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Knitter's Underground

A search for women who knit is harder than expected, but the reward is worth it

by Adrienne Martini

Something called me to a smoky bar that dark and stormy night, that evening when my quest suddenly found its focus. On that night, a watering hole was where I found my guide into the hidden culture of women with nimble fingers.

The previous day's work had been a wash-out. I'd achieved squat in my over-riding quest. I couldn't find a damned knitter to save my lousy hide.

Granted, I've stumbled upon knitted items at any church bazaar or garage sale—all of which looked like remnants from an explosion at a yarn factory in the late '60s with their acrylic (and certainly flammable) fibers woven into overly fussy pot-holders or tea cozies or doilies. With enough luck, I'm certain I could have staggered into the stereotypical grandma-type knitter and written lyric passages about her gnarled knuckles and hand-knit-scarf-festooned family. But—not to knock grannies—modern knitters had to be out there, I thought, ones with a sense of art, craft, and a healthy fear of polyester.

After all, knitting has become one of the country's most talked-about hobbies. A-list Hollywood stars—including Hilary Swank, Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Joanne Woodward and Madonna—fess up to a knitting jones. Luxury yarn companies are marketing (and selling) garment kits that can top $900. In Los Angeles and New York City, knitting shops are springing up like wild violets, including La Knitterie Parisienne, the L.A. hang-out of one Miss Monica Lewinsky.

Given Knoxville's love for traditional crafts, like knitting or pottery or weaving, there should be a strong community of knitters already deeply entrenched in the knitting arts. But where to find them?

Knoxville's Fifth Avenue just past where it intersects with Broadway, literally a malt liquor bottle's throw away from the Fifth Ave. Motel, sits The Knitting Guild of America. The building is a nondescript square that doesn't encourage you to notice it. A low profile is probably a good choice in this neck of Knoxville. The Knitting Guild seemed like the perfect place to find the inventive knitters I was looking for as well as, perhaps, someone to refresh my own rusty memories of the craft itself.

I dropped in on Mae Archer and Shirley Phillips after negotiating a series of doors and signs stating that the building doesn't have a public restroom. Archer, wearing a navy blue dress with an embroidered collar, is in charge of member services; Phillips handles the front desk. Both speak about TKGA and its upcoming conference in Branson, Mo., with excitement.

The guild, founded in Knoxville in 1984, has more than 10,000 members, most of whom are in the United States, but Canada and points overseas are also represented. TKGA, according to promotional materials, "was organized expressly to provide education and communication for hand and machine knitters wishing to advance the quality of workmanship and creativity in their knitting endeavors." TKGA offers master classes, correspondence courses, video tapes, and Cast On, a quarterly magazine full of patterns and news.

"Knitters," says Archer, "have to be the nicest people in the world."

I ask then what she last knitted, thinking that Archer may be my lead into this coterie.

"I don't knit," she says. Phillips adds, "In the office, we don't have time to knit." They do, however, direct me to Carol Wigginton, the woman who started TKGA, whom I track down a few days after I overcome my disappointment at not finding a secret cluster of women with needles.

"There are guilds for all of the other needleworks," she explains in an accent lightly touched by the mid-South, "embroiderers, needlepointers, quilters, smockers. Young women are catching on to [knitting]. First off, it's a tremendous stress reliever. And young professional women have such busy lives. It's a portable thing to do, quality thing to do, loving thing to do. It just meets all kinds of criteria to be a very satisfying situation."

Wigginton moved to Knoxville from Lexington, Ky., in 1959 and also started a guild for smockers, which is tedious needle art that involves sewing thousands of teeny, tiny pleats into fabrics. "Knitters," she opines, "are so much more relaxed than smockers. It must be all of that wonderful fiber that passes through their fingers."

So what do you like to knit? I ask.

"I made a sweater once," Wigginton says in a tone that indicates the whole process was a miserable endeavor. "Basically I am a patron of the arts, all needlework arts. I have quite a collection. I am basically an educator and an administrator."

Again, I am back where I started. I could track down the local branch of the guild (one of 200 across the country) but I don't quite feel comfortable with an organization that has its conferences in kitsch-capitals like Branson or Kissimmee, Fla., the site of the Southern get-together. While these crafters probably have a wonderful time and love to visit those tourist meccas, I'm just not sure I'd fit in with that crowd.

Eventually, I run out to Jo-Ann's e.t.c. where I buy some light blue aluminum knitting needles, which can double as weapons or hair ornaments, and a skein of mushroom-colored wool yarn. Armed with these tools, a vague memory of someone teaching me to knit as a child, and a booklet from the Knitting Guild, I knit (and purl) swatches until it feels almost natural—and begins to bore the snot out of me. How useful is a swatch of medium-tan wool, I ask you, especially when visions of wonderful sweaters tease your imagination?

