The blue and red yarn curls around her ring-adorned fingers. She holds the soft acrylic strands, picks them up, winds them over a thick silver knitting needle and pulls the yarn through the hole. Again and again, up, around and through. If her needles were drumsticks, she could keep the beat for an entire orchestra.
She is 20. Her name is Kelly Viselman, and she is knitting.
The age-old pastime isn’t your bubbe’s craft anymore.
Knitting, crocheting and sewing — staples of the Jewish grandmother’s skill set — no longer belong exclusively to the over-60 demographic.
Young Jewish (and non-Jewish) women have taken an age-old craft and turned it inside out and upside down, knitting skirts, purses, legwarmers and even bikinis. Jewish knitters and crocheters have helped the craft evolve into a source of community, meditation and tzedakah.
“I do feel a connection between Jewish and knitting culture,” said Anna Beall, 23, another 20-something knitter. She works at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and Knitting Arts in Saratoga.
“My grandmother, her mother and so on were knitters and crocheters,” she said. “Knitting gives me a real connection with my ancestors. I think both [knitters and Jews] create very strong communities. And Jews attract each other like knitters attract each other. It’s really amazing.”
Viselman and fellow U.C. Berkeley student Ariel Schneider started Stitch and Kvetch last year. Every Friday afternoon, before weekly Shabbat services and dinner, chitchat and a constant click-click-click of knitting needles fill the bright lobby of Hillel.
Stitch and Kvetch (a nickname modified from the bestselling “Stitch and Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook”) began as a way to bring together Hillel-goers who liked to knit and talk. Depending on the week, between five and 10 20-somethings gather.
Schneider, 21, started the group to bring more people into Hillel.
“Finding anything in common is a good way to connect with and meet new people,” she said, putting her neon orange needles and chunky brown yarn in her lap. “And building community through Hillel is really important.”
Viselman and Schneider love sitting in Hillel, popping in a “Seinfeld” DVD and turning a ball of yarn into a wearable item.
“At first, I didn’t understand how to do it,” Viselman said. “But now it’s like second nature. It’s very soothing.”
The Mission Minyan in San Francisco has a casual, informal knitting group. Several synagogues have at one time had knitting groups, usually affiliated with either a Sisterhood or young adult program. For instance, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco had an arts and crafts night during Chanukah, and Temple Emanu-El in San Jose had a women’s knitting group.
Often, though, Jewish women gather without the support of an institution to knit or crochet with their Jewish and non-Jewish friends.
Amy Silver, 25, learned to knit six years ago when she worked as a counselor at a Jewish camp in Minnesota. For her, knitting is a creative outlet and a way to unwind (no pun intended). She knits “pretty much anywhere and everywhere.” Her favorite: hats. She estimates she’s made more than 50, most of them for gifts.
“People look at knitting and say, ‘Wow, it looks so difficult and challenging, I could never do it,'” she said. “But then they try it and understand that it’s really not that hard. It’s fun to teach people how to knit.”
The knitting community also extends (deeply, in fact) into the World Wide Web. The tech-savvy set of 20- and 30-somethings have created a tremendous network of needlers who write about their latest projects on blogs and message boards.
Penguin Girl from New York writes about knitting and Judaism on her blog; so does She Loves to Knit, from Pittsburgh. The Knitter of Shiny Things writes about knitting and becoming more observant from her home in Philadelphia.
And Yarn Boy, a Jewish New York native living in San Francisco, writes about knitting, even posting photographs of his work. Real name: Jesse Loesberg, age 35.
“People stare at me when I knit on the bus, on BART, or anywhere in public, which is pretty amazing when you consider that this is a city in which pre-operative transsexuals and drag queens ride the bus everyday,” he said. “You’d think a male knitter would fly right under the radar. Not so.”
Loesberg taught himself how to knit. He not only knits but also designs his own patterns and answers knitters’ questions on his blog. Though knitting connects him to a virtual community, it’s also a link to one knitter in particular that he can’t connect to any other way.
“My grandmother was a knitter. She died of cancer in the winter of 2002, and I’ve since inherited all of her needles,” Loesberg said. “Using her needles is a deep and lasting privilege.”
Many knitters also use their craft as a form of tikkun olam and tzedakah.
Stitch and Kvetch evolved in the fall to be more of a community service project than a social group. So Schneider changed the name to “Knit for the Needy.” She and her friends knit scarves for Holocaust survivors, with whom they connected through Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay.
