by Rachael Herron
I’ve been thinking a lot about minimalism lately, and I believe that to make yourself happier, you should get rid of your stash.
Whoops. That shook you up, didn’t it? I’m kidding! Kidding! Actually, I’m not kidding. But I’ll give you a minute to get your breath back.
I’ll start by noting that some people are truly not bothered by clutter. My better half is one of them, a soul actually soothed by leaning piles of books, papers, and artwork. If that’s you—and if that’s working for you—that’s fine. I envy you. The universe tends toward entropy and you are already comfortable with this fact of life. But if the size of your stash makes you feel stressed or if clutter in your house makes you anxious, stick with me. If you long for organization, if you wish you could catalog everything in your stash with a quick flip through the ol’ mental Rolodex but can’t figure out where to start, keep reading.
Knitters are, by nature, hoarders.
(Oh dear, that might not go over well, either.)
Okay, let me start another way.
I am a hoarder. Not one of those on reality TV shows; there are no dead rats in these cupboards. On the contrary, I am very good at organizing. I have a master’s degree in Target storage bins with a minor in the Container Store’s modular drawers. I was somewhat proud of this until I read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She lays it out, simply and directly: “Storage experts are hoarders.”
Ouch. It hurts because it’s true, right? Those of you feeling most anxious (or even angry) at this point—my darlings, you are the ones with the deepest and most “organized” closets. I say this with love, being one of you.
My house is neat and tidy. So is the desk in my office. The minimally disguised chaos begins when you turn to look at my long row of bookcases. If your hip joggles the first one when you enter the room, 73 stitch markers automatically spit out of the last one, like a yarn-demented slot machine. When the yarn bins stop fitting into the bookcases, I stack them on top, praying that I’m not in the room during an earthquake (although smothered by yarn is high on my list of ways to go). The office closet is minuscule, and yet I’ve managed to fit so much yarn, spinning fiber, and fabric inside that I’m beginning to think if I just go in deep enough, I’ll find the steering wheel of the clown car.
And what’s wrong with this, exactly? Why can’t I keep this up indefinitely? Why shouldn’t I keep shoving gorgeous yarn into bins to use someday? It’s my money, after all. I work hard. I carry no consumer debt. I can afford it.
This is what’s wrong: all that stuff makes me feel unhappy and stressed.
Happiness, the experts say, actually can be bought. Retail therapy really does release endorphins in the body. It can feel great to buy things. That thrill of buying the hand-dyed angora-merino blend from that little farm near Rhinebeck is spine-tinglingly delicious. But the truth is, once our basic needs are met, our happiness has little to do with what we own. As Francine Jay says in The Joy of Less, “Beyond this point, the marginal utility (or satisfaction) derived from consuming additional goods diminishes rapidly; and, at what economists call the ‘satiation point,’ it actually turns negative.”
Crafters and hobbyists are extra prone to this, I think. A person finds out skirts are fun and cheap to sew? She suddenly has 26 single yards of fabric, ready to be cut into A-lines. A new knitter learns that cables aren’t that scary? Three full 10-packs of Aran-weight yarn launch themselves into her virtual shopping cart. Then the stuff gets organized. Tidied. What we’re really doing by putting it away and out of sight is twofold: first, we’re lying to ourselves by telling ourselves we’re going to use it, and second, we’re making room to do it all over again.
What if we were to make a real change? I’m not proposing a new storage system. I’m not going to recommend a new color-coding method or a washi-tape solution for this condition.
I’m talking about rejecting organization by choosing simplification.
Listen to your gut on this. Is it telling you have too much stuff? If so, you do. That stuff is burdening you. You deserve to let go of that burden. Now for the hard part—how to pare down to what’s enough for you and no more. Enough will look different to everyone. Minimalism isn’t the ascetic monk with only a robe and a bowl. Your minimalism looks different from mine. If knitting is your business, you’ll need more yarn than I do. I probably have more fountain pens than most. You get to decide what’s enough for you. And there’s no denying it’s overwhelming to start. I thought I could bring my crafting stash (not just yarn, also fabric! jewelry supplies! paint!) down to “enough” in three or four hours.
Three days later, I was still working on it.
In the end, I got rid of almost all my crafting supplies, including yarn. Put your head between your knees. It’s okay. I’m fine. I’m better than fine; I’m overjoyed with how it turned out. I have space to write. To knit. To breathe.
Here’s how to do it.
First, decide what’s enough for you. Be bold. Decide what to keep before you start or every gorgeous hank will sing its siren song to you. I kept my handspun (a small bin’s worth), eight skeins of sock yarn (because I always have a pair on the go), and three projects in progress, which included socks, a sweater, and a shawl. Some people make a space limit (for example, two bins for knitting, one for drawing supplies, one for sewing). Define the space you’ll allow a project, and then cull till you make it fit. You’re the boss of your space, so boss it!
Where do you start? I began at one end of my office, and I worked my way around, over, and through. I took everything off of my six floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, out of the closet, and out of each storage bin and box. It’s important to touch every single thing. Of each item, ask this question: “Do I use this regularly?” (not could I or would I use this but do I)? If the answer is yes, it stays.
If the answer is no, ask “Does this spark joy in my heart?” This is a trick I learned from the Kondo book, and it’s much more powerful than questions like, “Do I really like this? Is this worth keeping? Would it make me happy or sad to see this go?” You can argue answers to these questions all day long, but the answer to “Does this spark joy in my heart?” is clear. When I applied this question to a pile of things I’d already decided to keep, I suddenly (and surprisingly) let go of most of them.
Before you ask: Yes, it’s okay to let go of things people gave you. If it was hand knitted for you but you don’t wear it, take a picture of yourself wearing it, send that picture to your friend with another “thank you” and then let it go. The gift was intended to show love, not to weigh you down. You’ve accepted that love. Now it’s time to give that scarf to someone else to love.
It’s also okay to let go of things you thought you would love but don’t. Our minds change. You had good intentions, but you didn’t exchange marriage vows with your spinning wheel. Once you’re not using it, give it to a friend who might use it with the condition that you can borrow it back if you need it. (Spoiler alert: you won’t borrow it back because you won’t need it.)
It’s okay to let go of projects abandoned in progress. They’ve already taught you what you needed to know. If you’re torn, put the project in a plastic bag, and write a “finish by” date on it. If that date passes and it’s still not done? Donate it. It’s okay to let go of things you spent a lot of money on. As minimalist knitter Claudia points out, “How often does the perfect yarn for any given project actually reside in a stash, no matter how large the stash? Honestly, never.” Give those bags of yarn and fiber to charity—it will make you feel amazing. Or sell them online or at a yard sale.
It’s okay to let go of things that are mementos of a loved one. This was the hardest part for me, to realize that no matter how much I loved my mother, I would never repurpose her carefully-cut-out quilt pieces in my own crafting. Letting them go doesn’t make me love her less, and it doesn’t make me forget her.
Don’t worry about getting rid of too much—you won’t. You’re simply cutting out the dead wood and the space wasters, allowing yourself to be surrounded by only the things you love the most; the things that give you joy with no strings and no guilt. Your house isn’t too small—your stuff is just too big. You totally have the power to change that (and it’s surprisingly fun to do so).
My wish for you is that you find space in which to love, breathe, and knit.
Less is not nothing.
Less is truly enough.
Rachael Herron is the bestselling author of Splinters of Light, the Cypress Hollow series, and the memoir A Life in Stitches. She's a proud New Zealander as well as an American, and she wishes she could knit and play ukulele at the same time.