Seven young women knitting in the big armchairs at Mammoth Coffee in Newport are comparing notes between stitches.
"I got kicked out of Uncle Woody's for fighting," says one.
"That's nothing," says another woman. She got so trashed at Annie's that she was evicted after a bar fight and the cops had to pull her out of their car at the end of the night.
"Do you want to trade seats?" Angel Overbey asks Sarah Perrier, who's knitting a scarf called "calamari" that twists 'round and 'round.
Perrier's sitting right next to one of the two hooligans, who asked to remain nameless. She shrugs and casts her eyes to the right.
"I don't know," she says. "There's those scissors on the couch right there."
After the giggling dies down, the slight sounds of clacking needles punctuate a moment of silence.
"Do you pull from the inside or outside?" Kendall Stolz asks about a certain stitch.
"From the outside," Overbey says.
A bag that Stolz knit out of police caution tape sits in the middle of the table. She used needles inherited from her grandmother.
Welcome to another Monday night meeting of the Cincinnati Stitch 'N' Bitch. Dozens of local women — and a handful of men — are meeting in at least half a dozen groups such as this across the city. They, in turn, join the thousands of young people nationwide who are rediscovering the ancient joys of needle and yarn.
Knitting, long considered women's work, has cycled in and out of favor as women's movements fluctuate, according to Debbie Stoller's blockbuster book Stitch and Bitch.
In fact, it's that 2003 book that brought many independent, young and skeptical women back to the pastime that had been rejected by many of their liberated mothers.
Stoller explains that she learned to accept her Dutch family's tradition of handwork only after earning her Ph.D. in women's psychology and founding the feminist magazine and online mecca BUST (www.bust.com).
For a time she saw her female progenitors' knitting as a painful reminder of their unrealized potential, Stoller writes. Couldn't they have parlayed that creativity into graphic design and interior design, their storytelling into writing?
Then, after some block in knitting a long-unfinished sweater suddenly unraveled on a long train ride, Stoller understood the inherent pleasure of making something out of a tangle, the peace to be found in the hands' rhythmic occupation.
She also realized that rejecting knitting because it was traditional women's work wasn't feminist at all. It was anti-feminist.
Un-ironic articles about knitting grew into a book and its equally popular sequel, Stitch and Bitch Nation.
To Dave Spurlock, president of the Bellevue yarn store Knit On!, celebrity knitters were another boon to the business. Paparazzi have even caught brawling, bad-boy actor Russell Crowe knitting.
"I think celebrity knitters got people to look at knitting as being a cool thing to do instead of something you do when you're too old to do anything else," Spurlock says. "Then once folks tried knitting, they realized how relaxing it is."
Rachel Shields, 24, learned to knit on the Web after deciding five months ago she needed a pastime. Now she knits every chance she gets — at the bar, on lunch break and during downtime at work, something her bosses noted in her last annual review.
"It's just kind of an outlet like anything else — painting or drawing or writing in your journal," she says. "Like a peaceful kind of moment, it puts you in a different state of mind."
Knit your pet
Many budding knitters say it's the burst of new yarns that first piqued their interest. They're colorful, funky, fuzzy, sparkly and sometimes just plain strange. One Web site offers to spin your pet's fur into yarn.
And there are just so many more things to make. Forget cardigans and think of fried eggs purse-and-hat combos, an anatomically correct womb complete with fallopian tubes, a grenade purse, a full-size hut, a wedding feast, a wig or fake breasts for women who've had mastectomies.
Stitch 'N' Bitcher Janette Maupin is excited to make a cat bed out of what she calls "funky confetti fun fur."
But perhaps the Web is the biggest reason knitting's popularity has exploded. Knitters set up meetings and commiserate in e-groups about dropped stitches, post photos and questions to blogs and troll knitting sites for ideas, free patterns and video tutorials.
There's even a new online language for the ancient craft.
