opinion

Maybe the Instagram bots have the right idea

No pretty photo here today but a bit of warning - this is a bit off the cuff and a bit longer than usual but I hope you will stick with me.

The past weekend saw a lot of activity surrounding the anti-Trump demonstrations in the UK and I was thrilled to see so many handknit items on parade. I love to see our craft used for the purpose of self expression, so photos of Pussy Hats and knitted protest banners - especially the #ballstotrump one knitted by the East London Knitters.

There were however the sadly predictable comments from those who firmly believe that "politics have no place in knitting" and that knitters on social media should just "stick to the knitting". They might as well as "Women - know your place" and have done with it.

I am firmly of the opinion that politics has a place in every aspect of our lives and that to try and compartmentalise it is artificial and ignores the fact that not only are we knitters but we are also humans.

On social media as much as in real life we crave connection and interaction. The recent world events however have meant that people seem increasingly unwilling to see anything that contradicts their world view.

Yes, I'm a knitter and my social media reflects that but I'm also interested in a wide variety of other topics - cooking, parenting, politics, feminism, literature, bullet journaling, slow living. I could go on but you take my point. The knitting (and the politics) are a small but important part of who I am as a person.

Ask folks what they want to see on social media and the answer is immediate with words like "authenticity" "real life" and "reality" frequently heard. We decry people for being "less than authentic" and we criticise the over-styled flatlay.

But, here's the thing, if you want the reality and you want the knitting then you have to accept that other aspects - like the politics - will also come along for the ride.

Every so often I'll share a post about bullet journaling. It never does as well on Instagram as my yarny posts but that's totally fine. But I share a photo of a knitted protest banner or comment on someone else's photo of a Pussy Hat and I receive vitriolic messages and hateful comments. And yes, I'm fully aware that in writing this I will receive more of the same but that's fine.

One message that really struck home was this. "I really hate it when people I follow for their knitting suddenly see fit to air their views on other subjects". But yet, if you can't share your views and your life on your own social media feed then where can you?

If we take that to it's logical conclusion that leaves us with a series of pretty, perfect images of knitting. Devoid of personality, devoid of humour, warmth and that personal connection we so crave. Like a glossy magazine you can flick through but not engage with.

Almost exactly like those recent bot accounts that have swept through Instagram. Beautiful images to be sure but meaningless when taken out of context. Maybe some people really would rather follow an Instagram robot than a real person!

Now that's a thought - and not a happy one.

As for me - I'd rather have real life and the knitted banner complete with "Protesticals" every day of the week.

Instagram likes are your currency - spend them wisely

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A great idea came to me late last night, as all the best ideas do. I’d been speaking to my boys about pocket money and the importance of spending it on things that are important to you and then as I was scrolling through Instagram later on I found myself thinking of the system of ‘likes’ and how we use them.

I know we all like to think of Instagram as a non-commercial platform, even though we know that deep down that we are either there to sell or to be sold to. But the sense of community and of belonging in some part at least, overrides this and keeps us going back day after day.

More than anything we crave connections to fellow humans and crafters and Instagram gives us that ability to connect, to chat and to build real meaningful relationships both online and in person.

The way we do that and the way that our social currency works is through the system of ‘likes’. In a way, ‘likes’ are the currency of Instagram and they are what keeps the whole system oiled and moving.

We judge how good a particular photo is based on the number of likes (I know we shouldn’t, but we do). In a way the number of ‘likes’ tells how good/useful/important something is in the same way that we perceive a more expensive lipstick to be somehow better quality than something we paid £2 for.

This is one of the things which has really riled me about the recent wave of spam IG accounts. These automated accounts run by bots are nothing more than machines built to gather likes. They don’t add or create anything but they harvest carefully selected, popular images in order to induce people to hit that ‘like’ button. And of course, people do hit the ‘like’ button - as that’s what made the images popular in the first place. It’s a carefully calculated and manipulated strategy designed to build the ‘worth’ of spam accounts. The more people that they can persuade to ‘hit like’ then the more their account is seen and then ultimately they can sell off that account to a business and make money from it.

