A craft once a necessity, now merely a hobby in Pakistan

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A woman sits on the floor knitting with colorful yarn.

Bushra Shahid, who runs the handmade business Snowool, knits at her home in Karachi, Pakistan.

Sitting by the fire, and in front of her television, on a cold winter night in Lahore, Huma Munir knits yet another sweater for one of her grandchildren. She is engrossed in her work, moving the needles at lightning speed, while watching a drama serial and talking to her family.

This precision and dedication to the craft has come with years of practice. When she was 16, Munir learned from a cousin and fondly remembers her mother knitting, too. “She would be knitting even when she was laying on her bed,” recalls Munir, now 70.

Munir even taught one of her daughters, Mehnaz Nasir, to knit, though Nasir was not able to pass on the craft on to her own daughter.

“My daughter does appreciate my work but she is not interested in learning it,” Nasir says.

The image of older women knitting for their children and grandchildren is a common one in Pakistan’s colder, northern areas.

As September begins, markets in these parts of the country fill up with winter wear. Yet, the advent of fast fashion has not deterred people who still prefer to knit. Some call it a hobby, a passion, or a habit, and others have ventured into the business of selling handmade items.

A woman on a red sofa, knitting.

Huma Munir knits in front of her fireplace in Lahore.

Knitting as a necessity
Knitting in Pakistan used to be one of the only ways one could wear a warm garment in winter. Munir remembers her cousin teaching her how to follow instructions in an English catalogue.

“Of course we didn’t have the internet, so everyone either learned designs from their mothers or through catalogues from England,” she says. “The magazine was called Stitch Craft and was popular back in the day.”

For Munir’s generation, learning how to knit was a necessity.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s knitting was important because either we couldn’t find good quality sweaters in the market or couldn’t afford imported ones,” she says.

Married to an army officer, Munir had to move around the country every few years, and she and her fellow army wives would knit together during afternoon teas. She remembers learning new stitches and ideas from these women that had been passed down from prior generations.

Designing unique garments for their family members, which would become the envy of others in the community, motivated these women to continue knitting. Some knitted woolen garments year round to be ready for the winter.

“Women would come up with new designs and knit them in secrecy,” says Shahnaz Parveen, supervisor of the knitting department at Behbud Crafts, a nonprofit that aims to preserve age-old crafts in Pakistan and empower women, and an artisan herself. They wouldn’t share the ideas with others. It was a competition.”

A woman in a black head scarf knitting.

Shahnaz Parveen, an artesan and supervisor of the knitting department at Behbud Association, knits a pair of socks.

Behbud, sustaining the craft of knitting in Pakistan
Knitting might be diminishing in popularity as most millennials choose fast fashion, but the craft has a rich history in Pakistan. Sonya Rehman, a writer who recently finished her book, Embroidering Dreams, about the Pakistani nonprofit Behbud, notes that the organization was founded to use craft to empower women two years after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Behbud’s founder, Begum Ahkter Riazuddin, wanted to empower the war widows, gathering them in a garage in Rawalpindi, where they would knit and sew items to sell.

Behbud’s work continues today from an office in Rawalpindi, which teaches women from around the country traditional embroidery and patchwork, such as Kantha and Ralli, cross stitch and, of course, knitting, and pays them to craft items — sweaters, blankets, leggings, caps, and toys — for sale online and at boutiques in major cities across Pakistan. Each knitter earns a minimum of 15,000 PKR (roughly $95 USD) per month, making more for additional items.

“Their knitwear for children remains one of their best-selling items,” Rehman says.

Crochet blankets and booties.

Handmade items for kids at Behbud.

Parveen believes that people would always prefer handmade knitwear for their children over ready-made items.

“The demand for hand-knitted products has increased in the past few years,” Parveen says. “The quality is matchless and keeps children warmer.”

While they even have machines to knit items like leggings for babies, Behbud prefers that home-based workers knit the items themselves from locally-sourced wool.

“While imported wool is softer, it would increase the cost of making and in turn the selling cost,” Parveen says. “Hence, we prefer locally-made wool.”

Outside a yarn store.

The Blue Star Wool and General Store, a shop in the heart of Islamabad.

Wool, or the lack of it
Pakistan is the world’s ninth largest wool-producing country according to industry experts, but it is a neglected sector.

“Wool doesn’t add value for our industry,” says Azizullah Gohir, secretary general of the Pakistan Textile Exporters Association. “Productions and consumption is low in Pakistan. Hence, (it is) not believed to be lucrative.”

Cotton is the main focus of the country’s nearly 450 spinning mills, as Pakistan is the fourth largest cotton-producing country in the world, according to Gohir.

