Growing passion for knitting has millions hooked

August 31, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

Valley Forge, Pa. -- It began five or six years ago: Barbara Lande can't say exactly when. The pastime became a passion, the diverted now possessed. In this, she was not alone.

In a hotel ballroom the knitters sat, a new breed of conventioneer, packing their woolly desires in canvas totes, wicker baskets and quilted bags resting at their feet. Many came to share their own personal stories and the techniques they have relied on. Most hoped to learn from the experts and specialists, each similarly hooked -- by a ball of yarn and a pair of needles.

What may seem a solitary endeavor is actually a popular pursuit of thousands, if not millions, industry experts say. The Knitters Guild of America has 10,000 members, 175 affiliated guilds and a growing membership.

A consumer survey by the Hobby Industries of America showed a 9.1 percent growth rate in the number of households doing knitting between 1990 and 1992. And, in 1992, according to the survey, one-fifth of all households had a member doing knitting.

"The whole thing for me is the wool going through my hands, lying down on the couch," says Barbara Lande, who works for a nature magazine in Manhattan. "It's very soothing."

"I knit for my soul," confesses Robert Powell, an airbrush artist who, like many others at the convention, knit as they listened to the guest panel. "I've always had a fondness for math and it's a very mathematical and logical thing, especially lace knitting."

"It sounds terribly trite: It gives me great joy. It releases my creative energy," confides Beth Brown-Reinsell, a bookkeeper from Delta, Pa., and author of a book on the techniques of the gansey, a cabled sweater worn by British fishermen in the 19th century.

"It puts me in alpha."

By the hundreds, the knitters have descended on the Valley Forge Sheraton and convention center for "Stitches Fair," most leaving spouses, children and pets in places as far-flung as Sioux Falls, S.D., and the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. They arrive for three days of classes -- some six hours long -- to learn the intricacies of Latvian mittens, how to negotiate a neckline, the mechanics of machine knitting. Those who don't knit can spin, weave or crochet.

And while gray-haired grannies still knit baby booties, labor lawyers create Donna Karan-inspired cable-knit sweaters for a quarter of their $500 cost and one-time mechanical engineers now manage yarn shops. Some do it all and design their patterns, too.

"I've done all kinds of handiwork but the things I know I'll do forever is knitting and weaving," says Terry Newhouse, a guild member and the owner of The Weavers Place in Catonsville. "I have carpal tunnel [syndrome] and I've managed to keep knitting."

And when they're not practicing short rows or perfecting their sleeves, they can be found fingering a collection of yarns -- mohairs and Angoras, recycled wool and Kool-Aid dyed skeins, natural fibers and new cashmere-like synthetics -- by 90 vendors at the "Stitches Market."

Sense of community

"This [the conference] is like knitting Nirvana," says Linda Pratt, of Classic Elite Yarns, a Lowell, Mass., manufacturer of fibers that created the Kool-Aid dye packet to entice youngsters to the trade. "People don't knit the way they used to. You can't talk to the person across the street [about knitting] like you could 20 years ago."

And the meetings give a sense of community and camaraderie that many knitters lack in their daily lives.

"There was a need that wasn't being met," says Alexis Xenakis, publisher of Knitters magazine who has helped coordinate the Stitches fairs and markets since they began three years ago. "Knitters are very sharing people."

This year, convention planners made sure to point out "gathering places" -- couches in the lobby, a row of chairs in the corridor between ballrooms -- so knitters could meet and compare notes on the geometrics of Bosnian stockings, how to market their own designs to Vogue Knitting -- "The bible" -- or the advantages of using a new blend called Paloma.

Mr. Xenakis, who put aside his ambition to be a doctor after walking into a yarn store in South Dakota, has seen the publication of his Knitters magazine go from a 10,000 run twice a year in 1976 to 35,000 quarterly.

The Valley Forge fair is the second event sponsored this summer by the magazine. Attendance at the two events topped 1,000. And those were only the folks who paid up to $315 to attend four days of classes (hotel and airfare excluded) and the Saturday night banquet.

Many more come just to shop at the yarn market.

Consider these other indications that a traditional homespun handiwork has invaded popular culture: America's fashion designers are featuring hand-knits in their fall collections.

Public school students in Virginia and Michigan are learning to knit during recess. The off-Broadway play "Loose Knits" pivots its five characters around a knitting bee.

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