Is the "Sweater Curse" a scientifically verified thing?
August 27, 2018 12:20 PM   Subscribe

A dear friend insists that the "sweater curse" - whereby a knitter knits a sweater for their partner, and the pre-marriage relationship then ends - is an actual thing. There is a detailed Wikipedia page of uncertain seriousness for it, and a very detailed related talk page. I find references on social media, and previously on MetaFilter. But is it a widely recognised thing i.e. a phenomena, and something that has been tested to be more than probabilistic chance? There are references to the "knitting literature" in several places but I don't know where to start.
posted by Wordshore to Human Relations (46 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I cannot attest to a sweater curse, being inept at knitting. However, in my life, if I ever designed a tattoo for a lover (by their own request), and they had it tattooed on their bodies, we've always either broken up or divorced. I refuse to design one for my current partner, out of fear.
posted by annieb at 12:25 PM on August 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

No, except in the very narrow sense that I'm sure the phenomenon itself--knit someone a sweater, break up with them--occurs from time to time. I've been knitting for nearly thirty years now and I have never seen any scientific evidence offered for this claim. I mean, honestly. If that kind of claim doesn't bury the needle on your BS-o-meter...
posted by praemunire at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

Several plausible mechanisms for the sweater curse have been proposed, but it has not been studied systematically.

This is in no way a ‘scientifically verified thing’ at all, whatsoever. Some dodgy superstitions can manage to get some shreds of science-ish support, but this doesn’t even have that as far as I can tell (and the fans of this claptrap are very good at getting sketchy references for veracity into Wikipedia articles).

The plural of anecdote is not data, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:30 PM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

Indeed, I once went with a woman who knitted, she gave me a sweater, and we broke up. I am pretty sure we would have broken up anyway. According to the Wikipedia article, only 15% of people have actually experienced the "curse". Given the volatility of modern romances, that figure actually seems pretty low to me. I would bet money that you could replace the gift of a sweater with any other kind of comparable gift and still find that least 15% of relationships broke up after it.
posted by ubiquity at 12:31 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Let's just say as a knitter, I'm not about to tempt fate by knitting my husband a sweater. He won't wear it anyway, so that saves a lot of trouble.
posted by zizzle at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

It is a thing in that people talk about the "boyfriend sweater curse." Ravelry gives me 87 pages of mentions of "sweater curse" in their chat forums. It is not a thing that is statistically significant or verifiable.

For what it's worth, I knit a sweater for my husband before I married him, and we're still married, so the sweater curse didn't work on him. (He doesn't wear the damn sweater, but...) And the engagement chicken recipe didn't work on him either--it took several more years and a few more chickens to get engaged after I deployed that tactic.
posted by Liesl at 12:36 PM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Most people break up with a lot more people than they end up marrying. Plus, when people break up, they tend to ask "why did it all go wrong?" If you aren't inclined to see the faults in your own character or relationship (who is?), then a safe alternative answer is "it must have been the sweater."

I've met a lot of married people and talked to a lot of them about marriage. No one that I've met has ascribed their good relationship to knitware.

I say this as the loving husband of an accomplished knitter.
posted by ferdydurke at 12:37 PM on August 27, 2018 [23 favorites]

like most things with "curse" in the name in conjunction with "scientifically verified", not only "no" but "hell no".
posted by alchemist at 12:39 PM on August 27, 2018 [19 favorites]

I had a friend years ago who kind of shocked me by telling me that he found it very difficult to feel bad for friends who broke up with their significant others. He could recognize that they were hurting emotionally, but found it difficult to feel bad with them, because in his view ending is the main thing that happens to relationships, statistically speaking.

His view was shaded a bit by our age at the time (mid-20s). And also he was a little bit of an asshole when it came to relationships generally, it should be noted. But the logic stands: staying together is less likely than splitting up, so staying together [after a sweater has been created] is less likely than splitting up [after a sweater has been created].
posted by Spathe Cadet at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2018 [16 favorites]

It is not scientifically verified. On the other hand, my mother broke up with two boyfriends while she was knitting them sweaters. She met my father, and after she decided she liked him, started casting on, at which point her mother said "Put the needles down, Teasha, do you want to die alone?" And so she didn't knit the sweater, and they got married and stayed married for about 25 grimly unhappy years.

Moral? If she'd knitted the sweater, at least she'd have had the sweater.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:00 PM on August 27, 2018 [74 favorites]

I mean, for it to really be scientifically verified gold standard, you'd want a blinded RCT, and I don't know how you could even accomplish that to test the sweater curse.

