For me, it all started with the yarn. My metamorphosis from non-knitter to enthusiastic generator-of-many-scarves begins and ends with my deep fascination for what is, essentially, fancy string. Like a magpie or perhaps a drag queen, my eyes are immediately drawn to the fibers of the utmost fabulousness... things with tiny little lashes, glittery bits, peacocky or Martian colors and sensual, satisfying textures. But what to do? I'm also, unfortunately, a crafts snob. True art is where one should spend one's energies, my arts editor brain has always reasoned, and craft stores have always tended to ick me out with their big silk flowers, cutesy-poo doll projects and weathered Americana faux folk art.
So I hid my fetish. I'd occasionally find reason to visit a craft or fabric store, needing something for a party costume or an easy apartment project. I'd play with the yarn -- pulling strands out and meditatively turning them around my fingertips while imagining what I might make if I could knit -- but I wouldn't ever buy any. My attitude toward craft remained as unimaginative and practical as my mostly black wardrobe.
What I needed, it turns out, was permission. I was in a bookstore sometime in October when something pulled me over to the crafts section. Almost guiltily, I pulled out about six titles and parked myself in a big chair to peruse them at my leisure. One of them stood out from the rest -- the cheekily titled Stitch'n Bitch, with its vintage cowgirl pin-up girl on the front, whipping around a lasso of magenta yarn.
Oct. 18, 2003 -- OK, this one's not bad. Goofy title but I like the funny little illustrations of knitting hands with chipped black nail polish... great projects... oh my God, scarves! I love hand-knit scarves. The tone is good, too. Whoever wrote this knows what they're doing. It's smart and funny and.... Wait a minute. Debbie Stoller? Debbie Stoller is the founder of Bust! I love Bust... it's one of the few women's magazines worth buying.
If there's anyone who could single-handedly make knitting cool, it's not Madonna, Cameron Diaz or Charlotte on Sex and the City (all of whom are confirmed knitters), but Debbie Stoller. Founder and editor-in-chief of Bust magazine, Stoller holds a Ph.D in the psychology of women from Yale, but her ribald sense of humor and open enthusiasm for traditionally feminine activities make her the perfect poster girl for feminism's third wave. Interested in meeting other knitters, Stoller started the first New York City Stitch'n Bitch group in 2000, an informal weekly knitting session whose mailing list has now grown to more than 500 recipients.
"In my research on knitting for the book, it does seem like something that comes in and out of popularity, kind of in waves, and the waves almost seem to follow the waves of feminism," Stoller explains from her home in Manhattan. "So this whole idea of knitting being not just for grandmas anymore, that was already being written in 1910 when the young women of that generation were rediscovering knitting."
As Stitch'n Bitch and numerous online knitting blogs illustrate, there is something about knitting that is well suited to women in the 20-45 age range, particularly women who might not immediately be taken for knitters. Stoller writes: "Knitting is part of the same do-it-yourself ethos that spawned zines and mixed tapes."
The projects in Stitch'n Bitch are hipness personified -- things like backpacks with Japanese animal designs, cell-phone cozies, felted handbags and stocking caps for one's boyfriend. I've also discovered more than a few Web sites that pair a love of punk rock, or noir cinema, with a love for knitting and other crafts.
Oct. 31, 2003 -- I've taught myself how to cast on using the book. And I've even attempted a knit stitch, but it feels completely wrong when I do it. It's time to consult a pro, which is how three women end up playing with string instead of going out for Halloween. Amy Sinisterra and I head up to our friend Teya's for dinner, and over Asian shiitake soup, Teya patiently watches me do clumsy stitch after clumsy stitch and confirms that I am, in fact, knitting.
In the days and weeks of my early knitting life, I find that my new activity spawns conversations with people whose knitting was something I'd never realized about them. Eva Silverstone works as a librarian in Spokane, but lived in New York when 9/11 happened. Although she'd learned to knit as a child, it was during the aftermath of 9/11 that she began not only to find comfort in an old craft, but also to notice herself as part of a larger community of people doing the same thing.
"Why did we all pick up knitting shortly after September 11, 2001? Partly it was coincidental, and partly it was some need to create something," she says. "Something related to nesting. Recreating your world so it's cozy again."
