The International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO) is currently holding its second Knitted Auction!

Support ICEHO and be cozy while reading the best in the history of human-environment relationships. All auctioned items will be delivered directly to your door from our knitting headquarters in Vienna, Austria (costs of delivery included). The person who ends up making the highest bid will receive a pair of fingerless gloves for free. You can also support ICEHO by joining the ICEHOUSE.

Below follows a letter from Verena Winiwarter, our former president and the knitter behind socks.

Dear ICEHOUSE and ICEHO enthusiasts,

I write to you today in my role as past president of ICEHO but also as its self-appointed charity knitter. I hope you will bid for the knitted items on this page, which were all done by me in the past three months. The wool for a pair of socks made from new wool with 25% Polyamide added for sturdiness and washability, costs about 5–6 USD. I donate the wool and my work and the considerable costs for postage to ICEHO in the hope that we can raise funds to support young scholars from economically disadvantaged regions of the world by enabling them to interact with the environmental history community.

Were I doing this for a living, I would have to be fast, really fast. Hazel Tindall, one of the fastest knitters, can do it faster than I will ever be able to: In 2004 she qualified, by knitting 240 stitches in 3 minutes, to take part in the competition to find the World’s Fastest Knitter. There were three other competitors, from the UK and the USA. They used 4 mm needles and 60 stitches in each row, and knitted stocking stitch for one 3 minute session. Ms. Tindall won the competition by knitting 255 stitches in 3 minutes.

But fast knitters were around for a long time: “This Day Tonight” aired an Australian knitting competition on 20 April 1971 but my favourite is the BBC documentary from the Shetland Islands, showing the intricate lace shawls costing a soaring 70 pounds per shawl, with an estimated 3 shillings an hour wages for the knitters. 200 stitches per minute were achieved by women who knitted for a living, as this knitter shows with documentary film footage from the 1930s. (old footage starts at 3:50).  

While I learned knitting in primary school, I lack the practice of the knitters you have just been watching. I have sped up my sock knitting by using only three needles during the making of shaft and foot, and over the years, I have perfected the tip, which now comes with “spirals” achieving the coming together in a way that makes it sturdier than the usual way of knitting a tip. I enjoy what I do, but I am grateful that I do not have to do it for a living, as it would be very hard to live of knitting.

At the ASEH, ESEH and other conferences, visitors to our sock charity table were reluctant to pay more than 35 USD per pair—even though it being a charity thing. Subtract from this the price of the wool and you end up with 30 USD for the work, which, depending on the size, takes between 10 and 14 hours for a pair. Which means that I would earn a maximum of 3 USD per hour for my work, were I to sell my socks for a living. For me, knitting is a means of relaxing, even my therapist friends tell me that the repetitive motion combining eye and hands is good for the psyche. But if you bid for socks or other stuff on the ICEHO auction, please bear in mind the true value of the unique socks you are bidding for. I never do the same pair again… so they are truly unique. To make that clear, I have now given them names. They also come with a bit of extra wool for darning as a means to make them more sustainable.

As you see, knitting can also be a means of reflecting on the value of stuff. Upon reading Susannah Walker’s memoir on The Life of Stuff, I realized that knitting has taught me an important lesson or two… While I can afford to buy wool in huge quantities, online, offline, regular sock wool and fancy bamboo recycling yarns, in a zillion colors and combinations, I cannot knit more than 3–4 pairs of socks per regular month at max. Ravelry, the go-to knitter’s network site, has its own category for the projects that are planned by its members but not started. Guess why… I am not alone in this. But I do not want to hoard wool. I do not want to be buried under an avalanche of skeins when opening the knitting project cabinet. I try very hard to forgo sales, special offers, the surprise boxes at wool stores, and usually, I manage. But it is hard work NOT to buy. I still have a bit more than a year’s worth of knitting in the skein boxes. The limits are my limits. I need to respect them.

As knitting has taught me this important lesson, I started wondering if one could learn about sustainability with handicraft. In particular, I became interested in learning if the Sustainable Development Goals could be understood as a network, not by knitting, which is a serial handicraft, but by weaving. I taught myself the basics of tablet weaving in order to be able to speak to weavers. Why tablets? They do not need a big machinery. If you have a spare deck of cards, you can make the tablets yourself (so did I). They are also very versatile. If one looks at the fantastic tablet weaving designs of 15th-century nuns or of that found in the Hallstatt salt mines, weaving the SDGs seems entirely doable. Ellen Harlizius-Klück, master weaver and mathematician, was willing to experiment with me. In Charlotte Holzer, we found the ideal weaver. Charlotte is a restaurateur at the museum, specializing in fabric restoration.

We went on a journey into the unknown together, and in the end, not only did we have fantastic woven bands by Charlotte, but we also put together a documentation, which can be downloaded here.

I hope that you will feel inspired to bid on socks, or on the Alpaka wool cap I designed and made, which spirals around your head in two directions… or that you feel inspired to take up the needles and knit yourself. Or crochet. Or sew. Or weave your own personal tablet-woven bands. Good luck with whatever you do. We would love to hear from you on Facebook or Twitter!

Best wishes
Verena Winiwarter

Check out the Auction here! Support ICEHO and its important international scholarly work.