As these spam accounts get ever more sophisticated it can be hard to spot them from genuine ones, especially now with the recent trend of using actual people’s names. But reporting and blocking remains the way forward. Ultimately if few people engage with the posts then these accounts will simply be seen less and they will drop further down the grid that Instagram choses to show you.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the relentless proliferation of these accounts but small things really can and do make a difference. Choose where you spend your ‘likes’ wisely and let’s help add value to the real, hardworking crafters of Instagram.

PIN FOR LATER

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Love your LYS - either online or in person

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In the face of the relentless encroachment of online shopping and the large commercial companies all using their considerable resources to vie for our attention, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of it all. So much is made of the convenience of online shopping, the speed and the price that it's easy to just shrug your shoulders and go with the flow.

But even the snazziest of websites, with all their glossy photos and shiny banners can’t hope to compete with the sensory overload that is a yarn shop. As knitters and crafters we are tactile creatures. Never more at home than when using our senses to see, touch, smell and even listen to yarn. Don’t laugh - don't tell me you don’t love the pleasing crunch that a rustic tweedy yarn makes when you squish it between your fingers?

Such is the effect of a yarn shop that many knitters will simply stop on crossing over the threshold and take a moment just to look around and let their senses acclimatise to the dazzling array of colours and textures on offer.

Now tell me the last time that buying from a website made you feel like that. Did your heart skip a beat as you opened up the web page. Did you pause to appreciate the joy as you clicked the checkout button? I very much doubt it.

It’s important to note that I make an exception in this to online shopping with indie dyers such as Countess Ablaze and Eden Cottage Yarns. Both of these yarns I rarely get to meet in person so online shopping really is the next best thing to plonking myself down in their studios for a cup of tea and a yarn squish.

As well as the sense of community that a yarn shop can foster - the classes, the expertise and help available, the knitting groups and just the sheer joy of being around like minded people and it’s clear that buying yarn online is a very poor relation.

Now I know there are times when it just isn’t possible to buy yarn in an LYS. Not every town has one for a start or it may not stock what you need. Difficulties with transport, with access and choice can all play a part and leave you reaching for the mouse instead.

But when you do, as we all do from time to time please bear in mind that you have a choice over where you spend your hard earned money. Unlike with book buying online (where Amazon has pretty much annihilated the competition) the same isnt true - yet - of yarn shopping.

You could chose to click on one of those well known online yarn giants whose well placed Google Ads fall so conveniently at the top of the search screens. Or you could choose to scroll a little and shop online from one of the many UK LYSs who have fabulous websites and offer a great alterative online shopping experience.

After all, it may not be a yarn shop local to you but it is still local to someone else. And even if the small independent yarn shop is solely online (as opposed to being a bricks and mortar shop) your money will still go into the local economy where that small business is based.

Just as convenient - you can still shop for yarn at 10pm in your PJs. Just as easy - modern websites and payment systems means that even the smallest of LYS can invest in a slick purchasing system and in a few clicks that yarn can be on it’s way to you.

The difference is that you will have the peace of mind that knowing you have supported a real person, a real small (often family run) business. A real LYS that doesn't have the advertising budget to compete with the “big box” stores but which still very much has a valuable service to offer.

So, as it was Yarn Shop Day on May 12th, wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need a special day to remind us. What if every day was an LYS Day - where we make a conscious choice to support our LYSs - even if they are miles away from where we live.

 

Images and Ownership

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If you are a longer term reader of my blog it won't be a surprise to you to hear than I am a huge fan of Instagram. I love the platform as a way of connecting with a vibrant online community of other knitters and crafters. It's a great place to soak up visual inspiration and generally hang out with like minded folk.

