Jo Ind discovers Stitches and Hos, a group of young knitters casting on in a Birmingham pub.
It is a socially subversive society that meets quietly, if not secretly, in a back room in Birmingham. In an age of terrorism, its activities are banned from aeroplanes. On trains, its members are the focus of stares.
But open the doors at the Hare and Hounds pub on Kings Heath High Street and there you will find them – a hootenanny of knitters.
Alas, there seems to be no collective noun for folk who get together to knit, which might be because knitting has historically been a solitary rather than a group activity.
Not any more. Stitches and Hos is outing knitting from the private domain into the public house.
On the last Tuesday of each month, its members can be found nattering as they knit in the back room of the Hare and Hounds to specially selected music.
Tonight, one member is knitting a scarf for a dog, another attempting her first pair of socks. A first-timer is learning to cast on, while another has finished a plastic bikini.
In the corner, a DJ is spinning discs. They talk and they drink as they knit and they purl. By late evening it is standing room only.
“Knitting is something you can do anywhere,” says Helen Dixon, a 28-year-old physics teacher from Northfield who is making socks.
“You can pick it up and put it down. It’s so portable. The only place you can’t do it is on an aeroplane, which is a bit frustrating.”
She has come along with her friend 27-year-old Heather Ramsden, who works in administration and auditing, from Stirchley.
“I’m making up a scarf. I’m not very good at following patterns,” she says. “I’ve bought something difficult along as well to see if there is somebody else who can help me.”
“Knitting is definitely making some sort of comeback,” says Helen. “It’s so much easier to find good yarn.”
“Oh yes, yarns have got so much better,” says Heather. “This scarf is made from acrylic. Remember when acrylic jumpers used to be horrible squeaky things?”
Teresa Doughty is manager of the Lazy Lizards band playing upstairs and stumbled upon the group when she came into the back room for a drink.
“It’s great,” she says, settling down to knit a scarf for a dog with the wool and needles Stitches and Hos provides for those without their own knitting.
"I didn’t know how to increase my stitches, but that lady over there showed me. You get advice as you go.”
Drummer Amjid Hasan, aged 34, is similarly impressed and almost tempted to pick up the needles himself.
“You come in and there’s a basket of different coloured wool and some things that look just like drum sticks...,” he says appreciatively.
Unlike some common interest groups, Stitches and Hos does not feel exclusive or intimidating.
“You don’t have to be good,” says Bobbie, aged 37, from Hall Green, who works at the go-karting track in Digbeth and is making a scarf out of two types of wool.
“I’m not good. I made an iPod sock for my husband. It turned out so big you could almost fit his laptop in it. This counting thing just sort of flew out the window.”
Nor do you have to be female to feel at home here.
Martin Palmer, a 23-year-old hairdresser from Kings Heath is carefully and cautiously winding his wool around his needle.
Barry Oldridge, aged 36, a retail manager from Kings Heath, is knitting a blanket for his new niece.
He has only been knitting since December but he had already made a plastic bikini, a garter for a friend’s hen party, tea cosies, hats and cuddly toys.
“It’s great,” says Barry. “But I do get strange looks on a train. It’s good to make something personal. You can buy a scarf or blanket from a shop but it’s not the same thing. This is made with love. And it helps with giving up smoking.”
Jonathan Buckerfield, aged 22, from Kings Heath describes himself as a non-knitter.
“I dabble occasionally,” he says. “But I just like being with the group. It has got a real community feel. This is a really nice crowd of people to be around.”
Helen Goodchild, a 31-year-old university lecturer from Brandwood, is another non-knitter. She is doing crochet.
“I find crocheting easier,” she says. “Pretty much everything you can do with knitting, you can do with crocheting. Lacy things are easier with crochet and it’s much quicker.
“I used to get a lot of stick from people – even from fellow knitters but it’s changing now. Crochet is catching up. Patterns used to be very old-fashioned, you couldn’t get anything modern but you can now.”
This comeback of all things knitted and purled is by no means confined to Kings Heath. It is part of a global revolution.