"I was talking to my grandma the other day," Overbey says. " 'Grandma, when you get out of the hospital, do you want to go to the LYS and go KIP and then go on a SEX?' "
LYS is the "local yarn store," KIP is "knitting in public" and SEX is a "stash enrichment expedition" or yarn shopping, she explains.
"Had I not a bevy of online friends knitting, I don't know that I would have ever started on my own," says Keli McMahon, who just founded Northeast Cincinnati Knitters. "Being able to see their own works and struggles with patterns and yarns has actually boosted my confidence in my own abilities and shown the possibilities of what I can eventually achieve with enough devotion and money. Knitting can be very expensive."
She, too, credits Stoller for getting her knit on. Overbey, who helped found a Stitch 'N' Bitch group about a year ago, even has a Polaroid photo of herself posing with Stoller pasted into her handmade knitting journal.
On the facing page is a sticker that says, "Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society." Throughout the rest of the journal's pages, Overbey has taped photographs of her finished projects — scarves first, of course, then hats, bags, socks — along with a couple inches of the yarn she used and words enough to tie it all together: "Lion Brand yarn, color: Edwardian, started January '04, finished June '04, ? skein."
While some knitting books are straight how-to's, Stoller frames practical instructions in lively irreverence. For instance, a chapter titled "Oops, I Knit It Again" manages to offer advice on fixing a dropped stitch without sounding either condescending or soporific. Sweaters top her "Rules of Engagement, Or What Not to Knit for Your Boyfriend."
Some other knitting books talk up its meditative joys and feature romantic back-jacket photos of women describing themselves as passionate goddesses. Other authors tell ancient weaving stories or describe how they came to knitting while searching out shamans on spiritual journeys.
Though there's a lot that's spiritual about knitting, a certain appeal of Stoller's book is that it isn't quite so "hippy dippy," to steal her description of one type of knitter.
Her "Field Guide to Knitters" also skewers masochistic "hurts so good" knitters who are determined to tackle the most difficult projects they can find; the knitters who are really only in it for the finished product; the Zen knitters who pick up needle and yarn and just marvel at whatever happens; the purists; the exorbitant knitters who drop fortunes on their newest hobby-of-the-week; and the "holier-than-thou" knitters who eschew all things mainstream and are just waiting for knitting to go back underground so they can revel in its undergroundness.
The riff on the natures of knitters is funny because it's true. There are few things that reveal personality so quickly as trying to learn to knit.
Midwives and frat boys
I took an introductory knitting class at Knit Happens! in Oakley.
About 10 women gathered around an upstairs table, fumbling with the 10-inch, size 15 bamboo needles we'd just bought. We ranged in age from carded for cigarettes to retirement.
Some women were frozen at the initial process of casting on. "Teacher," they said, "is this right? Is this how I do it? Teacher?"
Others laughed at their lopsided stitches and made up something serviceable as they went along.
I'm hard-pressed to remember much of it because I was too busy tearing out all my mistakes, determined to get "casting on" right once I got the gist of it. No, I don't need help, leave me alone, I'm too busy figuring this out to pay attention to the next step.
It's also very dangerous writing a story that has a means of procrastination woven right into it. Frustrated by a certain line? I'll knit a while. My coworkers have been laughing at me for weeks, but my sister has two new scarves.
You have to slow down and pay attention to knitting. Then, once the rhythm kicks in, your mind is free to wander because your body is tied up. Some say it's more relaxing than yoga. Knitting becomes addictive. Hence books titled At Knits End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much.
Many sleep-deprived women with sore hands can relate.
Women were happily knitting along before Stoller and her disciples rediscovered it, of course. Stoller's book and others like it are really just using a new language to describe a very old pleasure.
Mary Pierce Brosmer incorporated knitting into her first writing-based Feminist Leadership Academy (see "Feminine Whiles," issue of July 7-13, 2004).
"Sitting around and occupying hands in the evening while talking about serious themes of leadership and activism was a really wonderful strategy," she says.
Knitting is symbolic and intuitive and has a history, says Brosmer, founder of Women Writing for (a) Change. It also lends itself beautifully to metaphor.
