Restringing: My Mental Relationship with Stash

The below is an essay that is part of the Wool n’ Spinning book club. The club was initiated by Rachel Smith of Wool n’ Spinning, who you can find here: website, Patreon, YouTube, Ravelry. This essay was also posted in the Wool n’ Spinning book club thread here

Reading A Stash of One’s Own edited by Clara Parkes was a bit of an experience. I had not realized until I read this book how confined, stuffy, and limited my ideas were about my own stash. The sheer variety of perspectives in these essays was like opening windows on a musty old house, getting different flavored drafts of fresh air each time.

I’ve been thinking about stash a good bit this year, slowly realizing that my thoughts about my stash are largely limited by guilt. This is my own doing.

I am a recovering perfectionist and materialist, and from childhood have made all kinds of unrealistic lists of the things I would accomplish and/or buy. I don’t keep lists like that anymore, and I only rarely make irrelevant spreadsheets. But old habits die hard, and this one has found one hiding place: the amazing tool that is Ravelry. In “rav,” as we yarnies call it for short, I can keep all my stash entries, queue all the projects I like from my book and magazine stash, and imagine ticking through them one by one.

My stash seemed to happen all at once when I fell hard for knitting in 2009. Back when this blog started, the knitting world seemed like a cornucopia of potential experiences, and I wanted them all. Whenever my husband and I traveled, we’d find multiple yarn shops and buy yarn. Later we got adventurous and even sought out a few farms. Whenever one of us had a brilliant idea inspired by a book, we’d buy yarn. Soon I was a beginning spinner as well, and with the Maryland Sheep & Wool festival spitting distance away, buying fibre at that show of shows was an easy thing too. My stash grew with frightening speed, and though I often knit for eight hours a day, I realized after a couple of years that I might have a practical problem.

So I slowed down. I implemented a new policy sometime in 2010-11: I would only buy yarn when I had a specific project lined up for it. Our budget was drastically reduced with the start of seminary, so that helped. But here’s the trouble: I am still capable of planning, with fabulous specificity, far more projects than I have time to knit.

In theory, this policy was supposed to slow down yarn and fibre acquisition. In reality, it left me with a stash that was almost un-knittable. I still deceived myself: I would knit it all one day. I queued all those projects on Ravelry. But I didn’t knit them. And despite buying next to no yarn at all since 2013, my stash still shrinks at what seems like a very slow speed. (Insert previously rehearsed whinging about having kids.)

What I have been left with is a stash that feels like a burden. I open my cedar chest, or the boxes in my mom’s basement, and get a sinking feeling. I have pruned this stash down to stuff that I really love, and whenever am I going to get to it? The more I reflect on it, the more this seems obviously unhealthy. My relationship with my stash is out of tune. But how do I restring it? And once I have new strings, what key do I tune it to?

Ms. Parkes anthology gave me new perspectives to reflect on at three main points: the reconciling of the theory of perfection with the reality of inspiration, the ethics of stashing, and my shifting reasons for doing all of this crafting in the first place.

I was first struck by two essays: “Without a Stash” by Amy Herzog  (pp. 37-44), representing my ideal of stash-free perfection, and “Spinning Stash” by Jillian Moreno (pp. 115-122), a riotous celebration of shameless stash-supported inspiration. I felt caught between what seemed like two opposites, but actually, they revealed two paradoxically connected ways in which I have been lying to myself.

Amy’s essay is a perfect representation of where I ideally want to be with my stash. Amy had a stash once, and decided to knit through it. She got to a point where she decided to stop buying and knit through it, and here’s the incredible thing: she succeeded. I thought actually knitting through one’s stash was an impossible dream, but she did it. “It felt so amazing,” she says (p. 39), just like I always thought it would. I have wanted that for years now: to have fresh ideas, and be able to buy fresh yarn and fiber to produce them within the year.

In particular, it’s the stashing for specific projects that has failed me. Amy articulated the reason in words I could have written myself. “I don’t want to shackle tomorrow’s creativity to the place I’m in today” (44). She describes how her yarn “bound me to previous versions of myself” (40), and this is a literally accurate description of much of my stash. There are patterns I bought for that I simply do not have the type of time to produce, and only the most sentimental, obsessive desire to complete. I can’t knit ten intricate lace shawls, and in ten years when my kids are big I can again, why would I want to be knitting in my 40s from ideas I had in my 20s?

These are the best years of my life, right now. When I turn 40, what do I want to I want to look back when I see my crafting time, in particular? Do I want to see myself enslaved to the impulses of past? I think not.