But there's so many anecdotally true points about it (it's a gift that takes a very long time to make, a not-insignificant investment in yarn, and it can be fraught with expectations: if the recipient doesn't appreciate it enough, doesn't wear it enough, loses it, whatever) that you can see how knitting a sweater for someone could be enough to be the breaking point if a relationship isn't up to it.

My partner and I are coming up on 8 years, aren't married, and though I've knitted him a zillion pairs of socks, I'll never knit him a damn sweater. I like him too much.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't know, my grandmother knitted many sweaters for her husband, along with just about everyone else in her life. The only one I can think of who broke up with anyone after she knit him a sweater was President Ford (and Ford didn't so much "break up" with the Presidency).

But then her math background was great for her knitting, and also great for dismissing folk curses. I hadn't heard of this one before.
posted by ldthomps at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

A boyfriend once offered me an extremely expensive scarf that he'd gotten for free from work. As he offered it to me, I realized that I couldn't accept such a valuable gift from him... because I wasn't sure I wanted to keep dating him. I broke up with him soon after that. The scarf didn't CAUSE the breakup, but it helped catalyze my feelings and demonstrated the difference between how he and I felt about the future of our relationship. So I can totally buy the idea of a lovingly handmade sweater acting as a similar catalyst.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:24 PM on August 27, 2018 [43 favorites]

It's a fiber-arts-specific way of saying "don't invest too much into a romantic relationship before marriage." As such, it's probably not any more verifiable than trying to test whether it's reasonable to "buy the cow when you can get the milk for free."

(Being unmarried, I object to the cow comparison, but that's the general idea behind the sweater curse.)
posted by asperity at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

How would one even test or study this-- I mean, what are the statistics on "pre-marriage relationships" ending generally? I don't see how you could reasonably assess the Sweater Factor, especially in isolation from other factors.
posted by kapers at 1:31 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

To be actually helpful, this is a question that should probably not be directed to AskMeFi, but to the forums at Ravelry. If there's meaningful literature on the subject, someone there will know.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:46 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

i don't think it's the sweater itself "causing" these breakups. rather, the knitter spends many, many, many hours knitting the sweater, imbuing it with love, etc. then, the gift recipient doesn't appreciate it as much as it should be, given the extreme effort and skill that went into making it. and from there, "hidden issues" emerge that would end the relationship eventually anyway, but everything gets blamed on the sweater.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:53 PM on August 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

I'd chalk the sweater curse theory up to the "correlation is not causation" category.

If you're interested in the sweater curse phenomenon, you may enjoy The Savoy Ballroom's catchy little ditty "The Knitter's Curse", and you might also be interested in "Elegy to a Piano Scarf", which is my own blog post on the topic of my fraught experiences with knitting for the men I've dated.
posted by orange swan at 1:53 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

To be actually helpful, this is a question that should probably not be directed to AskMeFi, but to the forums at Ravelry. If there's meaningful literature on the subject, someone there will know.

Yes, that is a valid point. Unfortunately, until literally a few minutes ago I was under the (incorrect) assumption that Ravelry was a dating website for knitters. I've been corrected on this and am now aware of what's on there e.g. lively forums, pattern database, yarn stash cataloguing functionality and so forth.
posted by Wordshore at 2:00 PM on August 27, 2018 [35 favorites]

one of the summer of love exhibits in sf included a knitted bedspread the soon to be ex-gf of a grateful dead member made for him. it had never been used.
posted by brujita at 2:01 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

It is widely-recognized but not scientifically tested. There's a book of essays with the lore in the title. Stephanie Pearl McPhee describes her experience with the sweater curse in one of her books - the google books link should let you read the anecdote.
posted by momus_window at 2:03 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I never heard of that one. But I have noticed that famous couples tend to break up within 6 months of doing a magazine spread on how happy they are together, including pictures of their kids and 20 million-dollar house.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:06 PM on August 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

The photo spread thing for famous couples is apparently a strategic thing for boosting the real estate price post divorce settlement of the shared property. So basically if you see a couple's house, a divorce is being planned and the house is getting shopped.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:12 PM on August 27, 2018 [22 favorites]

Never heard of this sweater thing, but like, any partner you give a thoughtful present to is likely to break up with you or you break up with them. That's just literally how relationships go. Occasionally two people will get a government involved to force themselves into a legal relationship, but even then, it's pretty safe to say most and any gestures one way or the other eventually precipitate the end. Relationships end, it's not a particularly meaningful event on which to hang superstitions in my opinion and treating relationships as if they're supposed to be a permanent condition seems dangerous.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, it should be noted that the curse is about boy/girlfriends, not spouses. And it might not be scientifically validated except in that most unmarried partnerships end in breakup, but it does get at the heteronormative “domestic woman is more invested in relationship than commitmentphone dudes” cultural thing, along with longish term moderately stressful mutual* projects being a common breaking point for ill-paired couples.