Then I walked into that bar and began complaining about my lack of success with the whole thing. And I heard a voice. It was that of Bethann DeGrow, a dark-haired librarian whom I continually run into in bars. "You should call Katie Ellis," she said. "She's the best knitter in my handspinning group."

I meet Ellis at The Candy Factory in a room full of sheep (and goat) fleece and wooden wheels that look like torture devices waiting to snatch a hank of hair and rip it right off of your head. These women are creating their own yarn from sheered pelts by orienting the fur's fibers and spinning it. Ellis is a seasoned knitter who designs her own garments—all of which grab the eye with their funky colors and intriguing textures. This was the knitting I wanted to do.

"As a kid," Ellis explained, "I just made lopsided potholders. I did other things too, like macramé, crochet, and weaving. As a senior in high school at Thanksgiving time, I saw a hat that my aunt had made and I wanted to make one. So I had my mom remind me how to knit. So I made the hat. It came out fine. Then I made a scarf—it was really an experiment. I raided mom's yarn box and took colors I liked. It ended up very long—I called it my Dr. Who scarf—but it was good practice," she says with a laugh. "After that I was making seven-color Fair Isle vests."

Six months later, Ellis was off to Wellsley College. "I did a lot of knitting on consignment in those years. I knit in classes. It helped me stay awake. I wouldn't start out knitting but when I would start falling asleep in class, then I would bring out my knitting. I worked as a projectionist for a while and I loved being able to sit there, reading my homework, being paid for showing movies, and working on a consignment knitting. I liked that," she explains.

Ellis hips me to a "not-just-for-knitting" group, which was spun out of the handspinning meeting. It assembles at Knit 'n' Purl, a cozy yarn shop off Kingston Pike near Cedar Bluff Road. There, she assured me, I would find the group of knitters I was looking for, even though some might crochet a bit as well. (Ellis herself could usually be found there but would be out of town for this month's gathering.)

Knit 'n' Purl is owned by Melissa Tallent, a 40-ish woman with graying hair pulled back in a knot. She also operates a handspinning store in Townsend, so she is not new to the business of fiber even though she has only had Knit 'n' Purl since May.

When I walk in, I'm dazzled by the variety of yarn that lines the walls of this tiny space. Some is soft as kitten fur (which I find out later is called "Kitten"); some as rough as handspun wool. Almost every color is represented; orange is refreshingly lacking, with only a ball or two to choose from. In the center of the room is a big round table, where the group gathers to tell stories and work on projects. You can't help but feel at home.

"There's a wonderful bunch of knitters in this town," Tallent says. "It's amazing. And knitting in the last year has enjoyed some real positive press. Beginning with the movie stars, which is great press for us, and then kind of snowballing from there. A bunch of articles appearing about how knitters aren't just a bunch of grannies." She gives a hearty chuckle. "I don't think we ever were totally just a bunch of very, very elderly women with needles in our buns...a huge percentage of the knitters that I see coming here are mid-range, 30s and 40s. Most of them are career women. And more and more young, 15-to-30-year-old people.

"I can't imagine not knitting," she continues. "I learned when I was about 12. My mother taught me. And for some reason, and I have no idea why, I just loved it. And I have knit ever since. And I took a fair amount of criticism and abuse for doing that [in high school and college] but I've just always knit. There's something about repetitive tasks that's almost Zen-like. It's very soothing. It's calming."

As I sit there working on a hat, which Tallent has helped me pick out the yarn and pattern for, I listen to the six (or so) women around me, who range in age from mid-20s to late-60s. Katherine Fegley, Knit 'n' Purl's only other employee, is teaching Diana Holden how to do the basic knitting stitch and how to increase and decrease a row's size. Sue Klipsch and DeGrow work and talk about a dying party that the homespun contingent will have in September. Klipsch's mother-in-law Elma flips through pattern books while Fegley's son Spencer gives us all mints and goldfish crackers.

Three hours fly by and the most complicated thought I have involves a botched home repair that I haven't yet figured out how to undo. My job crosses my mind once and only once, which must be some kind of new record. Knitting becomes a moving meditation; instead of concentrating on a mantra, my active mind decides to concentrate on an action. In its own way, this is bliss.

All of us are working at some project, talking about knitting and relating stories about yarn auctions on eBay, about a stoned geriatric handspinner at a Northwestern convention, about a failed project involving some Barbie-pink chenille. I want to say we found the meaning of life but we didn't. I want to say there was an explosion of sisterhood but I'd be lying. We sat. We chatted. We ate goldfish crackers. We admired new yarns. We knitted.

August 24, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 34
© 2000 Metro Pulse