It's the question that every artist dreads. It's also the one that's asked the most often. Sometimes people ask it out of genuine curiosity. Sometimes they mean it as a compliment - they think the work is exquisite, and therefore must have taken a very long time. Sometimes they're trying to decide how much they're willing to pay for it.
This last question is the worst, and one of the reasons that artists don't like to share how long it took them to make something.
Another reason artists don't like to share how long a piece took them is that artists don't always track their time, and art is often a non-linear process. A project might be started, stopped, picked back up, "finished," then have additional edits made. Other projects frequently are started and stopped between each part of the process, making tracking time even more difficult.
One way some artists answer the "how long did that take you" question with how long they've been practicing their medium, or practicing art in general. In that view, each project adds to their experience and gives them the knowledge of how to make a new project better and with less time spent on mistakes. This answer is a firm way to say, "thanks for your interest, but I don't share that information." It insists that the artist's experience is what gives value to the work, not how long the piece took. It protects the artist's privacy, and keeps the questioner from having an opportunity to devalue the artist's work based on how much time it took them.
While I certainly admire artists who can command a living wage for their work, I also feel that fiber art is constantly undervalued by the perception that it's "just a hobby." I cringe when someone tells me they get a dollar an hour for something they made. I get angry when I see people selling product at craft fairs and farmer's markets for low prices, sometimes prices so low that the garment costs less than the yarn/fabric must have cost the seller.
In part, we have industrialization and fast fashion to blame. As early as 1840, it became more economical to buy cloth rather than spend time making it. Commercial cloth (and ready-to-wear clothing) has become cheaper and cheaper ever since. As we became divorced from the processes of making yarn and cloth, we stopped appreciating its value.
We also traditionally see textile work as "women's work." While the history is a little more complex than it just being work done by one gender, seeing textile work as something done by women, at home, in the time between other household chores makes it very difficult to quantify, and therefore value.
Last winter, one of my handspun, handknit sweaters went into the washing machine. The yarn was not superwash. It was an accident, no one was hurt, and I did manage to unshrink it just a little bit. After the initial shock, I joked to my husband that it was an excuse for me to get to go shopping for a sweater quantity's worth of yarn. And then I started explaining how much the yarn would cost for a sweater quantity - up to $200 for wool similar to that sweater. Since it was handspun, the fiber had cost me a little less, but there were hours and hours poured into the making of the yarn, and then knitting it up into a sweater. I just didn't know how many.
In my own work, I don't typically keep track of how long something takes me to knit, weave, or spin. It is a hobby, and I know that making things for myself is what gives me the most enjoyment. I do sell some of the things I make, but when I do, I'm always careful to price them so that my time is accounted for and I'm getting paid at least minimum wage. There are a number of other costs to consider when pricing items, like cost of materials, equipment, overhead, and profit if you're trying to run a business.
But there's still that elusive question: "How long did that take you?"
For my most recent sweater, I decided I would keep track. I didn't time myself with a stopwatch, so all of the time is in averages. Because I wanted to get a big-picture view, I decided that I would spin the yarn myself - which also included blending the fiber on the drum carder. Some of the fiber was dyed by me, some of it was dyed by others, and I did not count the time cost of scouring and dyeing. (But if you're interested in that stage, Bren Boone has an excellent post where she breaks down the time cost for her of scouring, carding, and spinning a skein of laceweight yarn.)
Carding the fiber took me about 15 hours, spread out over a weekend.
Spinning the singles took me about 35 hours, spread out over several weeks.
Plying took me about 10 hours, spread out over a week.
Finishing the yarn (skeining and washing) took me about 3 hours.
I knit all the ribbing on the sweater by hand. Each of the bottom hems took me about 3 hours, as did the short rows and ribbing on the neck. The ribbing on the cuffs took me an hour each. That's a total of 14 hours of knitting the ribbing.
I knit the rest of the sweater on the knitting machine. While it is faster, there is a real time and energy commitment to using a knitting machine. You can't just put your knitting on the machine and walk away (at least not on my machine!) and the techniques are a little bit different than hand knitting. In total, I spent 10 hours on the knitting machine with this sweater.