*first sweaters in particular require so much measuring, pinning, careful application of WIP to the victim, not to mention asking someone to explain what types of shoulder gussets they like when usually the answer is \_(ツ)_/¯
posted by zinful at 2:20 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Most people break up with a lot more people than they end up marrying.

And a sizeable percentage of marriages end in divorce. In other words, you're probably headed for a breakup, regardless of whether or not you knit the sweater.
posted by she's not there at 2:23 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I always think it's worthwhile to see if we can jack these folk beliefs (I feel it's unjustly belittling to call them superstitions) up a bit and try to slide a cause and effect foundation underneath them, because I think we vastly undervalue the insights and powers of observation of those who came before us.

This one is kind of a hard case, but unwashed sheep's wool has a steroid hormone in it, Lanosterol, which the Merck Index describes as "The core steroid from which all others [including all androgens and estrogens] are derived by biologic modification. From wool fat of sheep..."

And we know that exogenous steroids tend to suppress the production of endogenous ones, that steroids pass through skin fairly readily, and that romantic love generally does seem to involve sex hormones.

So perhaps in premodern times, handling enough wool long enough to knit a sweater for someone would sometimes suppress a woman's hormones enough to diminish the capacity to feel romantic love, and thereby lead to a breakup.
posted by jamjam at 2:30 PM on August 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

I had a friend years ago who kind of shocked me by telling me that he found it very difficult to feel bad for friends who broke up with their significant others. He could recognize that they were hurting emotionally, but found it difficult to feel bad with them

The difference between empathy and sympathy, by my read.
posted by rhizome at 2:35 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing that it’s unverifiable. However, as a knitter I’ve learned two things that could possibly contribute to/explain the “curse”:

1. Knitting a sweater can take anywhere from a long time to an agonizingly ass-long time, depending on the pattern’s complexity, the yarn gauge, the wearer’s size, etc. (The last one I completed took over a year.) A lot can change in a relationship during the time it takes to knit a sweater. An entire relationship can begin, flourish, decline, and end in the amount of time it takes to knit a sweater.

2. A sweater (or any other major project intended as a gift) can expose or amplify misunderstandings and incompatibilities between the giver and recipient. Knitters talk about friends and relatives being “knitworthy” - a knitworthy person will understand the significant time and expense involved in a handknit gift, and appreciate and care for it accordingly. Receiving a knit gift poorly is a sign that the recipient either doesn’t understand the effort, or doesn’t care, which is a bad sign in a relationship. On the flip side, a knitter can insist on knitting a sweater despite the recipient politely declining the offer, proceed to make fiber/design choices that do not reflect the recipient’s preferences in any way, and then get angry when the recipient doesn’t love it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:28 PM on August 27, 2018 [18 favorites]

I have knit my husband three sweaters which he won't wear, so what is up with them?

I knit a sweater once for a boyfriend and we did break up, so I gave the sweater to my dad. It was really awful, black with a big silver reindeer on the front.
posted by chocolatetiara at 4:48 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Please read about confirmation bias.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:48 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am trying to explain that knitting sites are not good resources for science.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:56 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

[A few comments deleted. If you've given your answer, it's fine to let it rest at that and trust that OP will be able to assess sources and information for themselves -- you don't need to make ten more comments about how you can't believe people in the thread would recommend x, etc. And if you have a question about moderation, please come to the contact form, don't address it as a derail in the thread itself.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:57 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

It occurs to me that this is why the ladies at the yarn store looked at me askance when I asked them whether they thought I could knit a sweater by Christmas.

(I went in in like, October, and seeing their hesitation, I decided to downgrade my question to "...for a hedgehog?" They seemed relieved, and the hedgehog, boyfriend, and I are still together.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:34 PM on August 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

It is a superstition, and a ridiculous one at that. We do not discuss the "got caught cheating" curse, or the "stole all my money" curse, let alone "partner physically assaulted me" curse, many more couples suffer from, but somehow, the middle class are always looking at the trivial while ignoring the real problems that count.

