Spinning a good yarn: What really goes on at a knitting circle?
So-called 'stitch 'n' bitch' groups are enjoying a renaissance, and their newfound popularity is as much about the social aspect as it is about crafting. Our rookie casts on
On a quiet night in Booterstown, the ladies of the Winnie's Craft Cafe knitting group gather for their weekly meeting. To some, mostly male, sceptics, knitting may seem just about the most boring pastime conceivable.
But this recession-friendly hobby has never been more in vogue. In the past decade, so-called stitch 'n' bitch groups have popped up all over the country.
With the biggest ever Knitting & Stitching Show about to arrive in the RDS, Dublin tomorrow, I decided to join a knitting circle to find out what us non-knitters are missing. The answer it turns out, in this case at least, is coffee, apple tart and a very warm welcome.
"Can you knit?", cafe owner Marina Hand asks, just a tad optimistically, when I arrive. There's no point lying to the lady. I can barely tie my shoelaces, I tell her.
Looking around the table, the first thing I notice is that knitting needles come in a mindboggling variety of shapes and sizes. To my left, Geraldine, is working on a child's cardigan, tapping away 19 to the dozen, deploying a tiny pair of plastic needles, attached together by a piece of wire, which she wields with surgical precision.
This, she tells me, is called knitting in the round.
To my right, Celeste is using a hook to create a crochet blanket. What, I ask her, is the difference between knitting and crochet?
"Knitting is knitting," she replies. "And crochet is crochet." Thank you, Celeste. That's a big help. She laughs and elaborates. I nod and smile, feigning comprehension.
Further down, Vicky, from Devon, is a professional costume maker at the Abbey Theatre. (The group once went on a field trip together to a play at the Abbey, just to see one of the actors wear a hat she'd knitted.)
Vicky is doing some Zen-level stitching here, using four tiny wooden needles to form a sort of quadrangle of, and threading together some heavy-looking darn. Her technique is so next-level, I don't even bother asking.
Next to her Monique, a chic, older French lady, knits with an incredibly long pair of stainless steel blades. If this were an Agatha Christie novel, I suspect, Monique's needles would end up being the murder weapon. But she's knitting a scarf, using a pattern from a copy of Marie Claire.
Alas, it appears Monique may have gotten her dimensions wrong. She holds up the piece she's working on. It's a fetching scarf, with stripes at either end. But it's only a couple of feet long. Monique feels like it should possibly be longer. But she knows that, if she extends it, the stripes on either end will no longer be symmetrical.
"Is this scarf long enough for a nine-year-old boy?" she asks the group. Just once, even I know the answer to the question. Not unless his name is feckin' Tom Thumb, I'm tempted to reply.
Geraldine is a young Dubliner, and a Liverpool supporter. She formulates a more diplomatic response than I can muster. Outside of this room, she and Monique possibly wouldn't have a whole lot in common. But in this room they are comrades, simpaticos.
Geraldine suggests Monique knits the scarf twice as long, and stitch a third set of stripes at the end for symmetry. Celeste agrees. "It's never a mistake," she smiles. "It's always a feature."
For my part, the ladies have me working with what resemble a pair of wooden drumsticks. I'm guessing these are remedial knitting needles. Marina is kind enough to offer me some pointers. But after a mediocre start, things go rapidly downhill. In footballing terms, you might say I've got two left feet.
Seated at my left-hand shoulder, Marina does her best to keep me on the straight and narrow. "In through the bunnyhole," she counsels. "Run around the tree. Out through the bunnyhole and out goes she." Hmm, I wonder could she possibly repeat that in English?
"It was all going well," I tell her. "But then it all turned to..."
I pause, reminding myself that we're not on a football field.
"Things haven't quite worked out," I offer instead.
I notice Geraldine is able to knit without even watching what she's doing. This must make knitting quite adaptable a hobby. The ladies agree. You can knit while watching TV, they explain. Knit at the cinema. Can you knit at the theatre, I wonder? "That has been known to happen," Marina smiles.
Jackie recently visited the Imperial War Museum in London. Apparently, women knitted their way through the Blitz in air raid shelters. I mention Les Tricoteuse, those women who, during the French Revolution, sat in the front rows knitting while the French aristocracy were being executed.
"Oh no," laughs Jackie. "I wouldn't sit in the front row. I wouldn't want blood splattered on my yarn."
Jackie says that when her mother died, the knitting group was a tremendous source of support for her.
"We've all come in here with traumas or disasters," she says. "Almost always, someone else in the group has experienced the same thing and, by putting our heads together, we're able to come up with a solution."
Are we still talking about knitting? Yes, she laughs. She mentions a mishap she once had while attempting, on her own at home, to knit a sock for the first time. She brought the problem to the group.
"The girls were sitting there when I arrived. I came up and asked 'Am I using the right stitch?' Anne just smiled and said 'Oh, God love you pet. We'll fix that for you'.
"I had spent the whole week with the tongue stuck out the side of my mouth. Suddenly, a problem that seemed so complicated, was just totally solvable."
None of the ladies are wearing anything they've knitted. They prefer to offer their knitting as gifts for people. And, if one was to be a little mean spirited and unkind, you might note that the people they knit for are often those who are least in a position to refuse: babies, coworkers' nameless nieces and nephews, the homeless, and even corpses.
The ladies don't seem unduly bothered by that suggestion. Knitting is therapeutic, Marina says. She compares it to golf or Sudoku, noting that at least at the end the ladies have something to show for it when they're done.
What, I ask, was the biggest project any of them ever attempted? A five-foot by five-foot shawl Jackie created inspired by Jules Verne's Around The World in Eighty Days, is the consensus.
The design spiralled outward, charting the route traversed by Phileas Fogg and co. Big Ben was at the centre, followed by the Eiffel Tower, pyramids, Indian-inspired patterns, cherry blossoms from Japan and the Stars and Stripes.
"It was a work of insanity," Jackie smiles. "It took just under a year to knit."
So what became of it, I ask? "I think I wore it once or twice," she laughs. "Now it's sitting in a drawer."
The Knitting & Stitching Show opens tomorrow at the RDS, Dublin, and runs until Sunday, November 15. For more information see www.theknittingandstitchingshow.com/Dublin