Lastly, there's the final step of blocking, seaming, and weaving in ends. It always seems like there are twice as many ends to weave in when using the knitting machine! This step took a total of 3 hours.
So - the grand total for preparing and spinning the fiber into yarn was 63 hours.
The grand total for knitting and finishing the garment was 27 hours.
The total amount of time spent making this sweater was 90 hours.
So, naturally, the next question is how much is it worth?
Where I live, the minimum wage is $11.10/hour. So that's $999 worth of my time. If we were to bump the wages up to what's currently considered a "living wage," $15/hour, the time cost rises to $1,350. I tend to think of my time as a lot more valuable than that - after all, spinning and knitting are skilled forms of labor that not everyone has. But for the sake of this post, we'll stick with $15/hour.
Time isn't the only cost - I used about 30 ounces of fiber, most of it merino, which generally sells for about $5-6 an ounce. There is some silk, yak, and other luxury fiber thrown into the mix, so I estimate my materials cost at the higher end of the range, for a total materials cost of $180. I used a pattern to knit the sweater, which cost me $8.
At this point, the cost of the sweater in time and materials is $1,538.
If I were in the business of spinning and knitting sweaters for sale, I would also need to account for equipment costs for my drum carder, spinning wheels (I used two in this project), and knitting machine. Based on equipment depreciation calculators and an assumption that the various pieces of equipment are in use 40 hours a week (because we're in business here), equipment cost is about 40 cents an hour. That doesn't sound like a a lot, but when you multiply that by the amount of time the sweater took to make, the cost of equipment is $36, raising the total price of the sweater to $1,574.
And then there are other types of overhead - how much does it cost me to rent space, keep the lights on, have running water, and have access to the internet to buy a knitting pattern, fiber, etc.? This is tough to calculate, as many of us say, "oh, the fiber would be in my house anyways," but there is a real cost associated with the space our fiber-things take up. But, assuming that this business takes up 10% of the space in a house where the combined cost of the mortgage/rent and utilities is $1,500/month, the monthly cost of the business space would be $150. Again, assuming this is a job that happens 40 hours a week, the cost per hour (assuming a 4-week month) is 94 cents. For a 90 hour project, the cost of overhead is $84. Now the total price of the sweater is $1658.
There are also real costs associated with selling a product - if it's sold online, there are website hosting fees and credit card fees to contend with. If it's sold like a website through Etsy, there's a fee to list it, and there's also a commission that's paid to the website once it's sold. If it's sold at a craft or art fair, there's a booth fee, plus the cost to travel there. If it's sold on commission through a gallery or store, the commission will range from 20-40% of the price. These costs need to be built into the price of the item. Assuming the fees are 20% of the product price, that's $332 for this sweater, which now has a price of $1,990.
Last but not least, every business needs to be profitable. Every business has different profit goals, but up to now, we've only been calculating the break-even cost for me to make this single sweater. Profit margins need to be built in to the price of a product so the business can continue to grow. Profit margins also keep the business from suffering a loss if the price of supplies suddenly go up, or the project takes longer than expected to make, or if the overhead increases unexpectedly. Profit margins vary wildly across industries, but 40% or 50% is a pretty common goal. Assuming the lower end of the range, that's about $810 for this sweater, which now has a sticker price of $2,800.
So, the next time you go to a craft fair and you think an artist is charging too much, remember that they're real people, with real skills, with real time, money and energy poured into their craft. And if you're tempted to ask the eternal question of "How long did that take you?" please remember that time isn't the only indicator of value.
This year, the spinning group in my guild decided to do a fiber exchange/challenge. The rules were simple: each person would bring in four ounces of clean, unspun fiber, we'd swap it, and make something with it by the end of the year.
I got a mystery wool, along with some light tan alpaca. I tossed it all in the dyepot along with some mohair that had been lingering in the stash. Once the wool was dyed, I blended everything on my drum carder, and spun it into fine singles. Then I 3-plied it, resulting in this yarn:
The mohair and wool give it a lot of shine, and the alpaca gives it a little bit of softness. Initially, I'd loved the color, but by the time I'd finished, I felt like I'd gotten my fill of that shade of pink.
