Knitting My Own Clothes Let Me See My Body Clearly

"There is such power in creating something designed to fit only you. It’s a quiet fuck-you to any clothing company or magazine or person that’s ever made you feel less." An excerpt from Alanna Okun's essay collection The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater.

Bodies are the worst. They make smells and noises when you least want them to. They’re too big in some parts and too small in others (sometimes, bafflingly, in the same exact parts) and they host a buffet of aches, pains, sores, and general creaks. They break down and they break out.

They betray. They invite unwanted people and comments and judgments; they stand for who you are in a way that can feel so grossly inaccurate. Why can’t I just be that brain in a vat? you wonder on certain hungover mornings, trying to squeeze into a pair of pants that fit just fine last week but now sit in such a way as to frame that tummy roll that never used to be there in college, or maybe you just didn’t used to care.

Bodies are the best. They help you get where you want to go, and then sometimes when you arrive you can use them to sing or dance or have sex. When you least expect them to, they take over from your stupid loud brain. You can do this, they say in a voice far deeper and calmer than your own. You are more than this moment right here. Some of them can literally create new people! They operate in a thousand ways you can never fully understand, carrying you and swaddling you even when they are frustrating. Sometimes they let you down far too early; sometimes they chug along until it’s time.

“I can’t imagine living to ninety,” my grandma said on her last Christmas. “How many days do you have to brush your damn teeth?”

Bodies just . . . are. They’re sites of pain and pleasure, meaning and misunderstanding, deeply personal, deeply public, with you and against you and totally unconcerned with you. What they all require, at least where I live, is clothes. As if it’s not hard enough just to have a body, now you have to buy things to put on it in order to take it out with you into the world. You have to listen as you’re told, again and again, that you aren’t quite right, that you aren’t quite real, just because you can’t always pour your glorious whole self into an arbitrary series of fabric tubes (made by someone living on the same planet in the same year as you but who most likely isn’t making close to a living wage, designed and peddled and delivered to you by a faceless corporation that has no interest in your humanity besides the Red Sox debit card sitting in your falling-apart wallet, a corporation that does, in fact, benefit from your continued sense of incompletion).

I actually do like clothes, and for the most part I have the sort of body I’ve been taught deserves to wear them: white, thin, cisgender, from a comfortable background and a comfortable life. I can’t begin to imagine the struggles of people who have to contend with a society that yells far worse epithets than “Huge schnoz!” or “It’s amazing how you manage to rock both acne and wrinkles at the same time, Benjamin fucking Button!” (That one is courtesy of my own brain.)

I like arming myself gently, softly, against the onslaught of being in the world.

Largely, I like the way I look. I like my shoulders, straight from years of choir posture, and my smile, even though it crinkles my eyes down to nothing in photographs. I like that my boobs are sort of small and my butt is sort of big; I even like my nose and eyebrows (both at least a size too large), which inspired mean enough comments to make me cry when I was younger. I like wearing fancy jumpsuits and crop tops, and winged eyeliner, and lots of earrings. I like doing my makeup every morning, those ten or fifteen minutes of confronting my own face and smoothing it out. I like arming myself gently, softly, against the onslaught of being in the world.

But I do still hear the ways in which I fall short, because I am not a brain in a vat. I hear them from boys and from girls, and from ads on the subway and shows on HBO and most of all from myself. I hear them whispered by my dimpled thighs and hissed by the flaps under my upper arms. I hear them emanate from dressing-room mirrors, where I’ve brought in ten items and can’t find a single one that doesn’t make my lower half look, to me, cartoonishly outsize.

“You could wear a paper bag and still look great,” my mom has told me throughout my life. I appreciate this more than I could ever say but it can be hard to hear clearly once the cacophony gets too loud. And for as long as she’s been telling me that, it seems, she’s been putting down her own body, even though she is the kind of beautiful I can’t wait to be.

“I’ll buy this when I lose ten pounds,” she says, almost as often as she reassures me. I don’t see where these ten pounds lurk, but I know that she does.

What do you do when you figure out the world isn’t made for you? Remake it yourself so that it fits. Or, at least, so that a small corner of it does. I was overwhelmed when I first started considering knitting projects larger than scarves, more involved than hats; every pattern I read stressed the importance of measuring, of checking the yarn’s gauge but also knowing exactly how many inches you were at your various parts. I’d adopted a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it came to my physical self. I knew how much I weighed, vaguely, but didn’t like to look at scales. I once told a friend that I sometimes liked to forget that I had a body, except as a receptacle to put KitKats in.

But once I started knitting and crocheting for myself I had to look head-on, or else risk a garment that either wouldn’t make it past my shoulders or would turn out too large to stuff under my winter coat.

My body had nothing to do just then with sex, food, pain, worthiness, or value. It was just there, and it was mine, and so too would be this sweater.

