Friday 28 July 2017

Guess what gladiator Russell does after a hard day killing the lions?

Knit one purl two. Movie hardmen like Russell Crowe are taking the knitting world by storm. ANNE DEMPSEY relates a ripping Hollywood yarn

Guess where you're likely to find Julia Roberts on one of her many visits to Dublin? The Pod? Lillies Bordello?

No, it will be among the double-knits and embroidery threads in Needlecraft, Dawson Street, one of Ireland's oldest knitting and craft suppliers.

"Julia pops in all the time," says co-owner Breed Flavin. "She would be the most frequent of the big stars. She's gas, very funny, with a great laugh.

"Many film and television actors are into knitting and crafts these days, as there is so much sitting around to do in their business. Anjelica Houston is big into the tapestry, we get the people from Fair City here too, and fashion designer Lainey Keogh is in and out all the time. You could say Lainey has led the way here in the new knitting revival."

Casting-on, it seems, is the new rock 'n' roll. Between perfecting her gum-chewing drawl on the set of Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts was practising her garter-and-stocking stitch. "Knitting takes the edge off the waiting on when you're on set," she says. "Whenever I go on location, the first thing I do is find a place that has knitting things."

She claims to have knitted whole sets of curtains while filming, which sounds like a lot of out-takes. Charlie's Angel's star Cameron Diaz caught the bug from Julia on the set of My Best Friend's Wedding.

The crafty duo are part of a new Hollywood cottage industry which includes Uma Thurman, Naomi Campbell, Daryl Hannah, Winona Ryder, Goldie Hawn and Julianne Moore. With that line-up it's not so much a case of plain and purl as pure designer knockout.

And it's not just the women who are doing it either. Take Russell Crowe, two pointy sticks and a bit of sheep; put them all together and what do you get? A lamb kebab? No, try a woolly jumper.

Strange as it may seem, Australia's most prominent movie hardman likes nothing better than to trade his gladiator's sword for a pair of needles and a length of quality yarn and get creative.

But while knitting has become the hip new thing to do with a needle, it's not just celebrities who are leaping on the two-ply bandwagon. Time magazine estimates that around four million Americans took up knitting last year and this month's Vanity Fair pinned up knitting clubs as one of the 'in' happenings.

The appeal has a lot to do with the growing popularity of knitwear itself. A few years ago, lumpy jumpers were strictly the preserve of middle-aged, cuddly (read fat) TV presenters. They were everywhere, but mainly on the wrong people. Now, thanks to designers like Julien MacDonald, Donna Karan, and Ireland's Lainey Keogh and Deirdre Fitzgerald, knitwear is back on the catwalk and high street in all its ribbed and (Kate) moss stitch glory.

Young, professional, urban knitting is thriving in Ireland too, which means business is booming in specialist stores like Needlecraft, run by the Flavin family for over 70 years. "Today's knitter is likely to be young, single, wanting to create something beautiful and fashionable," says Breed Flavin. "They go for pure silk four-ply or pure cashmere at £14.45 a ball. They work in linens and cotton, none of your synthetic rubbish, and make something very sophisticated like a sleeveless summer top, or a fashionable roll-neck.

"This season's knitting colours are natural shades like camel, or the wines and petal shades, because pink is in as well as powder blue and turquoise, when you can get it.

"They say they want to do something with their hands if they are looking at television or going on holiday. It's a lifestyle thing. It's as if they have a conscience about doing nothing we're always busier coming up to the summer holidays and bank holiday weekends."

Today's brigade of home-knitters are not doing it to save money, as would have been the case in the past. "People don't knit for economic reasons anymore. A home-knit cashmere sweater can cost £150-plus. They do it because they enjoy it, and because they want something beautiful and lasting.

'I've knitted in silk myself beautiful to work with and enduring. I gave it a bit of hardship, washed it, threw it into the back of the wardrobe and it came out good as new."

Knitting classes in the VECs were full last autumn and a good take-up is also expected this year. Needlecraft also sells starter kits, knitting instruction books and dispenses advice.

"People bring in their knitting all the time," says Breed Flavin. "I'd say, 'Give it over here', and we'd have a look and see what the problem is. Many patterns suggest you do a tension square as a test-piece before starting a garment. This is essential and could save you a fortune in wrong sizing. We all knit differently; some people are tight knitters and need bigger needles than it says in the pattern."

The philosophers among us might say that knitting is an attempt by the current generation to fulfil a creative need not otherwise being met. A decade or two ago, these twenty and thirtysomethings would have been fashioning children rather than cable-stitch, and would have had their hands full of small people instead of balls.

It's not surprising, really, that the Knitting Guild of America has its own (very American) theory on the growing trend for clacking needles. "Knitting is cheaper than therapy and you get to wear the results!" it trumpets.

It's rumoured that Russell Crowe has an explosive temper. We shall be watching his jumpers with interest.

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