Wednesday, December 15, 2004

With Santa on his way, his little helpers are more and more visible. You see them on them on the Metro, at the Kennedy Center, in restaurants, on park benches, and in church pews. They’ve got sticks, lots of colorful yarn, and an attitude.

They’re knitters.

There are now more than 38 million of them in the United States, a doubling over the past six years, according to a Craft Yarn Council of America survey. Four million new people, most of them younger, pick up needles each year. And since 1988 there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of women under 35 years old who knit.

But the ancient craft — King Tut’s tomb included knitwear — is by no means restricted to women.

Take Bruce Bush, a 56-year-old Prince George’s County husband and father who for years has knitted, rather than bought, Christmas things for those he loves. By day he teaches second grade at Takoma Park Elementary School, but on his own time for about the past 10 years his hands have been in constant motion, knitting.

“It’s fun because I tend to get restless and have a lot of energy,” he says. “Knitting allows me to sit quietly.”

The former carpenter relaxes with his needles in a weekend retreat north of Hancock, Pa., a classic log cabin in the woods that he built by hand over weekends a few years ago, rough-cutting the timber himself.

“I made a lot of Christmas gifts [by knitting],” he says. “We light a fire in the wood stove, sit by the windows, and knit. It’s a way to calm down, to tune out stress.”

The hideaway looks like something from a Clint Eastwood frontier movie. Cozy but austere, it has no television, no electricity or plumbing, only kerosene lanterns, a wash basin, and big piles of yarn everywhere.

There is a constant production of sweaters and socks and hats, everyday items for Mr. Bush’s wife Rhoda, a librarian, and their 14-year-old daughter Sarah, and 19-year-old son Patrick, now off to college. Some knitted items are Christmas-wrapped, while others are simply given to friends, neighbors and colleagues.

Mr. Bush finds knitting such fun that he sometimes knits things, then unravels them so he can knit some more — and also to recycle the yarn.

“Yarn is quite expensive,” says Mr. Bush, a thrifty man who built the family’s backyard Jacuzzi at their Mount Rainier home and who also gives private instruction in playing the bagpipes — a skill he picked up after reading a book on it and making his own set of pipes.

“I’ll buy cheap or used machine-knit things from thrift shops or even Wal-Mart, and unravel them. You want different wools, and while it’s a little more work getting them this way, it keeps me occupied sitting in the TV room at home, maybe watching the news or videos.”

• • •

For all the pleasure he finds in knitting, however, Mr. Bush does not confine the experience to himself. Ask Sarah.

“When I was about 5, dad taught me,” she says. “I multi-task a lot, and like to knit while watching television, or at the movies. I don’t sit alone doing it, but with dad and mom, or while doing something else.”

A few years ago while shivering outside while standing in line at a movie theater, she got the idea of making nose-warmers. “I was jumping up and down freezing when it was really, really cold,” remembers the ninth grader at Sidwell Friends School in the District, “and my nose was sooo cold.”

Since then, every winter she knits nose-warmers — little nose socks, with a string or elastic band to hold them into place — and sells them at school. Some have little tassels and bells, and they come in every color of the rainbow.

“The kids at school really love them when it’s cold,” she says.

That may have gotten her father interested in teaching knitting at Takoma Park Elementary, where two years ago he approached the administration with the idea of offering an after-school knitting program.

Four girls and a boy showed up for the once-a-week hour of learning to knit, which runs from December to March. He supplies the yarn, much of it recycled, and makes the children’s knitting needles in his home wood shop.

“I sit on a chair, and they sit on the carpet,” says Mr. Bush, now in his second year of after-school knitting. “I teach them how to cast on, and do the basic stitch, and keep correcting them, helping them get their rows right.”

It’s a gentle and sweet thing, he says. “We just talk about what we’re doing; it’s very companionable. They talk about their families, and other things they’re interested in. It’s so relaxing, stress-free, a way for me to teach the kids something I enjoy.”

“Plus, they sometimes make these wonderful scarves and hats for their families,” says Mr. Bush. “A wonderful gift of love, really.”

• • •

Much the same spirit moves the members of the “Shawl Ministry” program at Saint James’ Episcopal Church in Lothian, between Annapolis and Solomons Island on the western shore of Maryland.

Since February St. James’ has sponsored this group, which meets regularly the fourth Tuesday evening of each month to knit shawls to be given away to others in need.

“As we gather in community to share our prayer, our stories, the work of our hearts and hands, we pray for God’s blessing on our endeavors,” says Marjie Mack in the prayer that begins each evening of knitting.

