When men knitted: A surprising history | TheFencePost.com

When men knitted: A surprising history

It rained hard and long one summer day about 43 years ago in Ontario, Canada. The dank weather squelched all outdoor activities on the Georgian Bay near Lake Huron and John Paul McKinney grew bored.

His wife suggested he read another book. "Already have," he said, well-remembering all the titles on the little cottage's bookshelf.

Dodging a re-read, McKinney asked Madeleine if she'd teach him to knit; she agreed.

As the downpour continued, she taught John the patent stijk, a ribbed stitch from her homeland in the Netherlands. A foul weather diversion quickly became a decades-long avocation for McKinney, who continues to turn out hats, scarves and sweaters for family and friends.

Some years later, his wooly interest thrived in Fort Collins, Colo. For example, when nearby Polaris High School conducted a silent auction, the crafty fellow outbid others, offering $5 for three huge bags full of wool (yes, like in the childhood rhyme). He won 41 skeins of yarn, some of which produced a handsome knitted cardigan for his father-in-law.

It wasn't as if he has nothing else to do. Now age 83, McKinney holds a PhD in developmental and clinical psychology from Ohio State University. The Royal Oak, Mich., native has taught at numerous colleges and universities and published a variety of work including "Charlie's Angle," his EVVY award-winning first novel. Besides knitting, he plays the harp, fishes, and carved a niche as a woodworker until age and COPD created a problem around sawdust.

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"Plus, as I got older I became a little less careful around machinery," he admitted.

Don't needle men who knit. They're following in a long line of craftsmen. For doubters, the history of when men knit might help. When men knit, is an historical timeline of this once-macho career now turned pastime.

TENDING SHEEP

McKinney traces his geneology to the Celtic culture in which men (largely shepherds) did most of the knitting. Those cold winter nights spent tending flocks allowed time to turn fleece into snug Irish garments and blankets.

Europe produced skilled male professional knitters as early as the 1400s. Their guilds (like labor unions) protected craft secrets, improved product quality and created business. Wannabes first underwent a rigorous three-year apprenticeship, traveled three more to learn their craft and, upon return, took a 13-week exam, knitting various garments to prove their worthiness to join the guild. Knitting back in the day was definitely not for the faint of heart or body.

Fast forward to now. McKinney noted that most people in the fiber crafts community are very welcoming and encouraging to men. Additionally, he's generated some truly "hoo-rah" items, including beanie-like caps that serve as military helmet liners for our troops in Iraq/Afghanistan. Add to those utilitarian head-warmers heavy socks for fishing boots. Garments to keep 'ya warm at both ends.

McKinney favors (Celtic) Aran patterns for cable-knit sweaters. Each of these unique designs originally proclaimed the region of the item's origin.

This retired professor who spent a lifetime educating others finds it hard to stop. When his harp teacher's college-age son asked for knitting instruction, McKinney happily obliged.

"I still owe him three more lessons," he said with a chuckle.

While still living in Michigan, McKinney visited a Boulder, Colo., yarn store near his daughter's home. He overheard some female customers lament they didn't know how to do a "bauble" so he galantly stepped in with advice.

YARN ADDICT

Admitedly a yarn addict, he frequents every store he can wherever he travels. He can't stop. He will be buying wool until the day he dies. Locally, the Fort Collins resident buys from My Sister Knits, Lambspun, The Loopey Ewe and especially Your Daily Fiber.

It's at that last store that another man works with the origins of yarns with which McKinney and others craft. Darrell Sipes, along with wife Elaine and daughter Ivy, own and run Your Daily Fiber on Mason St. Their sheep, llamas, alpacas, goats and yaks supervise.

The Sipes family began as city slickers. The 1990s saw a national fascination with exotic yarns and fiber crafts. Elaine Sipes was no exception but, when the trend proved more than a fad, her horizons broadened.

So, in 1996, Darrell gave his town-bound wife a somewhat illogical gift: three angora goats. Naturally, the fluffy trio required pastoral accommodations. Elaine not only found the perfect place but paid to board them there.

When they reproduced, the confirmed city gal without even a little red hen on her ranching resume made multiple round trips per day from urban south Fort Collins north to rural Wellington, Colo., to tend her expanding herd.

Along with travel time and work load, Elaine's skills increased. She learned to shear, clean fiber, spin and began knitting custom garments for sale at shows. She sent her intricate, sought-for pieces to art shows in Fort Collins; Aspen; Portland, Oregon; Chicago; New Zealand; Japan. Meanwhile, she remained home to work and raise her children.

In 1998, she realized more people wanted yarn or patterns than finished products and her small herd of goats didn't quite supply the demand. That conclusion, increasing fervor for her avocation and a desire to add llamas to the mix led to a 2003 big move from town to Cherokee Park in the foothills west of Fort Collins. Yes, the Sipes family had acquired 40 acres of dream llama land. The once-agriculturally challenged Sipes family became as rural as a hoedown.

About 10 years ago, Darrell decided his wife's yarn color palette was a tad on the dull side. Excitement, color, that's what it needed. So he began transforming natural fiber into bold, vibrant hues.

WOOL DYING

Sipes said that the dying process is pretty straight forward, albeit multi-stepped. Besides his own ranch-produced fiber, commercial wools he sometimes uses come in 5-pound packages he first separates into 4-ounce skeins.

The dyes arrive as jars of powder. For each application, Sipes weighs the powder before measuring the correct proporation of water. Dye/water ratio determines color intensity. After heating the mixture to boiling, he soaks the fiber to the desired tint. With tongs, he then transfers it to cold water. Excess dye rinsed out, the now bright and cheery yarn is hung out to dry. Sipes approximated that producing four dyed skeins takes four hours.

He said chemicals (i.e. alum) added to reduce fading render natural-based dyes no longer natural. So, he just uses artificial, acid-based dyes.

All of Sipes' hand-dyed yarn is sold at the store and on their website, http://www.yourdailyfiber.com. Although some pre-dyed skeins are also sold at the brick-and-mortar shop, most there and everything on the website are Darrell's own products.

Special orders are welcome, and frequent, at Your Daily Fiber. Sipes matches color from just about anything: socks, sweaters, your car, your cat, paint chips. He said sometimes it's hit and miss till he gets it right but he always does.

YOUNG KNITTERS

Age isn't a barrier to men who knit. Lennon Brooks, age 17, has been knitting for six months after noticing a school friend doing likewise. Plus, his grandma had taught him when he was about 11 but other interests had precluded it.

The same day his friend's activity piqued his interest, he bought yarn and needles, sat down with library instruction books and used online patterns.

Brooks finds knitting relaxing. He often enjoys his new hobby while listening to blues and alternative music (loves The Grateful Dead). Although knitting for just half a year, he's already adept enough to have designed his own sweater, combining a blank pattern with an album cover.

The Fort Collins High senior has friends in a knitting club at Fossil Ridge High. Lana Fain, media specialist and sponsor of that school's fiber arts club, "The Knits Wits," said she's had several boys in the group, one of whom is a prolific knitter.

When men knit, they fit a pattern … of timelessly cool. ❖