Knitting used to be something that was a necessity if you didn’t want to walk around freezing and naked. On the inhabited islands that surrounded Ireland, for centuries there was no other way to get yourself warm than to chase a sheep, steal its wool, and knit yourself a resplendent cable-knit wonder.
But then mass manufacturing came in. Now throwaway fashion (made in foreign countries by huge machines probably operated by blind children with one arm) has made people think about where their clothes come from. Enter knitting. In the last 30 years knitting became relegated to something granny did in front of the soaps five nights a week, when she wasn’t out at bingo. But now, knitting in all its glory is seeing a resurgence. Not only is it a fashion statement against fashion mass-marketing, but it is also strangely soothing as an activity. And the person knitting gets the wondrous feeling of making their own clothes. To fit!
If you are a creative type think about how all your gloriously weird fashion ideas could come to fruition at the helm of your knitting needles. And not only it is an immensely relaxing and satisfyingly creative pursuit…it has become quite the social club. Knitting groups have started all over the country now to share skills and patterns and banter. In fact it is so therapeutic that it is being called “the new yoga.” Who knew? And in Ireland we are very well placed for this “new yoga.” Irish wools are prized all over the world. People who are into knitting often become wool snobs, demanding Merino products from producers like Donegal Yarns. One of their biggest supported is Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, who is known to be passionate about hand knitting.
Another Irish company producing luscious fibres for buyers all over the world is Hedgehog Fibres. Founder Beata Jezek could not find luxury yarns in the dark, earthy colours she wanted to wear. She founded Hedgehog Fibres in 2008, in response to the demand for her yarns from knitting friends, and now sells high-end yarn to customers and yarn stores in the USA, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Pacific. In Dec 2011, Beata and her two employees moved from her overcrowded kitchen to a custom dyeing studio in Little Island, Co. Cork. And due to a resurgence in knitting, Beata now makes a living from selling the luxury yarns.
Born in Bratislava, Beata learned to knit from her grandmother, but took it up as a hobby seriously when she moved to Ireland in 2005. She joined a local Stitch and Bitch group, in which a group of knitters meet at a bar and learn from each other while socialising. She later learned how to spin fibre into yarn, a skill at which she is largely self-taught. “I began dyeing yarn for my own use initially, as I had no desire to wear garments made from the cheap and cheerful acrylics many of us remember from school. I developed a sophisticated palette in luxury yarns. I had long suspected that my fibres were marketable, but it took the economic downturn, and downsizing at the architecture firm where I had worked to give me the impetus to begin selling my products.”
Now Beata runs a virtual store which is now located at www.hedgehogfibres.com. “We have retailers in Germany, France and all over the US stocking our range now, which is great. It’s wonderful to get an email saying ‘I saw your yarn in Santa Barbara and wanted to buy some more.’” There are plenty of knitting patterns available for free on the Hedgehog website.
A GROWING COMMUNITY
The knitting community has grown online. Ravelry is a network for knitters, much like facebook. Pinterest is also a hub for knitters, letting them share their handmade wonders with others. And with our over-stimulated world, knitting is a chance to sit still while still doing something productive. Ahhh. The serenity.
Dr. Barry Jacobs of Princeton University has undertaken research in relation to knitting. Amazingly, he discovered that repetitive movements in animals enhance the release of serotonin. And we all love serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Knitting is self-soothing and you can do it in public. Hooray!
Proof of the resurgence of knitting can be seen in the way knitting-related businesses have grown. Take for example, “This is Knit.” (thisisknit.ie). The business is based in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in Dublin City Centre. This is Knit started life as a small market stall and website, run by mother and daughter team Jacqui and Lisa Sisk. Their aim was to supply natural fibre yarns in a broad range of colours to knitters and crocheters and to offer friendly advice and a range of classes and workshops. The business grew each year through a lot of hard work and re-investment, and in 2009 they moved from the south Dublin suburb of Blackrock to the City Centre.
In 2011 they took over a larger shop unit in the Powerscourt Centre and now employ a number of staff. Lisa Sisk feels there has been a resurgence in people wanting to knit. “Interest in both knitting and crochet has grown significantly in the past few years. I think our lives are very dominated by technology and media and many people want to get back to being creative, to having something tangible that they themselves have made. There’s immense satisfaction to be had from looking at your first scarf and saying ‘I made every stitch of that.’ Knitting and crochet also offer a lot scope for inventiveness and individuality. In a world of mass-produced items that’s very liberating.”
Lisa insists it is easy to learn. “It is not hard at all! And there are so many lovely projects that can be worked in very simple stitches. By the end of our Knitting — Level 1 course, our students knit a pair of fingerless gloves and a hat, and that’s only after three lessons!”
So who are these people turning up to knitting classes? “We honestly have a very broad range of clients of all ages, but I’m delighted to say we are seeing more and more men coming in to us too. They are still very much outweighed by women but I’m hoping their numbers will continue to increase! I think knitting has a universal appeal at the moment. We certainly see a lot of people who travel from the country to shop with us, and we often send packages out to them through the post too.”
And if you like the look of beautiful handknitted items but aren’t at professional level just yet, then you can cheat and buy them. Fashion retailer Cleo on Kildare Street in Dublin City Centre sell such apparel (cleo-ltd.com). Owner Sarah Joyce employs people from all over Ireland to knit for her. “We have approximately eight handknitters based in different parts of Ireland. They knit Aran sweaters, cardigans, hats and mittens. They are knit from 100% Irish wool or 50% wool, 50% alpaca. Our customers are primarily International (85%), European, American, Japanese, some Canadians and Australians. We have lots of returning customers and recommendations from satisfied customers. And we are hoping to build up on our online sales.”
While the price tag of €320 for a handknitted jumper sounds like a lot, put it in a new perspective: they last a life time, and because they are made of natural fibres they are very warm. They are also very unique. But they also can serve as inspiration for your own knitting ambitions. One day you too could knit a fancy-pants jumper and not have to pay €320 for it.
One young knitter who went a bit mad on the knitting front knitted so many items she decided to hawk them online (knitwearbynoreen.com). Knitwear by Noreen was established in 2010. Noreen is a native of Achill Island and has been knitting from a young age. She currently sells handknitted scarves, evening wraps, neck muffs and collars. And not only does she sell online (some items have a waiting list) she also sells items locally at a number of retail outlets including Danlann Yawl art gallery.
At the moment, according to Noreen, it is only a small business. “I love to knit and by selling a few items I manage to continue knitting and break even. As every piece is hand-knitted by me, the rate of production is obviously slow. I supply a couple of local outlets and that works well. I get a huge kick out of seeing people wearing things I have made. The newest scarves are not actually on the website yet and they are really gorgeous—knitted in chenille in a double-moss stitch, very Irish-looking and beautifully soft.
My mother taught me to knit (a super knitter!) and we also practiced at school. The very first thing I completed was a little yellow sweater for my Sindy doll (there were no Barbies back then!)”
Noreen is based in Achill, Co Mayo and excitingly is currently in negotiation with an American company at the moment who are interested in genuine handknits for their customers. “Wool is easy to source now, thanks to the internet. I buy from all over—the UK, Germany, Turkey, wherever I can find interesting wool at a good price.”
If you do learn to knit, then there are plenty of good causes who need you. Barnados projects (facebook.com/craftersforbarnardos) want you, and handmAid is a craft day in aid of the Laura Lynn Children’s hospice. (handmaidcraftday.com). ■