A local knitter joins a group at A Great Yarn in Chatham and offers tips on how to get started.Text and photography by Debra Lawless
It’s a quiet Saturday morning, and I have joined the regular “knit-around” at a table inside A Great Yarn on Main Street in Chatham.
Mary Weishaar, who co-owns the store with her husband, Ron, is knitting a toddler’s cable knit sweater. I’m working on a pattern called “baby surprise jacket” from 1968 by the famous knitting writer Elizabeth Zimmermann. This is the first time I’ve knit in a group, and I am trying to keep my knitting hidden in my lap.
When I was 10 years old, my great aunt Elsa taught me how to knit continental style, which means you manipulate the ball of yarn with your left hand instead of with your right. Elsa cast on the stitches for a poncho in gold yarn. We must have followed a pattern, but I never saw it. Each week, when Elsa came to my family’s house in Providence, we sat upstairs and pored over my slow progress. Eventually, we completed the poncho. Elsa finished it off with fringes.
Since my birth, Elsa had been knitting me blankets, sweaters, skirts, vests and even a little red coat. Elsa also outfitted my dolls with hand-knitted outfits. When my mother was a child, she knit her a woolen bathing suit. In college, I still wore Elsa’s final offering: an oatmeal-colored sweater with a faux fur collar.
Girls in previous generations on both sides of my family were taught to knit. An aunt visiting us with a knitting bag in hand was not uncommon. In television shows I watched in the 1960s, when a young man came upon his wife knitting baby booties, it signaled that she was pregnant. Knitting was commonplace, and then it wasn’t.
After completing the poncho, I stopped knitting. During those years when I turned up the radio to hear Helen Reddy belting out “I Am Woman,” knitting, like many “women’s crafts,” went out of style. In college, I knew one oddball freshman who said she knew how to knit, but I never saw her with yarn or needles.
Today, knitting is hot again, and popular with both young and old, men and women. You can find free patterns, join chat rooms and watch how-to videos online. Ravelry, an online site founded in 2007 for knitters and crocheters that offers patterns and advice, now boasts more than seven million registered users. In recent years, yarns made of new fibers, such as bamboo and beautiful hand-dyed yarns, and innovative equipment have come on the scene.
Chatham became part of the resurgence when A Great Yarn opened in March 2015. When the Weishaars were planning their store, Mary remembers puzzled looks from friends, who implied it was an “old lady thing.” However, as I sit here with three fellow knitters and see the full calendar of events for adults and children, it’s easy to see the new knitting is not an “old lady thing.”
Caitlin Doggart is a knitter. Doggart co-owns Where the Sidewalk Ends Bookstore at 432 Main St. with her mother Joanne Doggart. The store now stocks gorgeous scarf kits from Parallel Lines that are perfect for beginners. It was there, about a decade ago, that I discovered a Scarf in a Cup kit with a pattern, two needles and sufficient yarn for a scarf. Intrigued, I found I still knew how to knit. I created my first scarf in garter stitch.
I knit a few scarves, then I moved on to mittens. I knit them on two straight needles and sewed a seam. This time around my interest did not wane. I bought more knitting supplies and taught myself to knit in the round on double-pointed needles. Now I could create seamless mittens and, eventually, socks. My mother gave me Elsa’s knitting equipment. I now have her plastic straight needles, double-pointed needles and circular knitting kits. I still use her metal needles–the color has worn at the tips.
Last winter, through eBay, I bought some vintage Coats & Clark’s pamphlets (originally 29 cents each), and I found the exact patterns for children’s sweaters that Elsa had knitted in the 1960s. From these patterns, I knit two vintage sweaters and made a stab at several others.
Back at the knitting circle, Mary Weishaar talks about men who knit. “When a man knits, they will tackle anything,” she says, “while some women are afraid.” She reminisces about a retired builder who knits fancy cables. She pauses, then consults with Jean Williams of Chatham about the sweater she is knitting. Williams, who is working on a lace scarf, runs a “wild and whacky” knitting group here on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.
In recent months, A Great Yarn has offered classes in knitting Christmas ornaments, colorful mittens and beading. Chatham resident Kathleen Read, who is knitting a multi-colored sock across the table from me this morning, led a group in knitting Zimmermann’s “baby surprise jacket.” Last summer, the store offered knitting classes for children of all ages.
“Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises,” Zimmermann once wrote. Elsa took her advice to heart, knitting through the Great Depression, World War II and into the Age of Aquarius. She lay down her needles for the final time when I was in high school in the mid-1970s. I would like to think that in my own modest way, I’m picking up where she left off.
Visit your local yarn shop
At your local shop you’ll find the supplies you need: a couple of straight needles (probably size eight), a ball of yarn with a texture and color you like and a row counter. You might even be lucky enough to find a beginner’s class or a drop-in session to learn how to cast your yarn onto the needle, hold the needles and yarn and do a basic garter stitch.
To begin knitting, start with a simple project, such as a garter-stitch scarf. You’ll learn to cast on, knit and cast off. After a couple of basic scarves, move onto a more complex scarf, or even a modest shawl, which will allow you to develop new techniques, such as purling, making a cable or lace. You’ll soon be knitting hats, mittens and socks!
When you get stuck, Google the stitch or technique and find an appropriate YouTube video. Observe someone else’s fingers as they make the stitch you are trying to master. This can be clearer than reading diagrams in books.
Join a circle
When you have gained a bit of confidence, knit with others at your local yarn store. Through conversations, you will find inspiration for new projects. While you are there, you can also stock up on more supplies and yarn.
A final knitter’s tip
Always keep an emery board in your knitting kit. Someday, when your jagged nail snags the yarn at every row, you’ll thank me.