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Monday, January 24, 2011

Social Knitworking

In the middle of her recent book tour, Debbie Stoller got down on the floor of her Seattle hotel room and blocked out a shawl she had just cast off her knitting needles.

She’d made the shawl using her own bamboo-wool yarn and said she was happy with it. But you could tell from her tone that she would have been happier if she was still working on it.

“I am a process knitter,” she says. “I have more interest in doing it than in the results.”

If you aren’t a knitter, you might not know Stoller’s name, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in North America who hasn’t heard of her stitch’n bitch groups — small home- and shop-based knitting groups that have swept the continent, bringing a new enthusiasm (or should we say obsession?) to knitting.

There was a time not too long ago, when knitting was just about the most uncool thing a young woman could do. Well, except maybe crocheting.

The second wave of feminists rejected needlework along with many other domestic arts in an effort to free themselves from societal limits, Stoller says. Very few knitted and purled during the 1970s, ’80s and even the ’90s.

But then along came Stoller, a self-proclaimed third wave or “girlie” feminist with a PhD in women’s psychology.

Stoller rediscovered knitting as a young woman in 1998 and set out to “Take back the knit,” a play on the women’s movement chant “Take back the night.”

“I understand why they rejected it,”Stoller said from her Seattle hotel room. “But it also got devalued and these skills are a big part of women’s history.

“The third wave in the late ’90s had a different strategy. They had a strategy of reclaiming, which gave it value in a new context.”

For Stoller, that value was in the delicious pleasure knitting gave her. She became a knitting evangelist and invited all comers to meet in a New York cafĂ© and knit, talk and share expertise. She called it a stitch ’n bitch group. She wasn’t calling herself a capital B who stitches. She uses the B-word as a verb for what women do when they get together.

The name grabbed people’s attention and gave knitting an edginess it hadn’t had in years, at least not in North America. Twelve years later, stitch ’n bitch groups are almost as popular as book clubs.

“I don’t think anyone has done more for getting people back to knitting than Debbie Stoller,” says Anina Hansen, co-owner of Urban Yarns, who recently brought Stoller to Vancouver as part of her tour promote her fifth book, Stitch ’n Bitch Superstar Knitting.

Up until now, all her books have been for beginners. They offer clear step-by-step instructions, techniques and patterns so that anybody can learn.

Her first knitting book, Stitch ’n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook, was published in 2003. It became a New York Times bestseller and has sold more than one million copies. She has since written Stitch ’n Bitch: The Happy Hooker for crochet and Son of Stitch ’n Bitch for male knitters. She has also developed her own yarns.

“Women in their 20, 30s, 40s would look at her book and say ‘Okay, I can learn now,’ knitter Kathleen Seeley said. “I don’t have my mother or grandmother beside me teaching me, but I can learn from [Stoller] because she has very detailed descriptions. It’s kind of the pop culture of knitting.”

Hansen says Stoller can be credited with bringing the cool back into knitting, giving it a buzz that our grandmothers couldn’t offer.

But Stoller takes umbrage when her books are described as being unlike anything your grandmother might do.

“It always feels like a poke at grandmothers,” she says. “And I think it is your grandmother’s knitting. It is exactly your grandmother’s knitting. It is part of a centuries-old tradition that we engage in, and I think that is what is wonderful about it.”

Stoller can take a bit of credit for adding the communal dimension to today’s knitting culture.

It has become a way to stay connected with friends in this busy world, or to meet kindred spirits when you relocate.

“I really think the communal aspect of knitting has really been central to this trend of the past decade in a way that it never was before,” Stoller said, “first with so many stitch ’n bitch groups forming where people meet in person, and also on the Internet where people share patterns and information. I think that is interesting.”

In her new book, Stoller introduces knitters to the next level of knitting techniques. She has easy-to-follow instructions for colour and stitching techniques such as aran, intarsia, lace, cable and steeks. As with all her earlier books, she includes patterns as well. But this time, she also explains how to make your own. It’s very mathematical.

“There is an immense amount of information,” she said. “I wanted to put a warning on the cover: Caution, very explicit instructions inside. I get very explicit about how to design a sweater.”

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