Nuts for Knitting

While the paparazzi snap photos of "needles sightings" –think Julia Roberts and Sarah Jessica Parker—Valley folks both young and old are banding together and having a ball of fun.



Her prized purple poncho had gone missing, and Claudette Covey was distraught. The Woodstock freelance writer wasn’t quite sure how she had lost it, although she suspects that someone snatched it from a doctor’s office (she predicts “bad karma” for that person). But even more upsetting than the loss of the poncho was the idea of telling its maker — a fellow member of her knitting group at Woodstock Wool Company — that it was gone. He had knitted it as a gift two years ago. “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” Covey recalls. “Finally someone just came out and said, ‘She lost the poncho. Make her another one!’ ” Gallantly, a third member of the group immediately began work on an earthy green and gold replacement.

It seems that those who knit together, stick together. “It’s a nurturing environment,” says Covey who first picked up her needles two years ago. “There’s a sense of community. You socialize, but you also make fabulous use of your time since you’re making something you can take away.”

What’s that you hear? It’s the click and clack of needles all around the country. Buoyed by Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ’N Bitch book series and by sightings of various celebrities — including Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Vanna White — with needles in hand, knitting’s popularity is soaring. And as it does, the stereotypical image of the little old lady knitting in a rocking chair is fading fast. Over 53 million American women — that’s one out of every three — can knit or crochet. And the number of 25-to-34 year-old females who count knitting among their activities has skyrocketed by more than 150 percent since 2002. Not to be outdone, men (yes, straight ones too) are also getting into the act, as evidenced by the growing number of men’s knitting Web sites and blogs. And all around the Hudson Valley, avid knitters are not only pumping up their scarf and mitten collections, they’re boosting their social lives.

Housed in the town’s former post office, the Woodstock Wool  Company hosts knitting group meetings several times a week. Among the crowd at these informal gatherings? Literary types, a lawyer, a female plumber, a pediatrician, and a public radio executive. Monday nights might be a mellow pot-luck get-together or (on the first Monday of each month) a book group led by shop co-owner and author James Conrad (he wrote Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago). Tuesday night is “soup group,” when the shop’s other owner, Paul Leone, indulges his passion for cooking. Up to two dozen knitters might show up to chat while savoring a bowl of Leone’s signature soups (vichyssoise in summer, corn chowder in winter). Sunday afternoons are reserved for charity knitting, with all needlework donated to a women’s shelter in Kingston. “We even had a Judge Judy knitting group for a while,” recalls Leone. “We’d all get together from four to five p.m. each day and knit and watch, then go our separate ways.” Covey usually attends a meeting at least once a week. “I’m a pretty reclusive person, and it’s my way of forcing myself to go out so that I don’t turn into the Unabomber,” she jokes.

 

 

 

All the while the needles are clacking, there is talk — and plenty of it.

Gossip about Mel Gibson’s latest faux pas. Recipe exchanges. The scoop on the price of renting a one-bedroom. And plenty of town intrigue, including a particularly memorable anecdote about a recalcitrant nudist in the local park.

“If I’m sick or can’t attend for some reason, I feel a big hole in my life,” says New Zealand-born Marie Duane, a knitter since childhood who rediscovered its pleasures when Leone and Conrad opened Woodstock Wool almost five years ago. “It’s a way of checking in with each other.”

The social aspect of the hobby is important to members of other knitting groups too. At the so-called knit-alongs at the Cornwall Yarn Shop in Orange County, 20 or so people make the exact same sweater. “Then we’ll all go out to dinner wearing it,” says owner Gail Parrinello. “It’s really just an excuse to be together.”

But making new friends (and new clothes) is not the only payoff of group knitting. For one thing, the therapeutic benefits of this handicraft are well-recognized. Many knitters attest to the idea that the repetitive, soothing rhythm of the work helps them organize their thoughts in a meditative way. It’s no coincidence that Woodstock Wool opened its doors after September 11, 2001. “I think 9/11 just made people take stock,” explains Leone, who learned to knit at a Woodstock cocktail party seven years ago. “I turned to my knitting at that time. It’s like a rock, something you can hold on to in a really screwed-up world.”

Recently involved in an auto accident, Covey picked up her needles while waiting for the police to come: “It was the only thing that could calm me down.” Knitting “raises your self-esteem and lowers your blood pressure,” according to Penelope Smith of Knittingsmith in Cold Spring. (Her attempts to start a knitting group at a local women’s correctional facility were ultimately shelved after law enforcement officials became concerned about the potential for a knitting needle uprising.)

Lorraine Bulson took over the Warm Ewe in Chatham six years ago. Not only has she inherited the knitters who have been patronizing the shop for decades, but she also sees children as young as eight — boys and girls alike — coming in to knit. Home-schoolers regularly take knitting classes with Claudia Krisniski at Countrywool in Hudson. “The shapes you create are all geometry,” she says. “I’ll have the kids design a sweater and a pair of socks and get math or home-industries credit for their work.” 

