Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Knitting: It's the wool pack

No, it's not some shadowy organisation, but an army that loves giving it the needle. From Stitch and Bitch groups to those who turned a hobby in to a business, meet the people celebrating National Knitting Week

In stitches: Nora Greer says yarn bombing is just good fun

With the rise and rise of knitwear as high fashion, and the increasing popularity of arts and crafts, you're nobody these days unless you know how to knit.

Knitting even has a few royal supporters. This is National Knitting Week, the patron of which is none other than Prince Charles. His daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge has also admitted having a go with a pair of needles, although she says she's not very good. Knitting used to be confined to grannies in rocking chairs knitting booties beside the fire but these days it's a celebrity hobby. It's easy to pick up, doesn't require hard-to-get specialised equipment and is a handy past-time for whiling away the hours on set according to Mad Men star Christina Hendricks.

Actress Daryl Hannah likes it so much she even wrote the foreword of a knitting book to raise money for breast cancer – David Arquette appeared on the cover. American actress Dakota Fanning hands out woollens to her celebrity pals – Tom Cruise to name one. Julia Roberts knits, as do Kirsten Stewart, Kate Moss and even Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling. We talk to some Northern Ireland knitters about a craft that is becoming cool again.

Our pick of the knitters...

1. The yarn bomber

Nora Greer (50s) is a marketing consultant and lives in Belfast with her son Krister. She says:

"I started knitting at school and hated it – I thought it was boring. It wasn't until I was older and realised that you could knit whatever you liked – and be as colourful as you wanted – that I got much more enthusiastic.

As a student I started earning money by knitting bags and scarves and waistcoats for the Fresh Garbage shop in Belfast.

I was doing it for my friends anyway so it seemed smart to do it for money. Wool was much cheaper in those days and they paid me more than the articles cost to make, so I was happy.

As time went on I would take my wares to craft fairs and it was there that I learned I could trade my knitting for other things. I would go round the stalls at the end of the day and see what I could swap for the bits of knitting I had left. At that point of the day other stallholders wanted to get rid of as much of their own products as possible, so they were happy to trade. Thanks to that I have a painting by well-known artist Rita Duffy.

I started seeing yarn bombing a few years ago on the internet – they also call it guerilla knitting. I thought it looked wonderful.

You simply dress up pieces of street furniture such as benches or lampposts with brightly coloured pieces of knitting. I started off on the lamp-posts on my street and my neighbours loved it.

Our yarn bombing group is quite big now and did a lot of yarn bombing at the recent Culture Night in Belfast by decorating the benches outside of the Duke Of York public house (left). It's just for fun. We don't make any money out of it but it can really brighten a place up.

We fund it ourselves. You can get cheap wool if you know where to look. The number of wool shops in Belfast has declined in recent years but there are still some around that do good offers, so you can get 500g of brightly coloured wool for £1."

2. The knitting group

Sharon Clark (34) is a landlord and lives in Ballymena with her sons Duncan (12) and John (10). She is part of a knitting group which meets weekly in Belfast. She says:

"I'm originally from Canada and I learnt to knit at my grandmother's knee. It was typical for women to gather and knit as it was a rural community – both of my grandmothers knitted.

I didn't pay much attention to it during my childhood and teens but when I was pregnant with my oldest son I picked it up again. I think it was the nesting instinct. I looked at YouTube and forums online and picked up as many different techniques as I could. I knit everything from scarves to socks to jumpers and also crochet lace. I think my boys are a little embarrassed at the amount of Aran patterns there is in their lives.

I'm now what you call a master knitter and I spend about five hours of my day knitting just because I love it so much, but I don't do it to sell.

I joined the Belfast Stitch and Bitch group about five or six years ago. I needed a social activity because most people go to the pub or to church and I don't do either.

The group meets in the Starbucks cafe at Victoria Square every Wednesday from about 4pm until it closes. The group is as exactly what it says, we meet to create new items of clothing and have a chat and coffee as we go along. The numbers attending can be anything from five to 40. The members of the group are of all ages and abilities – until recently I was the oldest in the group – and it means that the more experienced can tutor others in different techniques. Even I'm still learning things.

We knit and crochet just about anything. Someone might have a personal project they're working on or, if everyone agrees, we'll work on a charity project. We've done hats for the homeless and blankets for Age NI. Recently I worked with another knitter to enter a tea-cosy competition at St George's Market. We came up with 50 Shades Of Earl Grey and won for the most humourous cosy."

3.The online knitter

Harriett Moore-Boyd (56) runs Pink Unicorn Designs which sells her knitting online and at stalls in St George's Market in Belfast. She lives in Crumlin with her husband Cyril and children, Eleanor (25) and Jennifer (22). She says:

"When I was at primary school in the 60s knitting was compulsory. It was one of those things that I took to straight away. I even made outfits for myself as a child like jumpers and scarves.