According to some experts, 66% of the wool produced in the country is used to make clothes, 30% to make carpets and 4% is used for industrial purposes. Pakistan does not have modern techniques available to increase the production of sheep wool, or technology to process it into fine wool. Hence, industrialists do not believe it to be profitable enough to invest in. The majority of wool yarn and products — about 7 trillion PKR ($44 billion USD) — are imported from other countries, mostly China.

The decrease in wool production is also political, according to some local vendors.

“It was during Musharraf’s era, around 2001 to 2007, when imports became cheap and extensive in Pakistan,” says Sulaiman Sajjad, owner of The Wool Shop in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “Wool shops started facing losses and even mills were shut down. People stopped knitting and started buying cheap Chinese knitwear.”

A Pakistani man wearing a face mask standing in a shop of colorful yarn.

Suleiman Sajjad of The Wool Shop standing against a wall of colorful wool.

Sajjad’s shop is lined floor to ceiling with a wide variety of colorful wool, knitting needles and other craft accessories.

Sajjad is in his late 30s and his family has been in business for three generations. His grandfather, Abdul Ghani, opened their first wool shop in the 1960s in Moti Bazaar, Rawalpindi, one of the nation’s oldest bazaars. Founded at the turn of the last century, today it houses thousands of shops, including a branch of The Wool Shop.

Sajjad’s shop is one of the very few shops that house wool all year round, with others selling wool only during the winter and switching to other products as seasons change.

At The Wool Shop, about 60% of the wool is local and the rest is imported. According to Sajjad, most wool prepared in Pakistan is made in Gujranwala and Faisalabad, the textile capital of Pakistan, though he says the wool made in Gujranwala is of better quality.

“The wool made in Faisalabad isn’t of great quality because the thread is made of cotton and other impurities, while the one made in Gujranwala at least has good fiber,” he says.

Sajjad also houses imported wool, from Turkey, Spain, Germany and England. He notes that the Turkish wool is popular among buyers but is expensive, with a pound costing between 1,600 and 3,000 PKR ($10 to $20 USD). By contrast, a pound of local wool can cost between 400 PKR to 600 PKR ($2.50 to $4 USD).

Sajjad says that customers from all walks of life visit his shop and that the ability to cater to all markets has been his selling point all these years.

“Sometimes women show me pictures of wool I don’t have,” Sajjad says. “Which makes me wonder, even after accommodating so many colors and qualities, why do I not have this item?”

Sajjad can source these yarns them from his vendors or get them locally dyed.

A Pakistani man sits amongst walls of colorful yarn.

Suleiman Sajjad’s father, who started The Wool Shop back in the 1980s.

The popularity of knitting and crocheting has ebbed and flowed in the six decades that The Wool Shop has been around, but these crafts have remained important. And with the introduction of social media, it has made a comeback.

“When women started getting an education and did not have time for household chores, the craft took a back seat,” Sajjad says. “But as times change, people have again started to retake interest in the craft.”

While just a decade ago most of Sajjad’s customers used to be women over the age of 50, he says that now teenagers and women in their 20s or 30s are also taking an interest in the craft.

Sajjad points to travelling as one of the reasons for the comeback.

“My clients have said that their kids who have moved abroad have asked them to restart knitting because they saw how it is still a hobby in the west,” Sajjad says.

Social media and increasing small businesses
Samina Zohair, 56, was visiting her daughter in Australia in 2011 when she was reunited with knitting.

“I got arthritis so I stopped knitting, but my daughter encouraged me and bought new catalogues and equipment for me to begin,” Zohair says.

Once back in Pakistan, she started giving knitted items as gifts, starting her online business, Knittens, in 2017.

“My children asked me to start this professionally and through the word of mouth I started getting orders,” Zohair says.

For Zohair, Knittens is purely a hobby and isn’t how she earns a living.

Various handmade knitwear business accounts have emerged on Pakistan’s social media landscape over the past few years. Some makers work all year round, others only during the colder months.

Another handmade business owner is 26-year-old Bushra Shahid. She started knitting for her fiancé after their engagement in 2015 and has been knitting ever since. She set up her business in 2017 and recently revived it with the help of her mother-in-law.

“I found out that my mother-in-law is amazing at crochet and we had finally decided to bring our talent together and continued my page, Snowool,” she said.

Toys are also a popular handmade product. Rafiya Hasan launched HOP, which stands for Handcrafted On Purpose, to sell her knitted bunnies, in 2019.

“Even though I dabble in other crafts, knitted bunnies became a major feature of my page,” Hasan says. “I knitted the first ones for my grandson and then just kept going. That’s when I thought of creating my own Instagram page.”