It’s the patterns I’m talking about letting go of, really, not the yarn per se. I could knit through that sweater-quantity of green handspun a lot faster if I let go of the idea of knitting it up into a 6 x 2″ cabled stole which I will never wear, and instead knit it up into a cozy housecoat in a brainless stitch.

On the other hand was Jillian Moreno’s essay, which was the only essay specifically about a spinner’s stash. She has no shame about her abundant stash. I don’t mean “shameless” in that flaunting, wanton way that is fighting a secret shame, but genuinely joyful. Her stash is obviously an inspiration to her as an experimenter. She understands play, and the re-learning of play, which she describes in a scene that repeats in her classes when she dumps a giant fibre pile in the middle of the room and instructs her students to take one or two:

“Then there are those who gaze at the pile. They take just enough, maybe a little less. But they keep staring, and I know they need more. They don’t play enough, they don’t give enough to themselves. Sometimes I give them extra, and when I do, their whole self smiles and I hear, faintly, a sort of click. Something has unlocked. It’s a visceral and amazing process. As we work, my students keep diving into the stash. I see them change; they are free and joyous.” (p. 122)

It was clear, in reading this essay, that she couldn’t be wrong. Play is a weak area for me that I am still learning about. I am one of those students who needs that click.

She had to be right, but I didn’t know why, so I sifted through the possibilities. Spinning stash, I surmised, might be genuinely different. Fibre, unlike the committed yarn in my stash, can be anything. One braid of fiber can be spun in more ways than I could list. As a learning, experimenting spinner, having a stash of random braids makes one free to learn and play. Those big quantities of fibre for big projects are great too, but the sheer quantity makes me feel more pressure that the decision on how to use them be considered and practical. So really, I can stash small quantities of fibre so they are ready for inspiration and learning, but the yarn should be buy-and-use. Right?

Except that’s not really true either. This was demonstrated to me through a category of my stash that I acquired accidentally, and is a big part of why my stash doesn’t seem to shrink: inherited stash. I got a big pile of yarn from one friend who died, and one friend who moved away. I find myself using that stash a lot. Not only because I care about those people (I do), but because that yarn has no plans. I was given it en masse, but I only kept what I liked. I liked it, but I didn’t choose it, so I didn’t feel the need to make a plan for it. So when I want to knit something that fits in my life right now, I often slide past the bulk of my stash, married to its unusable plans, and grab a skein or ten of that inherited stash, which has no claim on it.

Obviously, yarn can become anything too. It’s me who decided it can’t be anything but the idea I bought it for a decade ago. Many of the essays describe how their stash is an inspiration to them, and I didn’t really understand that feeling. Rather, I thought I didn’t understand it. I’d stifled the creativity with my rigid plans, but I was accidentally inspired by the stash that evaded my control. The plans were fun to make, but I’m holding onto them so tightly that they are doing me no good.

So, conceptually, my ideas have shifted. There’s a reality to inspiration in the present that my stash needs to serve differently, and it can if I let it.

How about practically? What does this mean for stash acquisition? Should I spend more freely as I am inspired, singing “Que sera, sera! What will be, will be”? Should I continue to stash down, but with more liberated ideas for projects? How do I find moderation? Two more essays provided some guidance here.

Anna Maltz’s essay, “Morning Stash / Portable Stories” (pp. 79-88), gave me a good slap in the face. She says on p. 84, “An obsession with minimalism has always smacked to me of a romanticism of poverty … from a wealthy perspective.” Oh dear. Every copy of Real Simple magazine, and every spread curated around Martha Stewart, immediately leaped to mind. I don’t have much romance about poverty personally, having lived in it and currently living around a lot of it. But it struck me what a silly, privileged fantasy it is to be focused on having the perfect amount of not-too-much stuff. And what’s more, in my stashing down, I am absolutely thinking about getting through / getting rid of what I have for the promise of the enjoyment of more and different stuff. “The onus,” says Anna, “should be on not acquiring, rather than on throwing away or ‘letting go’ to make way for more new things (85).

Anna had positive things to say too, which pointed toward more balance in having a reasonable stash more driven by people than by consumption. But it was “Mark of the Hand, Mark of the Heart” by Kim McBrien Evans (pp. 165-170) that painted a positive vision that helped me see my habits more clearly. Kim has a house overflowing with yarn and fibre, a practical reality as a hand-dyer, but she talks about a special stash that is about more than that. It’s about people: primarily artists she’s patronized and students she’s taught.