When I was eight-years-old my mother took me to a woman's house who was going to knit me a jumper. There was a knitting machine in the corner and I was fascinated by it. In those days children were seen and not heard, so I couldn't even ask about it.

I kept knitting by hand until I was in my 30s and getting married for the first time – my first husband has since passed away. My mother-in-law asked what I wanted for a present and I found myself asking for a knitting machine.

Around 1999-2000, with the children all grown up and finding myself with many more hours on my hands, I dusted off the knitting machine. I spent about two years practicing on it and doing correspondence classes. Then I went along to a craft fair at Templepatrick where people sold lots of homemade crafts and a woman asked me to start knitting for her. I then started selling my knitting and I haven't stopped yet.

These days I knit on machines mostly because my hands can get sore if I use needles. It means though that I can turn out more products. You sometimes need different machines for different thickness of needles so I have about 20 machines now.

I make accessories like scarves, hats, brooches and polo neck inserts to wear under jumpers. Brooches cost £7.50 and scarves start at £15 but they can go up to £25 if they're made from Alpaca wool as it's more expensive. I also do wraps with sparkles on them for evening wear. They can cost around £40. "

For Harriett's designs go to www.pinkunicorns.com or find her stall at St George's Market, Belfast each Friday morning.

4.The charity knitter

Jacqueline O'Doherty (49) is a housewife and lives in Londonderry with her husband Martin and their children, Christine (27), Martin (26), Jennifer (18), Ray and Annie (17). She teaches knitting to elderly people and also works with charities. She says:

"My mum taught all of us how to knit when we were kids. We knew how to do everything from jumpers to turning the heel on a sock. From there I got quite into dressmaking and often made my own clothes.

But I never really stopped knitting. I taught all of my daughters to knit and Martin too, although he doesn't do it very often.

I started going into old people's homes to teach the people there how to knit. Many of them already know the basics and just want a refresher course. Then I was asked to teach a course in Derry's Central Library which has turned into a regular event. I love teaching. I don't make any money out of it but I really enjoy the craic. Of course I still make things, although these days I tend to crochet instead. I have carpel tunnel syndrome and crocheting is easier on my wrists.

I knit a lot for charity. I've produced hats for Age NI and made little covers to go on top of Innocent Smoothies. I send them to the company and they forward them to supermarket chains. Every one sold will earn 25p to Age NI to provide the elderly heating during the winter.

Knitting costs as much as you want it to. You can get a ball of wool for £1 and make a baby cardigan out of that. On the other hand a ball of Aran wool costs nearly £15 and it takes two or three to make a jumper depending on the size."

5.The home business

John McCombe (55) owns and runs Turnip House Craft Workshop and Tearoom in Dromara where he lives with his wife Elaine and their grown-up children Kate and James. The couple run a business selling their home-produced knitting. John says:

"My mother was a great knitter so she taught me. I can remember when I was seven or eight I knitted a scarf for my teddy bear but I think that was as far as I got with hand knitting.

In the early 70s my mother took me to the Ideal Home Exhibition in London and there we saw demonstrations of knitting machines. Mum thought they was fantastic so we ended up buying one and bringing it home. It was hers but I ended up setting it up for her and learning about it too. It had the best of both worlds for me – a craft and one involving a machine that I could explore how it worked.

I didn't keep up my interest in knitting that much as I was growing up but I always enjoyed crafts and working with my hands. I ended up being employed in the textile industry in England working with fabric and dyes and I even learnt how to weave.

It was when Kate was born that Elaine and I decided we wanted a simpler life and decided to move back home to Northern Ireland. I think we had The Good Life in mind when we bought Turnip House and started to support ourselves by knitting. My mum was still around then so she was on hand to teach us what we needed to know. We were supporting the renovation of the house by our knitting which did take a while but we finished the work in the end.

At one point we were exporting all over the world and exhibiting at trade shows from Dublin to Derry.

We had three people working for us and it was quite a thriving business.

Now, though, we just sell from here. Jumpers cost £45 and we sell felt hats and brooches for £10 each. We find the tea room makes us more of a destination to visit. People drop in for a cuppa and when they see what we can create they often want one.

I knit with the machines and also I also make felt which can be used to make accessories.

I do get the odd look when I'm asked what I do because people aren't used to men knitting but I think that's more the novelty value than anything else. I really enjoy it because people come and tell me what they want and I can create something unique for them. It's very satisfying."

For information on the Turnip House and its products go to www.turniphouse.com.

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