The Pursuit of Knitting is Connecting a Whole New Generation of Young Women

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By Neena Bhandari, Womens Feature Service

The pursuit of knitting is connecting a whole new generation of young women and older women, who are rediscovering the art of their childhood delight. “Knitting is very soothing and I find the repetitiveness of purl and knit very relaxing. While knitting one can do so many other things, including watch TV without feeling guilty,” says Gabrielle Ryan, 78, who like many women of her generation had learnt the skill from her mother as a little girl. Five years ago, she started knitting again.

Ryan, who lives in Sydney, knits squares for ‘Wrap with Love’, a not-for-profit organisation, which has provided more than 2,21,700 hand-knitted blankets for people in 75 countries, including Australia. She often meets with her group of friends over tea to share wool and pick up colours. They find that at $2 for 100gm to knit a 10X10 inch square, wool is still affordable. At least one out of the 28 squares that form the blanket has Australia’s national symbol, a kangaroo.

Unlike a book or movie club, knitting groups provide a platform to socialise while creating something for others. When Sally Madin retired as a teacher four years ago, she placed an advertisement in the weekly newspaper of Cranbrook School, an all boys school in Sydney where her husband is Headmaster, for people interested in knitting jumpers, beanies and small dolls for children in Ladakh and Nepal. A number of women responded and they sent over 150 items to Shara village with the school group who went there to help build a preschool.

Madin says, “We have young mothers to grandmothers like me, and even great grandmothers knitting from around Australia, many with no direct links to Cranbrook. In June this year we sent over 500 items, mostly jumpers for the four- to seven-year-olds in the new pre-school supported by the Cranbrook Explorers and Travellers Overseas Partnership (CETOP). We also have people who knit scarves and rugs and this year a group of women made beautiful quilts to cover the children during their afternoon nap.”

Similarly, Brenda Hazelwood, who coordinates the Brisbane-based charity, Nepal Australia Friendship Association (NAFA), currently has between 80 and 100 knitters, all women mainly above 50 years.

“The trend has been a move away from traditional difficult patterns with small needles and thin wool to a preference for larger needles, thicker wool that knits quicker and bright mixed colours. People seem to be more inclined to experiment with design and patterns and are not too concerned with being ‘perfect’ unlike the earlier knitting patterns that were very neat,” says Hazelwood, who also conducts classes at a children’s home just outside Kathmandu and has in the past five years taught 50 girls and boys between eight and 15 years to knit.

The most important outcome for Hazelwood has been that they have learnt a creative skill, which they will take into adulthood. Young, modern professional women, who missed out on learning the craft at home and school because it was considered old fashioned, are signing up for courses and finding both creative satisfaction and good company in cities and towns across Australia.

New businesses are mushrooming to cater to the increasing number of women driving the trend. The yarn industry, which had slumped as knitting fell out of favour with the increased availability of low cost machine-knitted garments, has started to make novelty yarns which produce stunning results without years of knitting experience. Natural fibres from animals, such as alpaca, angora, and merino; plant fibres like cotton and bamboo; and exotic fibres, such as silk and cashmere, are now available in amazing colour ranges allowing drape and durability.

Social networking platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and print, broadcast and online media have all played a vital role in allowing knitters to connect, share interests and learn from each other, building an international knitting community. From beginners to serious knitters, there is plenty of information to choose from, including videos that teach you the craft from scratch.

In the past two years, the volume of craft category search queries on google.com.au has jumped 68 per cent. It was up 38 per cent between May 2008 and May 2009 and grew another 30 per cent in the 12 months to May 2010.

According to a spokesperson for Spotlight stores, the lead destination for yarn and accessories in the Australian and New Zealand markets, over the last two years there has been a strong growth in demand for wool, knitting needles and pattern books based on a return to DIY (do it yourself) and people taking more interest in creating their own fashion and accessories. There is also a strong demand for yarns from Italy, Turkey, Australia and the Australasian region.

Olga Jeffels, who works for one of the leading wool stores and had learnt to knit by reading pattern books from her boss while working as a secretary, says she has never looked back. Says Jeffels, “The craze for knitting has been growing with sales of knitting books and knitting needles made from bamboo, plastic and steel growing.”

With yarns costing from $1.00 to $14.99 per ball, knitting is still an affordable hobby and an important tool of socialising. As the author of a new book, Swing Swagger Drape, Jane Slicer-Smith says, “I believe craft have kept women sane for centuries – putting love into their stitches for family and friends, also the maths and logic of knitting, the sense of achievement with the results. It is a skill, like quilting and dressmaking, that lasts longer than a clean house. What better reward at the end of a long day than sitting with beautiful yarns and creating a garment.”

Her book encourages both experienced knitters and those not so confident with detail on how to shape yarn into beautiful pieces of wearable art. Slicer-Smith, who draws her inspiration from landscapes, art, architecture and history, says, “By knitting and wearing wool instead of turning up the heating, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Watching models and celebrities – Julia Roberts, Madonna, Cameron Diaz to name a few – knit has further popularised the craft, which is also witnessing a return of men to knitting. Says Andrew Reid, who is an experienced knitter and teaches beginners and intermediate knitting classes at the popular Morris & Sons store in Sydney, “The concept of male knitters is not as strange as it might have been 10 or 20 years ago. Increasingly, customers do not seem surprised to be getting knitting advice from a man.”

Morris and Sons run formal classes, along with drop in sessions called ‘clinics’, where people bring their project and a teacher helps solve problems. Reid says, “The resurgence in knitting is part of resurgence in craft in general. I think hand knits are popular in fashion stores, so younger women are inspired by what they see.”

Creating something is a way of self expression that gives immense inner satisfaction and, like most things hand crafted, knitting has indeed become the next cool thing.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.