Bubbe's hobby turns hip as Jewish college girls and young career women discover that taking up yarn and needles provides both tangible and intangible rewards.
By Robin K. Levinson
It's not to attend services. Or to meet guys or to buy kosher food. Some Jewish college students are setting foot in their campus Hillel for the first time—to knit. They're hooked on one of the hottest hobbies among young women today. Yes, knitting is cool again.
Knit 1, purl 2 and its variations haven't changed too radically over the centuries. But other aspects of the handicraft have changed, including knitter demographics, the scope of hand-knit garments being made, and the wall hangings, iPod cozies, pocketbooks and other eye-catching objects dropping off knitting needles these days. Helping fuel the trend are the stunning array of yarns that have emerged over the last five years—and, of course, the Internet.
The seminal 2004 book Stitch 'n Bitch and its sequels have spurred the formation of hundreds of new-wave knittingcircles around the country and the world. With names like the Stitchin' Chicks, the groups are attracting young women who are boldly unraveling the stereotype of bubbe knitting baby booties in her rocking chair. Keying into its meditative quality, some people have dubbed knitting "the new yoga."
Taos, N.M., knitter and mortgage broker Nancy Diamond creates decorative totem poles made of knitted pieces patched onto PVC pipe.
Hip Knits! 65 Easy Designs From Hot Designers is among several recently published books that cater to the younger set. The Internet is a networking nexus for knitters who need information, instruction, inspiration, self-expression or people with whom to knit. Knitting blogs abound. If you're too busy to peruse your local yarn shop, you can order any conceivable knitting supply online. You can also order a sexy "Born to Knit Jr." spaghetti tank ($17.99) sporting a skull with knitting-needle crossbones. Move over, Bruce Springsteen.
The popularity of knitting among younger generations has always waxed and waned, but the current surge of interest is particularly robust, surveys show. Since 2002, the percentage of female knitters under age 34 in the United States has more than doubled, according to the Craft Yarn Council of America (CYCA). Nationwide, it's estimated there are more than 38 million knitters, 4 million of whom are relative newbies.
The reinvention of knitting's image from stodgy to chic got a major boost from Stitch 'n Bitch author Debbie Stoller, editor-in-chief of the third-wave feminist magazine BUST. With the battle cry "Take back the knit!," Stoller's edgy, how-to volume and its spinoffs have given knitting a whole new attitude.
Rabbi Batsheva Appel shows off the sweater that was nominated for Best in Show at the Middletown Grange Fair in Bucks County, Pa.
"That book had a lot to do with why one girl, who never came to Hillel before, came to our first Stitch 'n Bitch circle" formed last spring, says Sarah Hefter, 22, an outreach specialist for the University of Maryland Hillel. "She brought in the book, which shows how to knit a bikini. But this girl was making a hooded sweatshirt, which is pretty intense."
College-age knitters have, of course, existed since universities began admitting women, but until recently, it was unusual to see people pulling out knitting needles in the quad, classroom or campus pub. According to Stoller, knitting was condemned by the early feminists as "part of women's societal obligation to serve everyone around them." But in criticizing the craft, she writes, "They had forgotten that knitting served the knitter, as well."
"In a fast-paced, highly scheduled world, the opportunity to take a lunch break or an evening and just knit—with real conversation—is very welcome," says Cheryl Brandsen, Ph.D., who teaches a course called "Knitting: Creativity, Community and Social Support" at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Knitting in a group is a great way to break down class and ethnic barriers," observes Brandsen, chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Calvin.
"When you knit in community groups, you get all kinds of people who come together—people who might not ordinarily encounter each other, much less talk with each other.
"In a recent knitting group I was in, the conversation ranged from globalization to caring for frail elderly parents, to a recent trip to visit an AIDS orphanage in Africa, to kids going back to school before Labor Day, to a pending divorce, a child in jail, a new career move, a young girl worried about starting middle school, and an older woman worried about her dying spouse."
One woman, recovering from a recent crisis, described knitting as a metaphor for her life, Brandsen continues. "You drop stitches, things unravel a few rows, and yet you keep going, and you keep finding ways to bring the disparate pieces together."
Knitting blends seamlessly into all sorts of settings. Jewish study is no exception. The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle offers a class called "Knitting by Torah," which looks at "a differentcolorful concept" in the text as the students knit their projects.
Batsheva Appel, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, N.J., almost never attends a temple meeting without her knitting bag in tow. "Knitting helps me pay attention, focus and think before I speak," she explains.
Everything from clothing to wall hangings to iPod cozies are dropping off of knitting needles these days.
Appel learned to knit from a college roommate who could knit and read at the same time. Appel's first project was a teal-colored sweater. She finished it in 1982 and has been knitting up a storm ever since. Two years ago, she entered four of her pieces in the Middletown Grange Fair in Bucks County, Pa., and won four blue ribbons. One of her entries—a bright, multicolored wool cardigan—was also nominated for Best in Show.
