Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Wool Allergy Rant

A topic which comes up regularly on the various knitting list is allergic reactions to wool. A person asking the question "What shall I knit my hat with if the person I'm giving it to is allergic to wool?" is inevitably bombarded with messages telling him or her that said person cannot be allergic to wool because either true wool allergies don't exist or that people aren't allergic to wool itself, but only to the chemicals used in processing or dyeing it. In either event, the knitter is advised to use wool anyway in whatever he or she is knitting.

This aggravates me. A LOT. I post here a rant on this very subject.

Does it really matter if the recipient of the gift is truly allergic or "merely" sensitive to a particular fiber? They have expressed a preference. I would think that disregarding that preference because you think you know better than they do what they like or dislike
serves only to guarantee an unsuccessful gift. This person, in expressing their preference (or their restriction) is giving you a clue on how to come up with a successful gift (eg something they will use, wear or otherwise enjoy). It may not make any sense to you that someone might find the finest, softest Merino processed in the gentlest manner to be completely irritating and scratchy. That doesn't mean it isn't real to *them* and it doesn't mean they don't
have the right to avoid such an unpleasant encounter, particularly since they made sure you were aware of the limitation. Personally, I think it's borderline rude to just ignore someone's assertion that wool (or whatever fiber) is a problem for them.

I've seen a contact dermatitis rash on a toddler that was cause by the wool blanket that someone gave his mother "because babies aren't allergic to wool". (Mom was unaware that the blanket was wool since she had told the knitter that wool was a problem.) It may not be a full-blown anaphylactic reaction (where your airway swells up and your eyes swell shut, etc), but it's certainly the overactive immune response that is generally referred to as an "allergic reaction". Regardless of what you want to label it, the blanket and that child are *never* going to be happy together. I know the toddler was miserable. I have no idea how guilty the knitter felt or if they decided that the parents were rude and ungrateful because the child was never going to use the painstakingly knitted blanket he was given.

This brings me to the gift end of the equation: Every year, just before the winter holidays, people begin to ask what to knit various people who are either picky or have stated that they don't like whatever it is hte knitter loves to knit the best. ("My doesn't like or wear hats, but I want to knit him a hat so s/he doesn't get a cold head. What pattern do you recommend?") Shortly after the holidays there will be the ever popular January topic of "The Ungrateful Knitted Gift Recipient" in which the recipient is bashed and the knitter wails about how all their hard work and time and emotional involvement was just shoved into a box and left in a corner. I have often wondered how closely these two things are related.

Why would you knit someone an item you *know* they aren't going to enjoy? Why waste that time, that energy and that yarn? I have seen many people on various knitting lists talk about the horribly ungrateful person who was given an intricate handknit sweater but never wore it. Yet we all laughed about the sweaters Mrs. Weasley knit for Harry and his friends in the Harry Potter books/movies. Somehow that's not nearly as funny when *you* are the knitter, is it? Why set yourself up for failure?

If you *do* knit something that the recipient does not like for whatever reason (and they may never tell you why they don't like it so as to spare your feelings), do NOT get crabby and resentful when the recipient doesn't wear it. If you are going to knit something and have any number of strings attached to it, including whether or not you will consider that person to be worth any sort of civil treatment for the rest of your lives, why bother? Isn't the process of giving and receiving a gift supposed to bring joy? Why not get a head start and give something which the *recipient* might like, not just something that you would like if someone made it for you or something you've been meaning to knit but didn't have an excuse to knit until now? There was one year where I knit hats and sweaters for charity (and donated them in hte names of my family members), then gave NOBODY in my family any gifts other than a small gift card
for each person. They *loved* that idea and everybody was happy. (I do realize this does not work for most families and certainly not with kids, but it's an idea. Feel free to come up with your own creative solution and develop your own tradition.)

I do not deny that there are ungrateful gift recipients out there. There are those who don't like presents unless they have the "right" labels in them (from the "right' designer or store, etc). There are those folks who simply do not like handmade/homemade *anything*. These people may or may not be gracious in their receipt of a gift which is not to their liking. Some people truly do not understand how much time and effort goes into a knitted gift. Some of them really don't care. Let it be. There are plenty of things in the world that each of us doesn't care about that others find to be of the utmost importance. Do NOT just blast people for that or for not liking the gift you gave them. It doesn't matter how long it took you to knit that queen-sized lace bedspread if it's not something that suits your grown son and his wife. Wailing about how long you worked on it and how they refuse to use it is only going to generate hurt feelings on both sides. Think about how women feel when their "clod" of a husband gives them something romantic like snow tires for Valentine's Day. Is it any different to give someone a knitted gift that isn't actually something that suits the recipient?

