Knitting – once considered a necessary cost-saving domestic chore, a sign of sedentary dotage (something only for grannies) and an activity to keep women's hands busy lest their pretty heads entertain too many revolutionary thoughts – is casting off its cultural baggage.
These days, knitting has become a DIY fashion statement, community activity, educational device, health-care tool (the "new yoga") and new form of urban graffiti. (Okay, that last one has to be explained right away: Yarnbombing is an underground global movement by people calling themselves "guerrilla knitters." They cover items such as buses, parking meters, telephone poles, trees, doors, benches – anything in the public realm – with colourful yarn as an act of feel-good community coziness. In fact, International Yarnbombing Day, an annual event, was started by Joann Matvichuk, a knitter and crocheter from Lethbridge, Alta., on June 11, 2011.)
"It's about bloody time," Kaffe Fassett, the celebrated American-born textile artist, laughs about the resurgence of interest in knitting. "It has taken people a long time," he adds over the phone from his studio in London, England, "to appreciate that sitting down and rubbing two sticks together with a string of yarn between them not only creates something beautiful and truly creative, but is one of the most life-enhancing activities around. It just makes you feel good." Fassett, 76, is the author of more than 30 books on quilting, knitting and embroidery; his work in those media has been exhibited around the world. Fassett has knit "everything from the tiniest little scarf for a teddy bear to huge hand-knit drapes featuring colourful fantasy maps of the world." Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen and Princess Michael of Kent are a few of the people who have commissioned custom-knit clothing from him.
For Fassett, knitting is "playing with colour," something that many avid knitters describe as an addiction. "Oh, I'm going cold sheep in the New Year!" avows Minusha Gorman, pattern co-ordinator at Spinrite Yarns in Toronto. "I'm not buying any more yarn until I knit my stash," she says, adding that she has "a couple of thousand dollars' worth of yarn" in her home because she falls in love with the rich colours and textures. The rise of high-end yarn producers, such as Malabrigo from Uruguay, Hedgehog Fibres from Ireland and Wool and the Gang in England, have helped create "yarn snobs," Gorman notes. Social media has also knit together a tight craft community. Ravelry is a Facebook-like network for knitters. Pinterest allows people to share their creations. "There is a really active knitting culture," she says, mentioning shops, such as Toronto-based Creative Yarns, that have become community hubs for women of all ages. News that Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz reportedly knit on the sets of their movies has also helped to give the craft a funky, youthful appeal.
Gorman, who is a 37-year-old mother of one, began seriously knitting about six years ago, when she wanted to make something special for a friend who was having a baby. She had grown up, she says, to "the comforting clicking sound of my mother's needles" and was taught to knit in school at the age of 5. But she had stopped. Soon after finishing a baby blanket for her friend, Gorman began organizing "knit nights. It's now a big part of my life," she says. "People are going back to these old activities because everyone wants to be able to create something with their two hands. You are valuing the time it takes to make something." Consequently, people have to be "knitworthy" for Gorman to create a handknit Christmas present for them. (This year, there are only two on her list: her sister and her mother.)
For other women, knitting means time-out from a busy schedule. "It's an excuse to sit still," explains Nora Cotterill, a Toronto mother of four who knits for fun and on commission. "It is so relaxing, and I can do it with everyone around or watching TV at the end of the day."
Indeed, the health-enhancing properties of knitting are now being proven scientifically. "When I first started my work, I said I was doing bilateral, rhythmic, psycho-social intervention," says Betsan Corkhill, an activity and wellness coach in Bath, England who started Stitchlinks, an organization devoted to developing a global network of therapeutic knitting groups in hospitals, schools and communities. "If I said I was studying the neuroscience of knitting, people would fall over backward," she says on the phone. Corkhill, a former physiotherapist, began seeing "large anecdotal evidence" of the calming, meditative effect of knitting in letters from readers when she worked for a craft magazine. She went on to co-author a study published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy in which 47 per cent of the respondents said that knitting "usually" or "definitely" helped them think through problems, 37 per cent reported that it helped them to forget problems, 39 per cent believed that it helped them organize their thoughts and 61 per cent said that it helped them concentrate. A doctoral student at Exeter University in Britain, Corkhill adds, recently received government funding for a three-year study of knitting groups, using her research findings as part of the proposal. "I have seen how knitting helps people with stress problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and pain. But it's not just for people with problems. It's a great, portable preventative tool."
In the classroom, knitting is also coming back into vogue. I remember being taught to knit the year my family lived in Switzerland. I was 6 and, using four small needles, I knit a small sock – not a simple thing: It involved dexterity, concentration and a few math skills. Last year, Cayleigh Murtaugh, a teacher (currently on maternity leave) at the Sterling Hall School, a private school for boys in Toronto, began a knitting club for boys aged 7 and 8. "It was voluntary. But they were intrigued. They would even stay in from recess. We didn't do any formal studies, but I do think the focused work with the hands does help boys. And I had some hyper boys. It was a nice break, and it gave them a great sense of accomplishment."
Maybe our grandmothers knew something we didn't – until now.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites