Shortly after Winnipegger Mary-Anne Derrick pulled out her knitting needles on a recent solo train trip to Edmonton, she stitched together an impromptu knitting club with people from three countries.
"They just saw me knitting and they came over because it’s a universal skill," the River Heights resident says of the two knitters from Alabama and one each from New Zealand and Halifax who knit with her for two hours on the train.
A knitter for more than four decades, Derrick learned to knit and purl from a patient saleswoman at the former Eaton’s Department Store in Edmonton. The saleswoman sat beside her for three hours showing her the basics, and Derrick left with the skills and supplies to knit a bulky sweater.
Known for its meditative qualities and shown to reduce stress, the solitary craft of knitting quickly becomes social as people — mostly women — gather to exchange tips, offer opinions, and spin a few yarns.
"There’s something about having the company of others who make things," explains longtime knitter and yarn dyer Daria Rakowski, at a recent Sunday afternoon meeting of Norwood Naughty Knitters.
"We value and understand the investment of time and the emotional investment."
Meeting for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoons in the brightly decorated nursery room of the Norwood Community Centre, the 12-year-old knitting group grew out the of common love of knitting of neighbours Shelley Kent and Grace Garneau. Convinced there were others who might share their creative passion for yarn, they moved their meetings from Kent’s Norwood backyard to the community centre.
Now the group has 111 members on its Facebook page, and attracts a dozen or so knitters each Sunday. They share tips, admire each other’s projects or just chat. Members pay a $20 annual fee.
Sitting on stacking chairs in a circle in one corner of the daycare space equipped with toys and child-sized furnishings, the room buzzes with conversation as the knitters admire yarn choices and latest finishes. This group has earned its name, with laughter bubbling up frequently and members straining to hear each other in the lively discussions during the two-hour meeting.
"It’s quite the noisy group, but we’re all dear friends," says Derrick, 64, a member for the last two-and-a-half years.
It may be loud, but that’s usually because one knitter is showing another how to master a technique or decipher a pattern while others chime in, explains Robyn Carriere while working on a reversible tuque in fuchsia and plum.
"If you have difficulty, someone will help you," says Carriere, an experienced sock knitter who recently completed her first sweater with the encouragement of the group.
"We all have the same love."
"We didn’t know each other (before) and without this craft, we probably wouldn’t have intersected," adds Rakowski, 43, a data analyst for Measurement Canada.
Knitters regularly check in on social media, follow YouTube instructional videos or connect through forums on the knitting website Ravelry.com. There’s still value, however, in getting together with other knitters who can share their expertise right beside you when you have a problem, explains Rakowski, who travels to international knitting events to meet up with online friends.
"That’s the good part. Robyn dropped a stitch on her hat, so she walked over to Shelley, but Shelley didn’t have her glasses, so Tonya helped her," she says of how it takes a village of knitters to solve some problems.
Recently, the village of Norwood knitters expanded to Russia via Transcona when Vera Bobko joined the group in January. The 29-year-old picked up knitting techniques from YouTube videos after moving to Winnipeg nearly three years ago so her husband could study engineering at the University of Manitoba. She originally attended another knitting group that met on weeknights, but found Sunday afternoon suited her schedule better.
"It’s like an international language, knitting," says Bobko, who imports fine yarns from Europe to sell in her online shop.
"It’s technique and you always have something to discuss. We have a common ground in knitting."
That discussion recently took a more sobering turn after the death last November of co-founder Grace Garneau, who kept knitting through her cancer treatments, recalls Kent, 60.
"The funny thing about Grace was, the whole time she had cancer, she was knitting shawls for people in palliative care," Kent says of her former neighbour.
Garneau’s death was the second for the knitting group, who lost a member five years ago in a traffic accident.
Now as Kent attempts to pick up the stitches of her life without her friend of 35 years, she finds solace in sitting with other knitters and completing Garneau’s unfinished projects.
"Being able to share that sadness makes it easier to bear," explains the usually exuberant Kent in a quiet tone.
"It’s that connection with this group that makes the grief easier."
Kent shared Garneau’s large collection of patterns with the group and dispersed some of her yarn to others for charity projects. Kent and others in the group often get asked to accept what they’ve dubbed "dead-lady yarn" when a family member of a deceased knitter looks to unload a stash of knitting supplies.
Casting on stitches helps cast off the sadness of a loss, as well as keeping hands busy and productive, explains Derrick, who found solace in her knitting needles after the death of her 32-year-old son by suicide five years ago.
"Knitting took me into a place of grief," she explains, seated on a couch in a quieter corner of the room.
"I could knit and pray and then I had something (to show) afterwards."
Although knitters love showing off their finished projects, the benefits of the Norwood Naughty Knitters can be also be measured in other ways than just progress on a pair of socks or a delicate shawl. Rakowski says sitting together with needles and yarn creates a strong social fabric, as well as more than practical objects to keep warm.
"Knitting in community creates your community, it creates your support network," she says.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.