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Welcome to My Humble Collection of Vintage and Precious Yarns

We've all been thinking about stash the wrong way.

We've been hoarding it, hiding it, rationalizing it and apologizing for it, or perhaps stubbornly defending it. In every case, we've been butting ourselves up against the essential dilemma that we, and others, see our yarn stash as a set of supplies for a craft, and therefore when we have more supplies than we can ever use, the cry is raised: the stash is irrational! When the stash assumes proportions beyond its reasonable intended use, it becomes – at least in the eyes of outsiders – useless, defective and wrong. It becomes a bad sign about the sort of person who is behind it. Those of us who own just such an assemblage of "unnecessary" crafting materials must be ourselves irrational, warped, not quite like the rest of them, like the people living out there in the real cold world of yarn with a purpose.

But what if we scrap this whole idea of stash as supplies? Let's call it what it really is: a collection. We, knitters and stashers, collect yarn as others collect vintage cars, model tanks, commemorative coins, snow globes, ducks, or bottle caps. Collections are things we all accept, and usually more or less respect, no matter what the collection consists of, from dishes that hang on the wall instead of serving our dinners, to ceramic cow creamers, to Olympic pins, to fishing lures that were never intended to lure any fish. We don't expect collections to be useful; their purpose is only to exist. Writing in the University of Chicago Magazine with all semblance of a belief in the inherent sanity of collectors (and speaking of people who graduated from this prestigious university and are thus presupposed to be well-educated and presumably rational, productive citizens), writer Mary Ruth Yoe formulates a working definition of collections:

Lots of people, of course, have "collections" of books, videos, records, CDs, and so on. But […] I would argue that these assemblages don't qualify as true collections, objects amassed not for the performance conveyed in the medium but rather for the thing itself: blue-and-white pottery because it is blue-and-white pottery; a rock or a leaf from every hike along the Appalachian Trail; every Barbie outfit, still in its original packaging. ("Editor's Note," University of Chicago Magazine, April 2001.
See also "Collective Efforts," University of Chicago Magazine, October 2001.)

Let's say that last part again out loud: "Objects amassed not for the performance conveyed in the medium but rather for the thing itself": ah, yes, that's it. That is why you can't knit up that bag of hand-painted, hand-spun qiviut. It is your only bag of hand-painted, hand-spun qiviut and it is a perfect end in itself – it cannot be knit, because it is the single representative in your stash/collection of its species, and the species it represents is of a particularly rare and precious type. If we were talking vintage cars here, and you suggested someone take their 1971 Hemi Cuda on a jaunt through midtown Manhattan at rush hour, the world would rightly exclaim in horror at the very idea, right? Right! And likewise should the world understand that some yarns are just too precious to knit.

Thus, some yarns, representing the finest specimens of their kind, are suitable to cherish, to display (for those who appreciate these things) or to hide (from the unworthy, or the dangerously competitive).

But that's not the only kind of yarn we collect, nor the only kind worth collecting. There are also those yarns that may not be special in themselves, but which require extraordinary efforts to acquire them – journeys to remote locations, outright brawls with other collectors, etc. Some were discontinued and will never been seen again.

Then there are the Souvenir Yarns, the ones we bought or received as gifts from special people, or on special trips. I have a few hanks of horribly over-spun and scratchy blue wool that I bought in a market square in Budapest from the young woman, about my age, who had spun it. I'll always keep it, and always enjoy it, because I only went to Budapest that one time, and this yarn will always bring back to me the memory of that market square.

Some souvenir yarns are less sentimental; perhaps they are merely odd – like the skein of gray 3-ply I bought for 10 rubles – 10 rubles, people! – from a little old lady in Ivanovo, Russia. She was selling her wares, skeins in every color imaginable, on a folding table near some abandoned train tracks. I'm pretty sure it's dog hair, but, hey, it was a ball of yarn, found in the remotest of remote corners of a forgotten and dying city, purchased for thirty-seven cents from a woman old enough to have seen the Revolution. That's not something you can just pick up any day of the week.

Beyond the Precious Yarns and the similarly irreplaceable Souvenir Yarns, there are still other varieties and, in the interest of a scientific classification of my very serious, very valuable, and eminently respectable Yarn Collection, I have here named a few of the other essential categories:

Bathing Yarns – These are yarns so beautiful, so soft, so luscious, that they cannot be knit, they can only be bathed in. For me, anything in any shade of red falls into this category, though I'm particularly partial to baby alpacas and alpaca/silks. I recommend laying them all out, lighting some candles, putting a nice classical CD in the stereo, and….rolling. Gentle cooing noises may also be appropriate.


