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Fiber arts revival: Knitting circle provides outlet, college club nurtures learning

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Photo courtesy of Knit2Together

Once a month, a tight-knit (pun intended) group of Fox Valley women congregate at Appleton Public Library with needles, yarn, projects and creativity in tow. Knit2Together, a multigenerational knitting circle, founded in 2010, has remained a constant presence over the past half a decade, although newcomers are always welcome and encouraged.

“The attendance has been about steady,” says Adult Programming Librarian Elizabeth Eisen, whose former colleague was the founder of the program. “It’s been anywhere, depending on the weather, between maybe six and 10 people. It’s a smaller group and they’re kind of self-sustaining.”

A core group of regular participants forms the foundation of the program, and unfamiliar faces join from time to time as well. “We want to welcome newcomers all the time,” says Eisen. “We really do feel that way.”

“We’ve had quite a few people involved, we’ve had some drops in attendance, we have seen new people come in and come out,” says Vonnie Riehl, who learned to knit from her mother as a child and has been regularly participating in Knit2Together since November 2010. “In general, we take care of their needs to get started knitting, and we always hope they continue and don’t give up. We help them read patterns and learn what they’re doing, we have them cast on and we encourage them to come back or to go to other knitting groups in the area if they can.”

Riehl belongs to several of those other knitting circles, one of which is a new group whose focus is on service. This group, Knit 1 Purl 2, is still in its developmental stage, but has potential for wider influence in the Fox Cities. “We are doing charity knitting,” explains Riehl. “Everything that we knit for that group will be given to some local charity. We all make enough ourselves that it’s time to give to the community.”

Knit2Together, marketed as “multigenerational,” is an open and diverse circle, where seasoned veterans and knitting newbies can work side by side creating something with their own hands. Members of the group work with a variety of fibers: acrylics, yarn from an independent dyers, wool, silks and cashmere. “There are people helping each other if they’re stuck on a project or how to proceed. There are all different skill levels,” explains Eisen. “Sometimes a mother will come with her daughter, that kind of thing. I think it really helps build relationships.”

“It’s something we all know how to do and we can all talk about it,” says Riehl of the social aspect of the knitting circle. “No one is competitive in this. It’s something that we all like to do, and we love to share what we’ve done.”

Relationship-building and productive creativity are two main draws to the program. “It fills a niche,” reflects Eisen, “because I think knitting has come back into style.”

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence University’s Fiber Arts Club

The growing number of young people embracing the do-it-yourself movement would tend to agree. Another group, just down the street at Lawrence University, also has been meeting up to work on their knitting projects — with a particular emphasis on learning.

Lawrence University’s Fiber Arts Club, active the past two years, is a testament to knitting’s growing popularity, and members of the club also include crochet in their repertoire. Recently-elected co-president Bhavana Suvarna, a sophomore at Lawrence, spent the fall learning the basics of crochet, and now holds a position whose goal is to help others learn and to keep peers motivated to stick with it.

“I was surprised that I ended up becoming president, that I was nominated and everything,” reveals Suvarna. “But even though I may not know how to knit and I’m still an advanced beginner at best with crochet, Alex (Thorp, the other co-president) said I really embody what the club is about. I came in knowing nothing about crochet, came to a few meetings, and now I’m crocheting just for fun. I think it’s just to speak to how anyone can take part in this.”

The club — composed of six or seven fairly active members along with the occasional newcomer, both young men and women  —  usually meets two evenings a week, one evening dedicated to knitting lessons and the other to crochet lessons. Two co-presidents make it possible for the club to specialize in both; typically one leader knits and the other crochets.

“If this was your first or second time they would teach you some of the basics,” says Suvarna of attending a typical club meeting. “They usually got you started on a project right away. So basically, all I did fall term was work on dishcloths, little squares of crocheting where I would work on learning stiches: an entire square of single crochet, an entire square of double crochet.”

Exercises and diligent practice is how Suvarna — and other novices — learn to stop dropping and adding stitches, mastering the perfect square before moving onto more complex projects. “That sounds a lot easier than it is for a beginner,” Suvarna adds with a laugh.

A few months after learning to crochet and a few weeks after becoming co-president, Suvarna has a crochet headband and half a hat on her résumé. “I’m really into winter accessories,” she explains.

Creating something both practical and fun is a big draw to the fiber arts, and one of the many factors in knitting’s comeback.

“I think that infinity scarves are super cute, but they’re also super expensive. I don’t want to pay $30 for a scarf when I can crochet or knit one on my own. I think that’s sort of a motivator for me,” says Suvarna. “Also, I like the idea of wearing something and someone asking me where I got it and me being able to say, ‘I made it’ or, ‘A friend made this for me.’ I love handmade gifts. It would be such a show of love to be able to give someone a scarf or a hat you made for them.”

Riehl feels the same way, knitting mostly for her grandchildren and other friends and relatives. “The best thing that I like about it is knitting gifts for different people,” she says. “I put a lot of thought behind it. I look at what colors they’ll wear, what they’ll get the most use out of, what they can take if they travel, that kind of stuff.”

The Fiber Arts Club has branched out from its weekly meetings, including activities last term such as a field trip to a local yarnery, Iris Fine Yarns on Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton, and a weekend retreat at Lawrence University’s Door County lodge.

“We worked on projects all weekend. It was the most relaxing Björklunden weekend ever,” says Suvarna, touching on another big draw fiber arts have. “I don’t know if I can speak for why fiber arts are coming back as a whole, but I suppose it’s for a similar reason why adult coloring books are becoming popular, too,” she reflects. “People are more stressed than ever, and we look for other ways to take care of ourselves.”

Lawrence University’s Fiber Arts Club

Lawrence University’s Fiber Arts Club

Back at Appleton Public Library, Knit2Together uses the same medium for similar ends, as well as to promote relationships across all ages and to cultivate a supportive and inspiring atmosphere.

“Most of us do it because it’s a good stress reliever,” says Riehl, also noting the positive effects activities like knitting can have on those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. “Several times a day I pick it up. It always calms me down a bit, even tearing apart a project. There’s something very therapeutic about doing it.”

“The goal and hope is to foster the social aspect of knitting and the value of learning from each other,” says Eisen. “I think it’s worth continuing even though it’s a smaller group, because the people who do come really enjoy it.”

Perhaps the size of the group is on the cusp of major growth, as fiber arts expand in popularity and the number of knitters in the community increases as well. Even though warmer weather is on its way in and therefore winter accessories like Suvarna’s favorites are on their way temporarily out for the season, the intervening months will provide an opportunity for fiber arts enthusiasts to learn more, improve their skills and start accumulating knitwear galore for next fall and winter. The cold months in the Fox Valley call for an abundance of bundling gear, and just like it’s never too late to learn to knit or crochet, it’s never too early to start working on those cold-weather trimmings!

Knit2Together meets the third Monday of each month, from 6-9 p.m. during the school year and from 6-8 p.m. during the summer months. For more information, contact Appleton Public Library at 832-6173.

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