A fire is crackling in the fireplace, bright orange flames reaching up to kiss the dark recesses of the chimney. Outside, fluffy white snow is softly falling, gently making purchase on the frozen ground.
Somewhere in the distance a tea kettle whistles its familiar tune, a welcome signal that a comforting beverage will help warm the body and soul as the temperature outdoors continues to drop.
The home fires are burning and it sounds like a perfect time to relax and pick up that knitting project that’s been tucked away in a basket, waiting to be handled and loved once again.
Working with yarn – whether it be knitting or crocheting – is a pastime that has been around since time immemorial. Born of necessity and shaped throughout the years, by both fashion and interest, knitting is enjoying resurgence in popularity these days.
Gillian Crawford of Lismore Sheep Farm believes this is so for two reasons: people are more interested in natural fibres, and knitting seems to have skipped a generation.
“Our grandmothers knit, but maybe not our mothers, and now we are interested in it,” she says.
There is also the sociability of knitting today, Crawford says.
“When I was younger I learned to knit at a knitting class, like at an Eaton’s. Now, young people are learning on YouTube. Plus, there are trendy knitting shops and classes that offer knitting and tea – a real social atmosphere.”
Interest in natural fibres strikes a chord with Crawford. Lismore Sheep Farm, located just off the Sunrise Trail on Route 6, is a working farm with a few hundred sheep that produce fleece which is turned into beautiful wool in a myriad of colours and textures. Keeping with the natural theme, Gillian’s husband John sources local wood to hand make knitting needles, sold as River John Needle Company needles. They are hand sanded and finished with wax to produce a lightweight, smooth knitting needle that yarn virtually glides over.
Delia Burge of Millsville is absolutely certain that knitting and handmade knit goods are making a comeback. And this is welcome news for the owner of Cobweb Woollies and co-owner of Water Street Studios Co-Operative in Pictou, which sells wool from Cobweb Woollies as well as hand knit items and many other treasures.
“A resurgence, for sure,” she enthusiastically nods in her head.
Sitting in the comfy confines of her sprawling farmhouse, perched high atop Fitzpatrick Mountain in Millsville, Burge is more than happy to chat about all things wool related and share her enthusiasm for the craft.
She can’t help it really. She is literally surrounded by it: from the sheep grazing in the green pastures that comprise her property, to the spinning wheel in her den and the giant loom in her living room – both of which contain various types of wool in different stages.
And that’s just what can be seen by the naked eye. A quick glance into the glass-walled solarium that towers two storeys high on the south side of her house reveals more wool: colourful handmade hats drying on a rustic wooden table, a handwoven woolen coat ready for final assembly (for her sheep shearer, Burge explains), environmentally friendly dryer balls waiting to be packaged… It is evident that Burge is in her element when surrounded by wool.
Burge really doesn’t remember ever not being able to knit.
“I have been knitting since I was about five,” she explains. “My father taught me.”
Growing up in England, Burge said, money was not in abundance. “We used to pick apart old sweaters, unravel them and reuse the yarn to make new sweaters.”
Following graduation from college, she came to Canada as an occupational therapist and settled on the West Coast, first in Vancouver then moved to interior British Columbia.
“I wanted sheep, so we moved to Nova Scotia.”
And by sheep, Burge means fibre sheep – 30 ewes and three rams. She also raises two llamas, which guard the sheep.
Burge is an expert knitter. She has taught countless people the skill over the years. Burge is also an expert at crochet. “I prefer to knit,” she confesses. “Afghans lend themselves to crochet, but it takes more yarn to crochet an afghan so knitting is a bit more economical.”
Burge has also taught spinning, tapestry weaving, and was teaching her grandson how to operate the loom.
Cozying up beside the fire on a cold winter’s night with a knitting project and a cuppa seems a bit foreign to Burge, who runs her farm 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, she is always working on a project. She has created what she calls “small projects:” knitted hats of all descriptions as well as mittens, scarves, socks and such.
“With the small projects, it’s instant gratification. People just don’t have time anymore” for bigger projects, she says. And by ‘bigger’ projects, she means more intricate garments that are woven first, like coats, jackets and sweaters. Burge does all of that, too.
It’s a natural continuation of her work with Cobweb Woollies. This is where Burge farms the sheep, has them sheared then washes the fleece, dyes it and spins it into yarn of various weights and colours.
“It’s sort of a miracle, really,” she says of how wool gets from sheep to sweater. Smiling, she sits at her spinning wheel and transforms a bit of woolen fibre into yarn. After a few minutes she says, “That’s the trouble with spinning – time passes before you know it.”
Time spent knitting also passes very quickly for Nicole LeBlanc. A virtual “newcomer” to knitting, this Trenton resident is the epitome of the younger generation immersed in the age-old craft.
And like Burge, LeBlanc feels sure that knitted goods are making a comeback.
“I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to receive or appreciate something that was hand knit,” she says.
Instead of traditional knitting needles, LeBlanc’s forte is a knitting loom – a handheld instrument that produces hats, scarves, headbands and such by moving yarn around a series of pegs. And instead of sitting at the elbow of her mother or grandmother – “who was a beautiful knitter” – to learn how to knit, and using patterns handed down over generations, LeBlanc turns to the Internet and sites like Pinterest or YouTube or Etsy for do-it-yourself instructions and inspiration.
“I tried knitting the traditional way,” LeBlanc admits, taking a sip from a steaming cup of coffee. “But I prefer using the loom.”
Learning to knit was always on her ‘bucket list’ and a couple of years ago she met that challenge head on when she produced hundreds of headbands all hand knit on her looms and sold them as a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County.
“If I was sitting watching TV or sitting in the passenger seat of our car, I was knitting,” she grins.
A few years ago, she and a group of friends formed what she calls a “girls craft group” where they would meet regularly and share their skills, knowledge and projects with each other. Or just have fun. They did a lot of that, too.
“We don’t do that anymore because we all got so busy” with work and life in general, she sighs.
But those groups do still exist, privately among groups of friends or in more public settings. The Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library offers a number of knitting circles for people of all ages at various locations throughout the county.
Trecia Schell, Community Services librarian with Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library laughs, “We have more knitting clubs than book clubs – and the knitting groups meet weekly while the book clubs meet monthly.”
PARL offers weekly knitting groups at libraries in: Antigonish on Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Pictou on Thursdays at 3:30 p.m., River John on Fridays at 10 a.m. and Stellarton at 1 p.m. and New Glasgow every second Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
If you are contemplating how to stay busy over the long, cold winter, consider learning to knit. There are instructors, social groups and supplies all at your fingertips here in Pictou County.