Community and Collaboration

by Sarah Lake Upton

Though it wanders a bit thanks to my day job, this blog is really meant to be about yarn, dyeing, and related subjects.  I am reluctant to bring politics into it, because it just seems like bad manners to do so, but I have also found comfort in the blogs of other small business people who are likewise trying to work through their feeling of anger, grief, and fear at the results of this election.  I am on the boat right now, and our limited internet makes it difficult for me to keep up with what others are doing to process and move forward, but when I get home I will be joining in some of those efforts, as well as in local efforts to mitigate whatever is about to come. Suggestions welcome.


The rancor during the election, combined with the outpouring of grief after the election, has led me to think more about the communities I belong to, and what that actually means.  I started Upton Yarns in part because I wanted to provide an additional revenue stream to small farmers (and in part because at the time I was having a hard time finding yarn spun from local wool in the styles that I wanted to knit with).  I am not a large wool buyer, but when you are a small farmer ever bit helps, and my hope is that Upton Yarns can grow, and as it grows the money that fleece brings in can help a sheep enthusiast justify keeping a few backyard sheep or help keep a larger flock-owner in business.


And then there are the small spinning mills, and the people who grow the natural dyes sold by Kathy at Botanical Colors: to produce a single batch of yarn requires (for me) working directly with three different small business, though depending on what dyes I use (sourced through Botanical Colors) there could actually be quite a few more businesses ultimately involved.


This community is important to me, and it often gets overlooked by knitters, though there is a growing awareness and interest in what actually goes into producing the yarn we knit with. 


As important as this community is, until recently I treated it all with a very traditional, capitalist oriented mind-set.  I buy fleece, I pay the spinning bill and the dye bill; I am part of a community but every piece of what each of us does is separate from the other, and then I sell the yarn on to knitters, who make the final product. 


Recently I had a conversation over email with someone who commissioned yarn from me (which makes her a "customer", except that I really don't like that word - we exchanged too many emails and wrote of too many different things for that word to apply anymore, she is someone I would have over for tea - maybe "patron" is better? "Fellow yarn enthusiast who bought yarn from me" is unwieldy but more accurate) that changed my thinking.  Throughout our email discussion of the color she was hoping I could dye her yarn she referred to our "collaboration" in creating her future gansey.  I will admit that at first I found that word a bit odd.  "We" were not collaborating on her gansey, she will knit her own gansey, I was just planning to dye the yarn for which she would pay me.  But the more we discussed her gansey, and the more she referred to me as her "collaborator", the more I thought about my own discomfort with the word "customer" and my further discomfort when forced to refer to Upton Yarns yarn as "my yarn".   Deb at Stonehenge Fiber Mill creates the yarn. (I send her an idea of what I hope the yarn will be, and then she bridges the gap between my hopes and what the fleece I sent her is capable of becoming).  I choose the flocks I work with, and the fleeces that will go into the yarn, but small farmers raise and tend the flocks, and shearers put in the back breaking effort required to shear the sheep. 


The question of who then, given all the different stages of production, can rightfully call the finished yarn "theirs" it tricky, and I would say all of us, and at the same time none of us.


Thinking about all of this, I took a further step back and realized that the exchange of money in no way makes any of this less of a collaboration.  Every step along the way one of us is creating something or adding something to the finished product, and the money that changes hands is less about changing "ownership" of an item than about thanking the person for their efforts and providing the means for them to continue practicing their art. And this includes the knitters, and the wearers, and the eventual menders of the finished garment.  We are all collaborating in the creation of a garment that will hopefully make the eventual wearer feel cared for, even if they are never quite aware of all the people involved in bringing it into existence.


Thank you KC for helping me to consider more fully what we are actually all doing, and for helping me to come to a better way of thinking about it!


(On a related note, Karen Templar at Fringe Association mentioned in a blog post here that she thinks of herself as a "caretaker of people's money", because by buying from Fringe Association people are essentially voting with their money for the success of a small sustainable business selling responsibly sourced items, made by people who are in turn treated well and paid a reasonable wage, and part of her responsibility as the owner of that business is to make a similar "vote" with the money and to make sure that all of those things are true.   She managed to put into words something that I have felt since the beginning of Upton Yarns, but have been unable to fully articulate. Karen also donates a percentage of her profits to groups like Heifer International - I hope to one day be able to do the same, but for now any profits are going directly back to buying more fleece, dyestuffs, paying the spinning bills, and the general flotsam of business expenses.)