So, back to the dye pot I went. I used a tye-dye method that I read about in the first issue of Tiny Studio Magazine. The result is a variegated yarn with pink, purples, and oranges.
Now to the next part of the challenge - actually making something with the yarn!
This spin is finished! This year, I've set myself a goal of spinning about four ounces of fiber every week. In part, I want to get a better understanding of how much I really spin, because it's not something I've really tracked before. Plus, I have an underlying goal of spinning about 12 pounds of fiber this year, and 4 ounces a week will get me there (plus give me a little bit of grace in those weeks I don't quite measure up).
In January, I blew that goal out of the water! Instead of spinning 20 ounces, I spun about 35 ounces . This project accounts for 30 of those ounces. And in addition to the actual spinning, there's the plying, which I somehow didn't think of when I was setting my goal!
The impetus for this project was two braids of Malabrigo Nube. Both were mostly purple, but one was more blue, and the other was more purple. And while I love Malabrigo, their spinning fiber is often felted, and this was no exception. I figured I would put it through the drum carder anyways, and decided to blend the braids with some other colors of merino I had on hand, plus a little bit of silk that was part of another braid.
My original vision for this spin was a more saturated blend of purples and oranges, but in order to stretch out the colors to have enough for a big project (most likely a sweater), I added a substantial amount of undyed fiber, which ultimately toned the yarn down to a lavender color.
As I was spinning, I figured I would jut overdye to get the yarn to the color I wanted, knowing that would also even out the color of the yarn. But then I saw the yarn next to this bag:
I wove the upper for this bag out of some sock yarn that I failed to blog or Instagram about, so I'm not really sure who dyed it (not me!). The base of the bag is an upcycled cashmere sweater. The colors harmonize so well with the yarn I just spun, I sort of took it as a sign that I shouldn't overdye it. Plus, I did try overdyeing with the singles that were leftover from plying, and wasn't super thrilled with the results. So, for now, this is the yarn I've got, and it's time to get cracking on the next batch of fiber!
Ravelry project page here.
Have you ever put something in the washing machine that wasn't supposed to go there? My list stretches back decades, and every incident was life-altering in its own way. There was a pair of Mom's dry-clean-only linen shorts that turned an entire load of laundry hot pink and led to everyone in the house doing their own darned laundry from that point on. There were too many tubes of lip balm to count, especially in high school. There was a cell phone and an iPod (you'd think I'd learn). And then there was this sweater.
Waaaaay back in 2016, I finished this sweater - made from some of my early handspun yarn. The sweater is far from perfect, but it's warm, it's mine, and it has POCKETS. Plus, it's a shade of beige that goes with just about everything in my closet, making it an essential piece throughout fall and winter.
Unfortunately, just before the turn of 2019, my husband put it in the washing machine (by accident). I've talked about this fiasco a bit in my newsletter and on Instagram. The point is that it shrank some, mostly lengthwise, making it look silly when I wore it. It was felted, but was it felted beyond saving?
What is wool felt?
Felt, quite simply, is a non-woven fabric that is made of matted fibers. It can be made of just about any material.
Wool felts because it has microscopic scales on the surface of each fiber. When the fibers are subjected to a mixture of moisture, heat, and agitation, the scales lock together like Velcro. Unless the wool has been through a superwashing process that removes or smooths down the scales, wool will always be at risk for shrinkage due to felting.
As heat, moisture, and agitation are applied to wool those scales lock together and the fabric can shrink. A number of factors combine to determine how much the wool can shrink, including:
Usually, when working with non-woven wool felt, the felting process has been carried out to the maximum extent possible in order to create a strong and durable fabric. This process cannot be reversed once it's carried out to the full extent.
Felting can also occur when spinners dye fiber prior to spinning it into yarn. Usually this happens because there's extra heat and agitation in the dye process (especially if the water boils!). For most fibers in this situation, the wool is only slightly felted, and it may be possible to mitigate the effects of felting.