About 20 women in the parish — aged 11 to 96 — have knitted about 100 hand-made shawls and other knitted items, donating them throughout the area and as far away as Africa, and to crews working new construction at the Twin Towers site in New York.

“People hear about what we’re doing and think we’re being generous,” says Mrs. Mack, who heads the program. “But we get more out than what we put in. It’s a ministry as much for those who make the shawls and as for those who receive them.”

Shawl ministries are now features of Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Catholic, and evangelical Christian churches across the country and around the Beltway. The project’s Web site ( helps chapters stay in touch with one another.

The chapter at St. James’ is not the only one in the Washington area. Bethel United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, Va., sponsors the Bethel Needles and Hookers, which meets twice a month and has its own Web page at

Begun in Connecticut, the Shawl Knitting Ministry took off about five years ago, when Janet Bristow and Susan Galo, students at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Theological Seminary, wanted to combine their passion for knitting with women’s spirituality.

Susan Jorgensen and Susan Izard, friends at a Connecticut church, followed up by writing “Knitting into the Mystery: a Guide to the Shawl Knitting Ministry,” a book offering guidelines from the practical to what kinds of prayers to say before giving away a shawl to someone in need.

Even the stitches can carry religious significance, they reason. Sets of three, they say — three knits, three purls — invoke a sense of the spiritual ideas of the Christian Trinity, the unity of mind, body and spirit within the cycle of the past and future.

• • •

Nor is knitting confined to the Christian community. Marci Greenberg, a biologist and conservative Jew, sought to connect her beliefs with her love of knitting by offering “Knitting by Torah,” a class she teaches to Jewish high schoolers in Seattle.

Publishers have been quick to pick up on the knitting and spirituality trend. Recent titles include “Zen and the Art of Knitting” by Bernadette Murphy, the “Knitting Sutra” by Susan G. Lydon, and “The Knitting Goddess” by Deborah Bergman.

“For me,” says Mrs. Mack, “I feel that when someone is going through trouble, and I want to help them but I don’t know how, this is a way that lets them know that there are people thinking about them, praying for them.”

“When they feel kinda down,” she says, “they can wrap up in one of the shawls we knit, and feel that someone loves them, that God loves them.”

• • •

The fun of it, not to mention the social give-and-take, is what helped propel Beverly Jackson to start a now-famously successful group in Northwest Washington.

“We call our group the Knitting Circle,” says Mrs. Jackson, recently retired chief of public information and liaison of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

In February she convinced Karla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue, to start offering knitting at the popular literary hot spot better known for the readings and book signings by famous and near-famous authors.

Now, every second and fourth Wednesday night, and the first and third Thursday afternoons, the group meets over coffee and books and yarn.

“We expected maybe 10 people to our first event,” says Mrs. Jackson, who also headed public affairs at Children’s Hospital for 10 years. “We had nearly a hundred people, and now it’s 10 to 20 at the weekly circles.”

Among the Knitting Circle group showing up weekly are working lawyers in power suits, women-at-home from some of the wealthier neighborhoods nearby, association executives, a physician or two, and other professionals, she says.

“Most are women, a couple of guys, a few teenagers,” she says. “We’ll invite folks walking through the store to join us — somebody usually has an extra pair of needles — and we get them ‘hooked,’ no pun intended, into knitting. They end up staying for hours, asking questions about how to ‘do’ socks or hats, or whatever.”

Some of the circle members are more serious, says Mrs. Jackson, a 62-year-old who grew up on an Illinois farm, where all the women knitted and crocheted. There are professional knitters — one who does freelance design for clothing manufacturers, another who creates and sells her designs on the Internet and through specialty magazines catering to the knitting community.

Circle member creations include run-of-the-mill scarves, hats, and socks, but also a dazzling array of ponchos, leggings and hats, complicated curve-hugging sweaters, hot knit bikinis, gloves, and throws, stuff to put in a frame and hang on the wall.

Yarn can cost $100 a ball, and be made of wool, mohair, acrylic, alpaca and silk. Some threads are simple and smooth, but newer yarns come textured with “eyelashes” that made the garment explode with a furry look. Some yarns are shiny ribbon-like materials, with sparkles mixed in with the fibers. Colors can be brilliant and extreme — iridescent orange, hot pink, purple lava, and mango green.

Mrs. Jackson, with a pediatrician daughter in Chicago and an architect son just back from Peace Corps duty in Central America, collects heirloom yarn herself, hitting yard and estate sales locally and in trips across the country to buy materials dating from the 1930s onward.

