A classic beginner’s exercise in public speaking is the speech about something you know how to do well. Whether it’s hanging wallpaper, training a dog to heel, or planning a cruise, the activity you are passionate about is the subject you can speak of with confidence and interest.
Knitting for Victory pattern booklet, 1943

The same applies to writing; an informative, well-written article always finds its audience, and the knitting world is a great example. Though hand knitting never disappeared entirely from the American scene, a new generation picked up the needles to knit for victory during WWII and went on to use some of their new leisure in the 1950s to knit for family and home.  

Over the next three decades the craft was enriched by comprehensive publications on technique as well as no-nonsense guides for expressing personal creativity in knitting. This legacy of empowerment was exemplified by the British-born Elizabeth Zimmermann, who wrote with her tongue firmly in her cheek, “Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence.” (Knitting Without Tears, 1971)  

Elizabeth Zimmermann, the “Godmother of American knitting”

In our modern age of the wiki, Elizabeth Zimmermann would have been right at home. Her vision of ordinary knitters in charge of their own knitting has never been more real than it is today. Any knitter with an internet connection can offer a pattern for sale, buy yarn and tools from anywhere in the world, and claim solidarity with the latest “viral” pattern or technique. Books proliferate, but it’s the amount of internet participation that fascinates me. 

It’s the nature of the internet that we can’t know exactly how many knitting blogs exist, but a search on Bloglines feed reader shows nearly 1,000 RSS feeds with “Knitting” in the title, and another 900 containing the words “Knit,” “Knitter” or “Yarn.” Technorati returns 2,660 blogs on a search for “knitting.” In 2009, knit-blogger and self-proclaimed blog stat junkie Knittsings posted the Top 100 knitting blogs with public traffic stats, showing that the top five had a combined 19,000 hits a day on average. What do those five bloggers have to say that fascinates us to that extent?  What is their influence?
Knit-blogger Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, aka The Yarn Harlot

Top of the “hit list” is Canadian blogger Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, aka The Yarn Harlot. McPhee has been blogging for six years and is the author of six popular books on what it is to be a knitter; in December 2004 she founded Tricoteuses sans Frontières/Knitters without Borders to raise funds for Doctors without Borders, challenging knitters to give what they can. The total just rolled above one million dollars. Her eager readers have watched her daughters grow up, shared her family’s joys and troubles, and celebrated the joys of knitting love into every stitch.

Gold medal from the 2006 Knitting Olympics

In 2006 McPhee “got an idea” and launched the Knitting Olympics, inviting knitters to begin a project during the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies and finish in the sixteen days of the Games. Four thousand knitters signed on for the fun. Now that’s influence!  

You may be surprised to know that men knit too, and two of the top five bloggers on Knittsing’s list are men. Designer Jared Flood, blogging as Brooklyn Tweed, published photos of a very simple scarf he made from a popular yarn. The scarf design had been floating around on Flickr for a long time and Flood was clear that this was just how HE made it, but the pattern “went viral” and any internet-savvy knitter would recognize it “from a galloping horse,” the knitter’s test for whether to rip out a mistake and re-knit. The Noro Striped Scarf returns 175,000 hits on a Google search, and much of that popularity is attributed to Flood and the other bloggers who buzzed about the design for months.
Noro Striped Scarf from Jared Flood, aka Brooklyn Tweed

Knitters can search Youtube for instructional videos on knitting (41,800 hits); download podcasts; read free online knitting magazines; buy yarn from mega-sites or home-based processers and dyers; and search Flickr for photos tagged “knitting” (881,000 pictures). But the modern mecca for knitters (and crocheters) is a social networking website called Ravelry. Established in 2007 by husband-and-wife team Casey and Jessica Forbes, the site recently went out of beta and has over 600,000 members from around the world. As I’m writing this, there are over 3,000 Ravelers from 40 countries logged in to the site. 

The outpouring of user content into the Ravelry database is phenomenal. Members upload details of their projects and their yarn stash; there are databases of pattern books and magazines, hundreds of thousands of links to patterns (free or for purchase), discussion forums for any subject of interest, and incredible searching functionality. No knitter needs to work in isolation and all knitters have something to offer the site. 
The “reach” of all this user content is worldwide. The most popular pattern on Ravelry, fingerless mitts called “Fetching,” has been made or queued 14,000 times. The second most popular pattern is a baby jacket by Elizabeth Zimmerman. Two of Jared Flood’s patterns are in the top 10. Knitters all over the world would recognize those top ten patterns, and their importance wasn’t decided by editors or other experts–knitters have decided for themselves what to knit, what to value. It’s the new way.
“Slither” gloves, pattern from online mag Knitty.com, currently on my needles

My generation has the best of both worlds. My grandmother first put needles and yarn in my hands; her English was minimal but the language of knitting doesn’t require words. Yet words and pictures, flashing to my screen, now connect me with the worldwide community of crafters who love knitting and love to write about it. The challenge is there for designers, just as it is for writers: how to catch that wave, how to be THE ONE that everyone’s talking about? It helps to be good and to work hard, but there’s an intangible something else…we may never be able to define that “something else” but when it comes our way, we need to grab its tail and hang on for the ride.