What is Fulling?
When wool has been made into a woven, knitted, or crocheted fabric, the process is called fulling. The same things are happening with the scales of the wool, but because we're dealing with something that's already fabric instead of loose fiber, it technically gets a different name.*
As heat, moisture, and agitation are applied to wool fabric those scales lock together and the fabric will start to shrink. As with wool felt, sheep breed and how much heat, moisture, and agitation are applied will determine how much the fabric shrinks. With fabric, though, another factor comes into play - how tightly the fabric was knitted, crocheted, or woven. A loose and open fabric has more room for the fibers to move around, meaning more agitation is possible, and therefore more shrinkage is possible. A tight, dense fabric, on the other hand, doesn't have much space for the individual fibers to move, making shrinkage less likely (but still possible).
Generally, wool that has been felted or fulled can shrink by as much as 30%, which is a lot. There are plenty of patterns on Ravelry where you'd intentionally full your knitting - think bags and slippers. But most of the time, fulling is something we want to avoid. And when it does happen, it can feel a little disastrous. (Like my cozy sweater that accidentally became a crop-top.)
So, Can You Un-Shrink It?
Depending on how much the wool shrank during the felting or fulling process, it may be possible to pull the fibers apart from each other. If the fibers are only a little bit felted or fulled, the more likely this will be an option. However, if it's felted/fulled "all the way" or even a good percentage, you're never going to get your wool back into its original state.
When pulling fulled fibers apart, it's best to be gentle - those scales have locked together, and using lots of force can result in fiber or yarn breakage.
For my handspun sweater, it was only slightly fulled. In the first image, before fulling, you can see very crisp stitch definition. In the second image, after fulling, you can see that it's definitely fuzzier (partly because of a couple of years of wear, and partly because of the fulling). But you can still see the stitches fairly well - it hasn't completely morphed into a beige blob!
Following some suggestions of helpful instagrammers and the internet, I soaked the sweater in a bath of warm water and about 1/3 of a bottle of Unicorn Fibre Rinse. Some people use hair conditioner, but I had the Fibre Rinse on hand and wanted to see how it would perform in this situation. I rolled my damp sweater in a towel, the laid it out on a blocking mat, gently stretching the body out to try to give it some extra length.
Then came the hard part - walking away to let it dry for a couple of days. In the end, my sweater wasn't quite as long as I'd want it to be, but it's no longer a "crop top cardi" and it's wearable again.
This process works to some extent because wool fibers are more elastic when they are wet. I'm not sure how much the Fibre Rinse helped, but since it's formulated for use on wool, it certainly didn't hurt. And, since it also acts as a fiber softener, my sweater is a little bit softer for the experience!
Note that this fix will only work if the fiber isn't felted/fulled all the way, and even though it's possible to stretch the fabric back out, your garment will probably never be exactly as it was when it was new.
As for my husband? All is forgiven, but not forgotten. ;)
Ravelry project page here.
*You'll often see this process referred to as felting anyways...I'm guilty of it too!
Have you heard of "spinning in the grease"? It's a term that spinners use to say they are more or less spinning the wool straight off the sheep. The "grease" is lanolin - the natural wax sheep secrete from their sebaceous glands.
As a sheep grows its fleece each year, it is also secreting lanolin, just like our skin produces oil. Just like some people have more oily skin and hair than others, some sheep produce more lanolin than others. Lanolin can account for anywhere between 5-25% of the weight of a sheep's freshly shorn fleece. Lanolin helps sheep protect their fleece and skin from sun and moisture. In addition to being useful to the sheep, lanolin has lots of other uses in cosmetics, lotions, and even shoe polish.
When it comes to spinning wool, however, there are lots of opinions about spinning in the grease. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some people only spin in the grease, while others only spin with scoured (cleaned) wool.
So why would you spin in the grease? Why might you prefer to spin with cleaned wool? This post will walk you through some the pros and cons of spinning in the grease, so when you find a fleece at your next fiber festival, you'll have a better idea of whether you want to scour or spin in the grease.
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