Extreme Knitting

Feb. 5, 2001

Stitch and bitch

Knitting ain't for yer grandma anymore.

By Karen Solomon

KNIT ONE, purl two, slip a stitch, fuck you!

You've seen them on the bus, in the bars, and gathering in the coffee shops. They look like the rest of us in their hipster thrift-shop uniforms, brilliant dyed hair with roots proudly exposed, and facial piercings and tattoos. But they're happy, chatty, relaxed, sporting chic knitwear, and they speak of sock patterns, the perfect cable, and elasticized mohair with such genuine elation that it makes the eyes of the uninitiated roll. Where once people gathered to pound cosmos and talk stock options, the new knitting elite have moved on to the next row. They sit, tangled in the yarn of content displacency, woven into the cult of new young needle-wranglers seeking solace, community, and something to do with their RSI-crippled hands while waiting for the next contract to roll in, and in eager pursuit of a damn cute hat.

Your grandma knit, but your mom probably didn't, and your older sister most definitely would not have been caught dead shopping for a nice shawl skein. But lo and behold, the wheel has spun, and knitting is hip again and a favorite among San Francisco hipsters, college students, and cool kids nationwide. From sewing circle to stitch and bitch, today's knitters are rabid with the fervor for the fibers. And there's not a rocking chair in sight.

"Seventy percent of our customers are young professionals, and the last couple of years has definitely seen a rise in knitting," says Roxanne Seabright, owner of the hip downtown yarn-supply store Artfibers. She notes that the appeal of knitting is its relaxing properties and that it produces an end product. "It's very portable, and knitting doesn't require a big block of time, because people just don't have it. It gives people the feeling like they're doing something creative."

And many people who have joined the huge population of unemployed San Franciscans have chosen to fill their sudden bounty of free time with knitting and purling. Rachella Sinclair, who was laid off earlier this year from a dot-com job, says, "You can only use a computer so many hours a day to look for work." She's spent some of her free time making hats, gifts for people's children, and a couple sweaters.

Artfibers's Seabright has also noticed a big jump in customers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She accounts for the pendulum swing back to the craft as "no mystery. In San Francisco there's a lot of high stress, and young people need it as a therapy. People are more stressed out than usual, and they want to do something soothing and creative."

And in ready-to-wear fashion, knitwear is cool. Take a look at the most recent dance party flyer you've received, and chances are that the hip-hop or drum 'n' bass cutie on the front is wearing some sort of chunky hat, lumpy homemade scarf, or fat cabled sweater. Old Navy's recent window display featured colored hats and scarves in stripes that mall ravers would die for. And have you seen Vogue Knitting? Its collection of mesh tops with plunging necklines is likely to make any passerby skip a stitch. While toaster cozies and handmade dickeys are a fun nod to the past, modern designs, rich colors, and stunning textures of imported natural fibers are attracting young and novice knitters into the fold.

Extreme knitters

The craft is centuries old, but today's players are of a different suit. Just look around and see who's knitting and you'll be convinced that there's a new twist in the spool of ladies who lunch.

For example, Sinclair, our rabid knitter exploring the craft in her free time between jobs, sheepishly admits to spinning the needles while she drives (but, she swears, only in traffic and under five miles an hour). This thirtysomething is likely one of the few women who knit who has been to Studio 54, among other cool clubs of London and New York. The faux-blond Madonna-worshiper knits at the neighborhood bar or while out on contract jobs.

And then there's Shelley Clarkson, a sex-positive, polyamorous player about town who, when not working and not "playing," spends nearly every waking moment yarn in hand. Even in bed. She's even been known to knit some of her most creative hats in the nude.

Kelly Ng isn't what you'd think of as a typical grandma either. This cute-as-a-button Chinese Australian is out nearly every night of the week dancing or at bars and gets home just in time to sling coffee at a Haight Street coffee shop or wait tables in the Mission. Still, she has plenty of time to piece together beautiful and sexy tube tops and accessories.

