Just as the economy was put on life support late last year, Lion Brand Yarn, an American company with a 130-year history, decided the time was finally right to open its first retail outlet, a flagship store just off Manhattan's 5th Avenue.
Although analysts may have scratched their heads at this, St. Paul writer Nora Murphy would surely defend this business plan. Her crafty memoir, "Knitting the Threads of Time: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft," makes a powerful case for the recession-proof appeal of yarn, and why so many knitters find comfort in troubling times and connection to a shared past in the simple process of fashioning fabric from two sticks and a ball of string.
After all, today's knitters "don't have to worry that our children will go cold if we don't finish the sock, the quilt or the blanket," Murphy writes, arguing that making by hand, rather than buying off the half-price rack, is a kind of defiant act meant to "keep the ancient tradition going -- a tradition that reminds us of our primal existence on this precious Earth, that reminds us where we've come from, and who we are."
Murphy is a novice knitter who sets her sights on a goal missed by so many before her -- finishing a son's sweater in time for Christmas. This humble project provides the narrative thread for her musings on the history of knitting across cultures and the often revolutionary process of gathering wool of one's own. (Although the British government banned sheep exports to the New World, the few animals American colonists smuggled in had grown to a flock of 100,000 by 1665 -- the same multiplier effect we see in today's explosion of DIY crafting blogs.)
While this knitting-is-the-new-yoga boom has birthed dozens of books in this "crafts/personal growth" genre, they all face a tough target audience that would generally rather be knitting than reading about it. Although attempts to tie the teenagers in the acrylic aisles to the ancient goddesses of weaving can wear a little thin, Murphy makes it worthwhile to set the knitting aside to see the surprising ways the craft has refashioned human history. (Fun fact: The knitting machine was invented by an Englishman driven mad by the sound of his wife's clacking metal needles.)
By the time Murphy finishes her son's sweater, even nonknitting readers may be convinced that spending $100 on yarn and countless hours making and remaking a handknit for someone you love is not only a wise use of one's time, but an investment in our shared humanity.
Writer Laura Billings knits Norwegian mittens in St. Paul.