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Modern Yarn

The first time Susan R. stopped knitting, she had a dewy lease on life. It was the mid-1960s, and the newly divorced 23-year-old had left teaching French in the New Jersey suburbs for adventures in the Big Apple: a tidy one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, a glamorous job at the chic jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels, a dashing new beau who whisked her away for ski weekends in Vermont. Knitting—which she’d learned as a child from her mother, continued at a women’s college where stitching was de rigueur, and enjoyed up until the honeymoon ended—just didn’t have a place in her hear-me-roar agenda.

The first time Susan started knitting again was more than a decade later. She’d sown her oats, gotten a law degree and a corporate gig, married a young widower with two little girls, moved back to the burbs. Maternal instinct fully engaged, she dusted off the sticks, rejuvenated her stash with wool and acrylic from Fabricland’s now-defunct yarn department, and knit up fleecy pullovers and stripy sweaters for her new daughters. When a few years later she gave birth to a baby girl, she knit into overdrive—pretty white things, lacy pink things, sturdy playthings, a few hats, no socks. For nearly two years the lefty Continental knitter happily stitched away, often alongside her mother, Ruth, until cancer claimed Ruth’s life mere months after diagnosis. Bereft, Susan packed up her needles once more, unable to find joy in an endeavor she so associated with her mother.

Flash-forward 20 years and one more divorce, to the birth of Susan’s first grandchild, a boy. Sturdy playthings worked fine, but her fingers got itchier as she felt the urge to inject some testosterone those old pretty white things and lacy pink things. Without missing a beat, she slid right back into the loop, and baby Harry and little brother Jay, two and a half years down the road, enjoyed a layette of rugged denim cardigans, red and gray and purple Arans, cabled hats with rakish pompoms. A granddaughter, Annabel, eventually followed, giving Susan a reason to return to pastels and try intarsia. And for her biggest project since her latest return, she tackled a complex Debbie Bliss Aran pullover for her partner of five years, as fate would have it the same beau who 35 years earlier schussed with her down the ski slopes of Vermont. She says she’s back to knitting for good.

Back to the Fold
There are no hard numbers on how many lapsed knitters have returned to the fold; the latest Knitter’s Review poll indicates that in 2005 19 percent of respondents identified themselves as such. The Craft Yarn Council of America actively courts prodigal knitters, re-immersing as many as possible by enticing them to join its programs and/or teach at its many Knit-Outs. Many yarn shops woo returnees with special refresher classes. Message boards and meet-up sites often bear missives from rusty stitchers eager to re-hook after storing away the needles for one reason or another.

Those reasons can be as life-altering as divorce and death, which temporarily put the kibosh on Susan’s knitting. Mostly, though, daily life itself is the culprit: Hectic schedules that get even busier as kids arrive and grow and need carpooling, workweeks shift into overtime, can be downright hostile to knitting needs. Marie Baker, owner of The Knitting Knook in Marlton, New Jersey, sees mostly retirees coming back when their calendars have cleared. “When people retire, become grandparents, they start up again,” she says. Books like my colleague Karin Strom’s Never Too Old to Knit (Sixth&Spring Books) cater to this demographic. Often shop owners host two or three generations of knitters in the same family, the older women reinvigorated by the younger’s obsession. Says Baker, “They find it’s great therapy and a great way to socialize and meet friends.” They also find a breadth and depth of fibers and colorways they couldn’t have dreamed of back in the days ruled by scratchy wools and industrial acrylic, when impersonal, cruelly lit stores offered none of the charm or welcoming atmosphere so rampant in 21st-century yarn shops. Lapsed knitter Tracey Ullman, for one, is on record about being lured back by the combination of yarny yumminess and LYS conviviality.

Old Knitters, New Tricks
There’s something else that’s new since these knitters’ first go-round: the virtual side of knitting reality. “The Internet has played a huge role in my knitting again,” says Lynn, who last year returned to knitting after two decades away when an online friend who’d recently found her way back started talking it up. “There is a wealth of information, resources and inspiration out there; it just really gets you hooked.” Lynn now has two blogs— tracks her multi-needlecraft output and her knitting—and posts on the Knitty coffeeshop as often as she can. “I got really hooked when I first signed up but have slowed down so I have more time to knit and sew,” she says, LOLing.

