Knitting; it's all in the yarns

 

Stitch 'n' bitch groups have popped up all over the country after a host of celebrities revealed their love of knitting, writes Eoin Butler.

IT'S LUNCHTIME ON SATURDAY, in Temple Bar's airy Curved Street Cafe, and the steady clink of knitting needles is punctuated only occasionally by snatches of conversation. It's here, on the first and third weekend of each month, that one of the country's growing number of knitting groups gathers to drink coffee, swap patterns and gossip about everything from "men, to yarn, to politics, to the price of milk". It's a relaxed, casual affair. But these women are serious about their stitches.

Until recently, it would have been hard to think of a quainter or less fashionable hobby than knitting. For many people, mention of knitting evokes memories of faded pattern sheets, economic austerity and (in this writer's case at least) a much detested school jumper that hung as heavy as a set of chain mail on my back every time it rained. Twenty years ago, knitting patterns were to be found in almost every woman's magazine, and yarn shops were common in many towns. By the early 1990s, however, the pastime was in sharp decline and fresh patterns and good yarn had become increasingly difficult to come by.

Today, however, knitting is enjoying a surprise resurgence. And it's mostly thanks to the internet. Knitting blogs are thriving, yarns and patterns of every description can now be sourced online and networking sites allow users to swap patterns and tips with knitters all over the world. On ravelry.com, described by some as "Facebook for knitters", knitting enthusiasts can follow the progress of each other's work, and check up on what yarn fellow knitters are using and share feedback on particular patterns with users around the world.

Knitting's newfound popularity has crossed over into the offline world too, with so-called Stitch 'n' Bitch (or Knit 'n' Natter) groups springing up around the country. And a glut of celebrities have made public their addiction: among them Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker, Uma Thurman, Madonna, Geri Halliwell and Cameron Diaz.

"Julia Roberts tends to do a lot of big sloppy sweaters," says Bairbre, a group member with a year's standing. "Technically, they don't look very complicated. But that doesn't mean she can't knit."

Bairbre notes that younger knitters today tend to prefer smaller items - socks, hats, gloves and other accessories.

"They'll use the more expensive yarns, because they're only going to be using one or two balls." An entire sweater knitted out of cashmere, she notes, would cost to €150 or €200 for the yarn alone.

Bairbre is currently knitting a sweater for a woman in her eighties. The pattern looks like something out of a pattern museum.

"Yes, well this lady started the sweater 20 years ago. But then she developed arthritis in her arms and she gave it up."

How long does a sweater normally take to make, I inquire.

"How long is a piece of string?" smirks Ann. "There are so many variables," Isobel explains. "If you're using fine yarn, it takes a long time. If you're using heavier yarn, with thicker needles, it knits up a lot quicker."

Knitting, then, may be more a time-consuming and expensive hobby than people might think. "You don't knit to save money," explains Bairbre. "Our mothers did, but we don't."

They stitch in silence for a moment.

"One advantage of knitting," says Isobel, "is that you can knit something to fit you exactly. You can knit exactly what you're looking for, whereas in a shop you have to fit into something designed for someone else."

As unlikely as it sounds, knitting is actually pretty cool right now. But Bairbre is realistic about the long-term outlook for the hobby.

"It's certainly on an upswing at the moment," she says. "It has become quite trendy with the young people. But whether these kids will still be knitting in 20 years time remains to be seen. Two years from now they could all be making friendship bracelets again . . ."

KNITTING FACTFILE

• The earliest known example of knitting was finely decorated pair of cotton socks found in
Egypt that date back over a thousand years.

• Whereas traditionally, the emphasis was on repairing existing garments, knitting today is "a statement of individuality".

• There are Stitch & Bitch groups in towns all over the country, including Castlebar, Carrick-on-Shannon, Drogheda, Macroom and Lismore, as well as all the main cities. http://olannban.net/