I have just finished Scott Herring’s terrific new book, The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture and I just have to talk about it here. Hoarding, you say? What does that have to do with fiber and knitting? Oh, ye of little faith. This blog is called “knitting the stash” after all . . . and what is a stash but a hoard in the traditional sense of the word: treasure, cache, stock or store. But sadly, knitters and fiber-junkies often get labeled (or label themselves) as hoarders.
According to Herring (remember, my day job is as a professor . . .), hoarding is actually a relatively new name for a type of behavior that has a longer and more complex genealogy than we might at first imagine. His book traces at least four lines of development, the Collyer brothers (and issues of race and place in post WWII America), the rise of collectibles markets in the US, the invention (and treatment) of clutter as a problem for the modern housewife, and the twinned issues of aging and rubbish. Two of these, collectibles and clutter, are at work when we talk about our stashes. And it’s these ideas that could help us rethink the relationship between stashing and hoarding.
First, we often think of our yarn as collectible, even and especially if it is pretty readily available stuff. Consider MadelineTosh buyers swooning over discontinued colorways, Spinning Box subscribers and mystery KAL participants who have access to a (secret) set of one-of-a-kind fiber-y goodness, or those limited addition colorways that Jimmy Beans Wool is always dangling at us in our email inboxes.
In my own stash, I have some yarn that I think of as “worth” something–mostly the MadTosh, but also, and importantly, the one-of-a-kind yarns from smaller, local mills or growers. It’s hard to knit (or spin) these up given that there is only so much of it to go around. And once it’s knit, well, it’s not part of the collection any longer–at least not in its pristine form.
But this idea of the collectible was created, marketed, and taken up largely by the middle class in the 1970s and 1980s–shocking, I know! So, while there is nothing inherently wrong with thinking about our stash as a set of collectibles, we should recognize that even this term and idea has a history and we have fallen prey to the idea of value in mass-market goods.
Second, we may not, but our families and friends (or outsiders) often do think of yarn and fiber as potential clutter. We fight this all the time, pushing back against the stigma by boxing, tubbing, classifying, sorting, and organizing our stashes. I think Rubbermaid stock has certainly gone up since the resurgence of knitting in the early 2000s. I see many a post on FB asking some variation of the question: how do you store your ____? The answers sometimes includes pictures of a stash held at bay with lots of storage containers, closets, pillow cases, and other shelving devices.
Some fiberistas have gone so far as to suggest minimalism as a way to combat all that knitting clutter. Rachael Herron’s recent article in Twist Collective, “Let it Go: Zen and the Art of Crafty Minimalism” suggests getting rid of your stash all together (gasp–I know, take a minute and a few deep breathes). While she makes some very valid points, the language of her article suggests to me that there is a real anxiety that we knitters (and spinners) are a danger to ourselves and others. As she says:
Knitters are, by nature, hoarders.
(Oh dear, that might not go over well, either.)
Okay, let me start another way.
I am a hoarder. Not one of those on reality TV shows; there are no dead rats in these cupboards. On the contrary, I am very good at organizing. I have a master’s degree in Target storage bins with a minor in the Container Store’s modular drawers. I was somewhat proud of this until I read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She lays it out, simply and directly: “Storage experts are hoarders.”
Ouch. It hurts because it’s true, right? Those of you feeling most anxious (or even angry) at this point—my darlings, you are the ones with the deepest and most “organized” closets. I say this with love, being one of you.
In response, I would levy Herring’s arguments about the rise of hoarding as an “ongoing panic over personal possessions” (3). Just at the moment in the twentieth century when (middle) class status allows for the accumulation of *stuff* we also have the rise of a condition called hoarding. As Herring explains, “The Hoarders is a book about how some people’s things unsettle some accepted conceptions of material culture, [and] why documentaries, articles, and websites, dedicate themselves to eradicating this activity” (3). Clutter, like collecting, became a mainstream idea in the late twentieth century–and it’s solution: organization! And thus a new industry was born.
So, we already know that fiber (in various quantities) unsettles certain people. We know that we sometimes refer to ourselves as hoarders (even if we mean it humorously). We know that organization *feels* like the solution to this “problem.” But the funny thing is that stashing is not necessarily a problem. And we are not necessarily hoarders. It all depends on how you think about possessions and our interactions with them. Most of us would argue that our stashes give us joy; that, yes, our stash can occasionally overwhelm us; but in the long run, a stash represents a collection or a living history of our work as fiber-people. Most knitters and spinners I know can tell you exactly where a given fiber came from, maybe how much it cost, and it’s planned use.
Now, this is not to say that Rachael Herron’s arguments are not salient. If your stash has got you down, by all means, figure out a way to de-stress by rethinking or de-stashing. But maybe it would help us all to think differently about our stashes if we learned a bit more about the history of “hoarding” as a cultural phenomenon, and we can, thanks to Scott Herring’s book.
I’ll admit it, my stash is my hoard: my treasure, my cache, my accumulation of time spent thinking about the hobby I love so much.