bikini tops and bumblebees, totes and mushroom hats, washcloths and water bottle holders; if you can dream it, you can crochet it. What started out as a trend in the early days of the pandemic appears to be here to stay in the fashion world. Until 2020, crocheting was stereotypically reserved for grannies. This changed after COVID-19 and the lockdown. At the beginning of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people had no choice but to twiddle their thumbs and wallow in existential fear. What better way to block fear than picking up a hook and some yarn? As a result, the vehicle exploded on TikTok. If you missed that era, this article from Mashable outlines how crocheters found both popularity and solace by showcasing their creations on TikTok.
Crochet items used to be found primarily on Etsy and were made and sold directly by artists. Unfortunately, when something becomes fashionable, cheaper and less ethical imitations always follow, and crochet is no exception. Fast fashion websites like SHEIN and big retailers like Target have jumped on the crochet trend, significantly undercutting Etsy sellers.
The craft is relaxing and rewarding, but as wearable crochet clothing grows in popularity, it’s important to understand the labor that goes into making these items. It might be hard to swallow, but most crochet items shouldn’t come cheap. Here’s something that might startle you: There’s no way crocheted items can be replicated by machines. Although there are knitting machines, crocheting is only possible by hand. The stitches are just too complicated.
That means this $15 crochet top is handcrafted by SHEIN. If I were to do this for myself, the materials alone would cost $15. After factoring in the cost of labor (let’s say five hours if you’re extremely fast and crocheting nonstop), this bodice should cost at least $60 if the maker was only paid $10 an hour for their labor. On average, SHEIN workers are paid much less. The cheery reviews raving about the top take on a deeply unsettling tone when you stop and consider the work that went into it. A real person sweated over this top and probably got pennies for it.
By purchasing the cheapest option, there’s a high chance your dollar is supporting deeply unethical labor practices. A lot of people aren’t used to spending over $20 on a shirt, so dropping over $50 on a crochet top might seem ridiculous. The reality is that if you want to reward artists fairly for their work, you have to get used to a higher price. One of the most popular crochet items right now, granny squares can be made into everything from bucket hats to blankets. On average, a granny square takes about 30 minutes to make, and a top like SHEIN’s would take about 20 granny squares to complete. That’s over 10 hours of work.
Don’t let these facts embarrass you in your purchasing decisions; If you are interested in crocheting, this is an opportunity to think more deeply about where your clothes come from. In America, we’re often completely alienated from the processes (and people) that make the clothes we wear. It’s all too easy to ignore the fact that there’s a real person sewing our garments together. We drive into the store, look at the shelves with items neatly hung, we try on an outfit, we take it home and that’s it. Handmade crocheted items are a whole different ballgame and need to be approached with a whole different anti-consumer mindset.
If you want to be part of the crochet trend, prioritize quality over quantity. A few well-made items that are ethically made will pay off in the long run. Buying from a smaller, independent artisan not only means your item will be more unique and guilt-free, but also more durable. A quick crochet piece made with inferior yarn and stitches will fall apart after a few washes, while a more expensive, slowly made piece will last for years. You will actually save money over time. When you wear crocheted items from sites like SHEIN, you must also shoulder the guilt that comes with knowing that your purchase has directly contributed to a deeply harmful and wasteful industry.
You could spend all day researching brands to determine their ethics. Or you could pick up a needle and teach yourself to crochet. This is the most ethical option of all – you know exactly where the product is coming from and the only person you need to worry about overhauling is yourself.
I won’t lie and pretend it’s ridiculously easy. There’s a learning curve, especially if you’ve never thought of yourself as a smart person. The most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to make something that looks like crap. You will miscount your stitches. You will be frustrated. Your end product will likely be horribly lumpy and misshapen, and you may never want it to see the light of day. But that’s how you learn. Even the most talented crocheters had to start somewhere.
