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Sweater Weather

Crafty Rhode Islanders are knitting and purling their way through winter

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New Englanders are about as fickle over the weather as the weather itself. We’re hot and cold over hot and cold. Many people adore the idea of winter until about New Year’s Day, and then they’re ready for the whole thing to be over. In reality, we know from experience that frigid temps and precipitation don’t really kick into gear until about late January. Instead of getting your thermals into a twist over the wind chill factor, channel your inner bear and prepare to do some hibernating. Many Northern cultures refer to basking in coziness with various terms, like the Danish “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-gah”) – it’s all about the art of being content and snug. Consider adding hot cocoa mix and yarn to your shopping list this season and learn a new skill to while away the dark hours. You may even have something handmade to show for it.

“Winter helps create that space to enjoy the little things in life,” says Jessica D’Avanza, who runs Stitch & Listen: A Knit & Crochet Meetup at Barrington Public Library. “I often feel like I have too much going on. Winter helps create that space to enjoy the little things in life.” RISD faculty member and fiber artist Polly Spenner concurs, “Winter lends itself to fiber arts through the pure coziness of wanting to be wrapped in fabric that I have sewn, stitched, and hand painted.” Carol McElory, a spinner, weaver, and knitter agrees: “Winter is my absolute favorite time of year! I love snow and cold weather, starry nights and all that!” And the best part: “Being able to wear all my warm wool creations!”

Like many, McElory has been knitting most of her life. “My nana taught me when I was a teenager. When my kids were young, we raised sheep and I learned how to take the raw wool and clean, dye, and spin it. I did a lot of spinning before I discovered weaving. I now have a large floor loom and enjoy creating woven goods like house decor, scarves, and baby blankets.” In addition to knitting for herself, McElory sells her handcrafted wares online at Etsy (Red Oak Fiber Arts) and at A Bee’s Buzz, a marketplace of antiques and crafts in Foster.

From the comfort of one’s couch, seat on the train, or soccer bench, there can also be activism. Recently via Instagram, Christine Chitnis of Providence ran a series of auctions of hand-knit goods to raise money for families separated at the border. “Knitters from all over the world participated, and we raised over $8,000 for RAICES, which provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees in Texas,” she explains.

According to the Craft Yarn Council (CYC), more than 50 million people know how to knit, crochet, or craft with yarn. Throughout the years, the CYC has performed countless surveys with hundreds of thousands of participants asking folks why they choose to spend their time knitting and crocheting. Time and time again the results point to relaxation coupled with satisfaction and purpose. A study from Mayo Clinic for the American Academy of Neurology showed that knitters have a reduced risk of memory loss, and another at Harvard Medical School revealed that needlework can elicit a calm, almost meditative state linked to lowered heart rate and blood pressure.

“Very wise friends suggested I learn to knit as a way to cope with my enormous, oppressive grief,” says Ann Hood, acclaimed author of The Knitting Circle, a novel based in personal tragic loss, camaraderie, and knitting. “As a Home Ec failure back in ninth grade, it would never have occurred to me to turn to something like knitting for comfort, but it was exactly what I needed. I’ve been knitting non-stop ever since.” Hood has since authored other books on the craft including Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, and adds that as soon as summer wanes, she begins knitting like mad. “I do like getting snowed in and having hours and hours to knit.”

There’s also a social aspect, for those who want to take part in classes or enjoy others’ company while creating. “There are not many places you can go where you can be surrounded by every age and demographic and still have a common bond and language. Knitting and making gives us that ability,” says Erica Smith, an instructor at Barrington’s Knit One Quilt Too shop. “On a Saturday morning during one of our knit-a-longs, the table will be surrounded by women who all have a similar passion for knitting and craft.”

Chances are good that you know someone who can teach you, but if you don’t, Rhode Island is teeming with places where you can learn. Libraries are a great resource not only for books and Internet access, but for classes and meetups. If there isn’t a program at your local branch, don’t be shy to inquire. After patrons expressed an interest in having a group where they could exchange ideas and meet socially, Sheri Gavitt of the North Kingstown Free Library founded A Good Yarn. “Our group is for anyone who is interested in the fiber arts. We have members who knit, crochet, spin, weave, and dye yarn,” she explains.

Barrington Library’s D’Avanza learned Sachiko embroidery from a class at The Stitchery arts education studio in Portsmouth, attends a weekly garment sewing class at Meraki Studio in Warren, and drops in for the knit session on Saturdays at Knit One Quilt Two. “[Erica] has taught me everything that I know about knitting. I hope to have her show me how to do cables soon,” she says.

“We knit, crochet, quilt, embroider, make clothing, do punch-needle embroidery, macramé… did we forget anything?” jokes Jocelyn Paquette of Meraki Studio, a maker-space she operates with friends Liz Bessel and Kristin Meranda. “We all learned as kids from our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. We have lots of happy memories of sitting and stitching with people we love. There is something very satisfying about knowing someone is enjoying a craft because we shared it with them, and we love the idea of passing along skills that are an important part of our lives.”

Knitting instructor Pam Sluter is energized by the flourishing scene, citing the annual Fiber Art Conference weekend at Slater Mill, events at shops like Cluck in Cranston, festivals at historic Coggeshall and Watson farms, and an annual retreat in Block Island, among others. Sluter teaches around the state, offering courses like sock making for Trad Arts Studio and shawl construction and color work at RISD’s Continuing Education program. “The main reason I love teaching is because it makes me happy to pass on techniques and traditions and keep craft alive,” says Sluter, who loves knitting hats by the fireplace and mostly taught herself from books at the library, long before YouTube tutorials.

Known as Casapinka in knitting circles, Bronwyn lives in the West Bay and travels the state and country encouraging knitters to get confident with color at events hosted by yarn shops and knitting guilds. “I also get asked to do knitting cruises,” she says, adding, “You don’t tend to see these knitting fanatics out and about unless you know where to look but they are quite plentiful!” In addition to having a strong presence on social media platforms, Casapinka has a podcast.

Thanks to the Internet, discovering like-minded makers both near and far isn’t difficult. One such group is Providence Knits. With nearly ninety members, the group describes itself as an “informal craft circle” and uses its online platform to plan offline meetups. Most every fiber artist cites Ravelry as an invaluable resource; what started as a blog, the site has grown into a user-driven hub for all things knitting and crochet. “I also feel like Instagram is one of my social fiber art groups,” says Katy Westcott known for her bamboo button and wooden tool business Katrinkles. “I love seeing what people are making and posting and it's so fun to be in touch with so many people there.”

And let’s not forget about the local coffee shop. Erica Smith has been meeting with the same group of women for coffee and knitting every Wednesday night at her neighborhood Starbucks for several years now, although her favorite spot to create is in front of the fireplace with a warm apple cider. “There is nothing like bundling up in knitwear head to toe. There really is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices… and hand-knit socks help!”

Editor’s note: Find most everyone in this article on Instagram with their name as their handle