The hope chest is a unique piece of textile history. The tradition of young women collecting and storing handmade linens — quilts, blankets, curtains, knitted items and clothing — was popularized in the United States with the influx of European immigrants. Hope chests are commonly associated with settlers in the Midwestern US states, and fell out of popularity in the 1950s.* Now since housewares are readily available for purchase (without all of the work and time) in stores everywhere, we choose our homes’ decor meticulously, catering to trends and styles that please us and unify the look of our aesthetic.
Observing the handiwork of these heirloom textiles, there can be no argument made that these were not the work of skilled craftspeople. Often the stitches seem meticulously tiny, the crocheted loops wind in ways that mimic the finest lace samples from Italy and France.* Many objects show signs of use and travel — countless darning stitches and expert repairs have been made. Often, these pieces are passed down through families for generations, and kept as memorabilia of times long past. There is beauty in the slow disintegration, the love in each repair, the hidden story of patches knit in new colors with slightly different wools — the unique aging of knitted housewares has a quality of charm and history.
The tradition of knitting for the home has not been lost. Each year, new books are published on the subject, featuring patterns that embrace all styles and preferences, from modern minimalistic pieces to kitschy 1970s afghans. Knitters and crocheters take hook and needle to yarn and work up projects to decorate, gift and give to charities. How many of these knits could be qualified as heirlooms, and will stand the test of time and be loved for decades?
Like most technological advances, the manufacturing of yarn has taken leaps and bounds in the past 100 years. Wool, like many fabrics and fibers, has traveled in and out of vogue. When synthetics were first introduced, they seemed to be a solution to many problems, boasting easier care and durability. Manufacturers of synthetic fibers and yarns claimed that these textiles out-performed their natural counterparts, and customers, eager for less ironing and handwashing, were quick to believe. Still today, with so many soft, high-quality and luxurious wools and natural fibers available on the market, many knitters and crocheters believe that these fibers are more fragile and will not stand up to the wear of a typical household.* This common misconception causes a big issue — when most knitters choose yarns for their home knits, they choose the cheaper synthetic yarns and shy away from the cost and potential work that could come from the upkeep of woolens.
But there are so many wonderful reasons to choose natural fibers for your housewares! Many wools can stand up to considerable wear and use without needing constant washing. With a low susceptibility to mildew, wrinkling and wear, “rougher” wools especially stand up well to wear over time — and have the additional benefit of being fire resistant and self-extinguishing, making them safer in the home.* With new, high-quality, superwash wools available, there are no excuses for not using this fantastic fiber!
If cost is what ties you up in knots, consider your cost per use. Let’s break it down, using this beautiful Tree Rings throw pattern from Brooklyn Tweed’s Wool People 6:
The pattern calls for 1820 yards of worsted weight yarn, and recommends Shelter. Shelter is a nice choice for home goods, given that Targhee is a more resilient and durable wool fiber than, say, Merino, but still soft. At Knit Purl, we sell this yarn for $12.50 a skein — and you would need 13 skeins to knit this project, plus the cost of the pattern ($8.50). Your total to make this blanket would be around $171.00 (still less than a woven or knitted blanket from West Elm). While this might seem like a heavy initial cost, your cost per use is really where you should look when purchasing yarn for housewares.
In Portland, the average temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 months out of the year.* Guessing that you won’t use this blanket every one of the days for those 5 months, but perhaps 3 nights a week, you will use this blanket close to sixty times each year. Since you’ve made it out of a nice, durable yarn, let’s guess that this blanket sticks around for 20 years (it would probably last more) — in 20 years, you’ll use this blanket close to 1,200 times. Now, if we take the 1,200 times you’ll use this blanket and divide by the cost you spent to make it ($171.00), you get an average cost per use of only 14 cents! This isn’t even counting the countless hours you spent enjoying the making of the blanket.
With numbers like these, it’s easy to justify knitting for the home with yarn you love, rather than just yarn that is cheap. You get what you pay for. Why wouldn’t you want to create something that will last, look beautiful, and perhaps even end up in a family member’s collection someday? Objects of quality, created with love, stand the test of time. That’s a message every knitter hopes to translate through their craft.
Textiles in America 1650 – 1870 by Florence M. Montgomery, for more information.
Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Crochet
The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook, by Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius