Arts & Culture » Culture

Not your grandma’s sweater


Julie Patra pulls out a handful of yarn the shade of ’70s shag-green carpet. It was left over from her grandmother’s collection of yarns, and Patra plans to turn it into a half-sweater that ends above the navel — a stylish creation topped with puffy, three-quarters sleeves.

Last Christmas, the Wayne State University student knit her grandmother a rainbow mohair scarf.

“She was very happy. She cried,” says Patra, 21, at a recent Royal Oak “stitch ’n’ bitch” — a term to describe the younger generation’s knitting circles. She and her grandmother bond through knitting.

For the past few years, young women have been picking up needles — and not the piercing variety. Knitting is now a hip hobby, a movement that’s lasted longer than your average MTV fad. Around metro Detroit, casually organized knitting groups have become increasingly popular; some are advertised online and welcome new members; others are simple affairs among a close circle of friends.

“I thought it’d be really cool,” says Patra, who took up the pastime two years ago, as she feverishly knits a bell cloche hat, a style made popular in the ’20s. “I might as well make something I’ll wear.”

This stitch ’n’ bitch group meets weekly at the Sweetwaters coffeehouse in Royal Oak, and stays in touch via an Internet mailing list. After work on a recent Monday, they share tips and copies of patterns while talking about feminism and fashion. Four to eight knitters regularly show up at the two-year-old group. Dozens are signed to the discussion list.

“I was looking for a new hobby and to meet people,” says Kirstie Reeve, 36, who moved here from London a year-and-a-half ago, and has only been knitting for about a month. She says the hobby provides a connection to her grandmother, also a knitter.

Coley Grojean, 23, displays a brightly hued wrap she knit with leftovers ranging from hemp cotton to chenille.

“I go to the thrift store and rip up $1 sweaters,” Grojean says.

The women fit the profile detailed in 2003’s Stitch ’n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook by Debbie Stoller. The book has contributed to the popularity of knitting and inspired eponymous groups across the country. Filled with trendy designs and sassy language — not to mention patterns for bikinis and skull prints — the book’s appeal is infectious, even for women who haven’t experimented with knitting since Girl Scout days. It’s even spawned a sequel, the recently released Stitch ’n Bitch Nation.

In the first book, Stoller claims that 4 million new knitters emerged over the last few years and that the percentage of women under 45 who knit or crochet has doubled since 1996. Glossy pictures in the book feature young, diverse models flaunting trendy pieces. Knitting is also a utilitarian hobby: You see clothing you like, and try to do it yourself to save money.

Patra says she combs department stores, thinking, “Oh, I can make that.” Or she’ll see a woman wrapping a scarf around her neck and wonder how it was made.

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs (disclosure: Scruggs is the writer’s cousin) has been knitting for 40 years and wrote a book last year entitled Beyond Stitch and Bitch: Reflections on Knitting and Life. She combines essays and patterns, exploring how the craft provides political purpose for pacifists. When formal meditation failed to nourish her, Scruggs turned to knitting for spiritual solace.

“Counting became a chant as I concentrated on the loops of yarn sliding through my fingers. My thoughts quieted down,” she writes.

The resurgence of knitting is also inextricably tied to the varied, fabulous fabrics beckoning at stores. “We don’t have to knit. So why do we?” Scruggs writes. “Today’s fibers are hard to resist. They are more than the simple plied, spun wool of years ago. They are made of ribbon or cotton-knit fabric, dyed to match the colors of the rainbow, then cut into strips narrow enough to knit. They are nubby alpaca and silk. They flirt with your eyes and fingers and seduce you into looking at them, then touching them.”

Grojean agrees that the fabric found in stores is “not your plain old acrylic from Wal-Mart.”

Nowhere is that more evident than City Knits, located in the New Center’s Fisher Building. It’s a place virtually every serious local knitter knows about or frequents. Even a novice can appreciate the diverse wares. A connoisseur’s eyes will light up like Christmas trees upon entering the basement store. Rows of cashmere and silk, hot pinks and vibrant oranges glitter from the shelves.

“Our clientele is everything from dear, sweet little old ladies who want to make dish towels to [those making] high art,” manager Lynne Wardrop says.

The 21-month-old store caters to the high brow too. In May, a British master knitter, Fiona Ellis, taught a class and City Knits hosted a wine-and-cheese event for her. The store also offers classes for both knitting newbies unfamiliar with terms like “purl” and “cast-on” and experts accustomed to weaving arduous lace or inventing their own patterns.

When Oneita Jackson moved to Detroit from Washington, D.C., in 2001, she took up knitting in a Grosse Pointe stitch ’n’ bitch group. She now knits scarves exclusively and started her own business to sell her handiwork. Her emerging clientele includes Detroiters Rachel May of heavy rock band Broadzilla, soul-electronic singer Amp Fiddler, British soul singer Joss Stone, soul rocker Van Hunt and actress Nicole Ari Parker.

“I knit stuff that veterans tell me can’t technically be done,” Jackson, 36, says, “The reason I knit scarves is because not only do I love scarves, I hate for my neck to be cold. My neck is always wrapped up, so when I started knitting, that’s all I did.”

“I’m trying to move people away from the narrow-minded idea that they can only wear a scarf with a coat. A scarf, like a belt, ring, bracelet or pair of shoes can make an outfit.”

Natalie Y. Moore is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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