Silverstone also notes that it might have something to do with the old adage that once you start doing something, you notice when others are doing it, too.
"I liked to knit while waiting for the bus or subway, and I started noticing a lot more young women knitting on subway platforms and in the subways," she recalls. "Maybe it was the bit of movement that caught my eye; people standing still on the subway platform were more easily passed over, but the knitters stood out to me."
Thanksgiving Day, 2003 -- In the backseat of my mom and dad's Subaru Legacy, I discover knitting's more Valium-like properties. Dad's negotiation of Highway 195 is scaring the bejeezus out of me, so I focus on the kitten-soft charcoal boucle in my lap as I work row after row. Amazingly, it calms me. Once we're safely in Pullman, I alternate my knitting with beer drinking and start running into a little trouble keeping my stitches even.
"Hey Sheri," my 25-year-old cousin Brian mocks, just blown into town from Seattle. "I see you're working on your old maid persona..."
"F-- you, Brian," I laugh, unhooking a bit of tangled nastiness from my needles. On the way home, Dad tells me that my Uncle George, an ex-marine, a boxer and an all-around badass, loved to knit little outfits for his baby daughters. I picture thick, hard-nailed fingers patiently coaxing delicate white yarn into little sweaters, booties and dresses. I picture the flushed pride and concentration occasionally crossing the former tough guy's face.
Stoller says Uncle George's experience is somewhat unique but not entirely so. "Knitting is still a really gendered craft. There is some historical research that claims that the earliest knitters were men who belonged to guilds. But for the last 400 or 500 years, it's been a women's activity except for World War I and World War II," says Stoller. "Just the same way that women were suddenly brought in to help out with the men's work, men were also suddenly willing to help with the women's work. So suddenly you had Boy Scout troops and war veterans and people who were home on the mend knitting socks for the men who were on the front lines."
In the first chapter of Stitch'n Bitch, Stoller notes that people were much less impressed when she told them about her knitting than they would have been had she told them she'd taken up soccer or karate or something more traditionally masculine.
"I don't want it to be a world where all the little girls are racing to do the boy things but the boys are still skeefed out by doing the girl things. I think it's really important that we have just as much pride invested in all of these things that women have done for centuries," she says. "It's a shame that more men don't knit because it's really fun. What goes on between your hands really has nothing to do with what's going on between your legs."
Jan. 14, 2004 -- I'm so excited to show my book group my new scarf -- a brown and cream yarn that, when knitted up, looks exactly like the hide of a sock monkey -- that I clip my wine glass and knock it to the floor. My shoulder is sore from being a moron and knitting for five hours straight while watching football over the weekend. I've mastered knitting, purling and my new favorite, ribbing.
One of the things I always tell beginners is that you have to relax. It's really easy to make these incredibly tight stitches at first, but over time you get your consistency going," says Teya Kuhle, a landscape architect and veteran knitter. Kuhle learned to knit from her sister Andrika (who learned while living in Germany) and enjoys knitting in the company of others.
"You're all achieving, but it's not for the same purpose. One person could be working on a scarf, another person could be just learning or working on an entire sweater," she says. "I think we really get caught up in our society always coming and going places. Knitting gives you an excuse to have to sit down."
Feb. 12, 2004 -- Even though we have enough art for this article, I am convinced we need to go to the yarn store for some "raw product." I buy two insanely expensive skeins -- one looks like sea glass and the other looks like Oscar the Grouch's fur -- and my first pair of wooden needles. Back at work, my fingers itch to play with my new stuff and I have to stash it on the far side of my desk to get any work done.
I think it's cool that people are simply relearning the joys of having a hobby. People don't tend to do that in our society; everything they do is for some kind of goal. They go to work to make money, then they go to the gym to get their bodies in shape," says Stoller. "Sometimes reporters ask me, 'Is it some kind of therapy?' Yes, it is very relaxing, but basically it just improves the quality of your life, having something that you do just for the pleasure of it."
Allinda Knitting Boutique, 321 W. Indiana Ave., 328-4670 (individual lessons, by appointment)
Sew EZ Too, 603 W. Garland Ave., 325-6644 (knitting classes, weekly drop-in knitting groups)
House of Needlecraft, 1314 N. Fourth St., Coeur d'Alene, (888)775-5648