"In, around, out." Knitting instructor Lisa Heggum demonstrates this basic knitting mantra to Malcolm Wilhelm, 11. For the next 15 minutes, the Grade 6 student tries to loop the yarn around the knitting needle and extricate it skillfully. With gentle prodding from Heggum, Wilhelm plods on, alternating between exhilaration and exasperation as he scores hits and misses in his knitting debut. As the class draws to a close, he has decided to return again. That means the addition of yet another male member in Heggum's teen knitting club at Toronto's Maria Shchuka public library.
Ever since its launch early this year (2005), Heggum says there have been "more guys than girls" in her knitting classes. One of the regulars is Adam Wheeler, 15. A few knitting books got this high-school student interested, and with his newly acquired skill he hopes to "knit thousands of scarves". Wheeler says knitting "was a natural progression" from sewing, which he is adept at.
Oblivious to the animated chatter around him, Brad Rego,13, is engrossed in his needles and yarn. Knitting seems to be in his genes. Both his parents knit and Rego picked it up because he likes working with his hands. Having knitted a few scarves and trying out some patterns and stitches, his next creation is a bookmark.
This class is a microcosm of passionate knitters across North America. From its earlier exclusive association with "femininity", knitting has now become the "cool" thing to do in North America. The trend has been bolstered by the introduction of fancy textured yarns made of high-tech acrylics, and also a craze to return to natural handspun wool and fibers. As a result, knitting needles are flying out from various societal spaces: from college campuses to offices, homes and even public transport.
Cutting across age and gender, knitting clubs on the ground and knitters' blogs on the web are a sanctuary for passionate knitters, many of whom knit for at least a couple of hours every day.
Lou, 64, is one of them. He was so intense about it that his needles accompanied him to work and would be plucked out during snatches of free time. "I have always enjoyed doing things with my hands and knitting is very satisfactory to see something start with a 'piece of string and two sticks' and work into something beautiful and wearable," says Lou.
Lou's passion began in the 1950s, when it was uncommon for men to wield the needles. A self-taught knitter, his first project was a sleeveless V-neck sweater and he has never let go of the needles since. His passion was fuelled with support from family members who delighted in the gifts he knitted for them.
The sexagenarian says that part of the joy of knitting with all the wonderful yarns and fibers "out there" now is "the adventure of combining threads and colors and working them into standard patterns to arrive at new designs. Sometimes they work and sometimes not, but it's the creative process that is the most fun".
Lou is a member of several knitting clubs in Atlanta, US, and says, "Between the several different groups you can 'go knit' almost seven days/night a week. We have a lot of passionate knitters and they are always ready, willing and able to help the newbies."
These informal knitting clubs in the US and Canada are typically characterized by a camaraderie with veterans doling out tips to eager novices while sharing intricate patterns and designs with others. Sometimes, these clubs witness the coming together of generations. Andrew Tracewell, 14, who did not knit, one night accompanied his parents to a knitting session. He returned the next night - with his yarn and needles.
Edward (Ted) Myatt, a Canadian, notes such examples with great pleasure. He remembers being sneered at while visiting stores to buy yarn a decade and a half ago. However, his passion outweighed fears of ridicule and often, while waiting in queues at grocery stores or banks, he would gaze at people's sweaters to figure out the patterns. As a member of several knitting clubs on the internet, Myatt is always ready to field queries by newcomers and old warhorses and claims to become cranky if he does not knit at least two hours a day. Myatt picked up knitting when he joined university in Kingston, Ontario, because he was told that the only way he could have a sweater was to knit one. That was a decade and a half ago. Now Myatt makes his own yarn, spins and dyes it too. He says with a quiet confidence, "I have achieved a level of mastery."
In recent times, exclusive knitting clubs for men have sprung up across the US, including in Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington, while their counterparts in Canada knit in mixed groups. However, some of them, like Myatt, have found a place on the internet for men who knit. One such portal is MenKnit.net, where the motto is, "Man enough to knit; strong enough to purl".
One of the reasons for the growing popularity of such clubs, say Myatt and Lou, is that they provide a welcome relaxation in today's frenetic pace of life. Witt Pratt knits for many reasons. "It's left-brained and right-brained at the same time. It's calming (which, working as a legal secretary is a premium). It's very centering, in that it enables me to stay in the present moment without restricting my contemplation or meditation on other things. It's very productive, great as a noun (the finished objects) and as a verb (the objects in progress)."
Pratt's comment encapsulates the views of many knitters. Joan Kass has been knitting for many years and also conducts classes. Supervising her students, ranging from eight- to 14-year-olds, she mulls over the reasons why purls and so stitches are catching the fancy of a growing number of people. "Life is stressful and knitting is a de-stressor not only for adults but also youngsters because school is also too much."
In fact, many schools have knitting classes in their curricula, including the Waldorf School for boys in the US. Kass avers that the improving quality of yarn has also lured many a youngster into the knitting web.