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The Observations of a Male Knit Shop Owner

Yeah, that's me. The one behind the counter over there in the front of the yarn shop knitting. Sitting there, knit project in both hands occasionally looking at the computer screen. Metafilter on one tab, Knitty on another. I realize that thing I am knitting looks real complicated, but its not, really. I am not that hot a knitter, truth be told. I haven't been at it all that long, just over a year. The pattern, it's not too hard really. It can't be. I can't really knit anything too complicated while I am working and I usually work alone. Between helping customers, stocking shelves and everything else, the knitting kinda needs to be not so tough. Why I am working here in a knit shop, by myself? Well, let me tell you.

About a year ago my wife came to me and said, "Let's open a yarn shop, Flagstaff needs a yarn shop." Up to this point I had never ever knitted, truth be told. I had however been watching my wife's second income job selling crocheted hats take off in unexpected ways. The problem was, in our town there was nowhere to buy quality yarn, (We have a Michael's and a Wally-World, but the word used was quality) it had to be ordered online, mainly. Charmagne came to me and said, "yarn shop." We were both elementary public school teachers at the time and had both hit the wall in that career after a decade. So when she said "yarn shop, she could have said "ancient Viking cooking utensils" and I would have been all for it. Viking Cooking Utensils- You are READING MY MIND! Yarn Shop- ALLRIGHT! (Um, they sell yarn, right?)

It is no easy feat to just give up a tenured, recession proof contracted job. Trust me on this one. But we BOTH did it and about 1.5 milliseconds (give or take a one-hundredth of a millisecond) after the decision was made -- after 11 years of marriage -- we came up pregnant with our first kid. It's the same old story, boy meets girl, boy and girl open yarn shop, boy and girl have baby, house floods. Oh I didn't mention the house flooding during the holidays? One month after the baby was born? Well, it did.

Which brings us full circle as to why I work here in this yarn shop.

Running a yarn shop as a male was a daunting proposition, but having been a school teacher for 10 years, I was ready for it in many ways. Really, elementary education is a "woman's world" in so many ways. So few men in the field. And the traditional view of teacher, well, just open any book about teaching, any kids book about school, and you will find the teacher at the head of the classroom teaching away, female every time. Teaching is a lot like knitting in this sense. It has traditionally been a woman's world (though not historically, I'll touch on that later). So like I said, in some sense I was ready for it. I have dealt with concerned parents, who would be much like concerned shoppers. I have answered innumerable questions I hadn't considered I would be asked one second previous to them being put to me. I have assessed learning styles and abilities on the fly constantly, so I would be able to help people learn and take-on new knitting skills. I was ready to run a knit shop. One problem...

I couldn't knit.

If I was to run a knit shop, I thought it might be in my best interest to learn to knit. As it turns out this whole knitting thing is really easy to pick up. In fact if you ask just about any knitter to show you how they will fall all over themselves to help you pick up the craft they love so much. Of course if you have a local knitting shop, they might have classes to offer as well. But we didn't so one day while skiing I asked a friend of mine if she would teach me to knit. She agreed whole heartedly, especially after hearing the reason why (I imagine thoughts of deep discounts danced thru her head). One evening she came by the house and showed me how to knit continental style. (Some might be wondering why my wife didn't teach me but for those of you who don't know, spouses teaching spouses almost anything is not such a hot idea...) It took me a few days to get the hang of it, but now, I must say that more than a year later, things are just rolling along and my knowledge base has expanded exponentially, though I must repeat, I still consider myself a neophyte.

After learning to knit and committing to opening our shop the next phase was to go to the small business association and seek help drafting a business plan. I am not going to bore you with all the details of how this went, but the most interesting part of the process is what might be called the "research" phase. This is where we went all over the southwest checking into shops and how they are run, what they carry, just about every little detail you can imagine. One of the major things I took from this experience was how customers are treated. Male customers to be more precise. Now that I considered myself a knitter, I was a bit amazed at the manner in which I was treated at most shops. Time and time again I was relegated to the husbands corner where a male is expected to stand twiddling thumbs, holding the purse... waiting. I wasn't greeted. I wasn't asked if I needed assistance. And it wasn't as if I just kind of bumbled along behind my wife: I was touching, looking, making NOTES. I was SPYING. And I was summarily ignored.

The treatment I got at almost every single shop, barring only one, was a travesty. It made me realize though, that firstly, males are unexpected knitters and secondly, that in my shop they would not be. They would be welcomed, invited and assisted equally. As it turns out, males are knitters and will become avid knitters when encouraged and made to feel welcome. Our shop has a burgeoning group of male knitters. It is great.

In the front of our shop we have a window display with posters and articles of guys knitting. It gets a lot of attention and guys come in wanting to classes because they see the display. I encourage them by telling them a brief history of knitting and men, how it was a male craft originally probably originating with Arabian sailors making and mending nets along their work routes. I point out that handcrafts like woodworking, knitting and crochet harking back to a time where instead of just punching computer buttons all day we actually made things and how this gives an amazing amount of satisfaction. But then again, I point this out to everyone.

Being a male shop owner is sometimes a precarious dance. Have I lost customers because I am a guy? Yeah, probably. I can only imagine that more, um, "traditional knitters" were initially put off by my gender and ability levels. Have I always been able to answer every single advanced question ever presented to me? Certainly not, though I am much better now than I was. What I can do though is have a fun, helpful, inviting and welcoming shop that suits everyone.

As a male knit shop owner, I am always asked in one manner or another whether I knit. (Sometimes even while I am knitting!) Often it is asked in a well meaning way, but other times it is asked in an incredulous manner. It really drives the stigma when people immediately assume guys don't knit. Amazingly rude, some people ask me to show them projects I worked on to somehow prove I knit. Those folks, well, I just smile and show them my work. Then I start in on that rehearsed speech about the history of men knitting, how I own the shop and how I would love for them to take one of the classes I teach. It's a fun satisfaction to make a believer out of someone so incredulous only moments before.

Yes, men knit. More and more. I sincerely hope that in reading this readers will take to heart that the gender roles involved in any activity -- even knitting -- don't matter. What matters is that we keep our craft alive and vibrant by bringing in more and more people and their individual, dynamics influences every day. It is the joy of creation and sharing that, in my opinion, drives knitting. So next time a male friend expresses and interest in your hobby, jump up, offer to teach them. Encourage them to give it a try! Who knows, maybe at your next knit night you'll have a few guys show up. I assure you it only makes it all the more fun.



David Coe owns and operates Unravel Yarn and Fiber Arts in Flagstaff, AZ with his wife of 11 years and his new son, Jasper.