It's a cool March afternoon, and I'm lurking by the fruit and veg stall in London's Liverpool Street Station. I'm looking for Cast Off, a group who have been described - bafflingly for anyone whose image of a knitter is still a sweet little old lady - as "guerilla knitters".
The first likely candidate I see is a young man in a sweater with a farmyard scene on it, and a suspiciously cylindrical bag in one hand. I approach him and confirm that yes, he, too, is looking for Cast Off. He is Peter, an American Studies student, who started knitting this summer. "I had no money to go anywhere and I was in the pound shop and there was acrylic at £1 a ball. That's how I began." Asked what he knits, he says "pigs and hats". He sees me eying his sweater, "Oh no. I didn't make this."
A few more minutes pass, and more knitters assemble. Most are in their twenties and thirties and, as a group, are noticeable for being more highly accessorised - with hats, legwarmers, ear-cosies and scarves - than the general population. Rachel Matthews and Amy Plant are here; they founded Cast Off, "a knitting club for boys and girls", in 2001 and have since been meeting up once a month or so at a variety of venues across London, usually in pubs or clubs, but sometimes, as today, on the Tube.
"Is that it? There's no one else still to come? OK. Let's go."
Twenty of us shuffle through the barriers and we board an eastbound Circle Line train, where the group set about accessorising the carriage as thoroughly as they have their persons. They string knitted bunting along the hand-rails, and hang up their mascot, a macrame owl. Sue, a smiling woman, has brought along her spinning wheel, and gets to work on a hank of raw wool. A cheer goes up as she pumps on the treadle and the wheel starts turning. We're off.
As more people board the train, their initial annoyance at finding the carriage unusually crowded gives way to curiosity. Sue, looking like someone out of the pages of a fairy tale, is especially incongruous and draws the most stares. "Lots of people don't know how our clothes are made, or where wool comes from," said Matthews. "Sue always gives them a piece of wool to take away."
As people edge closer to watch, they are invited to join in - Cast Off always travel with extra needles and yarn. Pom poms are produced, and tossed back and forth. The atmosphere grows giddy. "Whoo hoo! We've stopped! Knit faster," someone calls as the tube lurches to a halt.
"If you can get people to stay on past their stop it's a real result," says Matthews, watching Plant help a young man cast on something in pink. Matthews herself is working on "a fig-leaf thong". "That's what I love about Cast Off," says Jenny Hammerton, a film archivist, "You ask someone what they're making and they say 'a house' or 'a toaster'."
As the tube trundles round the Circle Line, the Cast Off knitters discuss where to buy yarn, in-flight knitting (bamboo needles are less likely to be confiscated by airport security than metal ones) and swap tips: "Show me how to do cable!" one begs another: "I'm just a knit and purl girl." They also figure in a lot of holiday snaps, as one disbelieving tourist after another pulls out a camera and papps away.
It's fun, clearly, but Matthews acknowledges that there's more to it than that. "Sometimes we're overtly political. When we went on anti-war marches our banner said 'Drop Stitches Not Bombs'. But, by knitting in public we are saying something, too. We'd never knit round at someone's house. By doing it in public we're challenging what's seen as nerdy. We were in the Tate once and someone said: 'Did you ask for permission to be here?' But why should we? It's a gallery, it's a public area - of course we can go there and do a bit of knitting."
That said, they were once thrown out of the bar of the Savoy. "That was one of the most establishment places we've been - and we realised how challenging it was. The waiter really attacked the boys for being there, and they told us: 'You should be doing this at home.'"
Knitters don't want to be confined to their homes any more. Over at Liberty, the Regent Street department store, the Central London Knitters meet in the second-floor café on the first and third Thursday of every month. At a knitting show-and- tell in mid-March, new arrivals bring out their latest projects and show off the newest additions to their "stash", as they refer to their hoarded yarn; by 6.30pm half the tables are occupied by knitters. They even get mail there: a letter addressed to "the knitting group in the café, Liberty, London" from a grandmother has arrived, asking for advice on how to teach a left-handed child to knit.
Far from being the dying craft of an older generation, it seems knitting has seen an enormous growth in interest in recent years. Brooke McConachy, a young American living in London, expounds her theory for the resurgence: "I think it's a post-9/11 thing. People want to withdraw from the world, and go back to more traditional ways."
On a more practical note Yvonne Davies, who works with young offenders, attributes it to the newer, bigger yarns and needles that are now on the market. "It suits young people with a short attention span, because they can make something quickly."
Her observation is borne out by Stephen Sheard of Coats, one of the UK's biggest yarn manufacturers, who has seen sales boom lately, especially in US college towns: "Younger knitters don't have the ready-made knowledge of how to knit that was passed on for generations. These young knitters use bigger yarns, and bigger needles. They choose easier projects - accessories instead of garments - and things for the home, like cushions. The typical needle used to be 4mm in diameter, and now it's more like 15mm. Young people are into a different speed of life - they want instant gratification. And with these larger needles - well, they don't have to have been to the university of knitting to make something."
