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Enter Stitchmanby Martin John Brown
Our book wasn't complex in concept. To its credit, it always knew exactly what it was: a straight-out celebration of the grassroots culture of the knitalong, defined as any event where people knit together. Knitting could have an image as a solitary or isolating activity artist J. Meredith Warner even made an interesting compilation of movie scenes where women seem to bury schemes and wicked desires in their stitches. But back in non-celluloid reality, knitting has always been a good match for sitting around and talking. And in recent years a positive ecstasy has been building online, as the Internet rolls far-flung knitters together in a madly spinning snowball of tips, collaboration, and friendship.
To state it more simply, our theme was this: It is so totally awesome to knit with other people! It's so great everybody should do it!
That's where my reporter's skepticism called halt. It was super that everybody was having a good time. But did knitting together make a difference?
I made it my beat to find out. While my wife and coauthor, artist Larissa Brown, handled the hardcore parts of the book (creating patterns suited to knitting in collaborative and social settings), I dug into knitalong culture, paging through dusty archives and garish blogs (some pretty ones, too), inserting myself glumly into knitting circles and craft events where I was typically the only male.
I found that back when people made and fixed their own clothes, particularly socks, a lot of them were engaged in a continual low-level knitalong. Ancient sailors clustering on ship decks and frontier dames rocking round wood stoves often had needles in their hands. But when factory clothing took over, knitting became a hobby, and its star waxed and waned. Every few decades there was a revival of the craft, rising out of "back to basics" sentiments and nostalgia. Each one died back after a few years. But the revival that started in the late 1990s never went away something special was clearly going on.
Today's knitting scene would have amazed the old-time knitters whose stories I dug up in old Federal Writers' Project manuscripts. Knitters who in the past would have had no peers to show off to and learn from, except possibly Grandma, now communicated with teachers, fans, and yarn pushers all around the world, every day. In major cities there could be dozens of knitting groups meeting on a single night.
These knitters encouraged and enabled each other. They no longer found it necessary (or believable, given balls of yarn priced at $20, $40, and occasionally more) to argue that hand knitting was an economical way of making garments. They constantly joked about how their craft was an addiction to fibers touching them, manipulating them, unraveling and remanipulating them. It was obsessive and repetitive, but apparently benign. None (that I heard of) robbed convenience stores or pawned wedding rings to get their fix.
The energy in the movement was so palpable my biggest writing quandary was that there was no way writing could capture it. Instead I looked over literally thousands of amateur and historical photos of people knitting, trying to find ones that expressed the feeling of the hour. It seemed odd and yet perfect that pictures from across time Harlem in the '50s, New Brunswick in the '20s, Korea in 2006 could voice what knitters were experiencing today. The photos showed knitters involved as much with each other as with their needles. The whole boom could be attributed to the Internet. The web decentralized expertise and liberated little producers of yarn, and creativity flowered. Sites like Flickr made it possible to see dozens of completed versions of the same project. There was no longer a single perfect way to execute a project, defined by one or two fashion shots in a book which left us in a bit of jam, since we were producing a book. We adapted by involving everyday knitters in the book's creation and placing photo galleries of their creations just a page or two away from our fashion shots. The endless variations on a single idea could be a little mesmerizing.
As knitters' creativity burgeoned, so did their friendships. Naturally, any shared activity from apple-bobbing to skydiving creates bonds. But the thing that troubled me most (I was still wearing the skeptic's hat) was that knitting seemed especially good at it. I hung around knitting circles and studied faces and hands, wondering why. When people knitted together, there was not much jostling for attention. There were a lot of silences, but they weren't awkward ones. Instead they were filled with calm and industry. The clicking needles seemed to generate a little personal force field wherein a knitter could observe what was going on but restrain the impulse to become the center of attention.
It was a combination of awareness and concentration a martial artist could admire. I often wondered how strong this little force field was. What would happen if I shouted "fire"? Commented negatively on someone's jeans? Tossed an extra-heavy volume of the photoreduced Oxford English Dictionary (magnifying glass included) in their direction? I was sure any of these attacks would bounce off that meditative bubble and fall harmlessly to the floor. The erstwhile victim would respond calmly in a second or two, after they marked progress on the real priority the current row of stitches.
I had to conclude knitting was that rarest of social activities: something that helped people listen and observe, not just worry and talk.
That humbled me a bit. There aren't many things in this world that facilitate empathy, and I felt privileged to be writing about it. Could knitting together prevent a war? Save a family? Heal the fractured Democratic electorate? I'm not sure, but now when some frizzy-haired knitting radical says it can, I really truly think it's worth a try.
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Martin John Brown is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in MAKE, Sierra, Air and Space (Smithsonian), and American Spirit magazines.