Oaklander Steve Dawson recently decided to give his girlfriend a pair of knit wrist warmers for her birthday, but rather than dropping his cash at some trendy boutique, the 27-year-old pulled out his deck and skated to a yarn store.
A few weeks later, he sits in a local cafe, working the yarn around a pair of delicate metal needles in tiny, feathered movements. He's hoping to finish his knitting this morning, then surprise his girlfriend with the warmers on an afternoon drive to Monterey. Dawson is tall with close-cut reddish-brown hair. He favors the urban skater look, sort of Eminem-lite, with a baggy hooded sweatshirt over -- you guessed it -- a knit cap.
A woman stops to admire his handiwork. "Oooh, can you make my poodle some leg warmers?" she asks playfully, her fluffy white dog sniffing the yarn. The knitter smiles indulgently, pats the dog, and returns to his project.
Dawson is one of an emerging set of young hipster guys getting hooked on a hobby that in most circles is still associated with old ladies. He started last fall when a female friend gave him lessons for his birthday. Before long, he was embracing the needlework wholeheartedly, even going so far as to join a knit club. "We're thinking of getting T-shirts made," he says.
Over the past couple of years, splashy how-to articles in post-feminist girlie magazines such as Bust and urbanite do-it-yourself rags such as Berkeley's Ready Made have been chipping away at knitting's dowdy image, and hip young chicks have been letting needles fly all over town.
Growing legions of male knitters say they find the hobby just as appealing. It's relaxing, relieves stress, and provides a constant source of new stuff to wear. And, like building or taking apart engines, it calls for tinkering, not to mention the constant acquisition of new tools and gadgets. Unlike the closeted male knitters of the past who hid their hobby from friends and co-workers, these guys feel no shame knitting in cafes, on BART, and even on the job.
Dawson, an astronomy Ph.D student at Cal, says knitting actually makes him feel kind of badass. "What could be more punk than making your own clothes?" he says. "It feels a little bit tough; it doesn't feel feminine."
Still, as thousands of knitters descended on Oakland two weekends ago for Stitches West, a major annual event at the cavernous downtown convention center, it was clear that the pastime's girlie image isn't going to go quietly. Although the show's creator, David Xenakis, reports that male registration had definitely increased from last year, the convention floor was dominated by suburban moms, grannies, and grrrl knitters drawn by the hobby's recent surge in popularity.
Knitted items for sale included baby clothes, bras and panties, and spangled evening bags. There was even a cosmetics booth offering free makeovers. And knitting workshops with names such as "Vest: From Stash to Treasure," "Knit a Patchwork Bolsa," and "Go Off the Wall with Irish Knitting" hardly catered to a masculine crowd.
Retiree Paul Magnusson, who drove down from Seattle with his wife, was one of a relative handful of men in attendance. The white-haired, eccentric 71-year-old proudly displays the red, white, and blue striped roll-neck sweater he'd knitted and worn especially for the occasion. "I knit the call letters of my amateur radio station into the back," he boasts, turning away to reveal W7MYA across his back in white yarn.
Magnusson might mingle with the hard-core, but like most longtime male knitters, he firmly buys into the gender stigma. Asked whether he'd consider knitting out in the open, his answer was immediate. "I don't advertise," he says. "I don't need that kind of stress."
But to the younger men at Stitches West, the stigma just doesn't seem that prohibitive. Noah Wulster, a 25-year-old from Connecticut who was manning his family's knitting-software booth, claims he taught his girlfriend to knit, not the other way around.
Wulster says he's been making an effort to move away from materialism since 9/11. Knitting hats or scarves as gifts instead of plunking down a credit card for a factory-stitched version was an easy, fun way to do it. And besides, he adds, knitting is addictive.
A slew of recent addicts has been bumping up sales for knit shop owners such as Carolyn Pugh of El Cerrito's Skein Lane and Robin Wolf of the Oakland-based mail-order store www.knitpacks.com. Many of the new clients are men, the vendors report. "I don't think we're in the macho age anymore," says Louise Spangler, owner of Uncommon Threads in Los Altos. "It's the new yoga."
At Article Pract, an Oakland yarn shop, cute boys in Dickies pants and funky glasses browse the shelves of brilliantly colored yarn alongside female customers. Store owner Christina Stork Launer says she gets at least five male customers every day. "I joke that I should put a note on our Web site saying it's the home of straight guys who love to knit," she says. "It makes me feel good to see that what used to be pigeonholed as a female hobby has opened its wings."
A quick peek into history shows that this wouldn't be the first time men have taken up knitting needles. In Colonial times, men knitted alongside women to supplement their incomes. During both world wars, soldiers knitted socks to keep their feet warm. The practical skill was also a necessity for lumberjacks, sailors, and fishermen.
At a recent meeting of Article Pract's informal Wednesday night knit group, Andrew Vincent and Thurston Graham join the three women lounging on the store's cozy red couch and wooden rocking chairs. Vincent, a 22-year-old student in a yellow snowboarding sweatshirt, works on a pair of gloves and helps his girlfriend, Brenna McGee, with her first scarf. He's been knitting for about a year, ever since he picked up one of McGee's abandoned projects. "I describe it to people as art by numbers," Vincent says. "Follow the pattern and make something beautiful."
At one point, Vincent was so obsessed with the afghan he was knitting for his mother he would sneak off from his construction job to work on it. "These really burly contract guys would see me knitting in my car and give me all sorts of hell," he says.
But Graham, a 34-year-old contractor and techie with Buddy Holly glasses, sees signs that the knitting stigma is shifting, at least around here. Many of his friends, he says, view it no differently from sculpture, painting, or photography. "I think painting is a little more girlie, if you ask me," Graham says.
While some men may continue to scoff at their knitting brethren, many women view the hobby as a sign of confidence and enlightenment in men. One 24-year-old woman at the Expo even called it sexy. Perhaps there will come a day when bulking up at the gym takes a backseat to learning the differences between merino wool and polyester, or how to do a seed stitch (knit the purls and purl the knits). "In my mom's era, men who cooked or helped around the house were the perfect catch," says Liz Green, Dawson's girlfriend. "I kind of feel like I get that same sort of reaction, but it's, 'Oh, my God, he knits?'"
Graham insists he's not knitting simply to impress the girls. "I don't use it as a secret weapon," he says. "But I'm not going to deny that it seems to break the ice."
In the midst of their drive to Monterey, Green calls to rave about the wrist warmers her man finished at the cafe that morning. "I'm passionately in love with these things," she says. "It's super hot outside, and I'm still wearing them."
Dawson, meanwhile, frets that something about the warmers doesn't feel quite right. "They're just so very '80s dancewear," he says. "I liked the brown, but afterwards, I kind of regretted it. Maybe a solid dark color would've been nice."
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