For the past few years, Appel has facilitated a popular crafters chavurah (friendship group), composed mostly of knitters, that meets monthly at her synagogue. Last March, when Beth Chaim played host to a regional kallah for the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), Appel marveled at the overwhelming response to the knitting workshop: 23 teenage girls and three boys.
In addition to meetings and synagogues, young women (and the occasional man) have been seen knitting on trains and buses, during kids' soccer practices and Little League games, while talking on the phone, in waiting rooms, at bars, in employee break rooms, in restaurants—even at red lights. Unless you're a rank novice or working from a particularly complicated pattern, knitting can be meditative, soothing, stress-reducing, and enormously satisfying, fans say.
About five years ago, Nancy Diamond's mother visited her in Taos, N.M., and spent quite a bit of time knitting. A Connecticut native, Diamond hadn't touched a knitting needle since her futile childhood attempts to learn to knit.
"For some reason—it was just a God thing—I picked up what remnants of yarn she left behind, and I remembered how to cast on," Diamond recalls. "All of a sudden, what was very frustrating for me as kid became very meditative as adult. And I found that I loved it."
Knitters concerned about social justice issues find "there are wonderful ways to support emerging economies in some Third World villages where women make and dye the wool themselves and, in the process, are able to better support their families," Brandsen says.
Charitable knitting is a recurrent motif throughout the Jewish world. Beth Chaim's knitters have made sweaters, hats, scarves and baby blankets for charitable organizations. At a NFTY workshop, teens created square blocks that were made into quilts and donated to the needy. At Wellesley College Hillel, knitters make baby clothes for area hospitals.
Another effort, aptly named the Knitzvah Project, was initiated in summer 2004 by Amy C. Westfeldt, Boulder campaign/outreach manager for the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. She borrowed the term "knitzvah" from a girl who had knitted for charity as a bat mitzvah project. About 60 women are on Westfeldt's Knitzvah email list, and the group meets every few months. Her knitters are 35 and older, including a couple in their 70s.
Knitzvah knitters have knitted hats for frail, elderly Jews in Boulder, the former Soviet Union and Israel, as well as for babies in Argentina, when the country's economy collapsed a few years ago. Another organization, Project Valentine, recently began adding the Knitzvah hats to its care packages for chemotherapy patients. Attached to each hat is a tag that reads: "This warm and fuzzy was lovingly created by the Boulder Women's Center of the Allied Jewish Federation."
Westfeldt tells of one Knitzvah master knitter who, while teaching at a Denver library, asked participants why they came to her knitting class. "One woman had received one of our hats through Project Valentine. She was a three-time cancer survivor and was actually fighting cancer again. She said she came to class because she'd received our hat."
According to Westfeldt, 47, the warm feeling of knitting mitzvot is rivaled only by the warmth of community created through knitting circles. "When new people come, they feel very welcome," she says. "If you don't know what you're doing, you ask someone to help, which creates an immediate connection."
Knitting together is a time-honored tradition; as women connect stitches and sleeves, they also connect with one other and with past generations. But there's nothing traditional about some of the beautiful and exotic fibers available today.
"Yarn nowadays comes in every hue, shade and color of the rainbow," says Zen Menasche-Slayen, a Zimbabwe-born Israeli who co-owns the Tangle Knitting Studio in Lake Oswego, Ore. Like most full-service knitting shops, Tangle offers classes, a comfortable space to knit and a wide selection of supplies.
There are knitting needles made of bamboo, mahogany, ebony, palm, rosewood, metal and plastic. There's fat, medium and skinny. Double-pointed and single-pointed. Circular and straight.
When it comes to yarns, decision-making jumps to a whole new level. There are yarns spun from bamboo, recycled silk, soy, the Himalayan nettle plant, cashmere, alpaca and—oh, yes—lamb's wool. There are "eyelash" yarns, metallic yarns and yarns punctuated by tiny ribbons or sequins. There are at least five different weights, from the spaghetti-width fingerling to extra-bulky. Mixed fibers are all the rage.
"There are new yarns that look very fancy with basic stitches," points out Appel, a purist who prefers knitting with 100 percent wool.
Diamond is so blown away by the textures and colors of contemporary yarns that she keeps a collection of stray lengths in a wooden bowl and uses it as a centerpiece on her dining-room table. "On either side of this bowl are my Shabbos candles," she says. A mortgage broker, Diamond sells her hand-knit clothing and knitted artworks online to earn money to support her knitting addiction.
Knitting has awoken an artistic side of Diamond that she didn't know existed. In some projects she melds her Jewish heritage with the Hispanic culture that surrounds her in Taos. Her latest creation: a line of decorative totem poles, some up to six feet tall, made of cut-up knitted pieces patched onto PVC pipes. She weaves Judaic symbols into some of the totems, along with coral, red willows, mica, stones, seashells and Hispanic spiritual charms.
"It's funny how I've gone from pooh-poohing my mother's handmade items—because I wanted something from Bloomingdale's as a kid—to coming full circle and wanting to get back to the earth again, to get back to the homemade," says Diamond, 54. "Once we were poor and recycled things for warmth. Now we do it more for our spirit."
Robin K. Levinson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who lives in Hamilton, N.J.