Why knitting is the new rock’n'roll

Daily Telegraph 12 October 2002

Ian McMillan and Wendy Moorby

Ian McMillan with Wendy Moorby (former World Champion fastest knitter).

Thanks to a new performance piece, needles are clicking in the coolest circles. Dominic Cavendish reports on the craze that’s just too booteelicious.

Knitting is officially cool. It’s not quite up there with snowboarding or sky-diving, granted, but after spending several decades languishing in the bottom drawer of affection, it’s suddenly become a pastime to partake in with pride.

The roll call of major celebrities who have come out or been outed as keen knitters includes Julia Roberts, Hilary Swank, Cameron Diaz, Winona Ryder, Madonna, Daryl Hannah, Kate Moss – and, braving this female-dominated arena, Gladiator star Russell Crowe.

Wanting to do her bit in the wake of September 11, Goldie Hawn reached for her needles and bundles of red, white and blue yarn and rustled up a star-spangled banner. “I was trying to knit America back together,” she explained.

Kooky knitting has been held up as the ultimate stress-buster: a therapeutic meditative act with a creative underlay.

“In the US, it’s the new yoga,” claims David Rawson, marketing manager of Sirdar, the UK’s leading spinner of hand-knitted yarn. “It’s not quite as popular over here, but after the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, knitting is definitely making a comeback.”

Just how cred this once fusty activity actually is becoming in the UK is suggested by Hat, a left-field performance piece in honour of knitting that came to the Union Chapel in Islington yesterday – day two, coincidentally, of the annual Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace, in north London.

The poet Ian McMillan was yarn-spinning and reminiscing about knitting’s glory days in the industrial North, while jazz guitarist Billy Jenkins, viola player Angie Harrison and pop musician Andy Diagram (formally of James) provided various threads of accompaniment.

An equally unusual soundscape came courtesy of the audience, who were encouraged to take a bag of wool and get purling, plaining and togging. Those who didn’t know a needle from a noodle could join the pre-show crash course.

Simon Thackray, Hat’s instigator, was flabbergasted by the response it got on a three-day try-out in Halifax, Newcastle and York last year. “I thought we’d only get handfuls of people turning up,” he says. “But we had packed houses. As the music faded, you could hear the sound of needles rising from the audience like a symphony of grasshoppers.

“Some had turned out a complete hat by the end. There was even a pair of baby bootees,” he recalls. After the Newcastle gig, a tide of enthusiasm carried a natter of knitters off to become the first people to cross needles on the city’s Millennium Bridge.

It’s typical of Thackray, 42, that his handiwork should have serendipitously caught the mood of the moment. As the founder and sole organiser of The Shed, an enterprise that has been described as the “smallest arts centre in Britain”, he has spent the past 10 years coming up with weird and wonderful projects.

And no matter how strange they sound, there always seem to be people prepared to come from miles away to his North Yorkshire village of Brawby to get in on the act – artists, musicians and poets, as well as spectators.

It all started when he booked a Gambian kora player for a charity gig at a local church hall and plonked his garden shed door on stage. This DIY signature stuck as a name. Though visitors come from all over the world, he doesn’t have to search far for inspiration: “Ideas can come from a conversation in the kitchen, or something I’ve seen in the streets,” he says.

The local area has given rise to some of the most flamboyant Shed experiences – the annual Yorkshire Pudding boat race (involving a giant baked batter craft on Brawby pond) and “Mrs Boyes bingo” (a bingo session conducted against a freeform percussion set).

Hat itself started out with a fascination with the late Mrs Swift, a compulsive knitter who worked in a fishing tackle shop in nearby Malton. “I had the image of a little hat covering the head of the planet,” Thackray explains. He’s a strange’un alright, but the art world could do with more of his kind of far-reaching woolly thinking.

© Dominic Cavendish – Daily Telegraph 12 October 2002

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