US men unravel stereotypes by knitting
Pastime is 'not just for grandmas', say enthusiasts
COCKEYSVILLE, Maryland: Knitting has surged in popularity once again in the United States in this age of pandemics and self-care.
But on a sunny March afternoon just outside the nation's capital, one club of enthusiasts sets itself apart: the 10 or so people clicking their needles are men.
DC Men Knit meets twice a month in the Washington area to knit or crochet scarves, hats and blankets. The goal? Relaxation, friendship and reclaiming a pastime historically enjoyed by men and women.
The group's coordinator Gene Throwe says he hopes to "provide a safe space for men to knit together and trade our skills with one another, to help each other out, because knitting has for quite a while been viewed as a female vocation."
The 51-year-old Throwe, an office manager for a national association of nursing schools, puts some finishing touches on a brown sweater with a subtle golden pattern that he's been making on and off for years.
Like many of his fellow knitters, Throwe grew up watching his grandmother work magic with her needles. That feeling of nostalgia turned to regret as he watched the hobby fall by the wayside, in favor of more modern pursuits.
One day, he realised he could do something to revive it.
"Why do I have to expect the women to do it — I can do it too!" he recalled.
The members of DC Men Knit tend to spark a degree of fascination when they meet in public places — but no hostility or discrimination.
"It's always some grandmotherly type person that... stares at us, like we just landed from Mars," Throwe says with a laugh.
"And then they'll just start asking us questions about what we're working on."
'Not just for grandmas'
Historically, men have always been knitters, from those who ran lucrative medieval knitting guilds to the schoolboys in World War II Britain who made blankets for the troops.
For those who are passionate about the craft, the latest craze is nothing out of the ordinary.
In his shorts in near-freezing temperatures, and a fanny pack around his waist, Sam Barsky doesn't fit the mold of the usual social media influencer. But he has nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok combined.
Barsky — a self-styled "knitting artist" — has won over fans with his freehand knitting and his unique sweater designs, which are inspired by landscapes and nature, monuments or works of art.
Niagara Falls, Stonehenge, the New York City skyline, penguins, robots, the Wizard of Oz: Barsky takes it all on and has sweaters not just for Christmas but for every occasion — birthdays, Valentine's Day, Hanukkah, you name it.
He even has a sweater dedicated to... his sweaters, with about 30 of his creations knitted in miniature form. His work has been displayed at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
"Knitting is not just for grandmas. Knitting is for anyone of any age or gender who wants to do it, who enjoys doing it," he told AFP in an interview at Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Cockeysville, Maryland, north of Baltimore.
It was in the park that he kept knitting when the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt.
The park's trees, some of which were painted in 2017 by people who overcame drug and alcohol addiction, have been immortalised on one of Barsky's sweaters against a golden background.
Pandemic side effects
While Barsky is keen to travel once again, he says the pandemic was not all bad for him personally: his TikTok account, which he opened in September 2020, quickly attracted a bigger following than the Instagram account he'd been using for years.
Once people were free to meet up in person again, his knitting circles "got much, much larger crowds because lots of other people picked up knitting in that period of time," he said.
Like breadmaking or pottery, knitting and other sewing arts were revitalised during the first months of the pandemic as a way for penned-in Americans to combat their boredom and anxiety — a scenario repeated around the world.
Even former first lady Michelle Obama has taken up the hobby, showing off the sweaters she made for president husband Barack in promotional appearances for her latest book.
In the DC Men Knit group, each member found a purpose.
For Throwe, knitting is reclaiming an art form that "can be modern and useful."
Devlin Breckenridge, a 48-year-old video game aficionado, says he wanted to "do something a little more creative... instead of digitally killing something," and knitting fit the bill.
And for Michael Manning, a 58-year-old retired government worker, the soothing repetitiveness of knitting is "just very relaxing."