Have a little bitch with your stitching

Local women give knitting advice, moral support

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By DIANA OLESZCZUK

In January, new knitter Cathy Busking found herself lonely for stitching partners and advice. She'd read about the national "stitch 'n' bitch" knitting groups forming all over the country, so she Googled "Oak Park Stitch 'n' Bitch," and found a newly-christened Yahoo group by the same name. Best of all, their first meeting was coming up in a few weeks.

"I thought, 'I don't know if I can wait that long,'" Busking remembers.

Founders and organizers Heidi Butler and Toni Maddi had actually come up with the idea to start a west suburban spin-off of the huge Chicago Stitch 'n' Bitch only a few hours before. Within days, the group had 40 members.

Now there are 81 members in the Yahoo group and about 5 to 15 show up at 6 p.m. for each Tuesday night meeting. To reduce expenses and walking distance, the group recently moved from Caffe De Lucca in Forest Park to Nola's Cup, on the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren Street. They switched to biweekly meetings during the summer but will meet weekly starting in September; see the group's website at groups.yahoo.com/group/stitchnbitch-oakpark for more information.

Busking likes the new location, only two blocks from her house. She attends because she appreciates advice on her knitting projects. "I don't know what I'm doing and these guys do," she quips as Maddi guides her through a difficult stitch on her current project, a black tank top lined with lace that she's hoping to finish before the cold weather hits.

Amanda Blau from Downer's Grove prefers Oak Park's group because it's more personal and not as crowded as the 1,500-member group in Chicago. There, about 50 people showed up for each meeting. "If you got there 10 minutes late, you couldn't sit down," Blau says.

Although some of its members don't show up regularly, the core Oak Park group has proved to be a hardy one, even clacking the needles in the midst of a big winter snowstorm. "I couldn't believe the turnout," Busking recalls, estimating that about 12 people stomped in from the storm.

They tend to focus on "stitch" more than "bitch," although several fondly recall the last major bitch, an "ex-husband rant" last January. "God, was that fun," remembers one stitcher.

"I know who to call if I ever need to dial 1-800-DIVORCE," remarks another.

Knit tips

For now, conversation is mostly knitting-related chitchat. "You can only talk to your husband about knitting so much," points out Butler, who has tags for her knitting projects that invite the wearer to "step into my thimble," and has dreams of selling them someday.

"It's not all doilies," says Maddi, who points out that the Internet is rich with knitting blogs, patterns and magazines. Between tank tops, Japanese sweaters, ponchos and V-necks, there's something for every style, the group agrees.

Maddi even found one site where you could download a pattern that would let you "knit a bag or a shawl with your honey's puss on it." Or Richard Nixon's puss, depending on your political preference.

Her niche is felting, which involves knitting an enormous version of a project with big needles and fat thread, stuffing the result in a pillowcase and throwing it in the washer. The stitches disappear, the fibers become stiff and the project shrinks to half its former size. "It's a voodoo art," Maddi says.

Knitting with big needles and thick yarn is "like the gateway drug to all the rest of knitting," Butler adds. Indeed, Busking originally got addicted to knitting that way. She needed something to occupy her hands during a Georgia vacation and "busted out a couple of Christmas gifts" in the process.

"It is sort of magic," agrees Manning Peterson, a member from Oak Park. But Peterson also uses tiny sock-knitting needles. They create incredibly comfortable footwear, the stitchers agree.

A few knitting hints from the group: Buy enough skeins of yarn for the entire endeavor (because searching for the same color is a big pain) and be aware of the unfortunate secret that knitting your clothes is actually more expensive than buying them.

A hobby for all

In their informal psychoanalysis of a knitter's mind, Maddi and Butler have found that stitchers tend to be pleasant people, often quiet but good listeners. Everyone's friendly and no one monopolizes the conversation during their meetings.

Although Maddi calls the idea that knitters should feel hip a "foolish marketing ploy," the Oak Park group is living evidence that knitting is beginning to appeal to a younger demographic.

Katie Lagerstrom, for example, knits furiously every time she undergoes a particularly grueling organic chemistry exam. She also giggles at the knitting magazines because they all dress the poor male models in horrific knitted cardigans.

"I wish I had a boyfriend so I could knit him something ridiculous and have him wear it," she says.

Lagerstrom plans to keep up the hobby for a long time. "When I'm a crazy old lady, I'll knit shirts for all my poodles," she says.

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