NEW YORK — There's something beguiling about the way the shop called Knit New York melds retro and modern: the jazz warbling in the background, the metal trash can with its swingy lid. Knitting itself seems decidedly old-fashioned. But the unexpected textures and colors of yarn, the shiny espresso machine, and the bamboo-filled vases all speak to something more contemporary.
This city's first knitting cafe, where old and new intersect, manages to capture perfectly the mood of the current knitting craze. It has long been associated with grandmothers and stodgy, functional designs, but now younger, savvier women are being swept up by the possibilities of knit cellphone cozies and cashmere ponchos. Across the country, knitting cafes are providing them places to buy instructional books and beverages - and creating communities where a difficult stitch can be explained or a complex pattern unraveled.
Nationwide, more than 38 million people knit or crochet. Of those, the number of women under 45 has doubled to 18 percent since 1996, according to a 2002 survey by the Craft Yarn Council of America. Urban Outfitters, the trendy clothing store, now stocks knitting books. Clubs are flourishing on college campuses. Some schools - the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, for example - even offer such unlikely courses as "Feet First: The Art of Sock Knitting."
The craft's popularity with younger women has waxed and waned over the past two centuries, explains Debbie Stoller in her book "Stitch 'N Bitch," which has become a bible for the newest generation of knitters. (The title comes from a term for stitching groups that dates back to the 1950s.) Ms. Stoller herself has had a long, wobbly relationship with the hobby. At age 6, she made her first failed attempt to learn from her Dutch grandmother.
In 1999, when Stoller took up the craft again, knitting shops in New York were few and far between. Certainly, nothing like Knit New York existed. Custom shelving stretches from floor to ceiling, proffering balls, pretzel twists, and fuzzy clumps of mohair, cashmere, and cotton in every shade from from the palest pink to metallic gold. Display cases are stuffed with scones, sandwiches, and crème brûlée.
It's 4:15 p.m. on a workday, yet six women are hunched over projects at tables scattered throughout the store. While most are wrangling two needles, Lalita Togas, who came from work, holds just one. She's been coming here to crochet since she first heard about Knit New York in March. Unlike at other yarn stores in the city, she says, no one thinks any less of her for crocheting. Last year, Ms. Togas made a striped scarf and matching hat for her niece. She has since moved on to a poncho - the first small chain of loops lies on the table in front of her.
Before long, Togas, who is dressed in all black and has a cropped pixie haircut, has moved to a nearby table. There she confers with a woman wearing a sleeveless hoodie, who pauses periodically to drape a partially completed green wrap around her shoulders for size.
Not all of Knit New York's customers are dressed quite as stylishly as this pair. A few are older and more concerned with a yarn's durability than its novel texture.
But not everyone comes here to knit. Farther back in the shop, Deirdre Lane and Margaret Morse sip hot drinks and nibble baked goods, not a ball of yarn between them. They came for the cozy atmosphere.
Miriam Maltagliati, the store's owner, says that people who work in the area treat Knit New York like any other cafe, stopping in for a morning coffee or afternoon snack.
As popular as knitting has become, Stoller laments the fact that it has remained a "gendered activity." Knitting cafes may be helping to change that.
Just last month, Knit New York introduced its first Monday night class for men, which was well received.
Meanwhile, Knit Cafe in West Hollywood, a section of Los Angeles that attracts a cast of "colorful characters," according to owner Suzan Mischer, draws its own "mixed bag." In addition to women of all ages, Ms. Mischer says her clientele includes both men and children.
La Ti Da, situated in a rambling Victorian on a historic Denver street, has also lured its share of men since opening in July. "The men right away want to get into some complicated stuff," says Kim Allegretti, one of the store's owners. "They're very good, too." One regular, she adds, works as an engineer on an oil rig. Apparently, he's found knitting to be a perfect way to pass his time at sea.