Purls of Wisdom

Why it's hip to rock and knit

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When I first learned to knit, I only knew how to knit. No casting on. No purl. No increase or decrease, and definitely no binding off. I made scarves. What else could I make? As my obsession grew, the scarves got longer. I'd knit and knit until I ran out of yarn and could find someone--usually my mother--to finish them off. Each was slightly more extravagant than the last. I like to think of it as the Scarf Series: The first was a small, anemic multicolored acrylic blend, and the last was more sweater than scarf, a lovely cinnamon-colored wool angora, so wide and long that it looks like the wearer is being strangled by a bloated, fuzzy boa constrictor.

In the beginning, people used to snort in mock horror, 'You knit?' as if I had confessed to public masturbation or a closet square-dancing habit. Now, a few years later, it seems that practically everybody is knitting. Not just expectant mothers and proud grandmothers, but women like me: busy, youngish women who've never been to a craft show yet somehow find the age-old art addictive.

'Women lawyers tell stories about taking their knitting to court; executives tell how they use knitting to relieve deadline stress; others talk about how they learned to knit at their grandmother's knee,' says Carol Wigginton, founder of the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Knitting Guild of America. 'Trends like this always skip a generation.'

Why didn't our mothers knit? Mine learned to knit as part of the practical curriculum in her all-girl school, where students were brought up to be house-proud gentlewomen: knitting, sewing, cooking. She had different plans for me and my sisters. Why would we knit when we could lead corporations or run for president? Years ago, my mother set down her yarn and never picked it up again. So she didn't teach any of us to knit until one day when I asked her to. Her instructions lay dormant in my brain until years later, when, as a bored college student home on winter break, I found her old knitting needles and some discarded yarn.

'I think many women in our mothers' generation avoided knitting and sewing because they were looking for liberation, and traditional women's crafts had a negative taint to them,' says 35-year-old Melanie Falick, author of Knitting in America(HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) and Kids Knitting(Artisan, 1998). 'Their image of a knitter was an old woman with a shawl and a rocking chair, and they didn't want to be that. Now, because we have a greater range of choices, younger women's perspectives have changed. Most knitters I know would love to be like those old women, to have time to sit in a rocking chair and knit.'

With knitting's increased popularity comes thorny questions: Is it kosher to bring my yarn on a date? (A movie, maybe, but you'll likely drop stitches at a disco.) Can I knit during a business meeting? Hyperactive exercise guru Susan Powter, who exhorted the world to Stop the Insanity, hauls her knitting projects to meetings with Hollywood executives. 'If they complain, I tell them, 'I listen better when I'm knitting, and you're lucky I brought it with me or I'd probably be ignoring you right now,' ' she says.

Knitting groups ? women who gather to trade patterns, talk, and knit--have been popping up everywhere, according to Wigginton. 'People tell me they have some of the best conversations while they're working on a project,' she says. 'It's a great activity to get your mind going.' Her organization, founded in 1984, now boasts 180 chapters nationwide and more than 11,000 members. It sponsors the popular three-level Master Knitting program, a correspondence course that grades a knitter's skill. Would-be masters produce sample swatches of specific patterns, following carefully worded instructions. Master Knitting Committee members return subpar work or reward correctly completed samples with advancement to the next level.

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