The scene at a midtown coffee shop one sunny Sunday morning was reminiscent of TV's "Sex and the City": young women sitting around talking about their lives, work and relationships.
The difference was that these women - all in their 20s - weren't just eating and talking. They were also knitting.
The women are part of a trend that has turned a 2,000-year-old art into a hip new hobby that has been a boon to local business owners.
Linda Urquhart, owner of Rumpelstiltskin, a needle-arts store in Sacramento, remembers when young women wouldn't knit in public. "It was old-ladyish," she said. "Now it's cool to do."
In the 32 years Urquhart has been in business, sales have never been better.
Janice DeCarlo, owner of Filati Fine Yarns in Rocklin, agrees. "I've owned Filati for eight years, and the last two years have been the hottest," she said. "Last year was the best year ever."
Knitting and crocheting, along with scrapbooking, drive the $29 billion crafts industry, said Don Meyer, director of marketing and public relations for the Hobby Industry Association. Sales of needlecraft supplies went from $7.4 billion in 2001 to $8.5 billion in 2002.
"There was some concern on the part of the craft industry that the knitter was getting older," Meyer said. "But there's evidence that 20-somethings, 30-somethings and even teens are picking up knitting as a hobby and for relaxation."
Knitting's rising popularity among young people bodes well for small businesses that sell crafts, Meyer said.
Unlike some office-supply and hardware stores, small craft stores aren't being run out by large retailers, Meyer said. There are an estimated 12,000 independent craft retailers in the United States, Meyer said, and just a few big chains, most notably Jo-Ann Stores and Michaels Stores Inc.
"It's amazing how many outlets there are in the craft business to make money," he said.
That is exactly what Sacramento resident Joan McGowan-Michael has found out. She has developed a knitted fashion line under the name White Lies Designs, drawing on her expertise in lingerie design. In the 1980s, McGowan-Michael worked for a company that designed lingerie for Frederick's of Hollywood.
Focusing on three areas - plus-size patterns, vintage redesigns and sexy garments - McGowan-Michael grossed "in the mid five figures" with her knitting business last year. Two years earlier, she didn't break $10,000, she said.
Patterns sell for $3 to $10 depending on complexity. Her designs include bustiers, thongs, thigh-high stockings and lacy tank tops. McGowan-Michael also sells kits, at $50 to $100, that contain all the necessary materials.
To supplement her income, McGowan-Michael teaches at workshops for knitting groups, which can pay up to $1,000 plus expenses for a weekend.
She has noticed an upsurge in younger customers in the past two years. "The generation coming up is looking for connections," she said. "They love that they can sit there with two sticks and some yarn and make clothing."
Sacramento's "knit wits," as they describe themselves, agree.
"I'm not very artistic, so it's a nice way for me to do something creative," said Jessie Maxfield, 26, of Vacaville. Christy Curtis, 28, of Sacramento has found that she's got a knack for knitting. She made a sweater - a real feat among the mostly shawl and scarf crowd.
Things weren't as easy for Laura Sharpe, 28. "I came over a mountain of struggle," she said, but since has knitted several gifts. "When you give someone something you've made, it's really cool."
The women started getting together to knit after Marin Lemieux took up the hobby six months ago and was inundated with instruction requests. "Everyone was asking if I could teach them. I held kind of a fun tea party at my house, invited a bunch of girls who didn't know how (to knit), and that's how it started," said Lemieux, 24.
Gena Estep, 27, has her own theories of why knitting has following among young women.
First of all, "it's a cool way to be anti-corporate," she said. But more than that, it allows women to reclaim and redefine feminism, she said, explaining that young women in the 1970s and '80s had to reject stereotypes in order to prove themselves in a man's world.
Mary Colucci, executive director of the Craft Yarn Council of America, said she thinks Estep is on to something.
"Women in my generation wouldn't learn to knit because it was categorized as something women would do," Colucci said. "These (young) women are using it as a way to distinguish themselves. They don't want to buy their best friend a baby gift from (a store). They would rather spend the time to make something themselves."
In 1994, an estimated 34 million women in the United States knew how to knit or crochet, Colucci said. When the survey was conducted in 2000, the number had grown to 38 million.
An even more intriguing trend emerged when researchers looked at the numbers by age, Colucci said. In 1994, 8 million women under age 45 knew how to knit or crochet. In 2002, that number had grown to 17.2 million.
"Clearly, something is happening out there," she said.
About the Writer
The Bee's Melanie Payne can be reached at (916) 321-1962 or firstname.lastname@example.org.