What I recommend is something I am going to term the "Gift Swatch". Most knitters use swatches to make sure they're achieving the correct gauge so that the resultant item will actually be the desired size. A "gift swatch" is something of a test to find out what sort of knitted item a potential recipient will like. Knitted presents aren't really things that you can just give blindly. You need to have some idea what the recipient will like, if you expect them to ever use it, assuming that USING the knitted gift is your actual goal. You can be sneaky and ask generic questions about hats or sweaters or just ask them to feel a particular ball of yarn. You can tell them that you'd like to knit them something but want to make sure it's something they'll enjoy. Someone else who posted recently suggested giving the recipient a list of possibilities and ask them to pick something out. I have taken my sister to the yarn shop and had her pick out yarn and a pattern for a sweater. It wasn't a complete surprise when she got it, but she still squealed with joy when she opened it because it was *exactly* what she wanted. Someone else several years ago said that in her family one person is chosen each year to receive a handknit sweater. Everybody else gets store-bought gifts that year. I believe the recipient chose the color and had input into the design. There is no rule that a gift must be a complete surprise in order to be successful. I would argue that for some gifts having it be 100% surprise is a great way to have
an unpleasant gift experience on both sides.

Anyway, it's something to think about. I'll get off my soap box now and go back to finishing my socks. :o)


Carrie Penny said...

AMEN! I have run into this on both sides of the board! When I was younger, I refused to wear wool and I couldn't stand having wool near my skin. No, I am allergic to it, but the non stop itching was a pain the in butt all day long. My great grandmother knit me a beautiful coral sweater with cables and covered button, I loved it until I tried to wear it and realized that it was way too itchy. I didn't wear it until about 10 years later when I learned how to wash my wool garments in a way that didn't make the wool any scratchier. It was such a disappointment to have a gift that was so beautiful and that I loved so much but couldn't wear.

As a crafter, I have made gifts that were't worn or used b/c I was not told at the start that the person wouldn't use, acrylic, wool or what ever I had used...even sizing is a problem like for a really tall person making an afgan to the prefered length of the person. My father loved his afgan when I gave it to him for Christmas a few years ago, but never used it, it wasn't until this year he explained that he could curl up under it like the like to b/c it was too short... Gladly I added a few inches of boarder stiches for his birthday this year and had the time to make a hat to go with it. Now he uses it all of the time when he lies on the sofa and we are both happy.

I am right there on your rant! AMEN!

AlisonH said...

Amen and amen. Typed the woman who, a dozen years or so ago, made a handspun, handdyed afghan for her DBIL and his new wife as a wedding present. Goodwill was probably stunned when it showed up. I learned to be far more aware of my recipients from that--and to let it go if it doesn't turn out as I'd hoped. It doesn't change the fact that we love each other.

It did change me from how I went about the whole process, to be more aware of the point of view of people who don't love knitting the way that I do--and why should that matter, when I love them?--and I very much love what you wrote here. Thank you for this post.

Chandra the Crazed Quilter said...

As a new knitter, I found your post incredibly helpful. I am allergic to wool complete with breaking out in a rash with hives. I'm allergic to sheep's wool and merino, though I am going to check and see if I can tolerate mohair.

I think the swatch test with the potential recipient is a fantastic idea.

As I also quilt, I have found that surprise quilts aren't always well received. It's better to ask about whether or not someone would use it and what colors and size would be preferred. It makes perfect sense that the same process would apply to knitted gifts. Thank you so much, I found your post more as informative than as a rant.

Melissa said...

Thanks for posting this, I hope it makes some crafters really think before they make things as gifts. Im one of those who Knows all about woll allargy and how some people dismiss it. I am allergic to wool, all wool painful skin, rash, hives the whole nine. But im also allergic to Lanolin and anything from sheep. I cant wear lambskin leather, i cant even eat the meat.And i gurentee its not the chemicals, due to the fact my allergy was discovered at age 5 when my big brother put Raw wool just shorn off the sheep, down the back of my jumper at a county fair.

Mrs. Twenty Something said...

Thanks for sticking up for the little guys. I don't know what to call it (a "wool sensitivity," a "dye sensitivity" or what have you) but anytime I go near wool (whether I know its there or not) I get cold symptoms (runny nose, headache, sneezing, coughing, etc.) and my throat gets scratchy and raw-feeling. It makes knitting rather frustrating sometimes. Its also very frustrating when people roll their eyes at you because its "impossible." Gah!

Well anyway, great post. I also like the suggestion of using the swatch test on the recipient.

Unknown said...

AWESOME post!!! :)

Unknown said...

AWESOME post!!! :)