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Purls of Wisdom

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"I wish somebody would pay me what they pay a psychologist," says Mary-Ann Parisi, owner of the Knitter's Niche yarn shop on Southport just north of Belmont. People's personal problems have a way of getting tangled up in their handwork. One time a man came in and asked for help with a sweater he was knitting. Under Parisi's questioning he admitted it was for an ex-girlfriend. When a woman tried to buy cashmere to make a sweater for a guy she'd gone on one date with, Parisi's assistant Lauren Sanchez refused to sell it to her. Instead she passed on a maxim from a shrewder customer: Don't make a sweater for the guy until you have the ring.

When not dispensing relationship advice, Parisi sells yarn and needles, rewrites confusing patterns for customers, winds yarn into balls on a medieval-looking machine, knits merchandise to sell in the store, and helps beginners with their dropped stitches, twisted yarn overs, and general knitting-induced panic. The hard part is getting them to relax. She used to say: "It's a new skill set. You've been at it for all of 30 minutes. If you bought a grand piano, that doesn't mean you're going to sit down and play like Van Cliburn." Then as younger and younger people discovered knitting, no one knew who Van Cliburn was anymore. Now she says Elton John.

Parisi opened Knitter's Niche in 1996, four years after she was laid off from her job as a communications systems programmer. In between she worked at Fiberworks on Lincoln, a yarn store owned by a friend. After her friend passed away and the store closed, Parisi announced to her husband: "Guess what, I'm opening a yarn shop! Why not? I'm damn good at it."

For someone who devotes most of her time to a sedentary activity, Parisi, now 61, doesn't sit still much. She has a salt-and-pepper pageboy haircut, enormous glasses, and the rough voice of a smoker; her movements are quick and nervous, like a squirrel's. "I can knit eight, ten hours a day," she says. "I knit when I had a fixator drilled through my bone after I broke my wrist. I'm used to working lickety-split. I can't stand it when something slows me down." Even when stationary, she seems to quiver.

Her store is small and straightforwardly decorated. Skeins of yarn--bright and sober, coarse and downy--are heaped on bookshelves. Untidy sheaves of patterns stand in a magazine rack. But many customers come less for supplies than for Parisi's expertise. On a Saturday afternoon, three or four of them huddle at the table in the back of the store, clutching their half-finished projects and waiting for her help. One woman is working on her first hat. Parisi studies it a while before saying, "Wait a second. Wait a second. You changed things in the middle." She turns it over and points. "Look. You have a ridge and a valley, a ridge and a valley, and here you just have ridges. Dear God!"

When Parisi runs out for a smoke, the customer murmurs, "I came in to learn one thing, and she told me I was doing a couple other things wrong." She starts resignedly pulling out stitches.

Actually, as long as it comes out right Parisi doesn't much care how you knit. Some of the traditional knitting rules get on her nerves. For example, if you're knitting something and you don't work on it for a while, when you come back to it you're supposed to undo the last row before continuing. Parisi doesn't see the need. "These are the things that used to drive people away from knitting. All these rules for no reason!" she says, agitated. "It ain't anybody's business how you knit!"

A lot of young urbanites have picked up knitting in the past few years, but many of them don't have a mom or a grandma nearby to help them learn. Poring over diagrams in a how-to book is different from having someone lean over your shoulder and say, "No, it's through, around, over, then off." When you're far from home and you don't know your stockinette from your seed-rib stitch, a stranger who'll teach you--even a crabby one--can feel like family.

Beginning knitting classes at Knitter's Niche are full until January, and Parisi started closing the store on Christmas Eve after her first year in business--too many people were staying late to get her help making presents. But she and her assistants, Sanchez and Kaye Leffler, are usually glad to answer questions, from "Do I really have to check my gauge?" (definitely) to "Can I take knitting needles on an airplane?" (it depends on the airline and baggage screener).

There are, however, limits to Parisi's generosity--as acquaintances who ask her to knit something for them find out. "Hats, socks, scarves--hell, I'll even make you a little lap robe," she says. "But I ain't making you a sweater."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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