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Knitworking 

A new generation reclaims an old craft

Women have been knitting since ancient Egyptian times. But they didn't start calling themselves "chicks with sticks" until last year, when major media like Time and Newsweek identified knitting as "the new yoga." Today's yarn worker is more likely to be tattooed and twentysomething than old and arthritic. The "stitch and bitch" has replaced the sewing circle as a new generation of hip young knitters has cast on to the old craft.

Feminist author Debbie Stoller alleges, "The popularity of knitting is at an all-time high," in her recent book, Stitch 'n Bitch. And the fun, pun-filled handbook is definitely a good recruiting tool, with chapter headings like "You ain't shit if you don't knit" and detailed instructions on how to make a cozy for a cell-phone. A cofounder of Bust magazine, Stoller cites a recent Craft Yarn Council study that counted more than 38 million knitters in the United States. More to the point, the percentage of women under 45 who knit or crochet has doubled, from 9 to 18, since 1996.

Men? The book's list of "famous knitters, real and fictional" includes Joey Tribbiani from "Friends" and actor Laurence Fishburne. And although Stoller admits that Russell Crowe's crafty side has not been substantiated, she reports, "There are some fetching photos of Russell holding knitting needles."

Crowe may be envious on Sunday, when he learns that every Oscar "presenter" at the Academy Awards is receiving yarn, needles and scarf-knitting instructions in their thank-you gift baskets. Kaleidoscope Yarns in Essex Junction was asked to supply 40 "knitting kits" for every star handing out statuettes, including Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock -- both knitters -- John Travolta, Robin Williams, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Nicole Kidman. Last week owner Jill Bujold was busy packing up all the product destined for Los Angeles.

"It's cool, it's trendy -- knitting is a big deal now," says Bujold, 35, who traces the Academy Award honor to a favorable mention in Lucky magazine. Also, her store is the only Vermont yarn source listed in Stitch 'n Bitch. She chuckles at the thought of Tom Cruise knitting a shiny decorative ribbon-yarn scarf according to her directions.

But Bujold is more concerned about serving regular customers than celebrity ones. Her business is booming. Kaleidoscope's May 2002 opening coincided with the beginning of the knitting explosion, and its current monthly sales are more than twice what they were a year ago. In the past 12 months, five new yarn shops have cropped up in South Burlington, Montpelier, Johnson, Bristol and Morrisville.

Bujold has her hands full with the day-to-day challenges of filling online orders, keeping popular yarns in stock, and dealing with suppliers and mills that are trying to keep up with growing demand. Yarn shops also double as "schools" where customers can come for help, whether they are experienced knitters or taking up needles for the first time. That puts extra pressure on the staff.

"We see a lot of twentysomethings come in, but also people who haven't knit for 25 years, relearning," says Bujold, a Middlebury grad. Since her store opened, "People come in and say, ‘Oh, it must be great to come in and knit all day.' I mean, we don't knit here. We never knit. There's no time. There's always something to be done."

*****

That famous line about "idle hands" motivated many erstwhile mitten-makers. "Multi-tasking" may be the modern term for the same industrious urge. Bujold makes her husband drive when they're together so she can knit in the car. "I might knit one row, but I'm getting something done," she reasons. Even with twin 4-year-olds, "I'm always thinking, what project can I take?"

Who needs Prozac when you can purl your troubles away? Bujold describes knitting as therapy, a meditative experience -- yoga didn't work for her -- in which "you're thinking about what you're doing, but you're not really obsessing on your problems. You are getting away from your stress and you're also creating something. Nine times out of 10, knitters end up giving it away. That feels good, too."

Before ready-made clothing became cheap and prevalent, knitting was a perfect blend of thrift and practicality. Its popularity surged in times of war, when women were encouraged to knit socks and blankets for the troops. An American Red Cross poster from World War I encourages, "Our boys need sox. Knit your bit."

It may not be a coincidence that the current knitting craze caught on shortly after 9/11. "I know there was a lot of sock knitting for the rescue workers. There was a pattern in one of the magazines," Bujold recalls. Although she concedes the craft is no longer cost-effective, "It was a way of doing something."

The compulsion to craft, and the satisfaction that comes from it, are timeless. But knitting has come a long way since your great-granny was working on her afghans. The yarns and patterns are different -- picture a midriff top with multi-colored "eyelash"-flecked yarn. Bujold sells hand-painted merino wool for 26 bucks a skein. Metallic, sequined, thick-and-thin, fuzzy and variegated novelty yarns are available in every imaginable color.

"A lot of people, when they used to knit, would knit with one wool and they would make a sweater and it would sort of be scratchy," Bujold says on a tour of her shop near the Five Corners. A former home, the place feels more like a cozy club than a commercial enterprise. "These people who are picking up knitting again, every day they ask, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that? You know, what can I mix this with?' There are no rules. You can do anything," Bujold says.

