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Knitting is Hot!

Stitch 'n' Bitch parties weave knitting, gossip, and a new take on feminism.

By Vanessa Richmond 24 May 2004 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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A few months ago, I suggested to a few friends that we combine martinis, gossip and knitting. The Stitch 'n' Bitch trend was by then unfurling across North America, but still I wondered it I'd get any takers. No worries. A hip 18-year-old friend called and begged to get in on the action: "Oh, are you having one of those really trendy granny parties with cocktails?"

Around Vancouver, teens, tweens, and young professionals are taking to knitting and crocheting, ditching the book club and crashing the image of crafting circles. People are knitting at work on breaks (like the hair stylists at Toni & Guy who all click away in the back room) and taking their needles and yarn into cafes and bars (like the group that meets weekly at Irish Heather in Vancouver's Gastown).

According to a 2000 survey by the U.S. Craft Yarn Council, nearly one in three American women knits, the percentage of young women taking up the craft doubling since 1996.  While there are no specifically Canadian numbers, the Canadian Craft Council and the Canadian Knitters Guild guess the numbers here are equivalent.

Reviving 'the granny arts'

Sara Gillingham is a 29-year-old graphic designer who works 70 and 80 hour weeks.  She has been crocheting since she was five but has picked it up a stitch in the last couple of years despite her hectic schedule. For her, it's an antidote to the pressures of work. "I find it meditative because it feels familiar and comforting. I like the feel of the yarn, and I like the repetitiveness." She also likes that "it reminds me of my granny. It's what I call the 'granny arts'."

Gillingham used to attend a Stitch 'n' Bitch with "hard core crafters" who met to share resources and info. She liked that they gathered in a coffee shop. Regulars would stop by and join the conversation. Soon, "very cool arty guys who are into things like knitting" would come by to flirt.

Kristi McNicholl and Mackenzie Davis, both 16, knit at school, in the lunchroom and in class.  The teachers who allow it say the girls, when knitting, concentrate better. They started in grade 4 in a lunch time knitting club. "We knit tighter in those days but we've loosened up, knitting and otherwise," says McNichol, laughing.

'Like coffee and cigarettes'

The movement's guide book Stitch 'n' Bitch, which features projects such as "Cape Mod," and "Tank Girl," sold out in bookstores across Vancouver. Author Debbie Stoller argues that people are hungry for low key social settings.

"Knitting helps you listen better.  And like coffee and cigarettes, knitting and talking go better together."

"It started in the olden days," says Ingrid Mutsaerts, who owns the Knit n Stitch shop in West Vancouver.  "Women had no heating so they would get together and knit and stitch while the men were out in the fields."  The jarring of the 9/1l terror attacks, she says, has fueled a revival of "home."  The day the towers crumbled on global television, Mutsaerts recalls, her husband urged her to close the store.  "No one will come," he said.  But it was her busiest day ever, and sales have been up ever since.

Stoller doesn't wholly agree with the 9/11 theory, but credits evolving notions of feminism.  Knitting waned in the 1980s and 1990s when the feminism of the time suggested "anyone who spent her days cooking and cleaning and knitting and sewing was frittering her life away.  Women were assumed to be made for greater things and loftier goals" like corporate or athletic success, she says.

Now people realize that looking down on knitting, cooking, and sewing isn't feminist but anti-feminist, Stoller argues.

'Radical domestic culture'

"Radical domestic culture" is how members of one Stitch 'n' Bitch group in Dunbar jokingly describe their passion. They aim to launch a tongue-in-cheek public art piece that involves knitted sweaters for outdoor sculptures.  Member Rachel Poliquin, 29, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at UBC, even has a plan to knit "knickers for the bull's bits" on the bovine sculpture that stands outside the brokerage office at Georgia and Homer.  "Public sculptures are often so sensible and so male," says Poliquin. "Wouldn't it be great if one morning they were all just covered in knitting?" There's even talk of knitting scarves for skyscrapers.

Of course, most people are more likely to knit a scarf, or sweater, for people in their lives. Some fashionistas like the ability to tailor-make individual styles; others welcome an opportunity to avoid sweat shop garments.

"The more people work with technology, the more they need something that gets them back in touch with their ancestors and their past," says Cythia MacDougall, President of the Canadian Guild of Knitters.

The knit Net

If so, knitting has found an ironic home on the Internet, where "knit-alongs" allow one person to suggest a pattern, then everyone knits it simultaneously and enters their comments, questions, and progress in a specific chat room for that project.  MacDougall says knit-alongs are good for competitive people as it "spurs them on" and also good for beginners since they can ask questions and get support.

Sounds fine in a cyber sort of way, I guess, but I don't see enough room for martinis and gossip. I've more in common with Carolyn Mitchell, 29, an IT trainer at a brokerage in Vancouver.  She's an avid knitter and just bought some new, raw wool that she's dying with Raspberry Kool-Aid.

Mitchell is happy to note that she can watch TV and knit at the same time and feel like she's doing something. But what she really looks forward to is meeting once a week with her Stitch 'n' Bitch group.

"You can never get enough gossip" she says. "And you always need a scarf."

Vanessa Richmond is a free-lance journalist in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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