Ambition Yarns – These are yarns saved up for a fantasy project too outrageous or too big to ever really complete, but so exciting that the mere contemplation of the project, while fondling the yarn set aside for it, affords hours of pleasure and inspiration. For me, I have a large set of thin, thin, thin cobweb-weight wools in magnificent jewel colors that, someday, I plan to strand together in random small increments, eventually yielding a sportweight yarn with which I will knit magnificently colorful gloves. Not that I've ever knit gloves even with a yarn I didn't ply together myself, inch by carefully chosen inch, but hey. You have to have goals.
Shame Yarns – These are the yarns that humble us. We cannot throw or give them away, because to do so would force us to admit to having them in the first place. Mine include some very shiny ribbon yarns, made from viscose, purchased in enormous quantities for I know not what purpose. One or two skeins would have been reasonable – for a funky scarf, maybe stranded together with another yarn. But 20 SKEINS in enough colors to make a lovely, large fair isle sweater…out of ribbon so shiny it looks like it belongs in your wrapping-paper drawer?? And yes, there is also that acrylic, variegated boucle in a colorway reminiscent of a muddy autumn puddle that I bought on Ebay during some kind of fit. And some variegated chenille (I like neither variegated colors, nor chenille). And of course, the obligatory eyelash yarn….in red.

Dessert Yarns – Similar to bathing yarns, these come in smaller quantities, and are sometimes leftovers from signal projects-past. They are yarns good enough to eat, and when dwindled down to the last skein or two, too good to knit. I have a last skein of buttery, undyed alpaca -- from which I knitted my husband a cardigan -- which I will never use, but do occasionally take out to fondle and sniff. There's also a few yards left of that heavenly Himalayan wool / recycled silk in red, which, if I stare at it long enough, gives me a gentle, pleasing buzz.

One-Skein Wonders – These are yarns you had to own, that had to find a home in your personal collection, but which either couldn't be afforded in quantities suitable for a knitted project, or which don't lend themselves easily to any of the obvious small knitted articles.

The skein of Filatura di Crosa "Van Gogh" [middle right] is lovely and takes a place of pride in my stash, but has yet to tell me that it yearns to become any knitted object. Perhaps it simply is what it is: a ball of very beautiful yarn.

Phase Leftovers – The bits and pieces of yarns over-purchased at the height of a frenzy for felting, or for warshcloths, or for lace, which languish after the knitter as moved on to a new phase. It would be unfair to say they languish in obscurity, however; I often look back on mine fondly.

Sometimes, they whisper to me of past adventures. In this way, Phase Leftovers overlap with Souvenir Yarns, but they are generally different in that the promise of a return is always there.



Curious and Curioser – These are the yarns that defy explanation.

We're not sure how we acquired them, or what they consist of exactly, but their mystery makes them all the more delightful.


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Best Friends – These are the yarns we most love to knit with, the ones we can never own enough of, the ones we have to buy in enormous quantities because they vanish from the stash almost as rapidly as we acquire them. If our stash runs momentarily low in such a yarn, we feel sensations of nausea, anxiety, and fear. For me these are the baby alpaca/silks, Peace Fleece [a great yarn just made for my half-Russian, half-American family] and the 50%-50% cotton/wool I brought back from Ivanovo in a suitcase, for 35 rubles a ball [that's a little over a dollar, friends].

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Let us begin to take our Yarn Collections seriously: what other categories of classification can be found in your stash? It's time to display them properly and proudly, like any other collection, on shelves behind glass.


Oh, and the next time someone questions your stash, ask them how often they attempt to drive their late-production Tiger I model tank, or "what's the sense in" sticking their limited edition Three Stooges collectible plate in a plastic bin at the back of the closet! You might ask them instead: when was the last time someone made you a piece of custom-fit clothing inspired by a collection of vintage board games?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate A. is the same girl who came up with that Knitter's Geek Code thing, though she's changed her name since then, and acquired a blog.

She's also moved, thereby acquiring a closet solely devoted to her yarn stash. Well, there's the closet, and the bin under the bed. And the display case.