Recently however I had started to notice an increase in the type of accounts which seem to exist solely for the purpose of reposting other peoples photos. Now, just to be clear, there are some great accounts which do this brilliantly. Collating and curating a fabulous selection of images from a variety of creative sources. When done well, with appropriate tags, accounts like this work almost like an online Insta-magazine. Showcasing a variety of fabulous talent and helping you to explore new feeds that you simply wouldn't have found before. Some of these accounts have huge followings, and to have your work displayed in such a way is a great boon to your numbers and following.

Recently though, I and others have noticed a real prolifertaion in accounts which repost other peoples content but without tagging the original creator (or with just a minimal tag). Often they lift the entire text caption too - sometimes in a different language to the rest of their posts. There is no effort made to tag or highlight the original creator of the image. The motive behind such sites isn't very clear to be honest. Some are clearly trying to sell themed mugs or T shirts and are obvously reposting popular images to boost their Insta-numbers but others don't appear to have any motivation at all.

One explanation is that, possibly, some users are mistakenly treating Instagram as though it is Pinterest - "repinning" images that they like to their own account. This really isn't how Instagram works though and as these type of accounts proliferate we run the risk of populating our IG feeds with the same few images again and again.

This recently happened to me. A casual scrolling through one of the popular knitting hashtags - I think it was #igknitters - and a photo of mine popped up right at the top of the feed. It immediately caught my eye because a) it featured my cat and b) I knew that I had posted that image a few days ago and it would normally be buried way down a popular and fast moving hashtag like that one.

After a brief and minor skirmish with the Instagram Gods (and some online form filling) the offending account was swiftly and efficiently taken down but it made me realise that this is a battle that some designers and creatives are facing every single day. And indeed, since first drafting this I have done this on at least 4 other separate occasions.

So, what can we do about it? As ever I suspect, not every much but at least we can be aware of the problem. I know that it is really easy and soothing to scroll through a lovely series of images - quickly double tapping to add your like. But it might be worth checking sometimes, particularly when exploring via a hashtag (as opposed to just those whose accounts you follow) what the actual account is. Alarm bells start to ring when you see a variety of lovely images with various projects and WIPs - never repeated. After all - which genuine account will have so much variety in their knitting life? Or when you see the oft repeated comments "caption this" or "double tap to like" or "tag a friend". Real accounts don't really work like this and might tip you off to look a little more closely.

If you do find such an account it really isn't worth commenting on their post - I suspect that many are "bots" anyway but you can click the three little dots at the top right of their profile. Reporting them as spam, or blocking them is a good way to make sure you don't see them again (and also - they can't see you) but it also might just help to alert the powers that be at Instagram to the issue. Every little helps, after all.

What does your stash say about you?

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If you had to pick one word to sum up your stash, what would it be? For me that word would be PREPARED.

I'm going to say right now, just in case you were in any doubt that I love my stash, it's my pride and joy and I absolutely refuse to attach any negative feelings to it. So often I hear and see others complaining about their stash, feeling guilt over it, obsessing over it and generally failing to derive enjoyment from it.

My stash is my happy place full of, as yet untapped, potential. I've destashed over the years and finally arrived at a balance I'm happy with. This was brought home to me this weekend when I realised that in just a weeks time I start my new job. A job where for the first time ever I can walk to work. This of course means knitwear - and specifically gloves.

I suffer from a slight case of Raynaud's syndrome and really need warm mitts when I'm out and about in winter. As we are forecast for a bit of cold snap next week I plunged headlong into my stash to emerge triumphant with the perfect skein of worsted weight yarn (Malabrigo Rios in the colourway Sand Bank.

A fellow knitter recently recommended a TinCan Knits mitten pattern and so it only took me a few moments to find the pattern and get ready to cast on.

All on a Sunday afternoon without getting changed out of my PJs.

And if that isn't having a stash that is prepared for all eventualities, then I don't know what it.