The first time I really measured myself, I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I’d found a pattern for a simple pullover sweater with a floppy cowl neck, and bought purple silk-merino yarn that cost significantly more than it would have to buy the same sweater at the mall. It was straightforward knitting and meant to hang loose, with plenty of room for forgiveness on both the technical and physical sides, but still required that I stand in front of my bedroom mirror and wrap a tape measure around my chest, my waist, and my hips.

I stopped thinking, for a moment, about my body as anything other than the vehicle for this beautiful item I wanted so badly to bring into the world. I stopped thinking that it had to look or be anything other than what it was, because the sweater, somehow, would conform to its requests. My body had nothing to do just then with sex, food, pain, worthiness, or value. It was just there, and it was mine, and so too would be this sweater.

The type of pattern I picked was called a top-down raglan, which a decade later is still my favorite construction. You start at the neck and work your way down and outward, making a sort of chest plate–looking piece of fabric that is eventually divided into sections for your arms and torso. It looks distinctly unsweaterlike for a long time, but the real appeal is that you get to try it on as you go. If you decide you want your armholes looser or your neckline longer, you can make tweaks without needing to start over. (The alternatives, among which are sweaters knitted from the bottom up and in pieces that need to be sewn together at the end, are much less charitable.)

So that’s what I did. For three weeks I knitted, wriggling in and out of the sweater in front of that same mirror, making adjustments when I found that it was much too wide around the bust (typical) and when I decided I wanted it to be more cropped (also typical). When it was finished, there was almost no extra work to be done, just a few armpit stitches to graft together and some loose ends to trim.

I tried it on. Even though I’d known it would fit—that was basically the whole point of the exercise—when I popped my head through the neck hole and saw how it skimmed over my body, I was surprised. I guess I’d just expected something to go wrong, that either my knitting wouldn’t be up to par or I wouldn’t. Or worse, that it would be kinda-sorta right, one more item that walked like a sweater and quacked like a sweater but wasn’t quite a sweater, nothing I would want to wear beyond the threshold of my bedroom.

But this? This looked like a real sweater. And I was the real, solid, complete person who had made it.

There is such power in creating something designed to fit only you.

There is such power in creating something designed to fit only you. It’s a quiet fuck-you to any clothing company or magazine or person that’s ever made you feel less. I branched out into more-fitted clothes—tank tops, dresses, an extremely ill-advised pair of shorts—all of which required me to learn my circumferences, my lengths, and my preferences. I started to copy the drapey openwork sweaters at Anthropologie and the lacy crop tops at Free People, and to add little touches of my own: a knitted hem, a breast pocket. I created new patterns entirely; one sweater I made up as I went, switching between five variations of a particular reddish yarn according to however I was feeling at that moment. I learned that I am “short waisted,” whatever that means, and so, therefore, is every garment I’ve ever made. That’s just how they are, the way they’re supposed to be. Their job is to fit me, and so they do. I wish that was how I’d been trained to feel about all clothes, that I wasn’t so constantly barraged with the worry that I was the one who didn’t fit right.

Of course crafting isn’t a cure-all for the poisons that seep in everywhere. So many patterns don’t include enough sizes; knitwear models are still models, and therefore all too often young and thin and white, not at all reflective of the range of people seeking to make things for themselves. [Footnote: Probably the first article I wrote that I was really proud of was an investigation into a phenomenon that the knitting community had long been aware of but that had escaped the attention of the greater populace: former America’s Next Top Model contestants pose for knitting magazines in droves. It’s like there’s a funnel from the judging room to the casting couch at Vogue Knitting.] Materials are expensive, and lessons are time-consuming and not always accessible. I try to be aware of where the yarn I buy comes from, to know that the people and animals involved in its production are being treated fairly, but I know that I slip. I get lazy; I get enticed by a sweater’s-worth of acrylic that’s almost definitely made from the same stuff as a tire. It’s the way I am at the grocery store, where cage-free eggs sound great but don’t ever quite seem to make it into my basket when the other, presumably cage-full option is right there and $2 cheaper.

Besides, “Just make your own clothes!” doesn’t solve any of the central issues: the way bodies are sized up and accepted or dismissed on sight, the way we’re taught to turn our hatred inward, all the ways we are shown again and again that we’re nothing but a collection of problems to be solved. Crafting doesn’t exempt you from the confines of capitalism—you’re still the one buying, spending, investing, hustling. If anything, it’s a moment of suspension, an exception that proves the relentless and insidious rule.

But it can help. It can remind you, however briefly, that you’re not fully at the mercy of the gears that threaten to grind you up. “Look what I made” isn’t just a cute little mewl for attention; it can be a battle cry. “Look.” It can be a command. “Look at me, as I am, as I want to be. I did this. I made this, and you can’t ever take it away.” ●

Alanna Okun is a writer, editor, and crafter. She's currently a senior editor at Racked, and has written for publications including BuzzFeed, Brooklyn Magazine, and the Hairpin, and appeared on the Today show, Good Morning America, NPR shows, and many other local and national television and radio programs. Alanna lives in Brooklyn with her pet snail and a lot of yarn.

Here is more information about The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater.

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