Fiber Artists in NJ Have a Simple Motto: Keep Calm and Carry Yarn

Knitters and other fiber artists embrace crafting for relaxation, creativity and camaraderie.

Photo by John Bessler

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Metuchen, and the 10 women gathered around the cozy fireplace at Cai’s Café are knitting and crocheting with gusto. Occasionally setting down their work, the women pile newly completed hats and scarves atop a coffee table and share cell phone photos of the crocheted butterflies they’d recently installed outside the Rahway train station this past July—much to the delight of passing commuters.

Meet the Metuchen Yarn Bombers, a group of fiber artists known on occasion to decorate public places with their creations—usually under the cloak of secrecy.

“It gets people talking,” says Jennifer Daro, who found the group in 2013, “and it’s a form of public art that not a lot of people are aware of. It’s colorful, bright, and makes people say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’”

Public stimulation aside, for most Yarn Bombers, and for members of similar crafting groups around the state, the chief attraction of a knitting circle is the knitting, plus the companionship of like-minded crafters.

“It’s a meditation for me,” says Seema Pande, 44, of Metuchen, sitting by the fire in Cai’s Café, starting a hat.

“It’s like a therapy group,” adds fellow Metuchen resident Roseann Latsko.

“The best thing I like about this group: There are no fancy frills,” continues Pande. “You come in and do your thing. You could come in your pajamas and nobody would care.”

The Yarn Bombers are among the growing number of New Jersey crafters experiencing the appeal of knitting and crocheting, as well as other fiber arts, including quilting, embroidery, needlepoint and macramé. More than 3,000 people attended last September’s 23rd annual Sheep & Fiber Festival in Lambertville, an increase of 10 percent over the prior year. Membership at the South Jersey Guild of Spinners and Handweavers almost doubled between 2013 and 2017, and the Mid-Atlantic Fiber Association, which represents nearly 50 fiber-arts guilds in the region, has grown from 88 members in 2007 to 393 in 2017.

For hobbyists, the fiber arts offer health benefits (in the form of relaxation), a creative outlet, and an endless supply of gifts to give. Then there’s the fellowship. “People knit in groups a lot more,” says knitting columnist Pam MacKenzie, who took up the hobby more than 40 years ago.

The fiber arts also provide opportunities to participate in charitable endeavors, like the Yarn Bombers’ Knitted Knockers project. At the request of the JFK Medical Center Auxiliary Office in Edison, they have created 150 prosthetic breasts made of cotton or washable non-wool yarn for breast-cancer survivors who have undergone mastectomies.

Some simply enjoy channeling the past through fiber arts. Norma Bowe, a Yarn Bomber from Highland Park, says knitting connects her to her grandmother: “It feels like something out of a century ago.” (Bowe used her grandmother’s needles to produce 100 “pink pussy hats” for the 2017 Women’s March in Washington.) Over the past three years, the nonprofit Be the Change that Bowe runs at Kean University has delivered more than 500 handmade items from the Yarn Bombers to homeless people at Newark’s Penn Station.

while nostalgia for simpler times helps drive interest in the fiber arts, the thoroughly modern Internet has also spurred participation. Beginners learn skills through YouTube, and digital communities like ravelry.com and Facebook groups provide knitters and crocheters with a way to share patterns and photos.

In Montclair, a yarn community mushroomed out of an Internet bulletin board 18 months ago, when a knitter asked if there were any knitting circles locally. She then invited people to her house. The Montclair Knitting Circle Facebook group took off; it now has 266 members and weekly meetings every Tuesday.

At a recent Tuesday circle, 22 knitters gathered in the community center in Montclair’s Edgemont Park; two had accessories that read, “Keep Calm and Carry Yarn.” One participant called knitting “the new soccer,” a possible social activity for her team when their bodies age out of adult sprints and side tackles. Yet another said knitting keeps her depression and anxiety at bay. Another was crocheting a tiny pink “fetal-loss” hat, which a local church was collecting for hospitals to give as a keepsake to parents of stillborn babies.

Beth Fuqua of Montclair was learning a fancy way to start a hat—either for her husband or son, depending on how big it turned out. The knitting circle was her fourth attempt at learning to knit.

“Even though I get stressed, creating something makes me feel calmer,” she said. “There’s something soothing about the yarn and needles. I particularly like the sound of wooden needles, like blocks hitting together.”

Some knitters gravitate to fiber arts as part of the Slow Fashion Movement, which decries the consumption of cheap, mass-produced clothes made by underpaid workers—clothes that end up in landfills, thanks to a fashion industry that changes styles weekly. Creating their own sweaters and accessories offers knitters a chance to slow down and squeeze the alpaca.