If you knit something set it free

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To paraphrase the famous quote "If you knit something set it free" - this neatly sums up my attitude to knitting and gift giving.

At this time of year particularly when us knitters are frantically trying to finish off Christmas presents (or like me, eating mince pies and contemplating the WIP pile) there can be a lot of discussion about who is "knitworthy".

We've all heard horror tales, or even experienced them of a knitted gift carelessly thrown aside, of thoughtless comments and of thank you notes never received. A long time ago however I developed my own frame of reference for gift knitting which is quite simply, I don't. Or rather I do, but only on my own terms. If the recipient in question has asked (politely, and in a suitable timeframe) for an item then that's fine. We can have a discussion about colours, yarn choices and styles. I usually set up a Ravelry bundle of candidate patterns for them to chose from. In this way I've successfully knit gifts for friends and family for years and it works well. They get something they will love and wear to death and I get the satisfaction of sending a loved one or close friend out into the world warmly clad.

What I absolutely don't do however is to knit random gifts for people on the automatic assumption that they will love it because I made it for them. Not everyone is as enlightened as us knitters and they may neither know nor care how many hours of painstaking work went into something. Colour choice, fabric/yarn choice and personal styling is just that - personal - and I would never to presume to that someone would absolutely love a bottle green cabled knit hat, just because I happen to have made it for them.

Yes, it's absolutely lovely when you give a handknit gift and it is warmly, nay effusively received. A thank you note or even a photo of the recipient wearing said handknit is a thing a of joy and something to be treasured. But I would caution against automatically judging those who don't send a thank you note and I'll offer up a personal story as illustration for this.

In 2006 I had just had my second baby, exactly 50 weeks after having my first. Like his brother DS2 was premature and was critically ill for a short but very scary few weeks. Finally at home we battled with all the things that expanding your family normally entails, with the additional livener of having an active 13 month old in the house. The health visitor wrote "not coping well" in my notes - a euphemism for impending post-natal depression. But we moved on through a difficult time and eventually found our routine. About 6 months after DS2's birth I moved a random pile of stuff in the spare bedroom and found 2 beautifully knit cream matinee jackets, still in a gift bag. There was no note or card or anything to identify who had sent them, or when. DH denied all knowledge, as did the other relatives who had been staying with us. It was a total mystery and obviously they were now way too small for my rapidly growing boy.

I felt terrible that I had no idea who to thank for them, and also that I hadn't used them. But in truth I didn't use any of the handknit items I was given (apart from a blanket) - DS2 spent his formative months in a series of white babygros as I had no energy for devising baby outfits. In the end, I decided to pass them on to our local baby unit along with some other bundles of donated clothing. 

I'm sharing this deeply personal story just to ask that perhaps we don't always rush to judge someone for not responding to a gift. Each of us, in our own way is doing our best with what life throws at us, and a lack of response isn't automatically equated with rudeness or ill manners.

If you knit something knit it with joy and give it freely, without hope or expectation. Just give it for the joy of giving. And rejoice that you can cast on a brand new shiny project to replace it.

Knitting and the gentle art of debate

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In todays whirl of social media where what we see is increasingly filtered to our likes I wonder whether we are, to some extent, losing the art of gentle debate. The to and fro of discussion, the striving to listen and to understand another's point of view or an alternative opinion to our own.

Every so often a topic crops up on the interwebs which is a so-called hot topic. Something that people invariably have strong views on. On both sides. We aren't talking global politics here - although sometimes we are, but even something as seemingly innocuous as charity knitting or the size of one's stash can often raise peoples hackles and cause tension and dissent.

A lot of that seems to stem from the fact that people want to keep their knitting "just for fun" and don't want it "spoilt" by other people who are ruining it for them. The idea that anyone could say something that would "ruin" knitting for me is a little odd though because after all we have the choice in how we respond to other other's opinions.

