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Knitting factories

'Stitch 'n' Bitch' sessions create tightknit groups

Do you know how to smuggle knitting needles through airport security? Or how long you should date someone before knitting him (or her) a sweater, to avoid jinxing the relationship? No?

Well, a new generation of knitters is weighing in on such topics in coffee shops and bookstore basements, and bringing a good dose of humor to their obsession as they do. And they are obsessed.

They're not dilettantes who picked up needles because confessed knitters Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah did it first. They've been at it awhile, and they tend to knit everywhere: on the T, in school, at work, on the beach, in nightclubs, at jury duty, and increasingly, at weekly social gatherings devoted to knitting.

And if you think these assemblies are like your grandmother's quilting group, think again. These knitters bring a new, irreverent playfulness to an old-fashioned craft, best exemplified by the groups christened Stitch 'n' Bitch. First started in New York City by Debbie Stoller, cofounder and editor of the spirited feminist magazine Bust, these groups have since spread nationwide and led Stoller to write "Stitch 'n' Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook," which includes patterns for skimpy bikinis and trendy purses.

Knitters in Your Neighborhood

If there could be a local poster child for the new knitter, it might be Gillian Schilke. The 23-year-old Museum of Fine Arts School student rediscovered her childhood hobby during a Knitting for Artists class, and now she takes her knitting everywhere. She attends knitting groups several nights a week (including one she started at the Trident bookstore and cafe) and knits in class, at work, and at clubs while watching her boyfriend's band play. "I'm such a knit nerd," she said at the Trident Cafe group she started on Thursday nights. "I know way too much about knitting."

Groups like the one Schilke started offer informal support for devotees to a hobby that many still see as matronly or square, no matter how popular it becomes. At the Knitsmiths group at the Brookline Booksmith on Sundays, a dozen female knitters as young as 20-something to as old as 70-something, swap the joys and frustrations of a hobby that is more engrossing and labor intensive than most people realize, along with the patterns from which they make sweaters, teddy bears, and baby hats.

They have reason to commiserate: this is a hobby that is more engrossing and labor intensive than many people realize. Even though they find their craft relaxing, most knitters have a perfectionist streak that could have them ripping out rows of stitches if they see a mistake. "I'm just an old fuss pot," Mary Linda Foxhall, 73 and a painter from Brookline, said one Sunday recently as she undid several rows in order to redo a misshapen stitch in a scarf.

"I knit on the T," said Tanya Gray, 36 and an accountant from Jamaica Plain, on a recent Sunday. "They must think I'm the biggest freak. I never see other people do it."

She wasn't an oddity at Knitsmiths. She was among friends, who freely shared anecdotes of obsession, like tales of smuggling bamboo needles aboard airplanes, disguised as hair clips. They also offered a few triumphant tales, like Kimberly Tucker's story about turning a quick profit during a hair appointment. The 27-year-old production planner from Amesbury sold a fuzzy scarf she was knitting to another salon customer, turning $15 of supplies into an $80 sale.

Tucker, who has driven an hour to the Sunday group since taking up knitting six months ago, describes herself as a "minor obsessive" when it comes to her craft. So the topic of hobby budgets had already come up with her beau. "Every boat dollar he spends, that's a yarn dollar for me," she said, laughing.

The groups have the air of a girls' gab session, where fiances, babies, and exes are hashed out. "It's a great time, like getting together with the girls every week, but you're knitting, too," said Lucy Lee, 43, a former elementary school band teacher who holds Wednesday night groups at her Porter Square store, Mind's Eye Yarns. "I actually met most of my dear friends here through my knitting group."

When she knits in public by herself, Schilke sometimes finds herself at the center of the attention. "I've gotten a lot of compliments on it. People are really interested when they see me out knitting. A lot of people ask questions."

Knitting know-how

On a practical level, the groups serve as a freewheeling collaborative effort. Knitters of all levels turn up, so participants often answer questions for one another and interpret patterns. They offer solutions to tricky knit items such as socks. Lee charges a small fee for her group and offers expertise if you knit yourself into a corner. "One of the advantages of coming to Stitch 'n' Bitch is that you really learn a lot of techniques," Schilke said.

Martha Spizziri, 43, a freelance editor and Web site designer from Somerville, originally started knitting in her 20's because she wanted to recreate the fuzzy, loose-knit sweaters that British punk rockers like Johnny Rotten sported in the late '70s. After attending Boston's first Tuesday night Stitch 'n' Bitch group in 2002, Spizziri decided local knitters needed an online community. Her blog has information about classes, social groups, yarn stores, and an active message board. The website's 285 members, 30 of whom joined last month, post daily messages that offer tips about yarn sales, new stores, and upcoming craft fairs, and touch base about who is attending which groups.

