Arts & Culture » Calendar

Active Cultures: the joy of knitting

by

comment

"I learned how to knit when I was six," says Debbie Stoller. "But it was another 30 years before I actually liked it."

Though she comes from "a long line of Dutch knitters," Stoller was stymied by early attempts to tease a sock from a ball of yarn with a pair of sweaty needles. She mastered cross-stitch as a child and sewed clothes for her Barbies on a pint-size machine, but the joys of knitting eluded her. It just took too long, she says, and required patience she didn't possess: "I really wanted to be able to do it. I like the end product. But when it comes to knitting you have to really like doing it."

Stoller, who's 41 now, tried a few more times in her 20s and 30s--once under the tutelage of her grandmother in the Netherlands--but ended up with little more than a closet full of wool and one unfinished sleeve. She got a doctorate in psychology from Yale, and in 1993 she cofounded the New York-based feminist magazine Bust, of which she's still editor and publisher. Then, in 1999, Stoller embarked on a cross-country tour to promote the anthology The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order. Faced with the prospect of days alone on a train (she hates to fly), she packed up books, CDs, cards, a laptop, and that long-abandoned sweater. "Finally, finally, it clicked," she says. By the time she arrived on the west coast, the sweater was done, and she was hooked.

Soon, she says, "all I wanted to do was stay home and knit." But many of her peers still saw the domestic arts as suspect. "People found it weird that as a feminist I was spending all my time knitting. It made me realize that knitting had this bad image in this culture simply because it was something that was done by women. So I went on this mission to 'take back the knit' and get it the respect it deserves."

To this end--and also "so I could have a social life"--Stoller started a knitting group. The ten women who showed up for the first Stitch 'n Bitch meeting at an East Village cafe were at varying skill levels, but mostly under 40 and fairly new to the craft. Nowadays there are similar groups all over the country. (Chicago Stitch 'n Bitch claims about 650 members, though nowhere near that many ever show up at a single meeting.)

The first half of Stoller's new book, Stitch 'n Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook, is full of tips--on how to decode a yarn label, the merits of bamboo versus aluminum needles, etc--and stitch-by-stitch instruction in basic and advanced techniques. The second half collects patterns submitted by women Stoller has met in person and online since she started preaching the gospel of knitting. There are socks and scarves, punky wristbands and cell phone cozies, hats with kitty-cat ears and a knit bikini, and sweaters of all shapes and stripes.

According to the book, almost one in three women knows how to knit now, and more than four million newbies have picked up the needles in the past few years. Knitting's popularity doesn't seem bound by aesthetics or gender, either. Celebrity knitters like Madonna have popularized the practice, but so have legions of indie-minded crafters taking cues from the pages of ReadyMade and the psychedelic designs of Jim Drain and Elyse Allen, who've made stagewear for Le Tigre and Erase Errata.

To Stoller, knitting's appeal is elemental. "I love that I feel connected to all these other women who came before me, and to all my female ancestors," she says, "but it also just feels really delicious to learn something new and feel yourself getting better at it. That's something you don't get much as an adult."

Stoller will answer questions and show work made from some of the patterns featured in Stitch 'n Bitch at 7 PM on Monday, December 8, at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm in Winnetka, 847-446-8880, and at 6 PM on Tuesday, December 9, at the Knitting Workshop, 2218 N. Lincoln, 773-929-5776. Both events are free. For more information visit www.knithappens.com.

Add a comment