Everyone agrees that the social aspect of these groups is a major factor in their success. Erika Knight, the author of six knitting books, including "Simple Knits for Easy Living" has recently returned from the States: "They've got a long tradition of it over there - with quilting bees and sewing bees - and now groups meet to knit. They talk about anything - relationships, George Bush. You might not always learn to cast on. The social side of it is very important." In the US, this knitting café culture has even given rise to a TV show called Knitty Gritty, where "knitsters" lounge around on sofas and chat.
Victoria Cooper, who attends both Central London Knitters and Cast Off events says: "In our society there's a lot of meltdown of the social glue; we are all trying to be individual, and don't cohere in any way. If you are knitting, people assume you are a nice person, that you're friendly, that you will show them how to knit and talk to them." She adds: "It's therapeutic, too. It's tactile and relaxing, and you get something out of it at the end. I work in the City and - like lots of people - I never see the end product of the work I do. With knitting, there's a beginning, a middle and an end and you have something to show for it. Making something with your hands feeds a hunger. People need something tactile to express themselves."
This therapeutic aspect has been recognised in the US, where some prisons teach knitting as part of anger-management and self-esteem-building programmes. This is something that the UK charity Fine Cell Work would like to see replicated in the UK. Fine Cell already sends volunteers into prisons to train inmates in needlework, and is hoping to introduce knitting too. Their director, Katie Emck, is not surprised that knitting in prisons has been so successful: "It's a skill they can develop while they're locked up. Working with your hands, with soft threads, is deeply soothing and calming. And prison is a good place to do the work because inmates have so much time - they need an occupation. Creativity is very redemptive."
And, while the similarities between prisoners and A-list Hollywood stars might not at first sight seem to be striking, the fact is that both groups spend a lot of time sitting around with nothing to do. Perhaps this accounts for fact that knitting's celebrity adherents include Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder and Julia Roberts, who inducted her Mona Lisa Smile co-stars Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal into the craft in between takes.
But more than anything else, the internet has played a huge role in the revival of knitting. Many "knitblogs" record the progress of individual projects and lives, while the KnitList (www.knitlist.com) has more than 6,000 email members worldwide and its own set of witty acronyms, such as WIP (work in progress); KIP (knitting in public); UFO (unfinished object); SEX (stash enrichment expedition - ie, visiting a yarn shop); KAT (knitting against time) and TOAD (trashed object, abandoned in disgust). And, as more and more small retailers go out of business, it is becoming one of the best places to buy yarn. "You c an get Italian, French, hand dyed, hand spun, you name it," says Knight. "The cliché image of the knitter isn't of someone who's au fait with the internet. Yet that's what's happening."
This week sees the UK publication of Stitch 'n Bitch by Debbie Stoller. This how-to guide to knitting and knitting groups has sold nearly 200,000 copies since it was published in the US in October (phenomenal sales for a craft title), and has recently gone back for a seventh printing. In her book, Stoller urges women to "take back the knit" and her feisty, punning style is characterised by chapter headings like "Oops I Knit It Again", and by patterns for items like a "Wonder Woman Bikini" or a "Punk Rock Back Pack".
Stoller is the editor of the feminist magazine Bust and has a PhD from Yale in women's psychology and she attributes the popularity of the craft in part to a new wave of feminism. "Young women are looking at everything that was traditionally considered women's work and re-evaluating it. Also, young people want to opt out of global corporate culture - there's a big DIY culture now, where people want to feel they are more politically and socially conscious, that they aren't wearing stuff that was made in sweat shops."
Stoller, 41, had learnt to knit as a child, but didn't take up knitting again until 1999. She started to organise "stitch 'n bitch" groups, "because otherwise I wouldn't have seen anyone. It was all I was interested in doing. I also felt it was important to be sure that people could see it was being done. When I started, I used to knit on the subways. Older men would get misty-eyed and strike up conversations with me about their mothers. But, as far as young people were concerned, I might as well have been churning butter. It's not like that now. It's very rare these days that I get on the subway and I'm the only one knitting."
Knitting's UK renaissance continues this Friday at London's Victoria & Albert Museum where a late-night opening is devoted to it. Up to 4,000 people are expected to attend the event, which features a knitting bar with free needles and wool, and volunteers from Cast Off on hand to give crash courses in knitting. The world's fastest knitter, Wendy Moorby, will be there, and there will be a performance of HAT, four stories about wool and knitting, "from the WI to the avant garde", which combine music and poetry.
Back on the Circle Line, I ask Cast Off what they make of the old knitting taboo, mentioned by Stoller in her book, about making sweaters for boyfriends. Plant admits to having once broken this cardinal rule - and yes, the relationship did fall apart.
"He liked the idea of it and he liked it while it was being knitted, but when it was finished, he didn't wear it. It was knitted with love, but he found it suffocating." She laughs. "I might not be doing that again."
But in other instances the cultural divide remains. Stoller advises against combining knitting with drinking, but Cast Off are sanguine about throwing alcohol into the mix: "If you drop a stitch, there's usually someone around who's sober enough to help you pick it up," says Hammerton. Which is just as well, because we've been twice around the Circle Line now - it's taken an hour and a half - and now they are off to the pub for a few beers and a spot more public knitting.
'Stitch 'n Bitch' (Workman) is published in the UK on 25 March, £9.99. 'Craft Rocks' is at the V&A on 26 March, 6.30-10pm, free; HAT tickets £10 (020-7942 2211).Reuse content