Hasan understands that hers is a niche market of people who value handmade products over mass-produced ones.

“They understand that there is no substitute for it and that it is time-consuming,” Hasan says. “At HOP, we embrace things made by hand in small quantities and each piece is unique.”

A Pakistani man attends to customers in a yarn shop.

Suleiman Sajjad works with customers at The Wool Shop.

Social media has not only become a marketplace for entrepreneurs to showcase and sell their talent, but it has also opened new avenues for local vendors.

The Wool Shop started conducting Facebook Lives to sell their items at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Even though their Facebook page has been up since 2013, they only started to receive orders through it recently.

Sajjad’s first parcel went to Karachi, about a 24-hour drive from Islamabad. A famous actress placed one of his very first orders, and her positive review gave the business a jump start. Today about 15% of The Wool Shop’s revenue is made via social media and word of mouth.

“It has bought extra customers to our shops virtually, people I couldn’t have reached otherwise,” Sajjad says, adding that it has come at a cost. “It requires a lot of time and effort from our end. One has to be available on WhatsApp or the phone all the time and take pictures for customers, listen to their issues and be consistent.”

While the popularity of the craft might have decreased compared to its glory three or four decades ago, it won’t die a sad demise in Pakistan.

Rehman, the author, believes that even though people are into fast fashion, and buying and discarding items has become easier, ancient crafts like knitting are always evolving. She notes that there are pockets of fashion labels, nonprofits and individual start-ups that continue to sustain and evolve the craft.

“Knitting isn’t like other crafts, It is timeless, as it has been around for centuries and has managed to evolve and appeal to so many regions, who have incorporated their spin, essence into it,” Rehman says.

Superwash versus Non-Superwash

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Skeins of gray yarn hanging on wooden clothespins.

Superwash skein left, non-Superwash skein right.

Superwash and non-Superwash yarns, what’s the difference? After all, aren’t they both wool? In my view as a knitter and a natural dyer, they are related in the way a horse, and the Emerald City’s Horse of a Different Color would be!

To understand, let’s look at the horse first, or in our case the raw wool! Sheep wool is made of natural fibrous proteins from the keratin group. The keratin is what gives yarn its flexibility, elasticity, resilience and memory. Each “hair” has a complex physical structure, and is made up of overlapping minuscule scales. The scales help repel dirt and allow the fibers to felt. In the case of some non-Superwash fibers, felting does not occur, as in down breeds. In their natural state, the fibers are coated with a waxy coat of lanolin which serves as a water repellent. During wool processing, the lanolin is removed.

Now, let’s look at the Horse of a Different Color, the Superwash. The most common treatment used to transform a yarn into “Superwash” is the Chlorine-Hercosett process. To etch the scales we talked about earlier, the fiber is chlorinated with either chlorine gas or a chlorine solution, followed by the application of a plastic resin to coat the fibers. The result is a yarn you can wash in the washing machine that will not felt.

Before I discuss the difference between the two types of yarn from a dyeing and a knitting perspective, I want to point out some of the negative environmental impacts of the Chlorine-Hercosett process. This process is not sustainable, it uses hazardous chemicals, and creates toxic waste. It uses more water and energy than traditionally processed wools, and the yarns, after they are transformed into garments or household products, shed microplastics during washing.

Because of the negative environmental impacts of the traditional Chlorine-Hercosett process, new processes have been developed to improve the washability of wool, and decrease felting. Among them, to name only a few, are the EXP process which does not use chlorine and instead uses natural salts as oxidizing agents, and the Naturetexx Plasma Process which uses air and electricity.

Now that I have said that, and that I am sure you are looking sadly at all the beautiful skeins of Superwash in your stash, you are wondering what to do. My answer is: use them! The resources and energy that were used to produce them have already been expended, and not using them would be a waste.

So how do the horse and the Horse of a Different Color compare? The two skeins below and their samples were knitted from 100% Merino fingering yarn, one non-Superwash, the other Superwash, with both skeins weighing 20g each.

Body in the skein

Two photos of gray yarn, with the bottom one curling over the edge of a table.

Non-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The difference in body between the two skeins is very apparent in the pictures below. The non-superwash skein which appears first has body, whereas the superwash clearly has not retained its natural structure. The yarn is flatter, and denser.

Drape

Four gray swatches of knitting.

No-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The difference in body translates into the drape. I knitted two identical swatches. The Superwash Merino drapes more than the non-Superwash, but is also more shapeless.

Color

Small balls of gray yarn.