They're in the minority, it seems, but a handful of knitters are men. charles Lager-Frueh, 46, a software developer from Somerville, attends a Sunday night Stitch 'n' Bitch. He thinks of himself as a rock 'n' roller more than a knitter, with his long hair and black leather motorcycle jacket. He taught himself to knit by reading "Knitting for Dummies" last year. "I didn't know I was sort of crashing a circle of peopel who already had their thing for a number of reasons," he said about Stitch 'n' Bitch. "They had more experience, and second, the gender thing. Even the name Stitch 'n' Bitch is funny. Guys would never say they're sitting around bitching."

I Knit, Therefore I Am. . .

Knitting is more than a social hobby, though. Some enjoy knitting in front of the TV as much as they do with a group, because it helps them unwind. "The repetitiveness of it is very soothing," Lee said.

For others, like Schilke, the craft is a form of artistic expression. Even more than that, it's useful art, according to Belinda Morse, a graphic designer who attends groups several nights a week and enjoys knitting because it combines the creativity of her art school background with the practicality that led to her first career as a landscape architect. "Art is about expressing yourself, but I like to make things people can use," she said.

And there are those, like Stitch 'n' Bitch's founder, Stoller, who see knitting as an almost political act, because they are reclaiming an area of "women's work" for themselves. "I think it's a reaction for women of my generation against the previous generation, who rejected a lot of these things," said Doria Hughes, a 29-year-old teacher at Harvard's extension school, who attends the Mind's Eye group with her 3-year-old daughter.

Others enjoy giving friends and family handmade gifts. Of course, this is more dangerous than it may seem. "You've got to be careful with people and only knit for those who will appreciate it," Lee said. "It's a horrendous amount of work."

Which leads to that mysterious "Boyfriend Sweater" rule: Don't knit a sweater for your boyfriend until you have dated him for three years. Or be sure to knit a sweater that fits you both, and then retain custody of it if you break up. (Of course this rule applies to girlfriends or anyone who might someday break your heart.)

Even smaller romantic gifts can cause problems. At the Trident group, Joanne Beauchamp, a paralegal from Boston, recounted the story of knitting a scarf for her boyfriend with less than satisfactory results. She overestimated his size and knit a gargantuan piece of yarn work. "I thought it was going to turn out better," she said. "But I couldn't stand the thought of taking it apart." So she gave him the scarf as it was and admits that she doesn't see him wear it that often.

Her fellow knitters understood and offered a practical solution: Knit the scarf into a tube so that it's not as wide and has the advantage of being a double layer of yarn. "It'd be really warm, if you think about it," Schilke said. "It would be double-thick."

Knitting 101

If you are entranced by the vision of knitting up one-of-a-kind gifts for family members or drifting off in a Zen reverie as your needles click, a variety of local classes and workshops can help get you started. Beginner books also offer instructions. Or get advice on what supplies you'll need from a local yarn store and bring your yarn and needles to a local group. Undoubtedly, someone there will be eager to share their obsession. But before you join their ranks, there are a few things you should know about knitters in order to blend in.

They will travel far afield for yarn sales and new patterns and yarns, but generally remain loyal to the store where they first encountered a particularly friendly employee when they started out. "I find myself super faithful to A Good Yarn, to the point where I almost feel guilty if I don't go there," Schilke said. "They're so helpful."

Knitters also tend to hold grudges against stores where they have received the cold shoulder, which is apparently more common than you might except. No one wanted to name names, but most group members agreed that knitting store employees can lack patience when faced with indecisive customers. "There isn't a yarn store that exists that no one has had a problem with," said Emily Humphrey, a graduate student in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard who attends Knitsmiths.

The smaller the needles you use, the more respect you'll earn from your fellow knitters, because small needles make small stitches, which take more time and make extra details possible in your work. As for trendy knitting books, "All their projects are size 9 and higher," Morse said. "Some of their bulkier ones are one stitch per inch, which is huge."

No matter how big your needles, where you knit, or why, there's no questioning the satisfaction of completing a project and having something beautiful to show for all that work. "You can be as productive as hell at work and have nothing physical to show for it," Schilke said. "With knitting, you can see the results."

That's the real pleasure for knitters, most of whom laughed about finding themselves newly trendy. "Usually, I'm so not hip that I don't even bother trying, 'cause it just ain't gonna happen," Lee said.

Gillian Schilke and Belinda Morse knit as they listen to the Kelly Riley Band at Plough & Stars in Cambridge. Gillian Schilke and Belinda Morse knit as they listen to the Kelly Riley Band at Plough & Stars in Cambridge. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)
Gabriel Brandt learns to knit at a group that meets every Sunday at Brookline Booksmith. Gabriel Brandt learns to knit at a group that meets every Sunday at Brookline Booksmith. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Ellement)
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