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Stern Hobbies: Leaving yourself in stitches

The goal of most businesses, particularly one run by a business school student, is to make money. Langone student Cynthia Jung, however, has found another purpose.

“My selling platform is really not meant to sell,” she says. “It’s actually meant to get people to stop asking me to make them things for free constantly.”

Given the time and money Cynthia puts into knitting, it’s hard to argue. And make no mistake, Cynthia is a serious knitter, spending upwards of 30 hours on some of her projects. Her knitting-specific Instagram feed shows off the full range of her work, from beanies to bikinis, and even if profit isn’t the goal, she is still managing to get complete strangers for customers.

Cynthia recently sat down with The Oppy to talk about how she picked up her hobby, how she also doesn’t understand why people can bring knitting needles on airplanes, and whether or not we should expect to see her dominating any global knitting competitions this year.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

When did you take up knitting and why?

I first learned to knit when I was, I don’t know, seven? I think that’s the story of most knitters. Their grandmother taught them how to knit when they were seven and they made half a scarf and then never did it again. I didn’t until after I finished undergrad. I feel like when you start working you have all this time on your hands and you don’t quite know how to fill it the same way that you did in college. So, I was walking by a Michael’s that had just opened up one day and I was like, “Oh I’ll just walk in.” And I walked in, picked up knitting needles and some yarn. This was in, I think, 2016. I made a scarf and then decided I was obsessed and I wanted to just keep knitting things. Now it’s been five years.

You sell some of your stuff online. Is your ultimate goal to turn this into supplemental income or is it more of a hobby and if it turns into money, great, but if you end up with a closet full of homemade knitted things, great?

So actually, my selling platform is really not meant to sell. It’s actually meant to get people to stop asking me to make them things for free constantly. What kept happening was I was knitting things and then everyone was asking me, “Oh, make me this, make me this, make me this…” I do love making things for people, but I just don’t think people understand how much time goes into making things and because of that, I’m not convinced that anyone would appreciate it as much as I would. So, I think the only way to make people appreciate it is to put it on a selling platform that can quantify how much time and money it costs me. I have two sites: Depop and Etsy. Depop is for people who want to buy finished knitted pieces that I’ve made, and Etsy is where I put on knitting and crocheting patterns for other knitters who would want to replicate the things I do. It’s like instructions basically. But the Depop has listed things on how much time it took to make something or how much money the supplies cost me. That way when people see the final costs they can see that I’m only charging myself like $5 per hour for the labor of it (laughs) and they should not be asking me to make them things for free.

Did it work?

Yes, it did. I put these sites up in, maybe, January of this year and no one is asking me to make them things anymore, which is — I don’t know, is it mean to say it’s kind of refreshing? It’s also bizarrely stressful when people ask you to make things. I remember there was this one summer when people were asking me to make bikini tops, and like eight people asked me for them and the entire summer was dedicated to crocheting bikini tops. Every second of my free time was spent making it and I started worrying I wouldn’t get them done before summer ends so people could actually use them. People are buying some stuff, which is always surprising. Last month some person bought two of my beanies. They were a total stranger and they just bought it, and I thought, “It’s April. I can’t believe someone is buying two beanies just as we’re hitting the warm weather.” But I thought it was cool. Buy my beanies even in April.

Maybe they thought because it was warmer weather, it was time to buy winter items at a discount.

Nope! There are no discounts on handmade items.

Have you made enough money from any of these sales to recoup your costs?

Not really. I kind of see it more as a way to subsidize my hobby. I recoup the costs that I put in to make a particular item, but I’m really just subsidizing my entire hobby because supplies themselves really range in cost. Yarn and needles can be anywhere from super cheap to super pricey, so I definitely cover the cost of that particular item whenever I sell it by a decent amount – if you don’t account for labor hours. But for the entire hobby I’m just subsidizing.

I saw that some of the sweaters you’ve made you list for as much as $230, which, for a handmade item, I would consider a reasonable price, but how much of your own money, not just labor, are you putting into that product that you’re not even really looking to sell? 

So, a sweater, in terms of the supplies can cost anywhere between $30-200 to make. I probably average spending about $50-70 on supplies for something like that, so I definitely recoup the costs when I charge $230, but even $230, based on how long it takes me, that’s like a $6-per-hour cost. A person who does this as genuine work, and those people do exist, they have to charge upwards of $500, and they usually use more expensive supplies. It gets very pricey and boutique very fast.

Ok, so the Heavy Metal Knitting World Championships on July 9 in Joensuu, Finland. My question is, have you booked your flight already, or are you passing on the competition because it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the field?

I didn’t even know there were knitting competitions. I knew they had these fairs where people get together and stuff. I’ve never been to one of those either, but I definitely didn’t know there were competitions.