“I don’t think the Internet actually got me started knitting again, but what it has done is broadened my horizons and exposed me to so much more than even a knitting magazine would have,” says Rita O., whose interest in spinning alpaca led her back five years ago after 10 away. She now blogs at, reads the Yarn Harlot, the Panopticon, Crazy Aunt Purl; and listens to Cast On and WeaveCast. “I found a Hanne Falkenberg site and loved the designs and started looking for links to other designers. I found, probably from an online shop, then the Coffeeshop forum, and that was my gateway.” If not for the blogosphere, Rita says, “I would never have thought of knitting socks, for one. And it would have taken me years to find Addi Turbos, if ever. Attempting, and succeeding, at lace—Eunny’s Print of the Wave shawl.”

"[The Internet is] an infinite source of inspiration for what to knit next."

“I don’t even know how I realized there was this enormous community of voices on the Internet,” says Samantha B., who stopped knitting in college after a Kaffe Fassett intarsia kit “finished me off” and started again in earnest five years ago when her sister became pregnant. “The Yarn Harlot, Grumperina, Brooklyn Tweed, Eunny Jang. I’m a solitary knitter, so finding this amazing resource opened up a whole world to me.” Butler recently finished a Falling Leaves shawl. “Everything I’ve learned about lace I’ve learned online, reading technical articles and seeing what other people have done. It’s an infinite source of inspiration for what to knit next.”

Samantha, a college professor, doesn’t blog, but she occasionally posts on the forums and has joined the Rockin’ Sock Club KAL, which she deems “ridiculously fun.” Working on one pair of socks, she feared she was running out of yarn. So an army medic in Heidelberg, Germany, sent her an additional skein. When it turned out she didn’t actually need the yardage, Butler forwarded to someone who did, a knitter in New Orleans. “I felt very connected,” she says. “My husband likens it to the mentality at a Grateful Dead concert—a sense of community brought on by a shared interest.”

Then there’s the commerce aspect—the ability to buy yarn, pattern, needles as soon as they cross your literal radar. Liane P. is “obsessive” about enhancing her huge stash by shopping online. She lives in coastal Connecticut with no LYS in easy reach, so the knitter, who “dredged out” her needles two years ago after decades away to froth up a scarf in Fizz, keeps herself in alpaca and quality novelties by shopping Webs, eBay, Jimmy Beans and the like. “I can’t tell you how much yarn I buy,” she says. The Internet allows her to do plenty of research—her bailiwick as a psychologist—before she buys, not only about price but also fiber content (she’s allergic to wool) and pattern compatibility. “I go to Knitter’s Review for yarn reviews,” she says. “I poke around, see what yarn is used for what, learn as much as I can before I go look for them.”

Not all Web browsers, bloggers and posters shop exclusively onine. Samantha B., for one, lives in L.A. and takes advantage of the plethora of extraordinary local yarn shops to get a firsthand feel before she buys. But there’s always some sort of exchange going on between knitters on the Net, whether funds change hands or not. “The Internet has made me think about my knitting,” says Rita O. “I appreciate designers and their efforts. In the past I wouldn’t have thought about them at all, as I would be using a pattern from a magazine or book. By their permanent nature a magazine commits to one version; it’s static. The Internet is fluid, changing. Ideas are expounded and criticized; techniques questioned, tried and developed. Manufacturers tested and accepted or rejected by the users. And all available to everyone, for each to make up her own mind. The Internet knitting community has shown me that there is more talent and skill out there from “ordinary” people than can ever be represented in a magazine. And it inspires me: ‘I can do that.’ ”


Cheryl Krementz, contributing editor for Yarn Market News and frequent Vogue Knitting contributor, is not proud of the fact that knitting has turned her into a lapsed reader.