"Knitting up the raveled sleeve of care, knitting up a very fractured culture, it's the kind of leadership of creating wholeness," Brosmer says.
To knit alone is one thing. But knitting with other women is both communal and strangely intimate. It creates space for the more reticent among us.
Feminist Leadership Academy graduate and certified nurse midwife Karen McGee uses knitting to reach the young pregnant women of Fay Apartments she serves with "The Midwife Is In" program's roving van.
"What it's done is women who are probably a little shy in talking will sit there with me," McGee says. "It's sort of like a softening thing between us, because there's nothing loaded about knitting. It's just one stitch at a time, like their life, taking one step at a time. It slows them down to do something other than try to pick up all the loose ends.
"It's a way of engaging talk, discussion and relationship and teaching a skill and handing the skill over to a woman. It's not any big project, just a small contribution to women's lives."
Students from elementary to university age are picking up the thread.
The 28-year-old owner of Lambikin's Hideaway in Hamilton, Christina Greene, says she sells yarn to students in knitting clubs at local schools, including Lakota East High School. The Cincinnati Waldorf School incorporates knitting into its curriculum. Frat boys from Miami University are even competing in "knit offs" against sororities, Greene says.
A Sanctuary for women
Not all groups cater only to the new crop of youngsters. The women who meet every Tuesday at Montgomery yarn store Fiber Naturell enjoy a wider range of ages.
Actually, B. J. Graumlich has a theory that knitting takes a certain maturity of mind that's unrelated to age.
It takes a higher IQ, adds psychologist Carol Mills.
Julie Robinson, who gladly escaped her two young kids for the evening, giggles. She says she liked that idea so much when she first heard it that she went home and took an IQ test.
"I'm gifted!" she said, eliciting doubtful snickers.
"We get to tease each other, affirm each other, ask advice and opinions — and eat," Robinson says.
A cake in the shape of a lamb stares at her with brown M&M eyes. One knitter's recently retired husband made it, explains store owner Patty Strasinger as she passes around the menu for take-out Chinese.
Food and men are often casualties of these gatherings. Men seem to take up more space in conversation than at the table, as talk often turns to such things as boyfriends who let garbage overflow while lying on the couch in front of a CSI marathon.
There are even women who bond by sharing stories of how they hid their newest yarn purchases from their husbands, says Sheryl Taucer. She organizes a Cincinnati Knitting Meetup Group twice a month. One husband-evading tactic Taucer especially likes: toss the yarn in the cellar on the way into the house.
There are a couple of men who drop in on these local knitting circles. Bob LoParo, a youngish University of Cincinnati professor, says he actually prefers crocheting. He recently made a new uterus for a friend having a hysterectomy.
"I left it hollow so she can stuff it with things," he says.
But the relative lack of testosterone in these rooms isn't breaking hearts.
"This is our last sanctuary, dagnabit," Graumlich says. "Men can have everything else. Men can't have this, too."
In fact, many of the women who knit also seem to have their hands in other traditionally male occupations. They're engineers, doctors and Web designers; they fix their own cars. These groups are a way to fit in some rare communion with women.
"I work at a very technical, male-driven job," Parsons says. "I don't have a lot of girlfriends because I'm not from here."
LoParo has some words for guys considering taking up the needles and yarn.
"It's fucking hard," he says. "It requires a lot of spatial knowledge. You should bow down to any woman who can read a pattern or stitch charts."
And there's definitely a stigma about knitting that still sticks. Younger women say they hear a lot of, "Oh my god, my grandmother knits."
"Any man I've ever knit in front of says, 'Knit one, pearl two,' " Stolz says.
Which is funny because that stitch is rarely used, Parsons says.
"It's goofy-looking," she says. "But most guys calm down when you show them the picture of the Wonder Woman bikini you can make."
Cincinnati Stitch 'N' Bitch meets every Monday night, and similar groups meet all over the city. For a partial list, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/cinstitchnbitch.