This is where my experience as a hand-dyer comes in. Superwash yarns absorb color more readily than non-Superwash. Non-Superwash yarns appear more subtle, while Superwash yarns are deeply saturated. Even with natural dyes, my dyes of choice, the color difference is striking. Both yarns were identically dyed together using sequoia. In addition, the absorption of color is faster in a Superwash skein than it is in a non-Superwash skein.

Shine

The difference in color is only accentuated by the difference in light reflection. A Superwash yarn is smooth with a slight sheen, while a non-Superwash yarn is matte with a soft glow.

Elasticity/Memory

Gray yarn swatches hanging on wooden clothespins.

Superwash skein left, non-Superwash right.

Superwash yarns lose their elasticity, and memory. The absence of scales, means the fibers and stitches are sitting next to each other but are not interlocked, so they tend to stretch more readily. This would be fine for a shawl, but less attractive for a sweater. The tendency to stretch is visible when the samples are wet.

Gauge

Folded swatches and twisted hanks of gray yarn.

Superwash left, non-Superwash right.

With an equal number of stitches cast on in these samples, the Superwash swatch is wider and longer than the non-Superwash swatch. The stitches in the non-Superwash swatch are closely connected to each other, while the stitches in the Superwash swatch remain clearly separate, with minute gaps. This will have an impact on the warmth of the knitted garment, with non-Superwash yarn being significantly warmer. The Superwash swatch is flatter. Textured stitches will appear flat in the Superwash Merino, and round and plump in the non-Superwash Merino.

Softness

Both are soft, though in a slightly different way. In the case of Merino yarns, Superwash feels sleek and non-Superwash feels pillow-y.

Water

Water sitting on gray stockinette swatches.

Non-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The Superwash yarn will absorb water faster as opposed to the non-Superwash yarn which will repel the water. A non-Superwash garment will allow you to stay warmer even when wet.

As a natural dyer, a knitter and a spinner, I prefer non-Superwash fibers. Each breed-specific fiber has unique properties that make one fiber or another ideal for a particular project. The same way a Superwash Merino is drastically different from a non-Superwash Merino, Merino fiber is drastically different from let’s say Suffolk or Wensleydale. And as I hinted earlier in my post, some fibers felt and some do not. There is a perfect natural fiber for any project! This could be the subject of a whole new post, but for now, I hope you will look at your stash a little differently, and that you will explore the possibilities in using non-Superwash fibers.

References

It’s Not You, It’s the Yarn: Superwash Edition by Jillian Moreno

Why Not Superwash Yarns? from Knitting the Natural Way

Why Is Superwash Yarn Not Sustainable? by Making Stories

Are There Sustainable Superwash Options? by Making Stories

The Structure of Wool

How knitting a sweater brought me out of a COVID slump

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Hands knitting a coral sweater.

In the winter of 2020, while browsing at Backstory Books & Yarn, a local used book and yarn store in Portland, Oregon, I stumble across a giant hank of pale gray yarn lurking on a top shelf. I immediately pick it up and trace the softness of the Targhee strands with my fingers. The label states it’s from Blue Moon Fiber Arts, a local dyer I’m familiar with, and best of all, it’s enough to make a sweater. A quick peek at the price tag makes me even more jubilant — I have enough store credit to cover the purchase, basically making it free.

I find the perfect pattern for the yarn, Myrna by Andi Satterlund. Vintage-inspired, it’s cropped and form-fitting and will pair perfectly with dresses for the colder months. After almost a full episode of the BBC series “Pride and Prejudice” and numerous turns of the yarn winder, I have a ball of yarn the size of a newborn’s head that is ready to be knit. Once I have knit a swatch to figure out what size I need to knit, I cast 70 loops on my needles and start the sweater. The yarn is lovely to work with. Soft and supple, each stitch is clearly defined like a spider’s web in the rain.

Shelves filled with books and yarn.

Backstory Books & Yarn in Portland, Oregon.

After fits and starts and several weeks, I’m almost done with the back of the sweater. I hold it up to myself and grimace. Even accounting for the stretch, it simply looks too small. I put it aside to deal with it later. Every knitter is familiar with “frogging,” which means ripping back your work — you “rip it, rip it,” like the “ribbit” of a frog. And as accustomed as we are to frogging, it does not mean we dislike it any less. You can just see weeks of your time circling down the drain. But knitting is a wonderful craft because, as in life, you can almost always go back and fix your mistakes (except for mohair, but we will not speak of that).

I could ignore the mistake and try to convince myself that, “Oh, it will fit with some stretching and blocking,” but I know that I’ll be even more devastated to have finished the entire sweater and not have it fit. I tear the stitches off the needles and begin the process of undoing the rows, leaving a wave of crinkled wool in my wake. Knitting teaches us about falling and getting back up minus the bruises and scrapes, leaving just the toll it takes on our patience.