“One of the dirty little secrets of knitters,” she jokes, “is that we collect all this yarn, and we hide it from our husbands. For me, having these beautiful old yarns is a great pleasure — something beautiful to look at, but also a kind of celebrating the, I don’t know, the important relationship we have, I have, with knitting with my mother and grandmother, my family, our families.”

• • •

It’s this mix of generations that struck organizers of the Craft Yarn Council’s Fourth Annual Washington Knit-Out & Crochet, which flooded the Mall Sept. 19 with a record 6,000 people — double the turnout of last year — and attracted a noticeable gaggle of high-schoolers, Girl Scouts and even boys.

“Each year the age gets younger,” says Debra M. Lee of Falls Church, president of Capital Crocheters and Knitters, Inc., which co-sponsored and organized the event.

“Knitting and crochet is a wonderful way for mothers and daughters to come together,” Ms. Lee says in accounting for the increase in young people.

But it’s more than that: “The movie stars are doing it,” Ms. Lee says, mentioning Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah and Julianne Moore, “so the teens want to do it too.”

• • •

Probably not surprisingly, so do the feminists.

Earlier this year, the Knitting Circle at Politics and Prose had a “Knit Out” weekend festival and invited author Debbie Stoller, a Dutch-born feminist writer with a growing series of knitting how-to books called “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch.” She learned knitting as a girl from her mother and grandmother, and took it up again as a young writer in New York.

The current editor of “Bust,” a feminist magazine that celebrates women’s culture, including crafts, Ms. Stoller travels the country to hype her books and lend support to a number of “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” knitting clubs that meet mostly at yarn shops.

The name, she says in a telephone interview, is a “throw-back phrase from the 1950s,” and refers to the frustrations new knitters, especially, have when they mess up a scarf or sweater.

“But I’ll say this,” she offers. “The new generation of women knitters in some way come to a lesson in feminist history when they take up knitting. Our culture today is so fast; young women, especially, think they can show up with sticks, a ball of yarn, and walk out with a completed item.”

“Then they become aware of the hard work involved, the care that’s needed,” she says, “the kind of ‘love’ that’s needed.

“Learning to knit brings you into a consideration of the role women have had throughout history in making the family’s clothes, in keeping and nurturing their loved ones.

“Over the hours spent in knitting something for someone you love, a new knitter today can come to appreciate the art and care that has through centuries been part of our lives.”

“We light a fire in the wood stove, sit by the windows, and knit. It’s a way to calm down, to tune out stress.”

Bruce Bush

“One of the dirty little secrets of knitters is that we collect all this yarn, and we hide it from our husbands.”

_ Beverly Jackson

Networks of knitters

Whether it’s done for Christmas giving or for just plain stress relief, knitting is a hot craft today; it’s been called “the new yoga.” Here’s a guide to local and national knitting resources as well as to selected local hospitals that accept handmade knitwear for patients.

Knitting and purling

• Capital Crocheters and Knitters, Inc.: P.O. Box 6556, McLean, VA 22106. Call 202/986-1888, see or e-mail

• Craft Yarn Council of America: Call Mary Colucci at 212/570-9883 or see

• The Knitting Circle: Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W. 2 p.m. every first and third Thursday of the month, 7:30 p.m. every second and fourth Wednesday. Contact Beverly Jackson at

• Knit Happens Yarn Shop: 127A N. Washington St., Alexandria. Hosts knitting workshops for beginners and pros every Wednesday and Saturday evening. 703/836-0039 or www.knit

• Shawl Ministry at Bethel United Methodist Church: 13506 Minnieville Road, Woodbridge. 7 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Call Cassie Maddox in the church office, 703/670-4929 or see www.bethelumc .org/getting_involved/shawl_ministry.htm. Find the national Shawl Ministry Web site at www.shawlministry .com.

• Shawl Ministry at Saint James’ Episcopal Church: 5757 Solomons Island Road, Lothian. Fourth Tuesday of each month at the church. The church welcomes donations of yarn, and everyone is invited to participate. 410/956-4351. Find the national Shawl Ministry Web site at www.shawlministry .com.

• Toast and Strawberries Boutique: 1608 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. An informal knitting group meets here occasionally. The store also carries knitwear handmade by Beverly Jackson of The Knitting Circle and other local knit artists. 202/234-1212 or www.toastandstraw


• Children’s National Medical Center: Hospital Services Department, 111 Michigan Ave. N.W. Call 202/884-2062 to arrange donations.

• Lombardy Cancer Center, Georgetown University Hospital: 3800 Reservoir Rd. N.W. Call Tara in Social Services at 202/444-4660, ext. 7243.

• Washington Hospital Center Cancer institute: 110 Irving St. N.W. 202/877-3900.

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