Bella Coco’s How to Crochet for Absolute Beginners series is one of the most popular entry points for beginners, but there is no end to free resources on how to get to the hook. Type “beginner crochet” into the YouTube search bar and you’ll find a dizzying array of results. Learn the simplest stitches (singles, doubles, and double crochets), learn how to change thread colors, and soon you’ll be a verified pro. The best beginner projects are washcloths. Take some cotton yarn and make small squares to your heart’s content. After your third square, the edges stop being wobbly and start resembling something near perfection. Remember: The beauty of handmade items is that they are handmade, defects and such.
The ikoxun YouTube channel should be your next stop after you get the hang of the basic stitches. She provides step-by-step visual instructions on how to crochet trendy items like shrugs and granny square pants, and how to change the patterns to fit your body perfectly. It’s shockingly easy to fit the items to your body like a glove. SHEIN could never do that. As your skills develop, you will slowly create a collection of items that suit your body and tastes. You’ll have spent hundreds of hours producing something with your own two hands, time you might otherwise have spent aimlessly scrolling Doom. It’s cheap and extremely rewarding. Creation is an innate human need, and crocheting is just one way to fill that gap. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t be able to resist the knitting and embroidery and sewing and felting, and — you get the picture.
Before heading to Jo-Ann’s, there is one more thing to keep in mind when talking about sustainability in the context of crochet. While making your own clothes is a lot more sustainable than buying fast fashion, it’s not entirely guilt-free. The cheapest and most accessible yarn on the market is acrylic. Acrylic yarn is attractive for several reasons: it’s less expensive than most natural fibers, it’s easy to find (major craft chains like Jo-Ann’s and Michael’s carry acrylic yarns almost exclusively), and it’s durable and machine washable. This durability comes at a cost. Acrylic yarns are made from petroleum, which means they are not biodegradable. Every scrap of yarn, no matter how small, ends up in a landfill for decades.
Good OK. What should I do if I can’t afford to buy ethical products but I can’t afford to crochet sustainably? The solution is a bit more complex, but that’s why sustainable fashion is often referred to as “slow” fashion. It takes longer to get there, but in the end it’s worth knowing that your choices haven’t actively harmed the world around you.
Natural fibers are the most sustainable choice. These include yarns made from naturally derived materials such as wool, cotton, silk, linen, bamboo or (my favourite) hemp. These materials naturally degrade over time. They also feel better on your body. At a time when we risk consuming a credit card’s worth of microplastics a week, it feels good to know I’m not intentionally putting more plastic on my skin. Natural fibers are more expensive and sometimes harder to find in stores, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to source.
First, look for a craft store near you. Not only will they stock more yarn made from natural fibers, they may also stock yarns spun by local artisans from local materials. There’s something so comforting about knowing exactly where your materials are coming from. If that’s not an option, go to thrift stores. Facebook Marketplace and real estate sales are always full of people pawning their yarn stash cheaply. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can buy a sweater or other knitted garment and unravel it, then wind the yarn into a ball.
If you can’t or don’t want to reduce your consumption of acrylic yarn, just try to be mindful of your waste while crocheting. If you snip off the ends of a project, save your leftovers and store them in a jar to use as filling for projects like pillows and amigurumi. You’ll sleep better at night knowing your waste will never end up in the ocean or in a landfill. Also, be careful about the tools you use. Invest in metal or wooden hooks rather than plastic – the difference in price is tiny. Instead of buying those cheap plastic stitch markers that look like baby teethers, use safety pins or even old hoop earrings. Your wallet and the planet will thank you in the long run.
Crocheting sustainably is easy, but it’s an exercise in patience. You may see other artisans with acrylic yarn walls and walls displayed in an enticing rainbow, but don’t let the excess tempt you into making bad purchases. Make crocheting a slow, intentional hobby. Actively disengaging from the consumerist propaganda machine that screams “more, more, more” will quiet your mind and make you a more fulfilled person. As your skills develop, so does your pride in your new, handcrafted wardrobe. Making ethical, sustainable choices not only benefits the planet; it feeds your soul.