“We thought about knitting scarves for Israeli soldiers, but since my grandparents are survivors, I have a personal connection,” she said. “So many of them live alone, or they’re sick, or they don’t have money. Plus, sending scarves to local residents was a way for us to connect with the community close by.”
Knitzvah Corps meets often in San Jose. The volunteer organization of knitters, crocheters and quilters are part of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley’s Project N.O.A.H. (No One Abandoned Here), and have collectively made more than 100 blankets. The 80 members are as young as elementary school children and as old as 92 years of age.
“Knitzvah” groups also meet in Colorado, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Ann Rubin, a Jewish 40-something woman in San Francisco, started a small nonprofit called Afghans for Afghans. Five years later, the idea has inspired thousands of temple- and church-going men and women across the United States and Canada to send mittens, sweaters, socks and blankets to Afghan refugees.
Rubin estimates 40,000 items have been shipped to Afghanistan to date. She works closely with the Afghan American community in San Francisco to coordinate the shipment and delivery of the knitted goods.
“More of them know me as an individual than as a Jew, since I try to keep religion out of it, but the more chances we’ve had to be friends, the more I realize our faiths have a lot more similarities than differences,” she said.
At Knitting Arts, where Beall works, the first Monday of the month is devoted to the Good Works Group, which gathers knitters who want to focus on charitable knitting and crocheting.
Community knitting, as Sonoma County resident Melissa Kaplan calls the charity projects, motivates her to create. The 51-year-old woman said knitting helps connect her to people in her community and around the world.
“When I am knitting certain projects, like things for the kids at the local at-risk children’s home, or scarves and socks for our men and women in the armed forces, I am usually mindful of who the garment or blanket is being made for, what their lives have been like, what they are facing, and the contrast as I sit in relative comfort and peace.”
Jewish women and the fiber arts have a long, rich history.
In the Jewish tradition, an item created by a novice stitcher is just as esteemed as one created by a master artisan, according to the Pomegranate Guild, a national organization that links Jewish ritual with needlepoint, so it was easy for women of all ages and talents to pick up some pointy sticks as the knitting resurgence began several years ago.
More and more often, teenage girls and 20-something women are learning the yarn arts. Some estimate that the percentage of women under 45 who knit or crochet has doubled since 1996.
“The knitting world has definitely changed. There are just as many young knitters as older,” Beall said. “And knitting is this great equalizer between the two groups. It creates an environment that allows you to experience people you wouldn’t normally experience.”
Jessica Katz, 36, of Burlingame, said learning to knit two years ago helped her relate to her grandmother — a lifetime crocheter — on another level. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, so when Katz picked up the hobby she also adopted her grandmother’s needles and yarn. She describes herself as an “obsessive knitter.”
Currently, she’s at work knitting 140 kippahs for the male guests who will attend her July 1 wedding. She can make five kippahs per skein of Lion Brand Glitterspun yarn, and each kippah takes her about one hour.
“My grandma has always crocheted the kippot for every simcha in the family, but now she can’t do that,” Katz said. “I couldn’t imagine having my wedding without knitted kippot when every other event has had them, so I said, ‘I’ll do it myself.'”
She’s made 70 so far. When she hits 140, she’s going to make different kippahs for her fiancé and groomsmen.
“I’ve had the thought: Are they going to use this? Do they realize I took 140 hours to make these?” Katz said. “And I realized it’s not about whether or not they realize it, it’s that I feel really good about doing it.”
Beall thinks such a diversity of women have picked up the craft because of its artistic potential. That’s partly the reason that Betsy Levine, a Jewish knitter from Oakland and librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, started a teen knitting group called “Knit Happens.” The girls meet on the third Saturday of the month.
“I learned from my mom and grandma as a kid, but it’s such a different atmosphere now, with knitting being something that everybody’s doing,” she said. “It seems like a lot of people pick it up and get really, deeply into it. It’s fun to be able to share.”
Knitting appeals to many people because of its portability and compatibility with technology. Yarn and knitting needles or crochet hooks are portable, making the craft a natural complement to TV-watching, iPod-listening and YouTube-viewing.
It’s also the perfect commuting companion. In fact, every Tuesday in the spring and summer knitters could ride a “Stitch ‘n’ Ride” car on Capitol Corridor trains from Sacramento to Oakland and back.
“I like the creative aspect of it, and I like that I can do it without thinking,” Silver said. “I can watch TV and knit, and at the end, will have made something, have something tangible, instead of just sitting there and not doing anything for two hours. It’s multi-tasking. It’s fun.”
Cover and cover photo by Cathleen Maclearie