That was a trick question. It’s a virtual competition this year. But yes, apparently in 2018 some Finns noticed there were a large number of people that knitted as a hobby, which I’m sure is pretty common, but Finland also has something like one amateur metal band for every 50 citizens [Ed: Actually 50 bands per every 100,000 citizens], so they decided to combine these two very similar things.

I’m going to look into this.

A lot of people I know who do knitting do knitting circles with friends. Is that something you do or is this more of a personal destressor where you prefer to be by yourself?

I do prefer to knit by myself. I’m not into meditation or yoga, but I feel like knitting checks that box for me. I think it’s the only thing that truly quiets or slows things down for me. Otherwise I’ve got thoughts running all the time. But I have gotten a few of my friends into knitting and crocheting as well. My best friend lives about a 10-15-minute walk from me and sometimes she just comes over and we just sit on the couch and knit together with whatever is playing on the TV and chat while we do it.

Have you ever taken knitting needles on an airplane? In the cabin, not in a checked bag.

Oh, 100%. I knit on airplanes for sure. It’s the easiest way to pass time up there. 

Ok, so, in 2010 I went to Israel and El Al has very strict security. I was asked by a security guard what the torah portion from my bar mitzvah was as part of the check. It had been 12 years since my Bar Mitzvah at this point. They really grilled me. The woman behind me was allowed to pass through without issue and she was knitting while in line. With big metal needles. All I could think to myself was, “That could be a weapon. You could stab someone with those.” Why are they allowed on planes?

I don’t know, but I’ve had that same thought. The first time I took knitting needles on a plane I got really stressed because I was convinced they were going to take them from me. Also, sometimes you need scissors to cut the yarn, so there are tiny little scissors you could take. I don’t understand why you can’t take a nail clipper, but you could take short scissors on an airplane. I have no idea why they’re allowed, but I had a genuine fear they’d be taken away the first time I brought them on the plane. Now, though, I do it all the time. And I’ve also run into other people or made friends traveling while knitting. One time I was in an aisle seat and an older couple was next to me, and the wife was knitting in the window seat, and I thought what are the odds that two people knitting on this flight are seated together. I’ve also been crocheting on the subway before, and one time during rush hour, for whatever reason, there were three of us in a row all crocheting together, so we started talking during the commute and giving each other advice on different things we were doing and sharing project ideas.

In October I was on a hike upstate and there was a couple wearing sweaters and I could tell they were hand made, so I started talking to them, asking when they made the sweaters and how I loved the style, and one of them told me if I ever go to Iceland I should bring an extra bag with me because they have amazing yarn at an amazing price. Pack an empty bag in your suitcase and then just fill it up when you’re there. 

I’ve been to Iceland, and while I didn’t take note of it, there are a lot of sheep there, so I believe there’s a high quality, high volume yarn industry. But let’s go back to the subway train. Three of you were sitting next to each other knitting?

Crocheting, but yeah.

That must have been bizarrely hypnotizing to anyone sitting across from you.

Any time I make something on the subway I can tell people are watching me. I get that it’s mesmerizing to watch. When I see people knitting stitches there’s something really soothing about it to me. I don’t know if it’s because I know what it’s like to knit, but I just think it’s soothing. If you ever watch a knitting video, you can let me know. When I travel, I have certain projects for commuting or traveling, and I have others that are more complex that I only do at home because they require more concentration. Those are my home-only projects. The others I just keep handy. I always have a hat on my desk because I can always do it really mindlessly without looking at it. If I’m in class and I just need something in my hands so I’m not shopping online or something.

So you’ve been knitting during virtual classes this year? Should I not include that in the interview?

I mean, you can do that. I knit in most of our classes.

Do you find that it’s one of those things that actually helps you focus because it puts you in a trance rather than having your brain look for distractions?

It depends on the project. These are the ones I can concentrate on what’s happening on screen without pulling my attention away.

Ok, so, is there a difference between knitting and crocheting?

Yes, so, knitting is done with two knitting needles, those are the pointy ones. Crocheting is done with a hook. As a result the stitches look different, and I think the barriers to entry on each hobby are very different. There are plenty of people who do both, but most people usually gravitate to one of them. I definitely gravitate more towards knitting, but one thing I learned recently that is really interesting is that there are knitting machines. That’s why when you buy things, if you zoomed in really closely you’d see tiny knitting stitches. But there are also knitting machines for people who still want to make hand-made items but faster than actually hand-knitting them all themselves. There is no such thing as a crochet machine. Whenever you buy things that are “crocheted” it could be super cheap because it’s a copy of something that looks crocheted. Anything that’s really crocheted has to be handmade. It’ll never be fast fashion.

How long does it typically take to make something? In terms of cumulative hours or real time?