Other essayists mentioned similar sentiments about stash and memory, but I connected with Kim particularly because of the childhood she described, growing up in a household of artists. Of her family trips, she says, “Summers were spent traveling from one artist’s studio to another, watching them create in their own unique environment. Every time I use one of the pieces gathered during that time, it’s a visit with that person” (166).

My mom seems to understand this. She comes from a long line of artists, and thinks like one. I was reminded of a crawl Mom and I took through western Maryland, patronizing various kinds of potters and fibre artists. Mom collects pottery, and over many years collected a place setting from each one of her favorite artists until she now has a collection that will set the whole table, each setting different. There’s no unity except that it’s all pottery, it’s all beautiful, and it’s loads of fun to use.

She shops for yarn like that too, I think. She buys beautiful things often without a firm grasp on what they will become, and most of it hangs on her wall, carefully arranged for maximum inspiration. My dad, too, decorates the walls of his impressive man-cave with trains that will one day live on his garden railroad track, and various train- or mine-related historical paraphernalia.

Me, I can’t hang yarn on walls in ways that seem at all tasteful. Actually, I am too full of self-doubt to hang much of anything on a wall that doesn’t serve an obvious practical purpose. To me, the colorful wall-stash seems like an impractical mess. How will this lead to practical, inoffensive wardrobe staples? But she isn’t making wardrobe staples. She’s making wearable art, and she does it for herself, exactly how she likes. And along the way, she has collaborated with the inspiration of countless others. (She’s going to comment on this post, eventually, too, so hopefully we’ll find out what she’s actually thinking, and not just what I guess.)

When I visited yarn producers in my yarn-crawling past, I have had those conversations. I have heard those stories. But when I reflect on those visits, I was distracted with how that store can serve me. I wasn’t really focused on the person I was conversing with. I was going through my mental catalogue of patterns, so I could come up with the practical plan that will be the excuse for that acquisition. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the intervening years, and how to break through the haze of my own insecurity and really connect with someone. What I haven’t practiced yet is how to let that connection become an inspiration, served by patronizing that artist. I’ve had a taste of it, shopping a little bit from Katrina and her mum at CraftyJaks. She’s such an open-hearted open book about her inspiration that it seems impossible not to be inspired by her work. But this is the first time for me that a personal connection has led naturally for me into buying a product, without worrying overmuch about the expenditure or the plan. Not coincidentally, hers is the first fibre club I am seriously considering signing up for.

So, where does that leave me? It leaves me feeling freed. I don’t need to acquire more; with a baby coming, large acquisitions at this point are probably just about something else. But if I can just enjoy the people who make, during those few and special occasions when I get to connect with them, I can patronize them freely without worrying about the future. I am also ready to free my stash: it’s time to burn my queue, rip out the truncated start to Argonath, and just cast on a plain sweater I know I will knit and love now.

The one overriding theme? The stash is not about the stash. It’s about people, listening, and love. It’s about play, creativity, and learning. It’s about the craft.

I can’t take any of it with me when I die. But it can be a part of the mark I leave behind: a way to remember the connections I made. The tone was set by Meg Swansen’s opening essay about her mother, “Inheriting from Elizabeth Zimmerman” (pp. 11-16) which included a report of the shocking quantity of tidbits and detritus left in the wake of her furiously active crafting mind. Those tidbits were saved and passed on because they reminded many dozens of knitters of how she touched their lives, empowered them, even loved them, through and in and alongside her work. The stuff can’t be about the stuff. There’s no shame in leaving things behind. It won’t matter to us either way, will it? But it will all end up in the dustbin of my offspring unless they have a reason to keep it: because it’s an artifact of love. A way to reach back and touch someone who meant much more to them than stuff.

5 thoughts on “Restringing: My Mental Relationship with Stash

  1. That’s really interesting to read. I don’t really have any stash to speak of at all — the yarn I have hanging around is exclusively the bits and bobs leftover from finished projects. I tend to pick something I’d like to make, buy exactly enough yarn, and then make it, the end.

    Where I get tripped up is not un-used yarn but unfinished projects. I’ve got a half-sewn rag rug that I began when I was pregnant with D waiting to be finished, and a quilt I started in… let’s see… 2009, and probably others if I went digging. Instead of a destashing project I think I need a just-finish-it-already project!


      1. Yes exactly! It worked pretty well in not making me feel deprived. I’m doing something similar with stash, though I’m so much less tempted to buy than I used to be.


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