Monday, January 27, 2003

The yarn's flying as more women discover the joys of knitting

By CECELIA GOODNOW
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

Carol Kilgore lives the rush-rush life of the typical young ad executive, with stress-filled workdays that stretch into the evening. So she pampers herself in off hours with a soothing, meditative pastime that some hipsters are calling "the new yoga."

Her secret?

She knits.

And she has lots of company.

Cast off your fusty notions about this venerable fiber art. Knitting has a new look and a new edge, thanks in part to high-style designs and rich, textural yarns that didn't exist a generation ago.

Factor in women's growing hunger for self-expression and emotional connection, and the result is a knitting renaissance among young sophisticates. Women under 35 are now the craft's fastest-growing market.

"I work with a bunch of women who knit, and they're all young," said Kilgore, a thirtysomething Seattle woman with a brisk stride and a head of dark curls. "I'm stunned every day -- this is not my grandmother's sport."

Some 38 million American women -- more than one in three -- either knit or crochet, according the Craft Yarn Council of America.

Crochet is more common, but it hasn't caught fire as much with upscale, design-conscious women, who still tend to associate crochet with dime-store afghans. What these knitters crave is the more sumptuous fare of specialty yarn boutiques.

But look for crochet to switch to the fast lane.

"We're starting to see a lot more crochet happening," said Trisha Malcolm, editor in chief of Vogue Knitting magazine, an industry bible, "so we believe that in the next couple of years there's going to be a resurgence of crochet as well."

Although knitting has a strongly female profile, some men have ventured into the fold as well, connecting with a long tradition of male knitters.

The knitting craze has been building for at least the past four years -- aided by celebrity knitters such as Julia Roberts, Hilary Swank and Sandra Bullock.

"It's reached a fever pitch in the last two years or so," said Melanie Falick, author of books such as "Knitting in America" and editor of Interweave Knits magazine, a quarterly that draws a young audience.

Everyone has a theory to explain this resurgence, but according to a national survey by the craft yarn council, knitters' No. 1 motivation is to relax.

Frustrated newbies who are grappling with tangled yarn and dropped stitches may be forgiven if they scoff. Even seasoned knitters must focus intensely to meet the mathematical challenges of the most intricate patterns. But there's no denying knitting's tactile, meditative qualities.

The healing aspect of knitting has been a powerful draw since 9/11 darkened the nation's mood.

"I started knitting on Sept. 12, 2001," said Ryan Morrissey, 42, a Seattle-area tech writer and Web designer. "That's specifically why I started knitting -- to deal with the stress."

While career-oriented newcomers have changed the face of knitting, the pastime has always had a core of steadfast followers, some of whom are now hip, silver-haired mentors. The revival also has attracted middle-age benchwarmers who only recently got back into the game.

Jennifer Summers, 54, a graphic designer at the University of Washington, said she made an afghan in her 20s, but "then I didn't knit for 25 years." Her interest was rekindled at a church retreat where people knitted blankets for survivors of Sept. 11.

Signaling a new commitment, Summers recently attended her first meeting of the Seattle Knitters' Guild, which gathers each month in a Wedgwood church basement to hone skills and lend mutual support. To the surprise of longtime members, this month's meeting drew a capacity crowd, with members scurrying to shoehorn in more cafeteria-style tables and folding chairs.

While some knitters keep their eye on the finished product, others are learning to savor the journey itself. The balance has shifted somewhat since the 1980s, when knitting hit its last high-water mark.

Then, knitting was "more fashion-driven," said Kit Hutchin of Bainbridge Island, owner of Churchmouse Yarns and Teas. "Now," she said, "the focus seems to be process-driven -- making something with your own hands."

Either way, it's a delicious feeling when you greet your public in a one-of-a-kind scarf draped just-so over your jacket. The world may not know you made it yourself, but you know.

"It's like when you wear lingerie," Falick said. "You kind of walk differently if you have beautiful lingerie on."

Hand-knits have appeared on fashion runways for several years, but Malcolm predicts that, even when fashions change, knitting will remain a popular antidote to our stressful, cyber-driven society. Even the textures of the yarns -- slippery, slubby or nubby -- feed the senses and the soul.

"It's all tied in with that homing instinct," Malcolm said.

Yarn shops, faced with online competition, emphasize their role as social centers, with comfy chairs and communal tables that invite people to linger like old-time farmers around the cracker barrel.

At some shops, ambience takes center stage. Hilltop Yarn and Needlepoint is a case in point. The Queen Anne boutique opened last May in a 1922 Craftsman-style house with boxed-beam ceilings, original wood paneling and ornate balustrade. Tiny track lights enhance the jewel tones of the yarns, pigeonholed in antique wood cabinetry like letters at a vintage post office.

"Yarn is art," said owner Jennifer Hill, 34, who has been knitting for several years. "It moves literally through the color wheel."

The passion for knitting seems to have skipped a generation, and some say its resurgence signals women's new confidence and freedom of expression.

