with elastic waist…plain black synthetic jersey (that’ll be hot in summer)…add a ruffle here…a nice pocket…done!
So how do you go from home made to desirable hand made? And when does what you make become bespoke…or even couture? And when does craft become art? For some of these categories it’s easier to delineate than others. Couture, for example has a pretty specific history and tradition – but fundamentally it is a handmade garment crafted for a specific person, with a hefty price tag. And there’s the thing, you make beautiful handcrafted items for someone special (that includes yourself of course!!)…so are your hand made treasures handicrafts, bespoke or maybe even couture or a work of art?
I’ve wrestled with these categories before and while the subject of art and couture are probably for another post, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three strategies for moving from homemade to handmade, bespoke beauty.
1. Use the best raw materials you can
First, use the best quality raw materials you can. Now I could be accused of being a yarn snob….but I have avoided synthetic yarns for a long time now. For one, they set my teeth on edge when I handle them! Now synthetic materials have their place. Many have been designed for specific purposes and they suit that need well – nylon stockings for example. But I will always look at the label of garments in shops to check what they are made of (hint: the label is often in a side seam of skirts, shirts and dresses these days) and if the content is more than 50% synthetic I generally won’t buy it. Why? Well comfort, durability and wear-n-tear.
Natural fibres breath, so if its one of those sticky nasty summer days and you are wearing a polyester pant or skirt you are going to sweat and that sweat is going to be running down the backs of your knees…and well that’s enough said! If you are wearing a cotton, linen or rayon (the real type made from plant fibre) you will be more comfortable. Even a denim skirt is gong to be cooler than a polyester version. In terms of wear, while synthetics are tough fibres (ever tried snapping acrylic thread by hand? Ain’t going to happen!), they have some disappointing performance issues (especially cheap ones). Pilling, greying of whites and lights (if you wash those indigo jeans with your whites, the colour will stick the most to synthetic materials and won’t wash out!) and difficulty removing stains are all problems I have found with synthetic fibres. Of course, your natural fibres can require more care, but I would expect them to last longer and age in a nicer way if you do take care of them! So if we are talking yarn, I would always choose wool (merino is one of the softest), silk, cotton or other natural fibres (and if you look at The Yarn Bar’s stock that’s the majority of our yarns). You will find the yarn more comfortable and nice to work with, it creates a better, more pleasing result and will respond to blocking and finishing techniques to make something bespoke and beautiful.
Buying better raw materials does seem expensive, but I believe it’s worth it. I know I own a yarn store, which stocks beautiful natural fibre yarn, so I might seem bias, but hear me out. Take our Hand Maiden Mini Maiden yarn. It is a really beautiful, delicious, soft yarn made from silk and wool so a beautiful draping finish. It is also hand dyed. I order three skeins and they are dyed for my store and just the three of them are in the pot getting that colour mix. Only three in the world. How cool is that! This means the colour is slightly variegated giving beautiful visual texture to your hand made item. Now it is the most expensive yarn in the store at $39 (ouch right), but it is a 500m skein…enough to make a shawl. So how much would you pay for a bespoke, hand made, hand dyed, pure wool and silk shawl at market? A lot more than $39 so if you make a gift for a friend, it’s a good value gift! To make a comparison I checked a well-known chain store (no names) for a 4 ply yarn. The best I could find was 100% wool (so no beautiful silk), machine dyed and you would pay $6 for 135m. To get 500m you would need 4 balls at $24. When you do the comparisons of what you get for your money, the ‘expensive’ yarn is not such a bad deal and I can guarantee the end result will be far more beautiful.
Of course you need to choose the right raw materials for the job, a soft draping silk/wool blend will not necessarily give the right finish for all projects. A full cable sweater for a man will call for a firmer, more tweedy yarn; a soft draping shawl a fine weight, soft yarn and so on. So in choosing your material be sure to think about your finish. Which brings me to my next tip – working on the best finishes.
