Dyed in the Wool: Knitting as a Labour of Love – and Fundraising for ICEHO

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Have you ever tried to sell really warm woolen socks when the outside temperature was above 30°C? Perhaps you have tried to keep a potential customer at your sales table while they fondly, but undecidedly touched a pretty knitted item, knowing that a person who leaves will probably not return? Well, I have done both, and very successfully, in raising money for the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO) by soliciting donations for my hand-knitted socks at academic conferences of environmental history.

Verena engaging with a potential donor at ESEH Zagreb 2017 (note the outfit, think of the heat). Photo by jane Carruthers. 

Colleagues tell me that I am a good salesperson. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that description. I felt uneasy talking colleagues into buying an item they were not absolutely sure about, particularly when I had grounds to think that their academic position was unlikely to be a well-paid one. But world-wide, young scholars doing environmental history often work in rather precarious financial circumstances; the knitwear was always about raising funds for a good cause: making environmental history globally inclusive.

Libby Robin sitting behind a desk reading a book. The desk is covered in knitted woolens for sale.
Libbt Robin taking care of the table at the end of 2023 ESEH in Bern, Switzerland (and reading her new book). Photo by Jonte Palmblad.

When ICEHO set out to organize a World Congress in 2009, Bo Poulsen, Anne Husum Marboe and I worked hard to obtain donated travel grants for colleagues in need of financial assistance to attend, but with only mediocre success. When Jane Carruthers and Libby Robin joined ICEHO’s executive, we worked out a plan for attracting donations from conference goers – without ever using the word “crowdfunding”. It was heartwarming how many people chimed in and helped; it was certainly a community effort. Lisa Mighetto, ASEH’s heart and brain, gave us free table space for our wares at the ASEH 2016 conference in Seattle and also at the 2017 conference in Chicago. Then, the ESEH conference in Zagreb saw us successfully talking to attendees sweltering in the extreme heat and persuading them to buy warm socks. And we did it again at the 2018 ASEH in Riverside, California. The consequence was that, despite the climate, between 2015 and 2019, we had managed to collect 18,000 USD from donation tables by selling knitwear (mostly colourful socks I had knitted), other donated handicrafts and books often signed by the authors. With the funds we raised, we were able to support young scholars from economically disadvantaged countries to attend the 2019 World Congress of Environmental History (WCEH) in Florianopolis, Brazil.

I am a happy fundraising knitter, I relax by knitting. My neighbour, a therapist, tells me that the repetitive motion combining eye and hands is good for the psyche. But the true value of the socks I knit is hard to convey. I never do the same pair again, so they are truly unique. I love working creatively with wool – originally a natural product that humanity has utilised for millennia.

Verena Winiwarter sitting in a cafe knitting and smiling at the camera.
Verena Winiwarter working creatively with wool during ESEH 2019 in Tallinn. Photo by Jane Carruthers.

But there is a downside. Were I to sell my socks to make a living, I might earn a maximum of 3 USD per hour. This is the grudging reality of the value of handcrafts in a world almost choked with cheap factory-made stuff. I happily paid for all the yarns I used as part of my own gifting to ICEHO, but if donations are inelastic when it comes to acquiring a pair of socks (hovering around 30 USD), I devalue my own time. So, reluctantly, I gave up trying to sell hand-dyed, organic woolen knitwear and returned to industrial yarns.

I don’t give in easily and was determined to keep the fund-raising scheme going. So when COVID hit, ICEHO’s Jonte Palmblad helped to set up an auction on Twitter in lieu of the lost chance to have a conference knitwear table at the 2021 ASEH in Boston. To make their uniqueness clear, I even gave appropriate names to the socks that were on auction. Each pair also came with a bit of extra wool for darning so as to make them last longer and be more sustainable. Did this auction help? Sadly, not very much. Sending socks by mail proved to be prohibitively costly and interest in the auction was limited. And then, some people wrote to tell me that the colour they wanted was only in a pair of the wrong size. So I offered custom-made pairs. However, this initiative also met with very limited success. The lesson I took away from this experience was that a table at a live conference is what works and personal interaction is what makes donations flow.

A pair of blue, green, and black socks labelled "The Zebra Party Pair" sitting on a table next to a piece of paper with foot sizes listed.
The Zebra Party Pair of socks Verena Winiwarter sold via Twitter auction during COVID in 2021. Photo by the author.

For the 2023 ESEH in Bern, Switzerland, I made a colourful catalogue beforehand, posting it on the conference website, giving people the opportunity to reserve or even order knitwear. I had broadened the spectrum of products with headwear and shawls, taking pains to explain the work involved, the cost of the wool and the unique quality of every item. Although only a few people reserved items, I was delighted that the overall success was huge. I had arrived in Bern with two large boxes full of knitwear and returned home with only a single headband. Colleagues were more than willing to donate! I was at the donations table most of the time, explaining the intricacies of the knits, but colleagues who helped run the table were able to use the catalogue for reference. Certainly, that helped, but so did the fact that I had made clear that, after many years of being at conferences with my socks, and raising a great deal of money for ICEHO, this would be my last donation campaign.

I’m sad to record that I have come to the end of my “knitting for ICEHO” years. The vertebrae in my neck are worn down, as is my right hand, from the repetitive motion. When I sought advice from a therapist who also knits, I got a clear message: Stop knitting as fast as possible, which is what you are doing now. Broaden your knitting experience. Use different yarns. Go for complex patterns that require you to do different stitches each row. Above all: Go slow and enjoy your pastime.

Verena Winiwarter and Jane Carruthers (from left to right) arranging items at the 2019 WCEH in Florianopolis, Brazil. Photo by Jane Carruthers.

My ICEHO journey concludes with a poignant sustainability lesson: What of the colourful hand-made knitwear that can be bought as souvenirs in the Andes and other exotic places? Not only are local knitters working for an exploitative wage, but their bodies too will deteriorate. Alas, they have to continue despite the pain. The real world is far worse than cozy tables at environmental history conferences. I go out of this experience with deeper-than-expected lessons learned. Pockets of sustainability in an unsustainable world system are hard to set up and maintain, even when you work for donations and your donors are environmentally conscious.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. I enjoyed knitting every sock. And I personally will miss the lively and interesting conversations with colleagues that have taken place at the knitwear tables. Friendships have been forged. Besides, the experience has given me, and others too, deep insights into the conundrums of sustainability issues. But above and beyond all, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to ICEHO by supporting young and emerging colleagues.

Featured image: Charity table at ASEH in Riverside, CA,  2018. Photo by Jane Carruthers.
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Environmental Historian of the Viennese Danube and in recent years, of the toxic legaies of warfare. Co-founder and President of the European Society for Environmental History 4/00-2/05, prior to that, since 4/99, Vice President. Member of the Executive Board of the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO) since 7/2011, President of ICEHO 4/2016- 2019. Education: Engineer (Ing.) of technical chemistry, 1981, MA in history, 1991, University of Vienna. PhD in Environmental History, 1998, University of Vienna. Habilitation in Human Ecology, March 2003, University of Vienna, Faculty of Natural Sciences. Professor for Environmental History at the Institute of Social Ecology, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt March 2007-2018, same position at BOKU Vienna from March 2018-May 2022. Retired. Full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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