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Stick to Your Knitting

Or Your Rug Hooking, or Orchid Growing, or Faux Finishing. Classes Abound.

By Kate Carlisle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page H01

You settle into a Metro seat, open up that newspaper or maybe fire up the BlackBerry, when you see her. Or, sometimes, him. The rider clacks serenely on a pair of knitting needles, a pile of yarn on her lap or discreetly bulging out of her briefcase -- exotic-bird colors sparkling against drab office wear. The soft click, the rhythmic hand motion, the peaceful expression tell you one thing: This is a person who is not thinking about work.

And you want to be that person.

Stitch DC opened in June on 8th Street SE. The shop offers classes as well as supplies. (Marie Connolly, Stitch Dc)

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Actually, lots of us want to be that person these days. Americans spent an estimated $450 million last year on yarn, needles and knitting paraphernalia, according to the Craft Yarn Council of America, up from about $400 million five years ago. Nearly 38 million men, women and children knit or crochet, many of them converts or returnees to the craft.

"It's enormous. . . . It's really bigger than anybody could predict," says Sherry Mulne, a consultant to the National NeedleArts Association, which represents yarn manufacturers, knitting designers and retailers. The association's membership has grown from 800 retail outlets in 1999 to 1,400 this year. Yarn wholesalers "can't keep up with demand, and they've never seen anything like this," forcing them to retool plants and build new mills, according to Mulne.

Marie Connolly, owner of the new Stitch DC shop on Capitol Hill, agrees. "I have to wait to get some yarns. The vendors can't keep up with it. They say, 'If you get it in six months, lucky you.' "

As with many hobbies and crafts, the way into the skill is most often through classes, and the number and variety of knitting classes is remarkable. Whether neighborhood shop or mega craft emporium, every outlet seems to offer classes, from the basic (get the yarn on the needles) to the elaborate (lace knitting and Fair Isle colorwork). Knitting teachers say fall is prime sign-up time, and some can't offer enough workshops to meet demand.

"This fall we've added more classes than ever -- 13," said Kristine Kirby Webster, who owns Knit Happens in Old Town Alexandria. "I think there's an insatiable need for people to find something soothing to do with their hands. Classes show them how to make something beautiful and unique." Webster also gives private lessons and employs a "knitting wizard" to help with stitching emergencies and tricky techniques (for a fee).

"I've only had my class schedule posted for two days and I've already filled spots," says Connolly of Stitch DC. "People come in to look around and immediately ask about classes." Her shop opened in June and she signed up two dozen knitting students, all beginners, right away.

Hedy Vann, executive coordinator of technology for the Public Broadcasting System, teaches beginning knitting at work, and has had 25 co-workers show up for classes. "I never thought there would be this kind of demand, but so many wanted lessons, it was amazing." She'll start teaching again after the winter holidays, "but people have already been asking," she says. Meanwhile, she'll host a weekly knitting circle at PBS, which she describes as a "stitch and bitch" lunchtime session for co-workers who want informal instruction.

Vann and others believe that classes are the only way for many younger people to learn because their mothers and grandmothers didn't knit or didn't want to. In postwar Holland, where Vann grew up, knitting was a necessary task "if we wanted warm clothes to wear." Now, in the United States, she says she sees a hunger, "a real desire to learn this as a craft. I really see very serious transformations taking place."

So where is all this yarn hunger coming from? It can't be that we need another scarf, sweater or afghan. For some, it's a de-stressing technique. "The demands of the workplace are such . . . women especially are carrying the stress of jobs and home," says Vann. "Knitting is a calm activity."

One word that most knitters mention right off the bat, however, is "community." While knitting's a soothing, solitary pursuit, many who do it gravitate to groups, and they're everywhere: in coffee shops, bookshops (one group meets regularly at Politics and Prose), knit shops (most offer weekly or Sunday knitting groups, and nearly all host informal stitching get-togethers) and especially on the Internet.

"The Internet knitting community has just grown and grown," said Wendy Johnson of Alexandria, whose knitting Web log, www.wendyknits.net, has had 3.4 million hits since April 2002. Johnson has sponsored "knit-alongs," where large groups knit the same pattern at the same time, charting their progress on the Internet. A current knit-along has knitters from around the world using Japanese yarn to work a pattern by an American woman living in Sweden.

"It takes a village to knit a sweater," says Knit Happens' Webster. "I do think it's about the sense of community. You find that you're with like-minded people. . . . It's an entree to meeting people."

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