Yes, the older crowd is still making baby booties and blankets. But hip young knitters are more daring, whipping up felted hats, totes, handbags, and even clogs. (Felting is the practice of knitting wool items, then washing them in hot water. The yarn shrinks, forming a tight, seamless knit.) Teens and young adults have also been feverishly knitting jewelry and shrugs. And scouts from the upscale clothing/home décor retailer Anthropologie recently hunted down Woodstock Wool and placed an order for over 2,000 hand-knit items. (A small company, Leone and Conrad later adjusted the number down substantially.)

 

 

Sound trendy? Leone hates that word. “Knitting has been around for thousands of years,”

he says. “It’s right up there with hunting and gathering.” Bulson sees the latest craze as part of a continuum. “There are waves of popularity with knitting. The last was in the ’70s and ’80s,” she recalls. “It became fashionable to work with wool and your hands. With this incarnation, what has changed is the yarn. Yarns are fabulous now. You don’t have to know any fancy or extraordinary techniques to make a beautiful hand-knit garment. Let the yarn do the work.”

Shops used to be limited to sheep’s wool yarns; nowadays, they carry a rainbow of skeins made from the fur of goats, alpacas, llamas, rabbits, and qiviut (the undercoat of the musk ox). Newfangled yarns made from bamboo, soy, tencel (wood pulp and water), recycled garbage bags, recycled saris — you name it — are also common. Catering to knitters’ notorious hunger to sample everything new, the Cornwall Yarn Shop often features “yarn tastings,” during which customers can try these novelty materials in all their puffy, fuzzy, sparkly glory.

Some knitters go so far as to make their own yarn. Every two weeks, Countrywool holds classes which teach how to spin wool into usable yarn. These classes usually draw a maximum of six people and occasionally, the company even sells a spinning wheel to an avid knitter. But it’s the biannual spinning retreats that really separate the casual knitters from the true fanatics. “I have beginner classes that run about three hours to learn how to use the wheel,” confirms Krisniski. “Then it takes a lifetime to get really good at it.” If that’s not grassroots enough, she harvests some of the spinning material from a bevy of angora bunnies that live in his-and-hers barns on the property. This has sparked so much interest that she now holds an annual angora rabbit retreat. Attendees learn how to keep the rabbit healthy, harvest the fur, dye it, and spin the yarn. “I have to calm fears,” Krisniski continues. “Some people think you have to kill the rabbit to take the fur, but that’s not true. I show how easily the coat comes off, and how the rabbit even sometimes falls asleep while you’re doing it.”

Last September’s retreat brought rabbit owners from as far away as the Midwest and Canada. “I get a kick out of the ah-ha moments in retreats and classes,” says Krisniski. “When knitters are not afraid to take a chance, then they make something that comes from inside themselves.”

 

 

The Knitty-Gritty on Men

 

The woman clearly had something other than long division on her mind when she approached John McCleary at the mathematics conference. Something about him deeply interested her. In fact, it was his sweater. With one quick motion, she ripped it open. “It turns out she was a knitting judge and wanted to examine my work from the back,” says McCleary, a Vassar College mathematics professor, knitter, and father of two boys. “Many mathematicians knit, and there are some who have proven theorems about knitting.” McCleary learned the skill while on sabbatical in Germany, where men are generally well-versed in this needlecraft.

Male knitters are not new. It’s a tradition that goes back at least to Renaissance times, when men headed the knitting guilds that created luxury garments for royalty (women did the spinning). “Up until the mid-20th century, there was no stigma attached to knitting for men. Only later did it become some macho issue,” says Paul Leone of Woodstock Wool Company. But that’s changing. Don’t be surprised to find guys knitting with a can of beer at their sides and the ball game on. “I’ve had men come here sent by their shrinks for anger-management therapy,” says Leone. “Men who have done knot work in Boy Scouts pick it up right away.” Skateboarding and snowboarding dudes have also hopped aboard the needlework craze: they crochet beanies and skullcaps, favorite headgear for these sports. Male devotees  can always head down to New York City's Lower East Side on Friday evenings for Boys Night at Knit New York . We don't know of a men's-only knitting group in the Valley… yet. But we hope it happens, because what a great yarn we'll have to tell then.

For more information: www.knitmen.net; www.menwhoknit.com

 

 

Knitting Know-How

 

Amazing Threads

2010 Ulster Ave., Lake Katrine. 845-336-5322

www.amazingthreads.com

 

Cornwall Yarn Shop

10 Torrey Lane, Cornwall. 845-534-0383

www.cornwallyarnshop.com

 

Countrywool

69 Spring Rd., Hudson. 518-828-4554

www.countrywool.com

 

Knittingsmith

35 Chestnut St. (Rte. 9D), Cold Spring. 845-265-6566

Sheep’s Clothing

2 Rock City Rd., Milan. 845-758-3710

www.morehousefarm.com

 

The Warm Ewe

31 Main St., Chatham. 518-392-2929

www.warmewe.com

 

Woodstock Wool Company

105 Tinker St., Woodstock. 845-697-0400

www.woodstockwoolcompany.com

 

Yarn & Craft Box

24 Charles Colman Rd., Pawling. 845-855-1632

Yarn Central

2593 Rte. 52, Hopewell Junction. 845-223-8355

www.yarncentralonline.com

 

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