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Recently, I was reading through the multitude of knitting related e-mails that are delivered from message boards to my mailbox on a daily basis and was stopped short by one inquiry.  "What would you charge a person for a hand knit [you-fill-in the-blank]?"

This is a question that goes back to the beginning of our craft.  Once upon a time many everyday items were knit by hand. Most were done in the home by family members. Women [and sometimes men] would knit such utilitarian what-have-yous as fishing nets, blankets and clothing: undergarments, socks, baby clothing and sweaters. As time went on and certain individuals developed exceptional skills for a particular style or type of knitted item, they started parlaying these skills into cottage industries. A well-known example is the Fair Isle sweater made
popular by Scots knitters. 

As knitters, we are proud and strive for recognition of our handcrafted items. Some of us may dream of a fantasy world that would allow us to quit our jobs, and take our hobby of knitting to the next level - knitting for dollars.  I, too, am not immune from that dream.  For me it started six months into my knitting experience, shortly after I knew that I had found my lifelong love - sock knitting.

There I was, in the dentist's waiting room, lost in the clacking of my needles and the emerging neat little stitches going round and round.  Suddenly, I was aware of a face floating only a few inches from mine.  I looked up and found it was attached to the body of an attractive and well-dressed woman. "Are you making SOCKS!?" she asked as if she couldn't quite believe it were possible. Overwhelmed, I managed a nod and an affirmative grunt.  She pawed my precious Koigu and stated, "I MUST have a pair!"  I learned she was the office manager for my dentist's office.  She went on to tell me how much she loved hand-knit items and how her mother-in-law ["God rest her soul"] kept her in hand-knit maternity sweaters when she had her first child.  But, NEVER, she said, had she ever owned hand knit SOCKS. Her mother-in-law had refused, telling her that they were just too difficult to do. She beamed at me as if she had just met Albert Einstein reincarnated. Then came the question: "How much would you charge for a pair?"

I pooh-poohed the idea, telling her that the yarn alone was way more costly than any sane person would pay for a pair of socks. But upon leaving the dentist's office I was accosted again. "Really, I'm serious." she said. "I would pay you for a pair of hand knit socks, whatever the cost. Please, work out a fair price, and give me a call." She thrust her business card into my clammy palm and sent me on my way.

I was hard to deal with for the rest of the day, walking on air. I could sit [in my comfy chair with my comfy cat] knitting socks all day without stopping except to check my mailbox and pick out only the most interesting and well-paying of sock orders. I told everyone: my boss, my husband, my goldfish, about how a woman had offered to pay me ANY PRICE for an item created by my own two little hands.

That evening, buoyed by pride and greed, and a previously unknown interest in marketing and sales, I took to my computer. With calculator at my side, I started adding up the numbers.  Feeling charitable, I decided to pay myself minimum wage for each hour of knitting and only to charge what I paid for the yarn, no markup. I'll start raising the price when I get famous, I thought. Well, my smile soon faded when my calculations passed the $100 mark. I couldn't, in good conscience, ever charge anyone that much money for a pair of socks! With the wind gone from my sails, I swallowed my pride and declined her offer.

There's a reason why hand knitting isn't a huge industry any longer: competition. With the industrial revolution came the machines and manufacturing processes that could spit out socks and sweaters in a fraction of the time it takes us to knit them by hand. This mass production can create oodles of sweaters in the same amount of time it would take a hand knitter to create just one, without having to pay a single person for the process. Result: cheaper knitted items. 

The market for hand knitting has dwindled, but it's still there, lurking in the recesses of exclusive shops and the lustful heart of the woman sitting next to you on the bus. I may never get rich knitting, but if you have more stick-to-itiveness than I, and still think you can make a living knitting for cash, here are some things to think about:

  1. Maybe you'd be happy just making a few extra dollars doing something you enjoy. Or maybe you could charge just enough to purchase some yarn for your own pet project. If you find this satisfactory, you might be able to put out a shingle. You have to be realistic in your goals, which leads me to:

  2.  Say you're the best sock knitter to hit this planet!  That's what everyone is telling you, anyway. AND you know at least 2000 multi-millionaires via your top-10 status on the Fortune 100.  None of them would have a problem forking over $500 for a pair of 100% cashmere hand knitted socks. Good for you; you might just have yourself a business!

    Okay, let's get real. Maybe you know someone with special needs - a person with diabetes or another health ailment that needs custom-made socks for a proper fit.  A plus-sized woman who always wanted a cashmere sweater, but could never find one in her size.

  3. Besides individuals, ?  What are your local resources?  Are your skills top-notch?  Do you have yarn stores, manufacturers, and distributors in your area? Many of these folks will pay [in some form] for knitted samples.  The pay varies from business to business. Some pay in yarn, based on a value that equals the yarn in the knitted samples. Others will have a set pay scale for the particular project or type of project, based on the yardage or the weight of the yarn in each item. Others, still, will ask you to name a price. You never know, until you ask.

    Another possible client could be specialty shops.  My mother made money not so long ago by selling small crocheted throw rugs.  The proprietor of a local craft shop sold them on consignment. 

  4. Another option is designing original knitwear. The payoff here comes in sales of patterns and books that are either self-marketed or are sold through a company. Sponsorship by a publisher or a yarn company is very competitive and self-marketing can be a bear as well.  If you think you have what it takes, talk to some other knit designers to learn the ins and outs.  If I've learned anything about this business of knitting, there's always room for new designs and ideas and, thankfully, knitters are the friendliest of people. Use the Internet and your local guild to make contacts.  Do the research and talk to the folks who are doing it for real. Be prepared to present samples of your work and donate a lot of time and effort to reach this goal.   

One final warning - and this is a biggie - be aware that a hobby-turned-business sometimes loses its charm.  When knitting starts feeling like work, it stops being fun.  Ask yourself if you are willing to risk losing the appeal you have for your craft, or if you're the type of person who's married to it, for richer or poorer, 'til death do you part.


Janine lives in Overland Park, Kansas with her husband Steve and 4-year-old son.

When they’re not busy renovating the 1940s era house they’ve recently bought, they’re busy knitting. Steve’s currently knitting the Anniversary sweater from knitty's fall '02 issue. Janine, of course, is knitting socks!