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Younger knitters are in it for the friendships

Once cast aside as an old-fashioned hobby, knitting is stitching together groups of young women who enjoy it as a creative and social outlet

04/29/2013 9:41 AM

05/01/2013 2:50 PM

Unwinding after a long week means a glass of wine, gossiping with girlfriends and a pair of 6-inch needles for Alexis Winslow.

Together Winslow and her friends cluster around her Brooklyn living room's coffee table and couches, discussing the latest episode of Mad Men while occasionally clicks from knitting needles interrupt. Draped across laps are spools of yarn, Post-it notes scribbled with helpful pattern reminders and half of a scarf or baby hat.

But these four friends are not retirees or ambitious stay-at-home moms eager to find an outlet for their free time. All have full-time careers -- textile designer, graphic designer, kindergarten teacher -- and all are under 34.

The group may seem atypical in a culture dominated by images of Golden Girl castoffs bent over sweaters for grandchildren, but they're actually knitting's new norm.

For close to a decade, younger knitters have been snatching the needles for themselves and leading the handicraft into a renaissance of cool as they rediscover its social and creative appeal. Industry experts claim that the percentage of female knitters under age 34 in the U.S. has more than doubled; true or not, it's easy to find young yarn-obsessed females wherever you look.

Knitting's popularity among younger generations has been on a boom-and-bust cycle for the past century as women have redefined and challenged traditional gender roles, alternatively accepting and rejecting the hobby as feminist politics, necessity and societal forces dictated.

Women of the 1920s and then those of the '70s may have eschewed the craft as women's work, but today's generation doesn't appear to be bothered by that notion. As the children of feminism's second wave and the benefactor of increased social and workplace equality, young women of the 21st century feel less pressure to distance themselves from the stereotypically feminine craft and see it simply as a way to express themselves and bond with other women.

"You think of cat ladies making scratchy sweaters for tortured nieces and nephews, but it's not that way anymore," said Sarah Yokubaitis, 25, who has been knitting for 6 years and lives in Manhattan. "Knitting has skipped generations and it feels like we were the first generation to really have a choice in whether we want to do it or not. It's like how people have embraced growing their own vegetables or canning jam again. It's a return to roots. But younger generations have built a new aesthetic for it."

These younger knitters may be performing the same techniques and using the same needles as their grandmothers, but the attitude they take toward knitting, the projects that fall from their needles, and their use of the Internet to form communities and share patterns are distinctly modern.

Part of that attitude reinvention came from Debbie Stoller's bestselling "Stitch 'n B----" book series. The editor in chief of third-wave feminist magazine Bust challenged women to "take back the knit!" with her edgy and modern patterns.

Her call was answered as hundreds of knitting circles popped up across the country founded by and for younger women.

Casey Wayman, a 20-year-old Ithaca College student, runs a weekly knitting club on campus where she teaches newcomers and swaps patterns and encouragement with members.

Wayman picked up the hobby after observing a girl in one of her classes knitting.

"I've never really been artistic, but I liked that she was creating this really beautiful thing with very simple movements," Wayman said.

Before this year, Wayman knitted alone inside the lecture hall or in front of the TV, but after working in a group, she admits she would go back to knitting alone only if forced.

"Now I really look forward to these evenings," Wayman said. "There is this feeling that we are taking time to get together and create together and do this thing we all love."

Wayman has just discovered what Winslow and her group learned years ago.

"It's my favorite thing I do all week," said the 30-year-old Winslow. "I really feel like I have to have a group. They encourage you and give you someone to show the things you've made to. Most people don't understand what it takes to make something by hand, so it's nice to show other people who truly appreciate what you're doing."

Kate Wilkes, 30, learned how to knit at Winslow's group and admits that while she likes knitting, what keeps her attached to the craft is socializing.

"I've kind of hit a plateau with my knitting skills and haven't gotten past the basics, but I don't really care," Wilkes said. "I just come for the social aspect. Knitting helps connect us together."

But knitting communities don't always come in this classic form. Thanks to knitting blogs, crafting sites like Etsy and Pinterest, and knit-minded social sites like Ravelry, any knitter can find support, encouragement and inspiration within the confines of her home.

"With the Internet, you can get that feedback on your patterns, get to see what other people are doing and then see something cool that you want to make. It's what got me back into it," said Amy Goodwin, 27, a software engineer with Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif.

Goodwin found herself bored with traditional pattern books and would drop the hobby for brief periods, but now that she has joined online communities, begun sourcing unique patterns from other young knitters and creating her own, she knits more than ever.

"I prefer making unconventional things," said Goodwin. "When I show someone the stuffed animals I make, there is a sense of awe and confusion. They can't understand how you created that. It's like being a magician."

That unconventionality and social-inspired creative freedom keeps people addicted to the hobby, said Mary Colucci, executive director of the Craft Yarn Council.

"It means more when you can say you made it yourself, when you can't go to the Gap and buy it," Colucci said. "Knitting projects are kind of like potato chips. People don't just make one."

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