Though knitting has come full circle, from old-fashioned to kitsch to hip again, one thing remains the same: it's still mostly a girlie sport. But to be fair, there are a handful of male knitters who have taken to the craft. Boy-band-cute Brian Myrtetus crafts his own hoodies, as well as wall hangings, socks, and dresses for gifts. But this banjo-playing education student and nanny defrays the obvious inquiry as to whether
he uses the craft as a babe magnet. He swears that knitting doesn't win him any points with the ladies. "It's a terrible way to meet women. They notice you and say, 'How cute,' and pat you on the head, but no one wants to have sex with a puppy."

And there are dozens more stories of club kids picking up needles in the naked city; knitting among hipsters isn't just a local phenomenon. More than 200 knitting lists exist on Yahoo! Groups alone, with names like KnitPunks and Stitch 'n' Bitch and hailing from D.C., Chicago, and New York.

The knitting underground

Tap into San Francisco's underground knitting scene and you'll find scheduled gatherings in people's homes, bars, and coffee shops at least a couple of nights a week. Old-school city knitters tell the tale of the Knit and Hurl, a group of drunken knitters who met regularly last spring at Sadie's Flying Elephant for whiskey-infused knit nights. The S.F. Knit crew meets regularly on Monday nights, with sporadic informal meetings in between. And SFKnitting (of which I am a part) meets irregularly at least once every other week. Former Knit and Hurl attendee Brian hosts monthly happenings, and any day except Wednesday and Sunday knitters are welcome to sit and knit at longtime S.F. mainstay supply store Greenwich Yarn and Stitchery.

Greenwich owner Laurie Nelson sums up the point of socializing to perform what appears to be a solitary activity. "They make friends, and they learn from one another. In knitting, the styles may have changed, but the technique is still the same that it's been for centuries."

And this type of community is suddenly very needed in San Francisco, even among the hip and the beautiful. People have the time to knit, and the time is right for the craft. Those who used to network or socialize around fancy dinners or expensive cocktails are now more inclined to savor a $7 dollar ball of string that can entertain them for a week. The relaxation of the repetition, the pleasure of following a pattern for the greater good of creating something warm, and the escape and usefulness a knitter feels when working on a project is better than an entire bottle of Prozac or a crappy temp job. It's an inexpensive vacation, a pleasure, and a task with a stylish and tangible result.

The addiction

New knitters approach the craft with an unrivaled drive and intensity that may make the nonknitting community consider intervention. Though it's a harmless hobby, the amount of time knitters spend "in the yarn" may be cause for concern, and the overlap of language between knitting and drug use is no coincidence.

Knitting fever comes with a nomenclature that indicates why it's so attractive to the drug-taking, bar-hopping set. Like all good junkies, knitters are reliant on their needles, although unlike heroin users they have many different sizes and it's OK to share. Knitters are always on the lookout for some new "stash" to stockpile in their collection, elements of which are often traded and discussed.

Knitters will knit at home alone in a pinch but prefer a community of people to do it with to enrich the experience. And the strung-out focus that comes from working with lush, natural fibers can only be matched by the intoxicating buzz that sprouts from watching fireworks on acid or watching The Wall really, really stoned.


Beginners classes

For those ready to get hooked into the community fabric of knitting, here are a few beginner classes around town:

Greenwich Yarn and Stitchery's classes meet for two hours once a week for three weeks. Evening and Saturday morning sessions are available. The $75 fee includes materials. 2073 Greenwich, S.F. (415) 567-2535.

Artfibers offers lunch-hour classes on Wednesdays and after-work classes on Mondays and Thursdays ($15 a session). Private tutoring sessions are also available. 124 Sutter, S.F. (415) 956-6319, www.artfibers.com.

Atelier Yarns' classes last four weeks and meet on Tuesday nights or Saturday mornings for two hours. The $75 fee does not include materials (usually an additional $20). 1945 Divisadero, S.F. (415) 771-1550.

Originally appeared at http://www.sfbg.com/SFLife/36/10/stitch.html.