Once a pastime for grandmothers, this valuable craft is gaining ground with youth—for skeins of reasons
Story and photography by Jodi DeLong
It’s just past 5pm on a winter Wednesday afternoon, with watery sunlight streaming through the front window of The Wool ’n Tart, a yarn shop in downtown Wolfville, NS. While other shops are closing up for the day, this one will be open until 9pm, as it’s “knit group night.” They start to arrive fairly soon; young women, a couple of tweens as well, carrying bags and baskets filled with yarn, needles, patterns for their current projects. They gather on the comfortable window bench and a few chairs, and within minutes of each person’s arrival, the air is humming with the click of needles and the chatter of people sharing a beloved pastime.
For some years, knitting seemed to fall out of favour—it was something “the old folks” did, or people without money for so-called ready-made clothes, and the easily available, synthetic fibres were just not great and didn’t inspire a lot of creativity. Suddenly there was a generation who didn’t knit, and then younger people wanted to learn and didn’t necessarily have a family member to teach them.
What changed? Perhaps ironically, the one place that many of us like to avoid at the end of the work day—the Internet—has been responsible for a huge surge in popularity for all the fibre arts, including, or perhaps especially, knitting. Not only are there sites with repositories of thousands of patterns and projects, social media channels like Pinterest and Instagram are terrific places to find inspirations for yarns and colourways, patterns, solutions to questions, and even like-minded people to talk with in a virtual knit group. There has been an explosion in incredible, natural fibres, many of them created locally—hand spun, hand dyed, every possible fibre and colour or colours possible—that makes growing one’s “stash” of yarns all too easy.
What’s the appeal?
Ask a dozen people why they knit, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, from helping others to fundraising to political statement to stress reliever, and more.
Acadia University student Haley Bruhn of Mahone Bay, NS was 17 when she learned to knit, less than two years ago. She was working for the summer at a camp in Jordan Falls and watching her friend Dorothy knitting, and “the curiosity to learn just grew.” On a trip home, she went out and bought her first pair of bamboo needles and turquoise yarn. “Knitting keeps my mind and hands busy, she adds. “I can multitask anywhere, as a passenger in a car, watching television, and even in church.” This passion led her to learn to spin her own natural fibres, too.
Megan Morgan is originally from Bridgewater, NS, but since graduating with her engineering degree in 2006, she and her now-husband, also an engineer, have lived and worked in Texas as well as in St. John’s, NL, where they currently live. Somewhat amusingly, Megan learned to knit in Texas in 2011 when she was 28 years old, and that year was a record-breaking heat summer for the state. “My grandmother had always knit, and she made me the most wonderful socks, and so on,” she says. “So, I started knitting socks, and then other things, sometimes as gifts, sometimes for myself.” She and her husband moved a number of times in the subsequent years, and between job changes, moving, family matters, Megan discovered that knitting provided stress release. “You just knit, regardless of what is going on, and the world goes on around you,” she says. “If you’re out waiting at appointments, you can only scroll on your phone for so long, but knitting, it just fits in a bag and you knit, and time goes by.”
Becky Williams owns and operates Becky’s Knit and Yarn in Lockeport, NS. She has noticed the trend in younger people picking up knitting, and sees people of all ages, from elementary school students and up. “Some of the younger people, both male and female (teenagers) have told me it helps them to feel less pressure when they are creating something with their own hands,” she says. “Especially something that not everyone is interested in doing.” She continues, “When they arrive at school with something really different [for clothing] that can’t just be bought or replicated, they feel important and respected.”
Becky hosts knitting sessions at her shop on a regular basis, where anyone can drop in and knit. “I’m amazed at how casually the young knitters haul their project out of a bag and start knitting away anywhere they want to, to use up free time,” she says. “They fit right in with the rest of us!”
A “gateway drug” to other fibre arts
Faith Drinnan operates Sisterhood Fibres just outside of Tatamagouche, NS. She and her “sisters” in the business spin wool, dye it, work with all kinds of fibres in weaving, spinning, knitting, felting and offer many yarns and related products for sale. She hosts a variety of workshops, and as well as a hugely popular fibre arts festival and fibre market, WoolStock East, this year in early September.
Her observation since opening Sisterhood Fibres just a few years ago is that, “Many young people are getting into knitting and all the fibre arts,” she says. “I think it satisfies lots of needs and hits lots of buttons—it is tactile, it keeps those hands busy, sense of accomplishment, self-expression, art, back to basics and it is a very cool thing to do.
“Also, slow fashion amongst young people is taking off,” Faith continues. “As you know, with the array of yarns available now, you can make a stunningly gorgeous item from a very simple pattern. Knitting is the gateway drug to the fibre arts. I see them ramping up as their income level increases.”
Laurie LeGrow lives in rural Newfoundland, about 45 minutes from the outskirts of St. John’s. Her mother, Christine LeGrow (coauthor of the award-winning book Saltwater Mittens with Shirley Anne Scott) taught her to knit when she was six years old and in Brownies. “I don’t remember pestering Mom to teach me to knit,” Laurie says, “but she likes to say when I was born, she was pleased because now she had a little girl to teach to knit!” Laurie is part of the generation who still had a relative to teach her the art, but as she observes, “Knitting did fall out of fashion for a long time, so it’s great to see it returning and increasing in popularity.”
Laurie knits for a living, creating unique hats and other woollen goods which she sells at Some Good Market in Brigus, as well as through her mother’s business, Spindrift Knits, which sells online as well as at many shops throughout Newfoundland. Laurie explains, “We’re partners in the thought process, but I work with her. It’s good to have someone familiar with the kind of things you knit, and brains that work similarly, so we’re always brainstorming new patterns, new products.”
