Sweaters like Babaà’s cardigan, popular on Instagram, seem pure in their ungainliness. Still, they cost hundreds of dollars.
Photograph by Thomas Slack
The first sweater that I fell in love with on Instagram was worn by a member of the tribe that I refer to as “organic moms.” Their food is organic, their clothes are organic, their toys are wooden, their children are homeschooled or Waldorf or world travellers. The sweater was a sort of marled gray, as though the wool had quite recently been removed from an unwashed sheep, and it made the wearer’s torso look like an egg. It went over dresses, and over pants, and over other sweaters, because its relationship to the body was notional. It was a sweater that could stand up on its own.
I began to see the sweater on other organic moms on Instagram, and finally I clicked on the tag: #Babaa, a Spanish company founded by Marta Bahillo, in 2012. It was their cardigan woman no19 mist (their punctuation) that I wanted, and it could be mine for two hundred and thirty euros. This seemed like a lot of money for a sweater, so I did not buy it that year.
The next winter, the organic moms got out their Babaà sweaters again and they thanked Babaà on Instagram and they still looked great. Some of them even had miniature versions for their children. It seemed like the most useful piece of clothing in the world. It seemed warm. It seemed unbothered by the winds of fashion. Every sweater that I had purchased in the previous few years had pilled or gotten a hole or turned out not to be a hundred per cent wool, even though the word “wool” was in the name of the sweater, and hence droopy or thin or just not warm. (What is the point of a not-warm sweater?) I had nostalgia for the Shetland-wool sweaters that used to be available in abundance at the Gap in the nineteen-eighties in soft jewel-tone piles. Why had I ever given mine away?
I bought the sweater. I wore it every day, making my cost per wear . . . reasonable. By now, I was following the moms, and Babaà, and, through tags and suggestions and overlapping Venn diagrams of taste—sweaters, clogs, crafts, a woman in clogs and hand-knit socks next to her knitting bag—I saw more cult sweaters like the Misha & Puff popcorn sweater, a hundred and forty-eight dollars for kids, five hundred and twenty for women. Like the cardigan woman no19, the sweater has a wide shape and a dropped shoulder, but it comes in richer colors. The raised “pops” of wool offer textural contrast and instant recognizability.
The mass-market women’s clothing that’s available today is conceptually and economically cheap: thin, tight, with nonsensical cutouts and infantilizing ruffles. These sweaters seem pure in their ungainliness. The Web sites all use the Whole Foods trigger words: “small batch,” “carefully sourced,” “handmade.” Still, the popcorn sweater was five hundred and twenty dollars. “I did not set out to make a five-hundred-dollar sweater,” the Misha & Puff founder, Anna Wallack, who worked as a stylist before starting the company in 2012, told me. “I wanted to hand-make it, make it merino, make it in Peru, and the price came back like that. It is an honest representation of what it costs to make a sweater that way. It takes our knitters about a week to make a woman’s sweater, and there is a kilo of merino wool in our sweaters.” Wallack now works with over a thousand knitters in Peru. When she started, with ten knitters, they were mostly grandmothers, albeit in their forties. Now their children are learning to knit, because they see a future in it.
“I get that the price point makes us exclusive, and I think about that a lot,” Wallack said. “How else in the business can we be inclusive? We do offer some knitting patterns, and we will do it in a bigger way in the future.” Misha & Puff also recently had its biannual sample sale in Boston, and added an online sale in Instagram Stories. “The response was . . . ” Wallack trails off. “You think it is going to be X and it was ten times that.”
Inclusion is very much on the minds of the knitting community. Just after the new year, Karen Templer, the owner of Fringe Association, a craft-supply site, blogged about an upcoming trip to India in a manner that many read as culturally imperialistic. She’s since apologized, sincerely, but the post set off an Instagram-wide referendum on diversity in craft. Many knitters of color shared their experiences being followed around yarn shops or of being ignored in online and offline knitting spaces.
“I asked people on my Web site, when is the last time you saw a major knitting magazine that had a woman of color on the cover, or featured an indie designer of color?” Dana Williams-Johnson (@callmedwj), who runs the blog Yards of Happiness and is a marketing professor at the Howard University School of Business, said. “I knit dolls for my friends’ children that are in their likeness, in their skin tone. I always want to see that represented in the world.”
“It isn’t just the craft space that I have had issues with discrimination in. It has been my whole life,” Williams-Johnson said. “That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was how stunned people have seemed to be, and not the people of color.” D.I.Y. would seem to be a place where more sizes and colors could be represented, and yet thin, white models dominate on pattern sites. This is a place where social media can step into the breach: one of the pleasures of Instagram and Ravelry, which is far and away the most popular community site for knitters and crocheters, is being able to see a single sweater pattern on people of various shapes and ethnicities.
Yet I felt seen when Williams-Johnson mentioned, in passing, all the thin, white women who love neutral sweaters. “I can’t with this gray,” she said. “One of my sisters, her closet is full of white sweaters. I said, ‘I can buy you a white sweater, let me make you something different.’ ” The organic moms who originally attracted my attention with their sweaters—also white. The least I could do was diversify my feed and, ultimately, the suppliers who were benefitting from my obsession. Williams-Johnson’s Instagram is like a slice of the rainbow, abetted by the presence of her dog, Jellybean, for whom she knits matching sweaters. Williams-Johnson recommends the inclusive Pom Pom Quarterly, published in London. A number of other makers have also created helpful lists and accounts: there’s @meetmakersofcolor and a list created by the designer Jeanette Sloan, the author of “Black People Do Knit,” a guest column in Knitting Magazine.
Karida Collins, of Baltimore’s @neighborhoodfiberco, a resource for hand-dyed yarn, pointed out two current knitting trends that she sees reflected in her customer’s yarn-buying habits. The first is for brioche, a technique that creates a dramatic high-low effect when knit with two colors of yarn. A black-and-white Briyoke sweater by Stephen West @westknits makes it very architectural. The second is for mohair, which can give your sweaters a lovely halo effect. A third modification, Williams-Johnson said, plucked from the runway, is for puffed sleeves.
I began to see more possibilities within my preference for neutrals, and to think that maybe I should switch from Instagram consumer to Instagram maker. Yuko Shimizu’s Sea Sweater (her Instagram is @teshigotokiroku) has a beautiful drape and an unusual button detail. What would it look like in navy? The designer Denise Bayron (@bayronhandmade) created the very appealing CardiZen, which seems like you could throw it on over everything, especially in black.
I’d also been eyeing the Strathcona Sweater from @good_night_day. Tara-Lynn Morrison, who runs Good Night Day, knits small runs of her own sweaters and also sells patterns. To get a Strathcona ready-made, you usually have to reserve months in advance, paying three hundred and twenty Canadian dollars. I could watch Morrison knitting these sweaters every day on Instagram, the labor right before my eyes. The Strathcona wears its hand-knit qualities on its sleeve, so to speak. Some of my experienced knitter friends turn up their noses at the chunky trend, which, for those with skills, makes for a very fast knit. (Yes, I was owned more than once in the reporting of this story.)
If the message of sweater Instagram is, in the words of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, “less, but better,” there was only one thing to do. I would not purchase someone else’s properly compensated labor. I don’t need to buy another sweater. I would knit my own. I asked for a Wool and the Gang cowl beginner knitting kit for my birthday. That’s, like, the neck, but we all have to start somewhere. My resolution for 2019 is to get good enough to make myself a whole sweater. Can I make sweater Instagram real? Check back in 2020.