"It seems like young women are really reclaiming a lot of traditional, feminine tasks that their mothers probably didn't have time for, or rejected," Falick said. "Now the women's movement is kind of in a different place. Now, to achieve something in the business world, you don't have to hide what's feminine about you."

Betsy McCarthy, a veteran Seattle knitter and designer who used to work in the corporate world, remembers a time when she kept her handiwork under wraps, for fear it would undermine her serious image as a health-care administrator.

"You'd almost hide it in your briefcase," she said.

Now she's as public as a cell-phone junkie, whipping out her needles at every opportunity.

"I never go anywhere, a bank or a store, without having a sock or other project I can pull out," McCarthy said. "I can knit a few rounds while I'm waiting in line. A lot of people do."

Mareth Lee, 23, an English-lit major at the University of Washington, said, "I knit in big lectures, and I knit on the bus on the way to school and every chance I get."

Judging by the waiting lists for child and teen classes, the knitting trend should last well into the future. Students at many area schools -- Roosevelt High School, for one -- have formed knitting clubs, some focused on charity knitting. And many kids knit in class.

At Hilltop Yarns the other day, first-timer Micah Fecher, age 8 1/2, watched as a helper twirled his twisted skein of Russian blue on a wooden yarn winder.

"I'm going to make socks," he announced, to the startled surprise of his mother, a beginning knitter.

"I'm going to make a scarf," he amended hastily, "because my mom doesn't know how to make socks."

His brother, Josiah, almost 10, has several knitting projects under his belt. Despite their imperfections, he said, "it's a good thing to take up time when you're bored."

One of the beauties of the knitting culture is the easy camaraderie between novices and experts of all ages. If you botch a project, no one sneers. If you lose your way, a more seasoned knitter will lend a hand. There are no prima donnas here, said Rachel Norton, 55, who took up knitting in her 40s.

"Probably one reason I have found the joy I have," Norton said, "is because the knitting community in Seattle is such a generous one. They want you to love knitting."

YARN WITH PERSONALITY

Today's sensual and color-saturated yarns -- especially the so-called novelty yarns -- have a lot to do with the knitting renaissance. They offer instant gratification, lending texture and pattern even to plain vanilla garter stitch, the first stitch knitters learn.

"Yarns are being made with young knitters in mind," said Patti Moore, owner of Skeins! Ltd. in Bellevue, one of several new yarn shops in the area.

Once knitters catch the bug, they make the rounds of yarn shops throughout the region -- distance no object. As Moore said, "If they know what they want, they will walk through the fires of hell to get it."

Right now, scarves are the hot ticket among knitters at all skill levels. Quick and easy, they're perfectly suited to both natural fibers and high-priced novelties such as chenilles and fluffy "eyelash" yarns. And they add flair to bland, mass-produced outfits.

"Most people's clothing has been so Gap and Banana Republic," said Trisha Malcolm, editor in chief of Vogue Knitting. "Scarves are one way people can show personality."

A popular trick is to mix several types of yarn -- say, angora and ribbon, or wool plus metallics or eyelash yarns. Sometimes the contrasting fibers are twisted into a single, hybrid yarn.

Other trends:

  • Chunky needles and fat yarn for quick results.

  • Custom-sizing and do-it-yourself designing.

  • Projects in cleverly packaged kits.

  • Designer baby knits in bright, perky colors.

  • Needles, straight and circular, in non-traditional materials, from bamboo to flexible plastic and casein (derived from milk products) that are kind to arthritic hands.

    KNITTING EVENTS AND RESOURCES

  • Seattle Knitters' Guild: A warm haven for knitters from beginning to advanced levels, it offers skill-building programs and a monthly newsletter. Dues are $22 per year. For details, see www.scn.org/skg/.

  • Madrona Fiber Arts retreat, Feb. 13-16: Nationally and regionally known experts will teach the fine points of knitting and weaving at a retreat at the Inn at Gig Harbor. To register, see www.madronafiberarts.com. If classes are full, check in fall for details of next winter's conference.

  • Hilltop Yarn's "Glam It Up" party: Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers will model glamorous creations you can knit yourself. The free show, complete with sparkling wine and gourmet treats, runs Feb. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Hilltop Yarn and Needlepoint, 2224 Queen Anne Ave. N. For details, call 206-282-1332.

  • www.knittinguniverse.com: "KnitU,"a free service of Knitter's Magazine, bills itself as the largest listserve on the planet. Here knitters can e-mail cries for help, share sometimes heated opinions and link to products.

    BOOKS

  • "The Vogue Knitting Book," (Vogue, 280 pages, $38.95): The ultimate, all-inclusive reference book, newly updated.

  • "Knitting for Baby," by Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 160 pages, $24.95): Thirty heirlom projects to knit for baby.

  • "Hollywood Knits," by Suss Cousins (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 136 pages, $27.50): Thirty easy-to- follow projects by a designer to the stars.

  • "Knitting on the Road: Sock Patterns for the Traveling Knitter," by Nancy Bush (Interweave Press, 96 pages,$18.95). One more reason to park your car and take the bus.

    Back to Seattle Knitters' Guild