Discussion of this nature is often followed by calls to keep the group "all about the knitting" but surely that would lead to a fairly bland and homogenous mix of knitwear. Don't get me wrong, I love knitting as much as the next person but wouldn't an endless parade of knitted blankets and shawls with the "lovely" comments be just as boring and annodyne. 

Whoever said that variety is the spice of life had the right idea and we all need a bit of spice every now again to get us thinking and more importantly to get us listening.

In one of the moments of pure serendipity that I just love about the internet, just as I was setting this to 'publish' I was listening to Emma Gannon's podcast Ctrl-Alt-Delete. She had a terrific interview with June Sarpong - British TV presenter who has a new book just out called Diversify. The idea is that we should all take the time to listen to and understand people who are not like us and who don't think the same as us. If we spend time just within our cosy bubble - whether that be politics or knitting - then we never learn anything new and we never change.

 

Death by scarf

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Recently I came across a newbie knitter and I was thrilled to be able to point him (yes, him) in the direction of all things Ravelry related. A quick glance at a few Brooklyn Tweed and TinCan Knits patterns was all it took and he was soon cranking out amazing hats and planning many more ambitious projects with gusto.

One thing that struck me though was the advice he had received from well meaning knitters in his circle of friends who, without exception, had recommended starting with some something simple like a "nice garter stitch scarf".

Now, I don't know about you but the thought of knitting 5 or 6 feet of plain garter stitch is enough to make me run for the hills. Why on earth do we persist in this well meaning advice and not accept that new knitters can handle a multitude of techniques. They don't know if something is 'hard' unless you tell them it is. Circular needles and knitting in the round aren't just the preserve of more experienced knitters. After all, if you can cast on and master the knit stitch you can work a rolled brim, stockinette beanie. Learn the purl stitch and you can add in a ribbed brim. Feel brave and try a cable - the possibilities are endless and sure to be more satisfying than slogging away on a flat, 6 foot garter stitch scarf.

It's been some time since I learnt to knit (putting it mildly) so it can be hard to think back to those scary days when you felt like you had more than your fair share of thumbs, and more awkward than a giraffe on roller skates. But as with so many things in life we learn from doing, not by slogging through an endurance event.

And, in my humble opinion, knitting 6 feet of garter stitch only teaches you about persistence and the strength of the human spirit - very little about knitting. So why not be brave and help a new knitter out - introduce them to some fabulous yarn, decent needles and a peruse of Ravelry. They will be eternally grateful and you could help save them from death by scarf!

 

Celebrating the imperfect

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It's something that I've noticed for a while and it's one of those things that once you've noticed it you see it everywhere. Women belittling their achievements be they large or small. Working in the science sector I'm well used to seeing women overlooked and also overlooking their own achievements but I see it in everyday life too and specifically in knitting.

I've noticed a recent "thing" where women are seemingly happy to show off their latest knitting project but feel compelled to point out its errors and "flaws". Why on earth do we do this to ourselves. Even worse, why do we post something and actively draw attention to it in a sort of "spot the ball" competition.

There's a well known knitting quote which I think is attributed to Elizabeth Zimmerman but has also been used by Stephanie Pearl Mc-Phee to the effect that if the mistake won't be noticed by a man on a galloping horse then it's absolutely fine to leave it. There is a 99% chance that it won't be noticed by anyone be they knitter or non-knitter (known as muggles to you and me).

I have to admit that I'm definitely of the school where frogging or ripping something back to correct a mistake is absolutely a last resort. Even things such as a mis-crossed cable I can generally live with unless it is really 'front and centre'. But whilst I'm happy to live with it I certainly wouldn't go around pointing it out to friends and acquaintances. 

Flaws and imperfections are what makes us human surely? Handmade objects are made with love and care and yes, the odd imperfection (or design element, as I prefer to think of them) is part and parcel of what makes them special. Anyone can have an Aran sweater, but only you will have one with a slightly wibbly cable on the left sleeve.