Natural Life Magazine

Knitting for a Change
by Wendy Priesnitz

peace knitsMy mother tried to teach me how to knit when I was a kid. She wasn’t successful. Her mother also tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to knit. I probably didn’t try very hard, because knitting seemed so, uh, uncool. Old-ladyish. My mother tried to teach my daughters how to knit when they were kids. Again, not much ability or enthusiasm resulted. But this past Christmas, my 30-something daughter gave me a fabulous scarf that she’d knit.

So now, like so many trends, activities and fashions that get recycled if you wait long enough, knitting has become hip. The renaissance began a few years ago and is often credited to Debbie Stoller, the feminist author and cofounder of Bust magazine. The story goes that after she was scorned and teased by friends for her interest in the craft, she responded by founding a Stitch‘N Bitch club in her neighborhood.

Stoller’s subsequent book Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook was a surprise bestseller, with 215,000 copies in print. Stitch ‘N Bitch clubs have sprung up across the country and around the world, along with innumerable other knitting groups with names like “Knit Punks” and “Hurl and Purl”. These young new knitting fanatics have also taken to sharing their love for the craft, as well as patterns and tips, via hundreds of online knitting groups. Type “knitting groups” into the Google search engine and you’ll get a list of over 5,000 websites and discussion groups.

Starting a
Knitting Group:

* If you don’t want to meet in your home, arrange for a free meeting room at a community center or a library, or talk to a café owner about using a few tables during one of their slow periods (promising to buy snacks and drinks, of course).

* Choose a frequency that works for you (weekly, monthly, etc.) and plan the group's style and purpose.

The first meeting will set the tone and let people know what to expect.

* Advertise in the local paper; post flyers at the health food store, libraries and craft or knitting stores.

Movie stars like Cameron Diaz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Winona Ryder are knitting in their downtime on the set. Julia Roberts knits in the movie America’s Sweethearts. Models Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Amber Valletta have all joined the knitting network. And live models have even been shown knitting in the windows of Barney’s New York store.

Besides the chic black scarf I received at Christmas, this new wave of knitters is creating projects with names like The Om Yoga Mat Bag, Felted Monster Slippers, The London Calling Union Jack Sweater, Polka Dot Tankini, That ‘70s Poncho and The Boob Tube. And many of them are seeking out organic and other natural fibers.

The revival has been a boon for craft shops. According to the Craft Yarn Council, in the past six years, the percentage of women under age 45 who know how to knit and crochet has doubled to 18 percent. And they have to buy their yarn somewhere.

The high level of interest has led to the creation of knitting shows, like the Stitches East Knitting Expo that took over the Atlantic City Convention Center last October. Designer yarn shops are thriving, with retailers noticing a marked increase in sales among young women. Some retailers in the US have observed a sharp peak in sales since September 11, 2001.

And in that peak may be found part of the reason for the knitting revival. According to the Craft Yarn Council, knitting and other handicrafts surge during times of stress and war. During World War I and II, for instance, the Red Cross sponsored efforts to knit warm socks and other clothing for the soldiers.

When done by someone past the beginner stage, knitting is a repetitive, almost meditative process, complete with an accompanying mantra of clicking needles. In fact, research has shown that it has many of the benefits of meditation. It can help lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension, reduce pain in those with chronic disease, provide relief from symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, lessen the incidence and severity of migraine and cluster headaches and reduce anxiety resulting from mild depression. So perhaps these new knitters are simply looking for an antidote to world tension and the fast pace of the computer age.

But I think there is more to it than just portable stress relief that can fit into the little bits of time that modern young women have available. Knitting can be seen as part of a larger trend toward slower living, which is epitomized by the Slow Food movement. It involves working with the hands to create something lasting; it is not instant gratification.

The new knitting phenomenon is attracting a wide range of people (mostly, but not entirely, female). Executive women are using knitting groups instead of golf as a way to network and develop business relationships. Knitting has been part of queer women’s culture for a while now, even including a hip New York concert venue called the Knitting Factory. Students say it gives them a chance to get together and chat about relationships, school, homework and other problems. Contrary to the television shows, many young urban singles actually live solitary lives; knitting groups allow them to make friends and form the community linkages their grandmothers found through church and informal neighborhood sewing groups.

A Word of Caution:

Despite its many benefits, knitting can have a downside. Over-use of the hands can lead to aggravation of existing arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. The repetitive action of knitting or sewing can aggravate and strain joints in the fingers, causing arthritis. To overcome this, keep your muscles and joints as relaxed as possible (important to good knitting as well as good health) and take frequent breaks.

Sitting by my mother’s knee as she chatted while she knit, I didn’t realize those meetings were as much about community as they were about baby sweaters. It looked to me like a bunch of women engaged in “busy work” instead of doing something important with their lives. And since I wanted to do something with my life, I had no interest in knitting and chatting. Knitting had to skip a generation to lose the negative connotation of being busy work. My daughter’s generation is more comfortable than I was with exploring that particular connection to women’s history. One young woman who was knitting at the streetcar stop recently told me a story about how an elderly lady once came along, sat down beside her, smiled conspiratorially, whipped out her knitting and said, “I didn’t know people did this any more!”

Gather a group of people together who are relaxed and conversational, and often one thing leads to another. As the social traditions around craft work are revived and people’s sense of community expands, some knitting groups find themselves stitching their way toward social change. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending knitted items to those in need via a local hospital, homeless or battered women’s shelter, police station, victim assistance program, church or food distribution center. Just like our mothers did.

However, other groups have a more activist character, like one calling itself Knitters Against Bush that protested at rallies prior to last fall’s U.S. presidential election wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Knitters Against Bush – don’t unravel our rights”. Calgary’s Revolutionary Knitting Circle is another activist group that meets for more than knitting. They call themselves “a loosely knit circle of revolutionaries” dedicated to “building community, and speeding forward the revolution, through knitting.” They see knitting as a vehicle for the sharing of skills, knowledge and ideas, and for promoting small-scale, local production and trade.

Similar groups operate across North America, including Durham, North Carolina; San Francisco, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Nelson, British Columbia. In support of peace marches and rallies around the world, the Revolutionary Knitting Circle has produced a knitting pattern for creating peace banners that say “Peace Knits”.

No matter what the motivation or the result, millions of young women are exploring the benefits of a craft enjoyed by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers before them.

Resources:

Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook by Debbie Stoller (Workman Publishing, 2004)

Stitch ‘N Bitch Nation by Debbie Stoller (Workman Publishing, 2004)

Hip to Knit by Judith Swartz (Interweave Press, 2002)

KnitLit: Sweaters and Their Stories...and Other Writing About Knitting by Linda Roghaar (Three Rivers Press, 2002)

 

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