If you are knitting a sweater in hopes that a partner will now be obligated to stay with you, it is a very flimsy plan. No one sticks in a bad relationship because someone knitted them a sweater. If the relationship is strong, and it is a mere token of your affection, then knit away.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:45 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my cynical experience, it's because there's a certain sort of guy who's put off by the implications of women having sedentary, solitary hobbies. Even if they ask for the damn sweater themselves they're still kind of bothered by knowing that you would gladly sit and knit for hours - they infer that you're inherently boring and then become contemptuous of you and your hobbies.

(And no, I never even cast on the sweater.)
posted by blerghamot at 8:53 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

My friends and I have experienced the Arts version of this curse - incorporate a partner in your work and eventually the relationship falls apart. It crosses gender and sexuality lines, and even relationship types: last time this happened to me was with one of my best friends.

I think what people are saying about the process and reception bringing up underlying issues is true. It's also tricky to maintain boundaries between Artistic Director Self and Friend/Partner Self, especially if you need them to do something for you or you have to critique them about something. anything less than positive can lead to strife even if it's purely a business matter.
posted by divabat at 9:44 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think it's more of a Murphy's Law thing myself. As Metroid Baby said, by the time you finish making one, which might take a while... shit happens.

I don't really believe in a curse but I do believe in Murphy's Law and thus would never knit for a dude I was dating, not that this has ever come up since I took up the craft after I was done with men.

one of the summer of love exhibits in sf included a knitted bedspread the soon to be ex-gf of a grateful dead member made for him. it had never been used

I hate to be the asshole who nitpicks and I can't find an online cite, but I got really obsessed with that exhibit and I think she actually commissioned someone else to make it, she didn't make it herself. And yet the curse continued! (Awesome bedspread though. And I looooove 100% Birgitta.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:58 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Beverly Cleary 's Fifteen has Jane struggle with knitting Stan a pair of socks for xmas, but the book ends before we find out if she was able to complete them.
posted by brujita at 10:40 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

It is totally true. After my partner-to-be knit me a sweater I broke up with him. Mind you, that was 20+ years later so it was a very slow curse in our case.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:31 AM on August 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe there's something about putting many hours into creating a gift for someone during which time it's likely you are thinking about that relationship and that person that could possibly open your eyes to flaws of the person and/or relationship. Add in a less than ideal reaction to that gift from the receiver and then the giver and who knows what might happen...

This is why I stick to baking for loved ones. Quick, easy, and I get to eat some of whatever I made regardless of if the receiver likes it.
posted by Burn.Don't.Freeze at 10:01 AM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I didn't knit anything for either of my husbands (nor did they knit anything for me), and we divorced. I knitted an afghan for Current Boyfriend, and that was 4 years ago. Make of that what you will.

I believe superstitions like this arise from our desperate need to believe that we have some kind of control in our relationships when very often we don't.

And you know, I never heard of this sweater thing; you know the one I always heard? Never, ever, ever, hang wallpaper with a spouse or lover or whatever. Kills your relationship dead.
posted by JanetLand at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Superstition growing out of the huge amount of time and effort it takes to knit a sweater, that's all.

I started one for my boyfriend, was halfway through the torso when we got engaged, and I finished it shortly before we got married. He still wears it and we've been married for over 10 years, but there's no fucking way I'd ever knit a stockinette sweater in plain grey yarn (not even heathered!) ever again because it was miles and miles of the most boring knitting imaginable. If he hadn't liked it I wouldn't have broken up with him, I'd have force-fed it to him.
posted by harriet vane at 6:51 AM on August 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

"And you know, I never heard of this sweater thing; you know the one I always heard? Never, ever, ever, hang wallpaper with a spouse or lover or whatever. Kills your relationship dead."

Doesn't this also kill your home's resale value?
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:21 PM on August 29, 2018

I don't think anyone is out there claiming that the so-called "curse" is definitively going to lead to a breakup every time. If you look at the Wikipedia article it's mostly on the theme of "two people break up, a sweater is also present". It's basically a humorous way of advising people not to get involved in a big project for the sake of a relationship that isn't yet established, and as such cannot actually be tested in any meaningful way.

I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but it's also a very handy excuse if you don't want to go to all the work of knitting a sweater for someone in the first place.
posted by yohko at 2:40 PM on August 29, 2018

As a sweater receiver in the far dusty past I did not know of the curse but now it spooks me (no details but one embarrassed anecdotal confirmation)
posted by sammyo at 1:38 PM on September 5, 2018

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