It depends on the item, but it also depends on the yarns and needles you’re using. There are yarns that are super thick, but if you’re using super thick yarn you can make things faster. It just works up faster. Thinner yarn is more delicate and just takes a long time. I lean toward using thinner yarns. I just like the feeling of it more as I’m making it, but it does make things take a lot longer. I think in terms of hours it probably takes 30-60 hours to make a sweater, but I’ll do that over the course of 2-3 months or something. If I’m using bulky yarn and have time on my hands I can do it faster. A hat can take just a few hours with bulky yarn, but with thinner yarn it’s more like 12 hours over a week or two.

Do you have multiple projects you work on concurrently?

I used to be a one-project-at-a-time person. I was a very monogamous knitter. Now I have multiple projects going on depending on my mood. I think it’s similar to how people read books. There are some people who are like, “I only read one book at a time.” And there are other people who read 3-5 books at a time depending on if they want a fast book or a slow book. I’ve become a person who works on multiple projects.

How long can you knit in one go? At what point do you get tired?

Knitting I can go literally forever nonstop. I don’t have any wrist or hand or whatever issues unless I’m using baby-sized needles. If I’m making a hat or something for a baby, sometimes it’s so tiny and tight that my hands get a little cramped. But that’s a unique scenario. Crocheting, my wrist will get tired after a while. It’s a very repetitive one-hand motion. I can’t crochet endlessly, but honestly, knitting I could feasibly do forever. I’ve had weekends where I’m feeling antisocial and I just sit Friday through Sunday knitting forever. I haven’t done anything like that in a while because I think I knit so much over the holidays that this Spring I’ve been taking a break. If I’m really in the zone – it comes in waves I think – but if I’m in a project and I just really want to see what it looks like when it ends. I think that’s what makes me not want to put a project down, if i’m dying to see a finished project. You can’t predict what it’s going to look like. You have an idea, but you don’t know. 

I assume the first time you completed a large project it was really exciting. Do you still have that or has it faded the more you’ve advanced in your capabilities?

I would say that when I first started knitting any project I finished I was super proud of it even if it looked like sh*t. Now it has to fit me right. Before I didn’t care if it was lumpy or didn’t fit me correctly. Now if it doesn’t fit me correctly I’ll undo it and then re-do it, or I’ll use the yarn for something else.

Did your knitting ramp up a lot during the pandemic?

I would say for the first eight months of the pandemic it was the best because I think a lot of people were trying to discover who they are when they’re inside 24/7, and I was like, “I already know who I am. I can just amplify my knitting up.” I felt like in the past before the pandemic there was never enough time to knit. You’re always commuting to work or you’re out or something. It was something I was always trying to find time to do. When the pandemic started I thought, “Oh my god, I have so much time to knit now.” I think once December or January hit I started to have a knitting rebellion. It felt like it wasn’t a choice to knit so much anymore as it was the only thing to do. So February and March I was like, “F*ck knitting. I’d rather stare at the wall right now.” In the past month I started missing making stuff again so I got back on it.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?

It’s usually the most recent thing I’ve made, but I think my most recent thing that I’m proud of is a wrap top with a lace panel on it. I’m really proud of it because 1) it was very hard to do. I was going off a pattern for it, and the pattern sucked so I had to keep on trying to self-interpret how to do it and it was not easy. Lace-work is not something I’ve done a lot of. Plus it was a fitted top and most things people knit tend to be oversized because you’re less concerned with how the shaping of it looks. My other proud items are anything I completely free-styled or free-handed it and it came out well. I have a few sweaters I’ve done that way and those are always exciting because I just can’t believe I didn’t follow instructions. I just had an idea and decided to see if it works. They’re also very stressful because you have no idea what it’s going to look like until it’s done, so you’re spending 30-plus hours on a sweater having no idea if it’s going to be wearable in any capacity.

Have you ever invested 30 hours and then finished thought, “No. This won’t work for anybody?”

I’ve reached the level where now I know it’s going to fit and look ok, but I definitely have sweaters where I think it could fit better. Now instead of saying, “It doesn’t fit great,” I’m like, “Ugh, it could be improved,” as opposed to “Oh, it looks lumpy.” That’s a nice thing though. THe amount of things that are risky have decreased as I’ve gotten better.

What would you say is the most complex thing you’ve done?

I think it was that top with the lace. There was so much shaping and lace work and advanced stuff going on. I’m also now working on my first colorwork or fair isle sweater, which is when you’re constantly switching colors during each stitch and you’re working with multiple strands at a time. That has always intimidated me because it looks so advanced, but now that I’m doing it I’m realizing it’s not as difficult as I thought it was going to be, and it’s a little mesmerizing. You just get pulled in and lost in it.

One last question: When should we expect all of our 2020 Spring Blue Block handmade hoodies to be arriving? Is that in the next couple of weeks or–

Once I figure out the pricing for it, yes. It’ll be much more high-priced than the Patagonias we got.

If you actually made, like 50 or 60 sweaters for us, that would take, like, years, right?

You would be getting them at our 20-year anniversary or reunion or whatever it’s called. 

Photo credit: Cynthia Jung

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