B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Amanda Lecheler, 37 (right) and Brittany Walters, 23 (center), gather with about two dozen other knitters, crocheters and other crafters from around Wausau at Biggby Coffee in Rib Mountain. The group meets most every Monday night.
During a particularly snowy winter about six years ago, I dragged one of my closest friends to an introductory class in knitting at Black Purl, Beth Paustian’s incredible yarn store just north of downtown. My grandmother used to knit, and I remember my childhood fascination of hearing the click of her needles as she worked. Learning was on my bucket list.
My friend wound up being a knitting school dropout, something I still harass her about. But I stuck with it, leaving the three-week class with a functional, if not quite beautiful, olive green scarf, along with a brand new obsession for creating warm, woolly things.
Now, I don’t go anywhere without a knit kit in my handbag, packed with a small project I can pull out to pass the time in waiting rooms, at sporting events, or even at the courthouse while covering criminal hearings and trials for my job.
At first, my habit drew curious stares and more than a few questions. Those have largely faded, however, as yarn crafts such as knitting and crocheting have exploded in popularity, especially with the Millennial generation. Even the popular College of Kids summer program at UW-Marathon County in Wausau offered a knitting class in 2016.
Until 2013, Google searches for the term “knitting” had been steadily declining. But that trend suddenly reversed. With an estimated 7 million knitters in the U.S., it’s hardly surprising that Google searches for “knitting for beginners” soared by an estimated 430% in the past three years alone.
What’s fueling the trend? Bad weather, for starters. But celebrity knitters are probably playing a role, too, like Sara Jessica Parker, Uma Thurman, Katherine Heigl and Julia Roberts.
And they’re not just men: George Lucas, David Arquette, Keifer Sutherland and Ashton Kutcher have all been spotted with needles and yarn in hand. Even the late Kurt Cobain, front man for the 90s grunge group Nirvana, was a knitter.
Why the love? For starters, there’s something magical about transforming a ball of ordinary yarn into something beautiful and functional. But largely fueling the renaissance is the popularity of Pinterest and online resources such as Ravelry for those interested in picking up the needles for the first time. Social media has help spawn organized knitting groups that are cropping up everywhere, it seems. They meet in coffee shops, private homes and even in bars—perfect opportunities for people to meet up socially, have a drink and a chat, and, of course, knit.
The Marathon County Public Library now hosts regular adult knitting nights, free and open to the public. One group of Wausau men and women meet about once a month to knit squares they sew together into beautiful quilts, which they donate to The Women’s Community.
Knitting is a little like riding a bike. Once you know how to cast on, knit, purl, and cast off, you’ll never forget it. Learn these basic skills, and you’re all set to create scarves, hats, shawls, tote bags, blankets, and even slippers, all of which can be given as thoughtful, cherished gifts. A couple of years ago, I finished an intricate blanket on the day my mother was admitted to the hospital. The look on her face when I draped it over her bed was worth every hour I spent crafting it.
There are health benefits, too. Experts say knitting improves concentration and can provide an outlet for excessive energy. It offers a break from busy schedules and a refreshing detox from technology, giving many of us a rare chance to be alone with our thoughts. And a Toronto study of more than 2,000 seniors found that regular participation in hobbies such as knitting are associated with a lower risk of dementia.
Maybe our grandmothers knew something we didn’t. After all, consider that old saying, “Busy hands make a happy heart.” And with the long days of winter stretching in front of us, there’s not a better time to learn.
• Black Purl, 1102 Third St., Wausau, offers classes as well as casual knitting together gatherings. 715-843-7875, and on Facebook
Marathon County Public libraries:
• Needle Arts Nights, Hatley branch. Every third Monday of the month 3–8 pm. For people of all ages interested in knitting crocheting, embroidering, etc. Bring questions, ideas and projects in this open forum, drop-in for all or part of the program. Free. 715-446-3537
• Knit Night, Wausau headquarters. Every first Thursday of the month, 6:30–8 pm. For all ages and experience levels to learn, share and socialize. New knitters welcome to this popular program with a dedicated following. Library provides pattern books, you bring your own supplies. Free. 715-261-7230.
The zen of knitting
You’ve probably heard of the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Knitting, crocheting and similar repetitive activities create the same effect that lowers your heart rate, reduces blood pressure and reduces the harmful stress hormone cortisol. No wonder the hobby has been called the new yoga.
Relaxed concentration creates a “flow,” a state of consciousness that results in a deep feeling of enjoyment and peace. It puts you in that “in the now” state of mind that so much research has shown is good for our brains. In different surveys over the past few years, knitters themselves report that the activity reduces stress and made them feel happier.
Knitting triggers this state of mind by its repetitive movement, eye-hand coordination, patience and focus. Mind-body research pioneer Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School has written about this powerful “relaxation response” and specifically mentions knitting as a way to achieve this (along with yoga, playing music, and repetitive sports practice). Of course, like any new activity, you have to make it past the learning curve before you might feel relaxed about it.