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Knitting retreats weave together tourists' passions for travel, technique

Men attend a knitting retreat.

Knitters of all countries, ages, genders and favourite needle shapes will travel great lengths to pursue and perfect their favourite hobby. Meet the designers and knitters at the forefront of a growing trend of retreats

If ktog, p2, kfb or skp are undecipherable jargon to your ears, the name Hélène Magnusson probably rings no bell. But if your spare time revolves around a ball of merino and knitting needles, the prospect of being guided by one of the knitting world's biggest names on an Icelandic journey that includes a swim in a blue lagoon, an encounter with friendly cashmere goats or a walk in a lava field covered with spongy moss might just resemble Nirvana.

"The knitting tradition is big in Iceland. But when tourists come here, they don't get to meet Icelanders," Magnusson says, speaking by Skype from her home in Reykjavik. Since 2010, Magnusson has guided groups of yarn pilgrims on knitting and hiking tours that fill her calendar from May to November. On her tours, she takes visitors inside the studios of local yarn dyers and spinners while providing expert knitting instruction in workshops.

"I used to own a mountain-guide business and a knitting business, years before tourism exploded in Iceland," Magnusson says. "I had the idea of putting these together, and creating retreats with a sportive element, that would attract younger people."

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Although the combination of knitting and holiday time might at first appear to represent a niche tourism market, retreat organizers have been overwhelmed by demand for such excursions in recent years. The confluence of more millennials, social media and arrival of bona fide knitting rock stars have pushed the needles-and-yarn craft to mainstream leisure-activity status.

Magnusson is just one of several eminent knitting names willing to share their talent, and native culture, with knit aspirants from all over the world. Many of her current fans discovered her through her Instagram account – she has nearly 14,000 followers – on which she often models her own handmade creations. On her website, icelandicknitter.com, Magnusson sells knitting implements and patterns and yarn and promotes her workshops and tours.

An ex-lawyer from France, Magnusson moved to Iceland 20 years ago and says she conceived her tours to help keep her adopted country's knitting traditions alive. "I notice people are really interested in learning new techniques and skills," she says. "Sometimes I explore sweaters, lace, mittens. You don't have to knit very well to join the tour. I've had people, beginners and advanced, from 18 to 65. They come from everywhere in the world."

Amongst knitting travellers, the green pastures of Ireland are also enjoying a moment in the sun. Carol Feller, a well-known Irish knitter based in Cork, also runs retreats for knit aficionados. The six-night Southwest Ireland Knitting Retreat begins in Dublin with a visit to the Constant Knitter knitting shop, followed by a trip south to Kerry, where Feller helms a four-day workshop at the Parknasilla Resort Hotel instructing adherents on the proper way to create seamless cables and short rows and perfect their grafting techniques. (irishtourism.com/knitting)

Carol Feller, a well-known Irish knitter based in Cork, runs knitting retreats and workshops, and is the feature attraction on Holland American Line’s Canada and New England knitting cruise.

"For years, knitting was purely functional here in Ireland, a life necessity," she says. "Nobody would spend on nice yarn. It's only the new generation of knitters who invest time and money to learn techniques."

Feller, who has written five books on knitting, is also the feature attraction on Holland American Line's Canada and New England Knitting Cruise. The voyage departs from Montreal in May, with stops in Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Maine, all while Feller conducts on-board tutorials to help knit neophytes hone their needle craft.

"I've never been on a cruise before, so this is very exciting for me," says Feller, who also employs Instagram, Facebook and other social-media modalities to showcase her designs. "I'm going to teach a series of techniques. Several people who took part in the Irish retreat I led contacted me, especially to book the cruise." (craftcruises.com)

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In the same vein, Arne Nerjordet and Carlos Zachrison – arguably the biggest current names in the knitting world – host their own cruise in their Norwegian homeland. In recent years, the charismatic duo have become world famous for their bestselling books, including Easter Knits and 55 Christmas Balls to Knit, and frequent appearances on TV talk shows. Their twice-a-year cruise excursion (prices start at US$1,960) offers seven days aboard the well-appointed steamer MS Finnmarken, with the pair hosting workshops while serving as tour guides on stops from Bergen to Kirkenes. The itinerary includes a behind-the-scenes tour of Rauma Ullvarefabrikk, one of Norway's most iconic yarn factories. (reisecompaniet.no)

Closer to home, for the past two years, Amélie Blanchard has organized knitting retreats in several Québec locales, including the Laurentians, as a complement to the fibre festival TWIST that she puts on each August in the scenic municipality of Saint-André-Avellin. Blanchard's spring and fall weekend retreats, most often held in cozy hotels such as Le Domaine Saint-Bernard or Le Manoir Montpellier, have quickly become sought-after holiday destinations amongst lovers of knitting, weaving and felting.

"We've had up to 80 people joining our retreats. They are opportunities for people of the community, to understand what others are doing. Knitters, for instance, don't always get the work of spinners, and vice versa," says Blanchard, who produces cashmere wool on her Outaouais farm.

Blanchard's next knitting retreat, scheduled for late April in the town of Lac-Simon, promises to be a crafters smorgasbord. The surprisingly affordable retreat (costs range between $425 and $650) offers a three-day program that includes an intro to fabric dying, a course on making a Shetland lace shawl and an ecoprint workshop. Guests also have the option of visiting the private beach at nearby Viceroy Lake and free access to the hotel's hot and cold spas. "Knitters of all levels can attend," Blanchard says. (festivaltwist.org)

Also likely on the radar of savvy knitting travellers: Elizabeth Zimmermann's annual knitting camps in Marshfield, Wisc. (schoolhousepress.com/camps). This summer will mark the 45th year of the program started by Zimmerman in consort with the University of Wisconsin. Her daughter, Meg Swansen, has run the program and knitting workshops in recent years, but with only four weekend sessions in July, it's wise to sign up early.

"I think you have to play a sort of lottery to get in," says Joe Wilcox, an amateur knitter who started to organize men-only knitting retreats a decade ago. (interweave.com)

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Joe Wilcox organizes two knitting retreats a year.

These days, Wilcox, who also runs his own YouTube channel devoted to the knitting arts, produces two retreats a year. His next event is scheduled for May at the Easton Mountain Retreat in upstate New York and will feature a workshop on shadow knitting and an introduction to the fine art of crochet. Some of the regular attendees include a computer expert, a psychiatrist and a blogger.

"I remember the first year we organized the retreat," Wilcox says. "Some of the guys were very quiet and introverted and looked like they weren't enjoying themselves. But they kept coming back. The third year, I asked one of them … He said he loved the retreat, because it was a place where he could open up and enjoy other people."

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