Knitting can be a completely solitary pastime but it’s also very portable: a weaver can’t toss a loom into a tote bag, a jewellery maker may not want to lug findings and stones and tools around with, but any bag can hold a skein of yarn and a set of needles. Everyone I spoke with knit pretty much everywhere—in classes, in stores, in doctors waiting rooms, in church, on planes—because even when you can’t do a lot of other things, you can work on a pair of socks.
Slow versus fast fashion
Rhea Hamlin, 28, is from New Ross, NS. Originally, she came to the Valley after university to work at Taproot Farms Fibre Lab, where she spent three years before moving on to become production head at Fox Hill Cheese House. Her first foray into knitting was for home economics class in grade 6, and as she describes it, this was not a successful attempt. “It was ugly—I kept picking up stitches, so it kept getting wider, and finally I was finished and didn’t know how to bind off, so my grandmother taught me that over the phone.” That was it for knitting until she was in university in Halifax, where she discovered that knitting was a huge stress release. “Once I started working here in the Valley, I started coming to Wool ’n Tart and learned lots of skills through knit group.”
Rhea loves to knit bigger projects like sweaters and big scarves for herself, but also makes socks and other gifts for others. “I knit because I love fibre—I’m a bit of a fibre snob, no synthetics for me—but also, I have the intention to remove some of the fast fashion from my closet and have more well-made clothing that is going to last.” This is a recurring theme with many people I spoke with: when you knit with expensive, beautiful quality fibres and make something that eventually gets a hole in it, you’re more inclined to fix that immediately; whereas with cheap clothing from big box stores, those items tend to get jettisoned.
Of the increase in young people picking up needles and yarn, Becky Williams says, “I see more and more young people wanting to make their own garments,” she says. “They enjoy the process of picking the colours and the fibres, along with custom fitting their own clothing.”
Friendships knit over needles
Although any of the fibre arts can be very solitary, they don’t all have to be. As we’ve noted, knitting can be very portable, especially if you’re doing something that requires only one ball of yarn. There are a variety of knitting and fibre festivals throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick plus numerous workshops and courses for learning new skills and patterns, but many local shops also host weekly knit group sessions. Sometimes referred to as “stitch and bitch” sessions, people just gather together to work on their current project, perhaps enjoy coffee and tea and snacks, and just enjoy sharing their passion with like-minded people. Many friendships spring from these groups.
Megan Morgan says, “When you don’t have kids and you don’t go to church, where do you go to make friends? On our most recent move back to St. John’s, I met the owner of Cast On, Cast Off, a yarn shop in town, and she was holding knit nights, so I’d pop down and knit and chat. We became friends, and I met other great friends that way, too.”
Claire Cochrane Taylor, 26, grew up on a vegetable farm in Colchester County, and now lives just outside Canning, NS and is training to be a licensed optician. She says, “I learned to knit as a teenager—one of the people who stayed with us and worked on our farm was a knitter from Germany, and she taught me the basics,” she says. “When I moved to the Valley in 2015, I met Rhea, who introduced me to the Wool ’n Tart, where I grew a lot more confidence in my knitting abilities. Now I knit anything I want to. Not only can I make beautiful things for others and for myself, it helps me cope with stress and to keep my hands busy—and away from my phone!”
The political knitter
Knitting as a protest art came to the foreground after the 45th president of the United States was elected. Hundreds of thousands of women knit the famous pink hats which were worn in protest on women’s rights marches and other statements protesting that president’s election. Some people also partake in what is known as yarn bombing, described as public art or graffiti, or as guerilla knitting. Often these pieces may be created to beautiful an otherwise abandoned space or may be part of an art installation around a community, but some are created as a form of protest.
Not everyone is a fan of yarn bombing, however. While it’s usually leftover bits of yarn used in creating the statement, practically speaking it’s a waste of the fibres, the time and the skill that could be used to keep someone warm. Far more acceptable in many people’s eyes are activities like the “Some Warm Welcome” initiative of late 2015-2016. This initiative called for donations of 25,000 toques for the Syrian refugees being welcomed into Canada. Laurie LeGrow collected hundreds of hats, scarves and mittens from knitters from all over, which were dropped off at Some Good Market and then onward to the refugees who were arriving.
“Knitting or some form of it is done everywhere in the world, maybe different techniques but the results are something warm and wearable,” she says, “Arriving in a new country knowing someone made something for you to welcome you to your new home… It’s a help.”
The next generation
While many of us like to step away from our screens and devices and turn to knitting for leisure time fun, stress release, and other reasons, there’s also a great reason to embrace the online world for several big reasons: patterns, yarn, and how-to techniques. Most everyone I spoke with is part of the huge website Ravelry—not just for knitters—and have been known to turn to YouTube or websites for videos on specific techniques. Some young knitters have actually learned the whole process online from casting on to casting off.
While some order supplies online, most people prefer to purchase directly from shops unless it’s a fibre they’re well acquainted with, like local fibre mill Briggs and Little in Harvey Station, NB or MacAusland’s Woollen Mills in Bloomfield, PEI.
Laurie LeGrow is optimistic that knitting is back to stay, for all ages, including young people. “Kids want to learn how to do stuff like that, they aren’t all just about the devices,” she says. “Show them a thing, whether it’s knitting or woodworking or whatever, it’s a good way to get something else into their hands and connect with other people, generations, groups.
“And to all the people of any age who say ‘I wish I could knit—you don’t need to wish, just get some needles and some yarn and start knitting. And if you want to become a good knitter, just keep knitting.”