15 January 2007

Luxury

1. a material object, service, etc., conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity. 2. free or habitual indulgence in or enjoyment of comforts and pleasures in addition to those necessary for a reasonable standard of well-being. 3. a means of ministering to such indulgence or enjoyment. 4. a pleasure out of the ordinary allowed to oneself. 5. a foolish or worthless form of self-indulgence.

Over a year ago, I decided that it was high time I saw THE TREE, you know, the Rockefeller Center tree that graces every picture of New York in December. (And of course, this year it was better known as the site of those pics demonstrating the marital freedom celebration the world was waiting for… Britney being all healthy and glowy and wearing a stupid dressage hat …. if only we’d known then that her ‘freedom’ photos would include skivvy-free photos too, but I digress.)

So I saw the tree, shopped all over the city and bought yarn. Nice yarn. Expensive yarn. Clapotis yarn.

The Lorna’s Laces Lion and Lamb is most likely the most expensive, luxurious yarn to ever grace my needles. And it’s a darn good thing that I’ve experienced silk at the beginning of my yarn diet, when my resolve is somewhat still in existence, because oh mama, is this a whole new knitting experience.

As part of my resolution to read outside of the dissertation, I recently picked up Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Somewhat paradoxically, I purchased this tome on overspending and luxury at a store closing sale and it set me back a whopping buck. I’d really recommend this to anyone interested in the consumption patterns of contemporary America and, probably more relevant to all those whose resolutions were of the financial nature, on how to get out of the patterns of competition and over-consumption which threaten all of us.

She writes about how “keeping up with the Joneses” has changed from the 1950s to the late 90s (the book is a bit dated, but I don’t think things have changed in the last five years). Particularly, she argues that our focus groups have expanded so that we watch people at work or on television shows in order to establish the ‘norm’ for our consumption practices. Because every sitcom shows a supposedly middle class family with a flat screen TV, we believe this is average. She cites statistics on how much viewing affects our perception of reality and our spending habits. “The more people watch television, the more they think American households have tennis courts, private planes, convertibles, car telephones, maids, and swimming pools. Heavy watchers also overestimate the portion of the population who are millionaires, have had cosmetic surgery, and belong to a private gym” (80). Car phones as the height of technology? Um, yeah… like I said, a bit dated.

But that distorted perception comes at a real cost. “Social theories of consumption hold that the inflated sense of consumer norms promulgated by the media raises people’s aspirations and leads them to buy more… Television also affects norms by giving us real information about how other people live and what they have. It allows us to be voyeurs, opening the door to the ‘private world’ inside the homes and lives of others” (81).

Isn’t this what blogging does as well? Crafting blogs seem to especially serve as sites for voyeurism, allowing us to peek into the creativity going on behind closed doors. On the one hand, we feel that we’re getting a complete picture of someone’s studio or knitting bag, but really, we’ve all commented on how blogging is somewhat artificial in that we stage photo sessions and cut out the dirty dishes and piles of laundry.

But to get back to where I started…luxury. As I was reading this, I was thinking about the standards of our knitting community and our sense of the common use of ‘luxury’ yarns. We apologize when we knit with $2 a skein Wool-Ease, justifying that it’s for a child and will need to be machine washed by a frazzled new mom. We don’t blink an eye at $20-$25 for yarn for a pair of socks. We even collect sock yarn, rationalizing that we’ll use it eventually and it’s only a skein or two to tuck away into our stuffed cabinets and boxes. I find it fascinating how we as a community have normalized $20 socks.

I’m not criticizing at all. I’m right at the forefront of justifying my yarn purchases. I just find it very interesting, and yes, personally alarming, how fast my perception has changed. When I first took a sock knitting class, I was appalled at having to spend around $15 for my supplies (something Regia, I believe). Now, it seems like I’m getting a bargain when I buy Koigu solids at $18 for two skeins. No longer do $20 socks seem to be a luxury, just as Schor discusses how the prevalence of advertisements for luxury products make their purchase seem average. We might call it the Starbucks-ing of America, when $4 coffee is “average” rather than a splurge. She talks about seeing ads for luxury pens every day in the newspaper. Before long, those ads are no longer shocking and we begin to believe it is normal, acceptable and even desirable that a pen costs $100 or more.

Of course, taking into account the amount of time we spend knitting a pair of socks, it makes sense to purchase yarn that feels nice and is enjoyable to work with. When we buy yarn, we are making an investment in how we will spend our time. I also do believe there is a quality difference in supplies. I can tell a huge difference between the $8 - $10 a yard quilt shop fabric and the $3 - $4 a yard fabric from JoAnn’s. (Although some of the new JoAnn’s materials are quite nice, which is yet another reason to avoid the quilting section for a long, long time!) My finished products are nicer when I invest in quality supplies. (I also seem to work more carefully when I'm using "quality" i.e. "expensive" products, but that's for another post.)

But what is the line between quality and luxury?

I suppose that line must be determined by the individual project and the individual knitter/quilter. Schor addresses this in the book and it’s something I want to think more about, but I want to go back to the idea of community influence.

She writes about a young chef who played a weekly game of squash in a league with an older, wealthier crowd. The young man enjoyed the company and never experienced explicit pressure to be part of their economic circle. Yet, just by being around them and unconsciously observing their more expensive clothing, cars and consumption patterns, he was feeling great stress at home and at work, constantly feeling inadequate and inferior. Before he joined the weekly game, he was content in his work and found the salary to be comfortable. The guy had to quit the league and take up a different sport in order to alleviate his symptoms of depression and stress. Schor argues that if we truly want to change our spending practices (and she discusses some pretty severe lifestyle changes, not just cutting corners here and there), we must change our focus groups and surround ourselves with people of like economic minds, even if that means changing hobbies, neighborhoods, schools for our children, jobs and even friends.

I certainly don’t think that anyone should quit knit-blogger or anything, but I wonder how we function as a group that unconsciously pressures members to spend at a level which may be beyond our means. I’d probably have to confess that I spend beyond my means on yarn and fabric. I don’t really think I’m trying to keep up with others. In fact, I’d be the first to admit that financially I can’t afford to spend as much as I would like and that really, I’m not that invested in making projects which require top dollar investment.

But how much am I unconscious about my own perceptions of a “normal” stash? How much do I participate in a luxury economy without realizing that I’ve left the realm of my financial equals? How much do I unconsciously change my sense of the world (and my yarn budget) as I surf through the blogs and look at all that glorious yarn?

Have I lost sight of what luxury really is?

4 comments:

Lone Knitter said...

I loved reading your post. It hit a lot of chords with me. I often feel like my stash is below par because it's not filled with tons of "luxury" yarns. Right now I'm knitting with some budget acrylic blended thing and loving it. But why did I just describe the yarn that way? Oh, geez. I have a lot to overcome!

Kris said...

Thanks for the post that is right on target. I, for one, cannot afford the "luxury" yarns that a lot of bloggers post about. While I would prefer to knit with them, it just isn't in the pocket book. I am not above knitting with Peaches & Creme nor Knit Picks even though I would much rather use Aurora 8 or any cashmere blend...

I don't think it is just a matter of trying harder with the more expensive supplies, because I experience the same thing.

Meredith said...

Well written and fantastic points made. And imagine, this is all before we leave the house for the day. Once you get out into the real world and away from television, you are hit with the marketing of impulse buys and displays in every shop you enter. It's a no win situation, unless you make a conscious effort to think before you spend.
I find it can be hard too, and I certainly remember thinking "um...$28 per skein? They're SOCKS!!". Ha ha! You are right though, it does force you to work more slowly and more carefully.

K. said...

I really like your message. Sometimes people think too much about all the 'things' they can have rather than finding what will really make them happy. Spending lots of money rarely makes me happy. I don't think I could bring myself to buy yarn for a sweater if it was going to cost me $100 or more. I'd be afraid to spill coffee on the thing. (I spill coffee on EVERYTHING) :)