1 of 6
Paul Clark photo
Making a point
Deane Giordano's work.
2 of 6
Paul Clark photo
Lorraine Chamber (from left), Ceil Sanow and Cindi Herald come to The Knitting Divas in Weaverville, N.C., as much for the laughs as the knitting.
3 of 6
Paul Clark photo
Deane Giordano, left and Starr Nielsen trade tips and stories at Sisters in Stitches at Black Mountain Yarn Shop.
4 of 6
Paul Clark photo
Pete Petersen (from left) spins a yarn for Deane Mae Driscoll, center, and Gina Arnone at Black Mountain Yarn Shop.
5 of 6
Paul Clark photo
David Tan, left, and Rik Schell catch up on their work and each other’s lives at the men’s knitting group at Purl’s Yarn Emporium in Asheville. One of the few men at knitting groups he attends, Schell says he’s no less welcome.
6 of 6
Margaret Hester photo
The sense of community is palpable among knitting groups.
Six women sat around a coffee table, skiens of yarn echoing the colors in a bowl of brightly colored candies and knitting needles softly clicking the way hard candy does against one’s teeth as the tongue shifts the sweetness from side to side.
Hands and tongues are always busy at The Knitting Divas, a small shop in Weaverville, N.C., where owner Greta Hillin and her fellow knitters Jackie Keener, Cindi Herald, Ceil Sanow, Lorraine Chamber and Cheryl Walker, gather each Monday morning.
“This isn’t a place to be productive,” Keener said. “But it is a place to get help with your knitting. I’m making lots of progress, not just in everyone showing me how to do things but encouraging me, giving me more confidence than I would have at home figuring it out.”
“It’s not the same, sitting at home,” Sanow said.
“Well, you get more done, but it’s not as much fun,” Herald cracked.
“There’s just something about having some place to be, about putting ‘knitting circle’ on your calendar every Monday,” Keener said. “I get excited about coming here. If I have to miss, it’s ‘oh no.’”
“That’s how we all feel,” Chamber said. “If somebody has to miss, we physically miss them being here.”
Indeed, one knitter from the group was out to watch over her mother who had just had surgery, but so as not to worry anyone, she’d made sure to stop by the shop to tell Hillin that the surgery had gone well. The knitting ladies were relieved to hear it.
“Is that a dropped stitch?” Chamber, a beginning knitter, asked, about a small mistake Hillin had made while helping Chamber with her work. Apologizing, Hillin took the knitting out of Chamber’s hands. Walker looked at Chamber’s work and said it was beautiful. Herald noted how precise it was. The precision of looping stitch after stitch is relaxing, Chamber said.
“That’s what I love about it,” Chamber said.
“Until you drop a stitch,” Hillin said to big laughs.
Chamber watched Hillin rework the dropped stitch, a seeming metaphor for Chamber’s life—“Finally, after living here 14 years, I feel like things are on track,” she said. “I found my niche.”
Herald nodded in agreement. “This is the first time I’ve felt like I’m home,” she said. Herald doesn’t drive. She and her husband, who have lived in the Weaverville area for two and a half years, do everything together. “I love him more than anything in the world, but he’s not a knitter,” she said, causing the group of women to stop their work and laugh. “I look so forward to Mondays,” she said. “I hope that I never lose this. I’ll love these ladies forever. They’re stuck with me.”
The group, like any other group of people with kindred interests, is about more than the task at hand. Knitting together is a social activity. In Europe in the 1400s, there were exclusively male knitting guilds and fine needlepoint work historically has been a woman’s skill, once carried out in kings’ courts. Less is known about the history of knitting circles, but it’s a safe bet that they’ve been around since the utilitarian skill was passed down the generations. Like most handmade traditions, knitting experienced a downturn in popularity with industrialization. However, a movement to reclaim homesteading skills such as canning and sewing, along with the globalization of the fiber market that made alpaca, merino and other natural fibers more widely available, has sparked a knitting revival. It’s become commonplace to find shops, cafes, libraries, and circles of friends practicing the skill, as magazines gush about celebrities who knit, such as Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder.
Sisters in Stitches is an Asheville group with more than 200 active members, all ages and backgrounds. Anybody is welcome—knitters, crocheters, cross-stitchers, quilters, embroiderers, menders, whoever. The group meets across the Asheville area, at places like Tipsy Star Quilts, Kitsch Fabrics, The Foundry, Filo, and the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar.
“We’re like a floating party,” Starr Nielsen said, at Black Mountain Yarn Shop. A dozen members were sitting in the front of the shop, their projects and materials strewn all around.
“We had a member about a year ago who had open-heart surgery,” Deane Giordano said as she knitted. “People in our group who didn’t necessarily know this person rallied and brought her food and groceries, sat with her and took care of her and her husband. If you have a need or a problem, they’re going to rally and be there for you like people do for each other, when they’re sick or in pain.”
“Women nurture,” Gina Arnone said, looking up from the patch she was making for a quilt.
“Life is hard. We need each other,” Delores Donnan said. “And one of the best ways to be there for each other is to do something as mundane as knitting together. Our group may come together over knitting, but this is really about life and getting through life together.”
“If you’re looking for companionship and some fun, a good starting place with strangers is to have some common interest,” Nielsen said.
While such groups have a social element, those who don’t want to join in on the conversation are still welcome. “You get to be in the community but without the pressure of having to be social,” Giordano said.
Donnan, knitting a blanket for a newborn, didn’t know anyone in the area when she moved to Asheville from New Jersey a year and a half ago. Sisters in Stitches not only introduced her to a great bunch of people, but it also helped her find a reading group to join and restaurants to visit. “Knitters are always the friendliest of people,” she said.