The knitting group Cast Off was set up eight years ago with the aim of having “adventurous” knitting meetings, such as one on London’s circle line.
The following year, the editor of US Bust magazine Debbie Stoller founded the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch movement – five books and a network of knitting groups all over the world, including one that meets on Saturday mornings in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The Craft Yarn Council of America estimates the number of knitters aged between 25 and 35 increased by 150 per cent between 2002 and 2004.
Two years ago four friends who were knitters – Pip McKnight, Juliet Rayment, Bobbie Dubber and Sara Fowles – were sitting in a pub one day when they had a conversation along the lines of “wouldn’t it be funny if people knitted in here?”
As something that involved both knitting and alcohol it seemed ideal.
“There was the group that met on Saturday mornings but who could be bothered to get up for it?” says Juliet, a 27-year-old Phd student, from Kings Heath.
And so Stitches and Hos found its first home at the Prince of Wales in Moseley.
That autumn, they set up a gazebo at Curzon Street Station as part of Birmingham’s arts festival, Artsfest, where people could knit and have a cup of tea.
The group also made two appearances at Moseley Folk Festival. On the first year visitors each knitted a square that got made into a big cloak and was presented to one of the performers, Circulus, at the end. Last year they made bunting.
Meanwhile the Prince of Wales meetings petered out. It was a smokey pub before last year’s ban on smoking in public places and the smoke was not good for baby booties and iPod socks.
Earlier this year Sara, aged 34, a designer maker, from Kings Heath, decided it was time for the pub meetings to be revived and in March Stitches and Hos settled down in the Hare and Hounds.
“We wanted there to be music too,” says Sara. “It has to be some kind of an event. I like the idea of different things together. The boundaries are blurred. It draws people into other things.”
Pip, aged 30, who runs the film company 7inch cinema, based in Balsall Heath, is playing soft French pop music at the turntable with her partner Ian Francis.
“Knitting is not what you expect to do in a pub,” says Pip, “but it seemed a fun thing to do together. Except... I’m not very good at talking and knitting at the same time, so I just end up drinking.”
The sense of the surreal that underpins Stitches and Hos gives it both a lightness and a political edge.
“It’s a reaction to where clothes can be bought cheaply at places like Primark. Here’s something that is made with love and care,” says Pip.
Annalise Weckersser, a 29-year-old Phd student from Kings Heath, who is making a baby’s blanket, sees knitting groups as a feminist issue.
“It’s women’s work and women’s work has been undervalued,” she says. “We’re reappropriating the craft.”
Many of the women learnt to knit from their mothers and grandmothers and feel it gives them a connection to them.
Allie Weiter, aged 28, a market research assistant from Kings Heath uses her late grandmother’s needles, though her grandmother died before Allie took up knitting.
“I feel closer to her through using her needles,” says Allie. “I think she’d be pleased.”
“Knitting was something that women always did at home, on their own,” says Annalise.
“This is bringing it out from the private and into the public sphere.”
It is also bringing knitting onto the world wide web. There are more than 100 members of the Stitches and Hos group on Facebook and Sara has started a blog as a way of keeping people updated and informed.
The internet accounts to a large extent for the way the popularity of knitting is spreading.
Lizz Lunney, aged 25, an illustrator from Kings Heath is working on an ambitious zig-zag design. She says she has learnt a lot about knitting from the internet.
Allie is a fan of Ravelry, which is a socially networking site, a kind of Facebook for knitters.
If only all revolutions were so soft. There is everything in Stitches and Hos – the outing of the private to the public, the subversion of gender roles, the reappropriation of women’s work, anti-consumerism, creativity, music and a pint.
It is all done with no more noise than the click of needles and nothing more harsh than a bundle of Aran weight yarn.
“Conquer the world with a 50g ball of wool,” says Sara. “We want nothing less than world domination. It’s the only way forward.”
* To see the websites used to research this article go to http://delicious.com/joind/knitting
* Also see the Stitches and Hos picture gallery.