Guilty pleasures

The trials and tribulations of knitting a gansey

Okay, so I gave in to temptation. I admit it. But what’s wrong with that, tell me? What shame in that? After all, it’s only a jumper.

Yes, after some days of deliberation, hesitation and procrastination, I finally sat down at the knitting machine and made myself a jumper. And I have to say, I’m rather pleased with myself. And it.

I had forgotten how much work was involved in the creation of a garment. All that measuring, counting, reducing, grafting, making mistakes, fixing mistakes, taking long rests; I was quite worn out by the end of it.

I admit that I did have some help with the more difficult bits. In fact I had quite a lot of help with quite a lot of the bits. Actually, it is probably stretching the truth somewhat to say that I really made the jumper myself. But I was certainly involved in the making of it. And more so than I am involved in the making of most jumpers.

I have been proudly sporting this new jumper (gansey is the Shetland word) all around the isle, showing it off to anyone who is interested. Which unfortunately is nobody. But still, my pride is undimmed, and I have not taken it off in 12 days. I just can’t wait to get the chance to show it off to a wider public. There, I am sure, it will find an appreciative audience.

The more observant and knowledgeable amongst you will have noticed from the picture that I have been very sensible in choosing to use only two colours, instead of the standard plethora of tones. This was partly for reasons of fashion and good taste, and partly because it made my job a huge amount easier. Mainly it was the second reason. The constant changing of wool colours is what makes Fair Isle knitting so much more time-consuming than a plain or two-tone pattern. It also vastly increases your chances of making mistakes. So two colours was plenty for me.

In the course of this task I have discovered that there is something very satisfying about making a piece of clothing for yourself. Like catching your own fish or growing your own vegetables, an involvement with the process increases enormously the pleasure in the result. And believe me, I am very pleased.

Not that I’m thinking of taking up knitting more regularly of course. I certainly am not. This will undoubtedly be the first, last and only jumper I ever make for myself. The knitting machine has been packed up and given back to its rightful owner now, and I shall not be allowing it back in the house again. Even if it asks very nicely. One jumper is quite enough for any man, after all.

I have been wondering about crochet though.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.