There's no way past generations could have anticipated this one, either. Stoller sees the reclamation of knitting -- dissed by early feminists as a thankless "domestic" chore -- as an expression of girl power. Her "take back the knit" movement reworks the feminist slogan against sexual assault, a reminder that oppression of women can take many forms.

"Sure, feminism had changed the world, and young girls all across the country had formed soccer leagues, and were growing up to become doctors and astronauts and senators," she reasons. "But why weren't boys learning to knit and sew? Why couldn't we all -- men and women alike -- take the same kind of pride in the work our mothers had always done as we did in the work of our fathers?"

In knitting, Stoller found an opportunity to connect with and share wisdom with other women -- not just her own elder relatives but young females her age. She gathered knitters of all stripes and started her own "Stitch and Bitch" sessions in New York City. Some came to find and celebrate the "lost domestic arts." Others, motivated by fashion and politics, discovered that their one-of-a-kind knitted items turned heads and challenged American consumer culture.

*****

Television united the four members of a knitting circle that has been meeting weekly for nine years in Burlington. Kristen Hindes and Esther Maynard found each other in the reference department of the Bailey/Howe Library -- Maynard was a student -- and quickly realized they shared an obsession for "90210."

They started meeting on Wednesday nights to watch the show. Knitting came later. Maynard, now 28, had learned the craft from her mom at a young age. She taught 33-year-old Hindes. Later, Maynard also helped Laura Philipps, 37, get back into the craft. "Esther can talk you through a dropped stitch on the phone," Philipps says of the exuberant paralegal whose cool 'do and funky glasses give her a distinctly urban look.

Maynard is a sharp contrast to Chrissy Forbes, a full-time grad student who lives with her husband and two kids in a raised ranch in Burlington's New North End. Her suburban living room is the site of tonight's "K&B," as the women like to call it, adding the all-important subtitle: "Knitting is optional."

Forbes learned how to knit from a German neighbor and still recalls how the woman's "needles flew." Now an expert herself, she's eager to show off some "yummy" new yarn she bought in Canada. She makes everybody close their eyes to feel the skeins of Italian merino wool that will soon be worked into a Byzantine-patterned sweater that mixes Eastern and Western knitting styles.

Meanwhile, Maynard is tearing apart the sleeves of a beautiful seafoam-green sweater she made several years ago. She wants to use the yarn for something else: a collared sweater-shirt with a cable up the front. She also announces she's decided to rip up a vest she recently made for a male friend. Her fellow knitters are astonished.

After their chorus of gasps, she explains with faux sobriety, "He's not a vest wearer. I thought he might be." Every-one laughs.

"Esther likes to make things difficult," Philipps offers while helping Maynard roll up her ball of yarn. "And she's always ripping things up." The remarks inspire a lively discussion of knitting technique as a metaphor for psychological personality typing. It turns out attorney Philipps is a perfectionist. Everyone ribs her, "How long did you spend on that button band?"

Hindes, a librarian and self-avowed material girl, spends maximum time in the yarn store. "You can knit cheaply, but why bother?" she says, noting with a laugh how snobby that sounds. "Half the fun of knitting for me is the shopping," she confesses. "I'm really good at stockpiling."

Forbes is more practical. She's not above using acrylic yarn, for example, on a sweater for her little boy. "You just throw it in the washer. He doesn't care," she notes. She splurged on that fancy wool -- which set her back $80 -- because it was a birthday present. She's done the math; knitting doesn't pay. Forbes advises, "You'd be hard-pressed to make a living at it unless you had a boutique in SoHo."

Nevertheless, all four of these women knit for money as well as pleasure. As a group, they crafted three demo sweaters for a woman who was starting a pattern company. Hindes and Forbes sell their work at fairs and teach knitting at St. Michael's College. Maynard is an instructor for Burlington City Arts. Philipps is currently selling her handmade hats.

Their interest in knitting predates the current frenzy, but they have plenty of theories about why so many people are taking it up. "They've finally come out with patterns that aren't so marmish, that are really cool," says Maynard. "You've got the novelty yarns to support a look you want."

Forbes suggests, "It's soothing. You create functional art. And it's about instant gratification. You knit a few rows and you see progress. It's nice to do something with your hands."

She doesn't mean grabbing the remote. But with or without television, the knitting circle gives women an excuse to get away from family, job and worries for a little old-fashioned female bonding. "We all come from different places," says Maynard, "but we can all talk about knitting -- about the yarn, the clever finds, patterns. We learn from each other."

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About The Author

Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Bio:
Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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