2. Work on your finishes
In a future post I'll talk about sewing, but for now I’m going to talk about knitting but the principle applies regardless of the craft. In the last few years as I've grown more patient in life, I've looked to learn more about my crafts and how to achieve a really professional result. Like many of you no doubt, most of what I know, I'm self taught. And can I just give a great big ‘ol plug for the Internet. While it has lots of downsides including a loss of socialising and social learning, you can almost always find someone who has encountered the same problem as you or generously shares their knowledge, and if your lucky with a video!! So with my newfound mission to learn and improve the finish of my craft I have learnt and continue to learn many new (and sometimes long forgotten) things from the Internet community.
So what to look for? Look for the bit that let's you down. One of the big ones for me, has been casting on and casting off. Rarely am I satisfied with the cast on edge. It can be tight or loose and uneven and the thing that makes an otherwise tidy knit look home made. There are a great number of ways to cast on and some patterns will give you a guide as to what is appropriate for your project. I was very delighted recently to make a beanie (Tebe Slouch) that had a folded picot edge. With a really great explanation in the pattern, I learnt how to make a provisional cast on using a crochet hook – a far better technique than anything I had used before. And the beanie result was so neat.
The second thing that can ruin your work is getting the gauge right…or rather terribly wrong. This is has a tremendous affect on the size and shape of your finished product. For some projects it is not critical and you might simply dive in, but if you are making something that needs to fit, then gauge can make or break. Getting gauge right starts with yarn choice. How many times have you found the perfect pattern made with an obscure yarn that you can’t source? Or maybe you have an impulse buy yarn in your stash (hey, it happens!) and you have a pattern in mind but don’t know if it will work? Luckily there is a growing consistency in labelling yarn weights and this has really been helped along by the invention of Ravelry. This online database of all things yarn means you can usually look up the pattern’s recommended yarn weight or its recommended yarn and then look up the weight of that yarn. You can also see what other people have made the pattern out of to get inspiration. Once you have the pattern and yarn weight you can select a yarn in the right weight )or vice versa - a pattern for the weight of your precious stashed yarn). So if your pattern calls for fingering weight yarn (4 ply) then you can be fairly confident with any fingering weight yarn. There are a few different systems of expressing yarn weight, but at The Yarn Bar we have provided a useful table to help with that.
The second step to getting gauge right is making a swatch. Now I hear many of you groan….yes the last thing you want to do when you have your beautiful pattern and delicious yarn in your hot little hands is make a square. Who has patience for that? Shamefully I can say not often me but probably good knitters do! So a cheat’s tip from me is that you can start your project and use the first few inches to check gauge. But, and it's rather a big but, you need to be prepared to unravel the whole thing if the gauge is way off…so be prepared for that…seriously, steel yourself, remember you are striving for a better product and you spent a fortune on yarn, and you want to wear this at the end! Of course the other caveat in this is that once you wash and block the gauge can change again. So the rule I work by is how crucial is that gauge. For a shawl it might not matter unless it's going to be too small, but for a fitted sweater or cardigan, it matters a lot and before you spend many months making something that droops around your boobs, spend an evening making a swatch and blocking it!
And final lecture note on finishing is blocking. At The Yarn Bar we have put together a step-by-step guide to washing and blocking. As we say in the guide, there is more then one way to block, but my preference is soak and block. Steaming is kept for urgent jobs! There is lots of info on the website, but suffice to say blocking will correct a multitude of sins, bring out the best in your yarn and creating a professional finish.
3. Value your work
Ok so this is a hard one. When I make something I often find it difficult to enjoy praise and admiration if I can see faults. I mean friends and family have to be supportive right? And I've seen those kids on talent shows that are very average singers whose family have convinced them they are really talented...it seems wise to be sceptical of praise from those closest to you! But when I look at expensive handmade things which I have the skills to make myself, I know that what I lack is the belief that my products are just as valuable. If you were accounting for the hours spent making and paying yourself a reasonable wage, then the things you make are worth that money. I remember a friend’s husband who is a very talented artist, telling me that he practised in front of a mirror telling his clients the price of his artwork (which was a big price!). He made sure he believed in the value of his work to convince his clients. It's the same with what you make, if you have spent the time not only making something but in ensuring a professional finish, then don’t let that nagging little voice in your head tell you it's not worth much. You need to believe your product is beautiful and bespoke and valuable. And it will be
Now go forth, make beautiful things and send me some pictures! Mrs Jones xx