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Knitting groups, yarn shops move online amid pandemic

At its most basic, knitting is a solitary act; assuming all the materials are there, a person can make a scarf or blanket without anyone else being involved.

But knitters need yarn and needles, or sometimes they need help fixing a mistake or starting a new project, and communities are built around those needs.

With the virus pandemic closing down nonessential businesses, those communities have moved online.

In a given week, area knitters have their pick of locally produced community events. On Mondays, they can tune into "Twisted Stitches," a Facebook Live show hosted by Paulette Meijer of Niantic-based mobile yarn shop Knitty Gritty Yarn Girl. On Tuesdays, Lisa Lord of Twist Yarn Shoppe, also in Niantic, is hosting a multiweek virtual knit-along. The Camel Knitters, a group normally based at Connecticut College, gathers every Friday via various video conferencing apps. And any day of the week, they could visit their favorite shops' websites for kits, classes or just a new skein of yarn.

"Yarn shops are communities unto themselves, and we're all like a little microcosm of our own communities," said Elizabeth Weil, owner of Driftwood Yarns in Groton. "I had no idea how much I was going to miss my customers until they stopped coming in."

Driftwood has been closed to the public since March 17, and Weil said she considered herself lucky that her shop manager started setting up an online store last summer to offset slow days, allowing the company to easily put up the rest of its inventory on the website for curbside pickup or delivery via mail.

She said the store is making enough in online orders to cover rent, but the lack of personal connection has been difficult, since she can't really talk to her customers when they come to pick up something. She was overwhelmed by the support she's gotten from customers, many of whom are also struggling amid changing employment.

Lord said March started out pretty well for Twist, and there was one Saturday when the shop was packed with people looking to stock up as local cases started to rise. It closed to the public March 16, relying since then on social media to showcase products and orders via phone and email for curbside pickup. She also has Facetimed with customers while walking around the shop so they could pick out their products without going in.

"It was their happy place, and I really think that they're going to miss it," she said, adding that there were always people coming in and going out or knitting for a bit at the table in the shop. "I feel bad about that, and that's why I wanted to do the virtual knit-along because it was such therapy coming to my shop."

The social aspect

Twist normally hosts knit-alongs in the shop on Wednesday nights. After her 6-year-old granddaughter had a playdate with friends via the online video conferencing service Zoom, Lord tested out the platform in a happy hour with friends and decided to use it to host the knit-along. Customers buy the yarn kit from the store and join the meeting every Tuesday at 2 p.m., and by the end of the five-week session, they'll have a wearable shawl. She said 19 people attended the inaugural session April 7.

Barbara Wilkins, a Lyme resident and longtime customer of Twist, joined the knit-along with her sister, who lives in Maryland. She said she does a yearly knitting weekend with friends, and lately she's been knitting while "Zooming" or Facetiming with friends.

While she didn't necessarily need to purchase more yarn, she said she wanted to support the store; she purchased a few skeins for herself and a few to mail to her sister.

Fellow attendee Karen Stone of Niantic, who worked with Lord before she opened Twist, said she initially wasn't planning on joining this knit-along because she's already working on a different shawl. She decided to join anyway because she misses the social aspect, as she would often visit the store on free afternoons.

"I tend to be somewhat introverted, so this gives me a space to have other friends and get out of my own little zone," she said. She's also been using other online knitting resources to teach herself skills like how to knit two socks at a time.

Staying connected

Meijer said it's an interesting time for businesses as they try to be creative and reach their customers to let them know they're still there for them. Her Facebook Live show, "Twisted Stitches," started as a live marathon knitting weekend with 15 half-hour sessions over three days from March 27 to 29 and now runs every Monday at 8 p.m.

"It wasn't really about selling yarn, it was about staying connected to the people," she said. "We did some tips and techniques, we had some interaction from the audience, people asking for different things, so between shows I'd run upstairs and knit something so I could demonstrate it at the next show."

Since many of her customers are new to knitting, Meijer also started offering a learn-to-knit class, which meets via Zoom and includes a kit with yarn, needles and a pattern. She said the idea came from a Facebook fan who wanted to learn how to knit, and she wanted to offer something for people who are stuck at home and need something new to do after cleaning every corner of the house.

Ruth Grahn, chairwoman of the psychology department at Connecticut College and member of the Camel Knitters, studies stress and said activities like knitting are helpful in combating stress, especially in unpredictable times. She said that in addition to knitting being a therapeutic activity, knitters can see the result of their work and know what their project will look like in the end; puzzles and home improvement projects have similar benefits.

She said the knitting group, which started about 15 years ago, stopped last semester because members had conflicting schedules, but the closure of campus and shift to remote work allowed them to start up again. Former members who had since retired from the college also were able to rejoin. 

"Knitting builds connections with people you might not get to know otherwise," Grahn said. "Because it is easy to keep working on a project or start a new project, those connections can be sustained over long periods of time. That kind of social support might be especially important right now."


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