There’s also a lot of interest in natural fibers and dyes, says Dee Lande of Clinton, co-president of the Jockey Hollow Weavers.

“A lot of people are into learning the ways things used to be done, when things were custom-made,” says Lande. Her group’s 58 members meet monthly September through June in Mendham to learn and practice weaving, knitting, spinning, basketry and ply-split braiding, a gorgeous technique originally used in India to make sturdy straps for camels. Each month, an appointed Weaving Wizard is given a special wizard hat and comes early to answer questions from members struggling to master challenging techniques. Like most fiber organizations, the membership is largely, but not entirely, female.

For some, the commitment to working with wool goes beyond knitting and crocheting to spinning, dyeing, designing patterns and even raising sheep. Charlene Marietti, a vice president of the MidAtlantic Fiber Association, weaves, knits (with a machine and by hand) and does Kumihimo Japanese braiding. She’s written a how-to book on the latter craft, which is done with the same simple tool Samurai warriors used.

But for a quiet evening, Marietti enjoys spinning best. Spinning wheels (or drop spindles) are used to turn wool into yarn. “It’s a Zen thing,” says the Medford resident. “My husband wants me to sit with him, and I have wheels always out, so I sit down and spin some. He’ll say, ‘What are you going to make?’ and I want to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to make.’” The pleasure is the process.

On occasion, Marietti’s daughter, Kris Byrnes, provides her mom with fleece from the herd of Coopworth sheep she nurtures on her farm in the Monmouth County borough of Allentown. The sheep, originally from New Zealand, are prized for their lustrous, crimpy wool and for being easy lambers and good moms, with a tendency to bear twins and triplets.

Because she likes to solve problems, Byrnes also designs patterns for knitters. One of the first fiber challenges she encountered was a seductive hank of yarn dyed by Myra Rubin, owner of the Woolbearers, a yarn store in Mount Holly. The merino wool, dyed in a bright colorway called Women’s Intuition, demanded a pattern that showed off its jewel tones. Byrnes created one. She has also written patterns for tams, berets and beaded purses for a TV-inspired collection published in 2014 as The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits.

Byrnes says she and her mom are fortunate to have the fiber arts as a touchstone in their relationship. “There’s always someone to bounce things off of and share with,” she says.

Georgia Muhs, co-president of the Hunterdon County Knitting and Crocheting Guild, used to be an avid spinner and weaver, but has reduced her time on those pursuits since the arrival of 16 lambs at her Frenchtown farm in 2016. She and a friend slept in her barn at Rocky Creek Farm for 2½ weeks that spring, waking up every few hours to make sure the lambing went well. Sheep in labor don’t cry out, as that would attract predators. Instead, they lift their tails and heads when birth is imminent.

“Even puppies are not as good as lambs,” she says of the delights of her new arrivals. As the lambs have grown, she’s trained some with an eye toward the Shepherd’s Lead at the Sheep & Fiber Festival in Lambertville, a competitive parade of fiber artists and their sheep, both wearing a knitted or crocheted garment. Competitors earn extra points if they crafted the garments themselves—from that particular sheep’s fleece.

In march 2017, the Metuchen Yarn Bombers greeted member Andrea Crocco-Varela with a big, purple balloon to celebrate the completion of her latest round of chemotherapy. Crocco-Varela, 46, was renowned in the group for spinning angora yarn straight from her pet rabbit, Feste, and for yarn bombing the Rahway train station.

In a 2016 magazine interview, Crocco-Varela spoke poetically about how her spinning and crocheting reach beyond the moment. “When I create something, and it is pretty,” she said, “I feel like some part of me is in that object, and when I am gone, it will still be there. It will let my nieces (and some day grandnieces) know that I was there, that I liked the color green, that I could spin and dye and crochet and knit, and that I loved them enough to make them something. I know that these threads attach a memory of me to the world, so that I won’t go too far away when I go.”

This past January, the group visited Crocco-Varela in hospice; she died the next day. They knitted at her wake and adorned a photo display at the funeral home with green crocheted hearts. Later in the month, Norma Bowe took a heart that Seema Pande had crocheted using Crocco-Varela’s green yarn to the Women’s March on Washington.

“I carried that heart the whole march,” says Bowe. “I felt like I was carrying her with me.”

Tina Kelley is a freelance writer in Maplewood. An obsessive knitter since 1984, she has made a sweater, hats and four mittens from the collected fur of a friend’s dog.

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