Then COVID-19 strikes in March. One day my knitting friends and I are huddled together in a car for 10 hours as we zigzag across the Portland area to participate in the annual Rose City Yarn Crawl. Then the next week, seemingly everything is shut down. Instead of seeing each other as people, all we see is potential virus vectors. The days blur into one giant loop. We are stuck in Groundhog Day with only slight variations letting us know that time has passed.

I simply cannot see the point in continuing with the sweater. Where would I wear it? There is nowhere to go. And how would I wash it? A handknit wool sweater is not meant to hold up to endless rounds of sanitizing in hot water and bleach. And who would see it to admire the handiwork? My knitting friends are huddled in their houses and not stirring, not even for yarn. My sweater is at a standstill, the needles silent, much like the outer world. I have trouble looking at either.

“Put the sweater down and start another project,” a friend advises. “Let it hibernate.”

I take half her advice, but have trouble figuring out what to do next. Numerous articles and studies have listed the physical and mental health benefits of knitting — it induces an enhanced sense of calm, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and boosts serotonin levels. That is great when all is said and done, but it does not solve the problem when you can’t even get motivated to start that first stitch.

A dog wears a teal sweater.

April’s dog, Nandi, shows off an FO.

I’m doomscrolling when I get a text from a friend from high school.

“Sorry, this week has been kind of crazy. We actually just had our kid yesterday. Delivered a healthy baby girl. 8.6lb, 21 inches…”

Accompanying the text is a photo of my friend wearing a mask and cradling a newborn to her chest. I shoot off a text of congratulations and then immediately start browsing patterns for baby sweaters. I may not have anywhere to wear a handknit sweater, but this baby clearly needs a wool sweater to keep her warm. COVID-19 may reign, but new life continues. And human connections are so fraught right now, I grab at any strand that resembles hope.

I dive into my stash of yarn, stored under my bed in plastic bins, to discover that I have absolutely no yarn that is suitable. No sensible parent wants to carefully hand wash a delicate baby sweater every single time the baby throws up or drools. So, I make a rare trip into the outside world for yarn. I’m equipped with a handmade mask and hand sanitizer and mentally calculate how far 6 feet is from any person I see.

As I walk down Alberta Street, it’s a ghost town. Dark windows look forlornly out onto the street, and passersby walk by briskly with their heads down and masks on. But when I step inside Close Knit to look for the right yarn, it’s like stepping back into the past. Piles of brightly colored yarn dot the walls, and that slight hush you get from a space overly insulated with fiber prevails. Then I look again and see a jumbo-sized container of hand sanitizer and a giant sign at the entrance declaring the COVID-19 protocols. A plexiglass shield guards the staff from customers.

I debate between two vividly colored hanks of worsted and ultimately go with the coral. The shade, Malabrigo’s Living Coral, evokes eye-popping colored macaroons, which is fitting as the sweater pattern, by The Noble Thread, is named French Macaroon and I met the new mom in our high school French class.

It’s almost exactly the shade of the 2019 Pantone color of the year, living coral. The color was declared to be an “animating and life-affirming coral hue with a golden undertone that energizes and enlivens with a softer edge.” Babies also affirm life while anchoring us to the future. Stepping back into time is a futile endeavor. But it reminds me that this too shall pass and one day we will gather together once more.

Hands knit a coral sweater.

The bright coral stitches fly smoothly across the needles, leaving behind a gentle click-clack sound. It feels strangely foreign to be knitting again, but my hands remember what to do. Unlike the monotony of COVID-19 life, I can see visible progress as the sweater steadily grows, inch by inch. With each stitch, I knit in my thoughts and hopes for the future. As the ball of yarn dwindles, so do my troubled thoughts. The knitting blogger A Friend to Knit With once calculated the number of stitches in a sweater she was knitting: 70,532. If we were to think about that sheer number, we would never knit a sweater. We take it one stitch at a time. Like each stitch, we trudge forward to the next, waiting until the day when we are whole.

As I knit, I can feel the invisible threads connecting me to women of the past who used knitting to cope with the troubling times of their era. Knitting teacher and designer Elizabeth Zimmermann wrote, “Knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.” Women knitted through the two World Wars and the Spanish Flu and countless other crises and elections. And they likely will again in the future. Knitting leaves us with a tangible memory of time and helps us cope with our fears and anxieties. It reminds us that life goes on. There will always be a baby who needs warmth. And one day I will finish that gray sweater.