Community knitting on Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard knitting groups create more than scarves and hats.

Martha MacGillivray tries on her mother Marcia's unfinished hat. — Photo by Susan Safford

Knitworks in Vineyard Haven was cozy and welcoming as several women arrived on a chilly Tuesday evening for their weekly drop-in knitting group.

A vintage Island home with a comfy lived-in feeling, the shop boasts several small rooms, each overflowing with yarns in every conceivable color and texture.
The skeins and balls include custom-dyed exotic fiber blends from around the globe and sturdy Island-grown yarns in natural earthy tones.

There are knitting needles of every size, crochet hooks, buttons, ribbons, miscellaneous notions, books, patterns, and fiber magazines.

Hand-knit sample items — scarves, hats, a toddler’s dress, a glamorous shawl, multicolor gloves, fluffy afghan — are displayed, examples of how the yarn can be used, inspiring even the novice knitter to give it a try.

Making the atmosphere especially enticing was the sweet aroma of a traditional chocolate babka baked by Liz Toomey, an assistant at the shop and experienced fiber artist who shares hosting duties for the groups with store owner Alix deSeife-Small.

An accomplished knitter and textile designer, Ms. deSeife-Small began the shop in 2010. Along with yarn and supplies, she offers classes and custom-made knitted clothing.

A tea kettle whistled softly and a bottle of red wine stood ready for pouring as knitters settled down at the round kitchen table, pulled out projects, and got to work.

Celine Segel, a web designer with MVOL, spread her vibrant orange lacework shawl out on the tabletop as she counted stitches. There was a chorus of admiring compliments from the others.

Ms. Segel, who also designs chainmaille jewelry, said she originally learned to knit from her grandmother as a little girl growing up in France. Now 34, married, and settled on the Vineyard, she took the craft up again four years ago, when she was deeply missing her grandmother. Along with affirming that warm connection, Ms. Segel admitted knitting helps her sit still.

Two mother-daughter pairs were at the table. Stephanie Thibert, Ms. Toomey’s daughter and Toy Box staffer, was casting on green yarn for a hat pattern she had just discovered. Ms. Toomey was working on a scarf in a textural “linen stitch,” using a wool and silk blend.

Marcia MacGillivray, a familiar smiling face at the Toy Box for years, was pluckily knitting away on a creamy beige hat, while her daughter, Martha, was beginning a black and white alpaca one. Both were modest about their knitting skills, poking affectionate fun at themselves and one another.

Martha, who works with young special needs children for an early intervention program, said they are making hats for gifts. Inspiration came when one of her brothers requested a hat this Christmas. Mother and daughter worked hard, but after three rejects, only one was “wrappable.”

“This is the beginners’ side of the table,” she quipped. “We only can do hats.”

Martha MacGillivray recalled knitting sweaters when her grown children were little. She picked up her needles again after moving to the Island where her mother and father, legendary fisherman Donald MacGillivray, have lived for years. “Now I’m here with Mom; it’s [been] our winter project.”

When Marcia’s hat was nearly done, her daughter modeled it, needles still in place, for all to admire.

A day earlier, the Monday afternoon group gathered, begun by knitters who prefer daytime meetings. Sunlight filtered through the kitchen windows, making the yarn glow.

Carole Early was triumphantly nearing the top of her navy blue “mutt beret.” “I combined two patterns,” she explained. A busy volunteer with Vineyard Committee on Hunger and the Island Food Pantry, Ms. Early started knitting 14 years ago.

Hospice grief counselor Susan Desmerais immersed herself in a cloud of fluffy mossy-hued yarn flecked with brilliant accents called “Spiceberry,” fast becoming a fashionable scarf.

At another Monday meeting, newcomer Ljuba Davis had just finished casting on stitches of gossamer soft mohair, “Primrose” pink with twinkling silver sparkles. It would be a scarf for her daughter. “She’s very soft and has tinkley laughter,” said Ms. Davis fondly.

Nancy Weaver’s attention was consumed by an elegant avocado-green cardigan. Finishing the sleeves, she left the table several times to consult with Ms. Toomey about a challenging stitch pattern.

Needles clicked, stitches were counted and recounted, dropped and retrieved, rows added up, progress measured, patterns studied with intense concentration.

“I like the company of other women,” said Ms. Desmerais. “There’s something about the rhythm of knitting that relaxes people. The conversation can be light-hearted but also can become very deep.”

Ms. Early agreed heartily. “But also if you get stuck with something, someone can show you.”

Conversation drifted from knitting to work, travel, family. Over the course of three meetings, women mulled the fate of the Malaysian airliner, joked about consulting Siri on their iPhones, critiqued several Island eateries, shared thoughts on Buddhism, changes at the VNA, a tempting tip about a French bakery in Falmouth, pictures of grandchildren. One member was nervous about a Boston medical treatment that week. Others offered encouragement, and began planning a celebration dinner out for when she returned.

“We talk about anything and everything,” Ms. Desmerais said. “We don’t gossip, though.”

All were unanimous that since conversation can be distracting, it’s smart not to bring complicated projects.

At all the meetings, eventually talk circles back to knitting again, especially when someone has a problem, question, or is confused about a next step.

“It’s all knit and purl, knit and purl,” Ms. Toomey said, reassuring the women that even the most elaborate and involved pattern is made up of those basic stitches. Learn to knit and purl, she implied, and nothing will be beyond your reach!

More knitting

There are many other opportunities on the Island for knitters and needle workers to get together for advice, support, and companionship. Drop-in groups are free.

At the Heath Hen Yarn & Quilt Shop off State Road in Vineyard Haven, knitters gather the first Tuesday of each month for an “Unfinished Project Night,” and a summer evening drop-in group meets weekly at Eastville Beach.

Fiber Folks of Martha’s Vineyard meets the second Sunday afternoon of every month, September to May, at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. Handcrafters of all kinds, all levels are welcome (508-274-9696). Informal knitting groups are often held at Island libraries, senior centers, and elsewhere.

For the novice, or experienced knitter seeking to learn more, classes and lessons are offered at Knitworks, Heath Hen Yarn Shop, and Island Alpaca Farm in Oak Bluffs. Tuition is charged.

Information on groups and classes: Knitworks, 508-687-9163; Heath Hen, 508-693-6730; Fiber Folks, 508-274-9696; Island Alpaca Farm, 508-693-5554.