Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The knitty gritty

Looking for purls of wisdom? Here in Montgomery County, there are many ways to pull the wool over your eyes.

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
In stitches: Paige Waffle pulls it together at WoolWinders in Rockville’s King Farm. Knitting has become popular, and finding a place to learn or hone your skills is a cinch.
When Davina Placella was sad, she turned to the needle for comfort.

But this is not a cautionary tale. Three years ago, the special education teacher lost her best friend of 35 years to cancer. To help deal with her grief, she went back to knitting, a hobby she had learned as a child in Rhode Island.

‘‘It’s kind of like riding a bike,” she explains. ‘‘Once you learn, you never forget.”

And the knitting — something to do with her hands, something to occupy her thoughts, something beautiful to plan and look forward to — was ‘‘very therapeutic.

‘‘I got to thinking about it, about how beneficial it was to me.”

And she thought of the students she saw every day at Julius West Middle School in Rockville.

‘‘They’ve got so much pressure on them!” she exclaims. ‘‘They’re stressed. Not only is knitting good for emotional healing, it’s good for problem solving and reading — following directions.”

So she started a knitting club at the school, where students could learn how to knit things like baby hats for Save the Children and warm wooly caps for cancer patients who had lost their hair.

‘‘The principal gave me money for needles and yarn for the charity projects,” says Placella, who has taught in the Montgomery County Public Schools for a decade. ‘‘But the knitting club is kind of loose — there are about 15 kids, and I don’t expect them every week — I don’t want them to feel like they can’t come back.”

At least one comes back even though she’s a freshman at Richard Montgomery High School.

‘‘She helps the other kids,” Placella says. And together, they make socks and caps for cancer patients and red scarves for kids in foster care. The more advanced knitters even make sweaters to be distributed to the poor through Warm Up America.

But the teacher reckons the knitters benefit the most.

‘‘These crafts are part of our American heritage,” she explains. ‘‘There were no idle hands in the old days. There’d be a knitting chair, and if you sat, you’d knit. It really is a part of our national history.”

And with good reason. Today, she says, ‘‘Our society is always on a treadmill. I’d like it if more people gave it [knitting] a try. You’re waiting at the doctor’s office, and instead of getting bent out of shape because you’re waiting, you think, ‘Hey! I did four inches!’”

Wooly bully

For Jacqui Rose, knitting kept her off the couch. And that is couch as in couch potato.

‘‘My husband liked sports,” she says simply, ‘‘and he liked me in the room with him.”

So Rose, proprietor of the WoolWinders shop in Rockville’s King Farm, decided to go back to an art she had learned as a child — and was able to pick up after 25 years.

‘‘What I thought I didn’t remember in my head,” she says, ‘‘my hands remembered.”

The memory was strong. Four years ago, she opened the store, where knitting novices and experts come to buy wool, take classes, find patterns and help each other through difficult situations with projects – and with life. Every sweater and hat on display was hand-knitted, either by Rose or her staff of seven part-timers like Karina Rostum.

‘‘For me, it’s a form of expression, to put my thoughts into something and create it,” says Rostum, an 18-year-old senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, where she founded a knitting club. ‘‘I’ve always been a creative soul.”

Rostum started crocheting at age 6 in Russia. After her family moved to Rockville, she discovered Rose’s shop, coming in for some wool and a lesson and walking out with a job she is passionate about.

But knitting is funny like that.

‘‘I just love the relationship between the needles and the yarn,” says Rostum, ‘‘It fascinates me.”

And there is a certain fascination. The walls at WoolWinder are lined with bins that spill skeins of yarn in every hue: Colinette yarn, hand-dyed in Wales and silky-bright, is Rose’s biggest seller. Manos is from Uruguay, produced by a fair-trade women’s cooperative.

‘‘We basically try to knit up every yarn in the store,” Rose says.

That explains the plethora of hand-knitted sweaters, hats and jackets. Rose whipped up most of them from a variety of yarns. No acrylics, though: ‘‘They don’t hold up well; they pill terribly.”

No synthetic fibers whatsoever.

There’s a big farmhouse table in the middle of the store, where classes are held. Limited to four students, they fill quickly.

‘‘I have people I taught to knit who are teaching me now,” says Rose, who notes that Rostum’s college plans include studying fashion design. ‘‘I think one of the reasons knitting is so popular is because you can actually do so much – such beautiful things — before you get ‘good.’

‘‘It’s like learning music,” she adds. ‘‘Some people take to it naturally; some people muddle through.”

Get together

Either path is easier when there’s a community of knitters to help. There are half a dozen knitting shops in Montgomery County and several more downtown. There are online sites dedicated to knitters. And there’s the library, too.

‘‘We want to give people a place to get together,” says Jan Derry, children’s program manager at the Gaithersburg Library. ‘‘It’s not lessons; it’s a club.

‘‘Bring your needles and yarn; everybody’s welcome no matter what your level of expertise.”

Derry has been knitting for more than 40 years.

‘‘I was one of those people who had to learn several times. I kept forgetting,” she admits.

Which puts her in a great position to moderate the Knitting Club for Young People and Teens, just starting up in the library’s community room.

‘‘If people need to get started and don’t know how, I’ll help them,” she says.

Because getting started is key.

Ask Anne Marie Stanley how long she has been knitting and the Silver Spring resident replies, ‘‘You mean, how many times have I started again?”

Stanley, who retains the slight but unmistakable accent of her native Paris, says she learned to knit when she was ‘‘4 or 5, at my mother’s knee.

‘‘I was not doing any miracles!”

Nowadays, what she knits is closer to the sublime: Today she’s at WoolWinders, holding a pattern for a christening gown she plans to make and enter in the Agricultural Fair this summer. After that (and hopefully with a blue ribbon attached), it will be auctioned off in a church fundraiser to benefit poor children in Haiti.

For Stanley, knitting ‘‘occupies my mind and my fingers,” which is especially important now that she has a grandchild on the way.

‘‘My daughter and her husband are going to adopt a Chinese baby,” she explains. ‘‘They’re going over there, and I’m not going, so I’m knitting a blanket.”

She smiles.

‘‘Fire engine red,” she says. ‘‘It’s supposed to be good luck.”

The Knitting Club for Young People and Teens meets on Thursdays, 4 to 5:50 p.m., in the Gaithersburg Library, 18330 Montgomery Village Ave. Call 240-773-9490.

WoolWinders is located at 404 King Farm Blvd., Rockville, and information about classes there is available online at www.woolwinders.com. Call 240-632-9276.

For information on Davina Placella and knitting clubs at Montgomery County schools, visit the MCPS Web site: www.mcps.k12.md.us.