A hobby once associated with grandmothers and rocking chairs has seen a huge surge in interest in the past few years. The age-old craft of knitting has taken hold here on the Vineyard, where natural fibers abound and a spirit of self-sufficiency endures.
There are a handful of knitting groups on the Island where beginners benefit from the help of more experienced knitters, and projects are worked on in a social setting. The West Tisbury Library's Monday "In Stitches" knitting group has been going on for more than 20 years.
Two Island senior centers offer weekly knitting groups that are open to all. On Tuesday evenings the Anchors in Edgartown hosts the Mindful Knitting Group where participants are encouraged to hold thoughts of caring for the recipient of the garment. They do some knitting for charity as well as personal projects.
On Fridays knitters gather at the Tisbury Senior Center where the focus is just as much on socializing as stitching. Sandra Whitworth, activities director for the Tisbury Senior Center, says, "Knitting is an absolute stress buster." Although neither group offers instruction, there is a good deal of skill-sharing. Ms. Whitworth says. "[Someone's] always willing to help. Most people learned to knit from their mothers so it's sort of like having eight mothers here."
One of the Island's knitting gurus is Anne Marie D'Addarie, who says that she's been knitting forever, teaches all levels of individuals and groups at her home and runs the classes at Island Alpaca. She also started the class at the Tisbury Senior Center. Ms. D'Addarie knows what makes a good teacher: "I have infinite patience," she says, "and I know how to break down something step by step to make it a process."
Ms. D'Addarie attends a knitting convention every year where she takes classes to increase her repertoire of techniques that she then passes along to her students. "I try not to teach too much at one time," she says. "I send my students home with homework. It's like learning a musical instrument. The teacher can always tell if they haven't practiced."
When students come to her with a project in mind, the first thing she does is explain the techniques that will be required and have them work on a sample to determine if they are willing to master the necessary skills. "I want the person to have success and feel happy with what they make." she says, "This is your free time. It should be enjoyable and you should be proud of your project."
Jeweler and knitter Ronni Simon of the Simon Gallery in Vineyard Haven makes one-of-a kind designs along with dramatic crocheted bead and metal sculptures displayed at the gallery. Still, when it comes to her knitting classes, she stresses the basics. Ms. Simon, who's planning a Thursday afternoon knitting group, starts off her classes with a five-minute meditation using breathing techniques. "I tell people not to get stressed and nervous." she says, "Beginners tend to knit too tight. They pull the yarn instead of releasing it...You can see it." She says, "My philosophy is if you have great yarn you don't need a pattern. The yarn creates the pattern."
Another knitting artist, Alix deSeife Small, whose store Vineyard Knitworks in West Tisbury held its official opening party this past Sunday, carries fibers from her own herd of angora goats and alpaca in Vermont. She has been knitting for 50 years, and her designs have been presented by couturier Perry Ellis, and in stores such as Bloomingdales.
"There's a huge difference between something machine-knit and hand-knit," Ms. Small says. "To me, a machine-knit sweater has very little soul. It doesn't have that humanity in it. Handmade work doesn't look as regular and as machine made."
The Island Alpaca Farm located in Oak Bluffs off the Vineyard Haven/Edgartown Road has a farm store where you can purchase a wide variety of hand-knit items, as well as yarn and roving (unspun yarn) from the herd, knitting supplies and spinning wheels. Owner Barbara Ronchetti says, "Alpacas produce the most wonderful fiber and yarn. The tensile strength is stronger and it's four to six times warmer than sheep's wool."
The farm also offers knitting classes from a beginner's class to intermediate, and classes in spinning and weaving. Ms. Ronchetti says. "Knitting was kind of a dying art and people are taking new interest. It's nice to make your own things and grow your own things."
The Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm is the summer home to a flock of Cormo sheep and Angora goats and also the original home of the world's first wool CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Owner Susan Gibbs offers summer knitting classes. Ms. Gibbs observes that sock knitting is probably the fastest growing trend in the craft. She also teaches hand dying.
Lynn Benson, owner of The Heath Hen Yarn and Quilt Shop at the Tisbury Marketplace whose store is in its 26th year, limits her classes to six students and will give a class for just one person if necessary. She comments, "Usually when someone starts one class they'll just keep going." She is willing to help people with knitting or crocheting problems, whether they've bought the yarn from her or not.
"Being on the ferry, you can see the number of people working on portable things - socks, hats, or scarves," Ms. Benson says. "Rather than waste 45 minutes, you can get something accomplished."
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.