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This Britain

Men in stitches: they're taking up knitting to relax

Women outnumbered at woollens event, as male interest in retro crafts increases

Laurence Fishburne is said to do it; even Russell Crowe. Reports of Hollywood tough guys who love to knit may be little more than wishful blog fodder, but a growing army of men are winding down with needles and yarn.

The image of women getting together to "stitch and bitch" is outdated: interest in knitting, whose male celebrity fans include the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, has surged in recent years as part of the wider revival of retro crafts fuelled by a make-do-and-mend culture. About 50,000 people will have attended the four-day Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, north London, by the time it closes this afternoon.

While male knitters are still in the minority, retailers report the gender gap is closing. John Lewis has seen "a massive increase" in men shopping for wool in Sheffield, where men outnumbered women at a recent knitting event. The proportion of male haberdashery customers has doubled in the past two years – from 20 to 40 per cent – at John Lewis branches in London and Newcastle.

The handknitting company Rowan estimates the number of men using its services has doubled in the past four years. As a result, it has launched the Dalesmen Collection for Autumn/Winter 2011, its first dedicated collection of designs for men for six years. Men account for between 10 and 15 per cent of customers at the I Knit London shop, near Waterloo, compared with 5 per cent five years ago.

Andrew Stephenson, 49, a senior manager in the NHS who lives with his wife, Carol, in Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire, knits before work. "It's a hobby which is very absorbing and productive, and also does allow me to get de-stressed and start the day quite fresh and focused," he said.

David Wishingsky, 50, who runs the Marina Post Office Tea Rooms in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, with his partner, Philip, launched a knitting group in the café last week after learning the "therapeutic" craft six months ago. "It's almost like meditation because it's repetitive," he said.

The second UK Men's Knitting Retreat will run in Yorkshire next spring. The organiser, Fred Brin, 37, a freelance secretary from Wilsden, West Yorkshire, said the weekend was needed "because so much is geared towards the female grandmothers". Mr Brin, administrator of the Britknit Men UK group on Ravelry, a social networking site for knitters, did not know whether more men were knitting or it had "become more acceptable to be public about it because it is back in vogue".

Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council, said it was not a surprise that men were knitting. Sailors used to knit, and men and women knitted garments for soldiers during the Second World War.