“They’re even better than a barber shop or a hair salon,” said Pete Petersen, 80, and the only man working alongside the rest of the group. Petersen’s mother taught him how to knit in 1942, when he was 9, so he could knit scarves for soldiers. After the war, he put down his knitting needles. And then, a few years ago, he started up again, prodded by his church to help create squares for children whose parents had died of AIDS in Africa.
Shop owner Don Farrow, busy helping customers in the shop, noted that stories like this are common when people are knitting. People talk about their jobs, their families, their kids, good things, and bad things. There’s no tolerance for gossip, and bringing up religion or politics goes nowhere.
“Community like this, it’s not anything that you can flip the switch and it happens. It just happens,” Farrow said.
And it’s happening more and more among men knitters. “There are more of us than you’d expect,” Dan Tan said, as he and Rik Schell knitted together at Purl’s Yarn Emporium, the only representatives of the men’s group that has been meeting there twice a month for more than two years.
Schell and his wife own the store, located in downtown Asheville. As he and Tan quietly conversed over their work, aromas from nearby restaurants and strains of street chatter floated through the shop’s open door, and their stitches swung in time to the jazz on the radio. The two were working on a project they found online, a mystery pattern for a shawl released in stages by a pattern designer on ravelry.com, a free international social network for knitters and crocheters.
Women always outnumber the two guys when the Smoky Mountain Knitting Guild meets in Waynesville.
“So it’s nice to have a …,” Schell said.
“ … a shared experience,” Tan said.
“Yeah. It’s nice to get together with the guys. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Schell said.
“We trade stories about going into yarn shops and getting strange looks,” Tan said, looking up at a visitor over his glasses.
Linda Merritt had been walking around the store. She walked up behind Schell. “Now that’s unusual, to see guys…,” she said.
“There you go,” Tan said to the visitor, laughing.
Merritt and her husband were visiting from Clinton, and one never sees men knitting there, she said. “How did you all acquire that habit?” she asked, correcting herself that she meant to say “skill.” Tan replied that the word “habit” sums the hobby up pretty well.
Schell and Merritt fell into a conversation about crafting. Merritt even made her own wedding dress. She watched the men work for a while. “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?” she said.
“There are times when it gets frustrating,” Tan said, eliciting laughter and general agreement. “But for the most part, it’s my stress relief.”
An accountant by trade, Tan likes the math of counting and keeping track of stitches. He likes that he always has gifts to give. And he loves how knitting brings him in contact with others who share his love for the craft—and who push him to be creative, like Schell, with whom he’s got a bit of competition going. Each man tries to take on complex projects and modify the stitch patterns to make the work his own. But the competition always is friendly, so much so that when Schell’s car broke down near the end of a long drive from Ohio back to Asheville, N.C. he called his knitting group friends for help first. Within moments, he had the help he needed. That’s the nature of knitters—they’re a tightly woven community.
A women’s knitting group also meets at Purl’s; one group member moved to Asheville to take care of her mother and didn’t know anyone else in town. She joined the knitting group, and when she needed care herself after breaking her foot, her fellow knitters brought her food and mowed her lawn.
This sense of community is palpable at The Knitting Divas as well. Storeowner Hillin was passing around a photo of a dog with a crocheted hat when group member Walker shoved her needles and project into her plastic tote and announced she had to go. Her fellow knitters protested. Walker’s voice dropped to a near whisper—she was going to see a doctor, she said. Hillin reached for Walker’s arm and asked if everything was okay. Walker patted her heart. “It’s been fluttering,” she said. The group’s mood fell. Walker said it was nothing, not to worry, and each knitter told her to take care—and meant it. In that way, these knitting circles are circles of trust.
Unless, that is, a fellow knitter says something funny. Then, everyone cracks up.
Launching into a story about visiting the new Trader Joe’s grocery store in Asheville, Sanow drew knowing nods from her fellow women knitters. “I swore I wasn’t going to go the first week until they got all the kinks out,” she said. “Of course, you can’t get into the parking lot; you can’t get out of the parking lot. So I did what many people are doing, which was park at that Harris Teeter across the street,” she said referring to the city’s other, immediately adjacent, brand new grocery store.
“I said something to this guy at Trader Joe’s. He said, ‘You know, you could be towed.’ I said, ‘OK, we better hurry up!’ So I get all the stuff I want, I’m waiting in line to get checked out and I was just so excited, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I said to the checkout girl, ‘I’ve been waiting for you since 1994!”
Throughout it all, the knitting needles kept moving and no one dropped a stitch.
“One of the guys that worked there, he came over to me and said, ‘I bet you cook well,’” Sanow said, referring to a Trader Joe’s clerk. “And I said, ‘I cook reasonably well,’ and he said, ‘There’s a lady down there trying to decide which olive oil to buy.’” Sanow looked around at the women, who had stopped knitting and were looking at her. “Do I look like I know anything about olive oil?”
“Well, a little bit,” Keener said.
“So I go down the aisle and I’m helping her,” Sanow continued. “I mean, she’s a total stranger to me. And we’re talking about olive oil.” She mimicked the stranger’s voice as she repeated the conversation: “I don’t know, should I get the one that says ‘packed in Italy,’ or is it okay if it was imported from Italy but packed in America? This one says ‘Ingredients, 100 percent olive oil,’ but this bottle over here doesn’t say ‘ingredients,’ but it does say ‘100 percent pure olive oil.’”
Herald leaded in toward Sanow. “Ceil, you had the experience of meeting yourself.”
The women’s laughter was explosive—loud, long and loving, it washed through like a cleansing spring rain. It was the kind of laughter that made one feel good just to be in it, to be with people who enjoyed one another so much that they could tease each other so gently.
“She doesn’t like that I know her so well,” Herald said, again putting the women in stitches.