When I was growing up, knitting was something that only my maiden great- aunt in Suffolk did. Every Christmas I’d get the same cardigan in another pastel shade. They were only worn when we visited her, to make her think I wore them every day. To me, knitting was best left to old maids.
Imagine my shock, then, as a young actress at the National Theatre when I witnessed beautiful creatures backstage, perhaps in full wig, make-up and voluminous 18th-century costume, quietly working on a pair of socks or, in the case of Judi Dench, whizzing away at a needlepoint with rude jokes concealed within a complex geometric pattern. I thought they were heroic.
When my daughter was small, however, I succumbed to knitting during the peace of siesta-time. Incapable of doing anything else, it was an outlet for my overflowing love while she slept. I made her a chunky cable-knit dress that redefined the phrase ‘wrap up warm’. It turned into more of a boil-in-the-bag piece of clothing, so I put my knitting away.
But in the past few years a knitting revolution has taken place. I didn’t pay much attention until, walking past the wonderful new shops, restaurants and bars on Lordship Lane near my house, I found a place selling balls of fancy yarn. Once through the door I was in the grip of a new passion.
I’m not alone. Statistics show a 150 per cent increase in 25–34-years-olds knitting in the US since 2001, led by a posse of Hollywood stars from Julia Roberts to Jada Pinkett Smith and Cameron Diaz. John Lewis sold a record 93,000 balls of wool in the run-up to Christmas last year, and companies like Purlescence make a fortune selling knitting accessories. Some commentators attribute the knitting phenomenon to the trauma of 9/11, when people stayed at home to cherish what was dear to them and rediscovered forgotten crafts.
Millions of men have embraced knitting too. Since my husband saw a picture of Russell Crowe working on a huge scarf on chunky needles, and heard that British snowboarder boys Knit in Public (Kip), he’s been asking shyly about the difference between plain and purl. And knitting has become political. Anti-globalisation groups stage knit-ins to return production to the hands of the people. Peace Fleece sells beautiful yarns produced in war zones, to bring hope and prosperity to people in despair. The ‘Drop Stitches Not Bombs’ campaign issued a pattern for a woolly hand grenade, and someone’s covering a tank in a baby-pink sweater.
The comedienne Tracey Ullman is a dedicated knitter. ‘It’s calming, and it makes you use your brain mathematically,’ she told me. At present she’s making a waistcoat for her son. ‘I hope it will look “rock and roll” rather than Richard Stilgoe. We shall see.’ Ullman’s book, Knit 2 Together — co-written with Mel Clark, who owns the Wildfiber yarn store in LA — comes out with hotly awaited new patterns in October.
There are now shops where you can sit round a wooden table, drink tea and take knitting lessons. At Suss Design in Los Angeles the clientele for classes and knitwear encompasses the entire Hollywood inner circle, including newborns Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Suri Cruise. ‘Knitting makes you feel good,’ says the owner, Suss Cousins. ‘It’s good for self-esteem and it’s a skill that passes down the generations.’ In London the Peter Jones haberdashery and Stash Yarns in Putney hold knitting classes. Friendly advice is shared at groups like the SW London Knitting Group, Knitting Hill in W11 and Knitting SOS in Islington. Gone is the frumpy mothball stereotype, to be replaced by a super-hip world of fancy yarns, knitted sushi and plastic chandeliers knitted by performance artists in Venice.
Emma Thompson, who has just finished writing a new children’s film following the success of Nanny McPhee, knits and crochets too, and has passed on this hobby to her daughter. ‘My six-year-old will sit for half an hour at a time, deep in concentration,’ says Emma, rustling through tissue paper as she packs for the Toronto film festival. While Gaia finishes a scarf for her granny, Emma composes a nursery rhyme which begins: ‘The glory of knitting is it stops me from fitting…’.
I find knitting makes me feel capable of survival, as if I’d just completed a Ray Mears bushcraft course. On balance though, I don’t think I’ll offer my knitting projects as Christmas presents. I’d feel too much like my great-aunt from Suffolk.