Baby boomers shunned it, but their kids call it hip. It seems trendy types everywhere are learning to knit.
From movie actresses and legal secretaries to new moms and college students, today's knitters hardly resemble little old ladies.
And what seemed a dying craft has become totally chic.
"It's very relaxing," says Kate Rothstein, 31, of Squirrel Hill, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who knits for at least one hour a day.
Rothstein is among a number of women in their 20s and 30s who meet Wednesday nights at Pittsburgh Knit & Bead in Squirrel Hill to make everything from multi-colored socks and baby blankets to buttery-soft scarves and sweaters.
Shop owner Tania Bikerman likens the boom in young knitters to a newfangled clash of generations.
"They're trying to look and feel different than their predecessors," Bikerman says. "People in the 1960s did not knit, and they did not have their ears, nose, eyebrows and everything else pierced. … This is another form of rebellion."
Scarlet-haired Alexandra Zorn, 28, of the South Side loves knitting so much that she publishes a quarterly newsletter: "Needle and Hook: Knitting Our Little Punk Rock Hearts Out." The latest issue includes features such as "Purl Girl," "Patterns for Retards" and "Click Clack Soundtrack! (stuff to listen to while making cool stuff)."
"I knit at the movies. I knit in cafes. I knit wherever I go," says Zorn, a self-employed independent record producer.
Not surprised is Helene Rush, editor of the quarterly Cast On magazine, published by the Knitting Guild of America.
"Knitting comes and goes in cycles. Right now, there is an upsurge," Rush says. "It's been equated to the new yoga."
Confirming the trend is Joan Straka, owner of Yarns Unlimited in Sewickley.
"There has been a tremendous increase in interest in the last three years," Straka says. "This past year, I've had to increase my sales help."
Straka partly attributes knitting's revival to the bounty of patterns, supplies and luxurious yarns available through the Internet.
Bonnie Miller of Bonnie Knits in Monroeville also cites history as a possible reason for young women's new interest in knitting.
"A lot of them are children of a generation that was influenced by the women's liberation movement," she says, "when domestic arts were 'Granny's things' and would not get you a law degree or give you social standing."
Yarns, too, have improved dramatically, and "the fashion designers are showing knitted fashions," Miller says.
Fueling the trend, too, are Hollywood types, including actresses Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Hilary Swank and Sarah Jessica Parker — all reported knitters.
Indeed, a California friend inspired Tiffany Jenkins, 29, of Bloomfield to sign up for a knitting class offered by the Calliope Folk Arts Society in Lawrenceville.
"My friend came to visit and gave me the softest scarf ever. She said, 'I can't believe you don't knit!' … It's totally the thing to do," says Jenkins, a library assistant at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Oakland.
Jenkins routinely teams her new passion for knitting with her old fondness for books. Last week, she simultaneously devoted an entire evening to both hobbies.
"I knitted for four hours and listened to a whole book on tape," she says.
Other passionate knitters include Sallyann Kluz, 29, of Bloomfield, an architectural designer.
"I have friends asking me constantly, 'Will you teach me to knit?'" Kluz says.
Also knitting an hour or more daily is legal secretary Julia Wilkes, 31, of Bloomfield.
"It's very satisfying," says Wilkes, whose past projects include five pairs of socks. "I love giving people things. I've kept almost nothing."
Pittsburgh Knit & Bead owner Bikerman, 31, is a former computer consultant who learned to knit in her 20s. She opened her shop last month after a job layoff, plus a surprising "Semester at Sea" experience with University of Pittsburgh students, alumni and faculty.
While serving as the onboard computer consultant, Bikerman decided to offer a knitting class. She expected 40 students, but more than 100 people signed up.
"Knitting is not hard. It's two stitches — knit and purl. It's very simple," Bikerman says. "This is a skill. It's not a talent. It's not an art. It's a craft."
Knitting also "is an addicting hobby," Bikerman says. "It really becomes an obsession."
Generational differences aside, Bikerman also attributes the knitting revival to a slumped economy and public weariness with days spent in front of computers.
"Economic downturns cause people to stay home more," Bikerman says. "When people stay home more, they're looking for something to do."
Bikerman also cites people's urge to "nest" after the terrorism of Sept. 11 as a catalyst for increased interest in knitting.
"They want to create. They want to do something that is personal," Bikerman says. "They want to show the people around that they love them."
|Becoming a 'knitting goddess'
Knitting is a way of life for Deborah Bergman, author of "The Knitting Goddess: Finding the Heart and Soul of Knitting Through Instruction, Projects, and Stories" (Hyperion, 2000, $12.95).
It's chock full of warm tales and inspiring, instructive drawings.
Bergman, like many, learned to knit as a teen-ager, then abandoned the craft.
Years later, in a wearable-art store, Bergman saw a $300 sweater and longed for such a garment. She bought needles and yarn that day.
"Indeed, until that moment, the word I would have summoned to best describe knitting was 'ick,'" writes Bergman, 43, of Portland, Ore.
Within hours after Bergman bought her supplies, a Swedish friend showed her how to cast on — the first step in any knitting project — during a long car trip.
"Three or four weeks later, I had finished my first sweater," writes Bergman, a left-handed, mostly self-taught knitter.
Bergman soon learned how to spin yarn by hand. Years later, she still is spinning and knitting and writing.
"I'm hand-spinning this really great, deep-purple mohair," she says.
"I hang out in knitting stores a lot," she says. "What the owners tell me is that they see little herds — little tribes — of younger women come in and buy things, and start knitting. It's been going on for a while."
Bergman grew up in Princeton, N.J., and majored in religion in college. She began writing "The Knitting Goddess" in 1998, just before the knitting craze gathered steam.
"I think it's a direct, balancing response to the feel and speed of high tech," Bergman says, recalling what led her to crave knitting.
"At that point, I was working on not one but two computers, simultaneously. … My hands were touching plastic all day, and my eyes and mind were going very, very fast," she says. "What was wonderful to me was the pliability and the texture and the sensuality of fiber in my fingers, and the slow, wonderful rhythm of the fiber arts."
Plus, knitting is an activity that one can pick up, put down, carry around and perform while doing something else.
"That makes it very, very compatible with contemporary lifestyles. … I actually knit very easily while I'm waiting for my browser to load," Bergman says.
"Lots of students knit," she says. "I think it's connected somehow to the assimilation of information. Words and knitting have always been deeply connected. It's mysterious, but it works."
Remember Madame Defarge knitting the names of the condemned in "A Tale of Two Cities"?
"We lose touch with our tactile senses and our tactile powers, and that's part of why we're human. … Our hands tell us a whole lot of things," Bergman says. "There really is this ancient tradition of fiber art as women's source of power."
Bergman typically keeps several knitting or spinning projects going at any time.
She urges beginners to choose bamboo or wooden needles, sizes 7 to 9, when shopping for knitting supplies, plus a single-ply wool or wool-blend yarn in a medium color.
"If it's too dark, you can't see your stitches. If it's too light, it's going to get dirty," Bergman says. "You just want something simple and wonderful to begin with, and that makes it really easy."
— Deborah Deasy