When a woman known as the "Yarn Harlot" arrived on a Friday evening, the excitement in the crowded knitting store was palpable. Needles furiously busy with colorful projects stopped, mid row. "Is that her?"
The question swirled like steam over a mug of tea.
Of course, most knew the answer - yes - because they recognized Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, who writes humorous essays about knitting from her home in Canada. The dead giveaway was the sock she carried. They had seen and read about the sock's adventures online. They had shared with her their own stories of misshapen buttonholes and sweaters with too-long sleeves. But until now, they had never shared "real space," and in some cases, their real names.
Meet knitters who blog.
Tucked away in a corner of the Internet like wool mittens in August, knitters have been quietly spinning yarns in cyberspace. The scene in the Boston store is just one example of a phenomenon that's woven its way through the blogosphere. Widely considered the domain of news junkies and political pundits, blogs - or online journals - are actually dominated by the apolitical set: sports fans, cooks, even jugglers. Through these blogs, and the communities they create, enthusiasts have been discovering a world of fellow devotees with whom to share their wit and wisdom, exchange tips and life experiences, or just commune - even if half a world away.
As a result, Ms. Pearl-McPhee's US book tour to promote her new collection of essays, "At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much," has become part knitting session, part blogger meet-up.
"When you read a blog, you are really being invited into someone's living room," says Pearl-McPhee, who spends an hour a day reading other people's blogs. "You get to learn about them when they aren't on their best behavior. But if you don't meet these people you start wondering if you just have imaginary friends in a pretend knitting universe."
There are more than 900 knitting blogs online, as shown by one Web ring directory (a Web ring is an online community of similar websites with links to each member). They are a tiny but sturdy band in the blogosphere which has more than 18 million bloggers worldwide, according to Technorati.com, a website that tracks blogs.
Some blogs can be influential, like the one that sounded the alarm that CBS used forged documents in a report on President Bush's military service. But the majority have only a handful of readers interested in similar topics, such as skeins of wool. "For most bloggers, [the experience] is like a conversation among friends," says David Weinberger, author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A unified theory of the Web."
Friendship plays a large role in fostering online communities, and many bloggers reveal their innermost thoughts - no matter how mundane or risqué - in a "Dear Diary" fashion.
And, like any good exchange of ideas, the online comments often drift to other topics. "If you discover a person sitting on a bench knitting and you strike up a conversation with that person, your conversation is going to range beyond knitting," says Mr. Weinberger. "That's what is happening in weblogs."
The abundance of knitters in the virtual world is a natural offshoot of the craft's renewed popularity. There are 50 million knitters in North America spurring record yarn sales, with the fastest growing population being between the ages of 25 and 34, according to the Craft Yarn Council of America. A proliferating number of knitting salons - part café, part craft store - draw hipster crowds across the country.
And since fashionable people are knitting things such as slinky halter tops while doing tech-savvy things such as downloading music, it's only natural that the Internet has become an oracle of sorts for someone stumped by a Fair Isle pattern. In fact, 1 of 10 knitters uses the Web to find patterns and seek out advice, according to the Craft Yarn Council.
"Think of how freeing this is as a knitter," says Pearl-McPhee, whose blog can be found at yarnharlot.ca/blog. "Up until blogging, if you knit a [bad] buttonhole you might be stuck until you can get to a knitting store. Now, I can take a picture of the buttonhole, put it up online, and in 10 minutes I can have someone from Atlanta writing to say, 'I did that last week. You need to do a yarn over.' I'm definitely a better knitter because of it."
Most knitting blogs contain what's called a "blog roll," or a list of links to other favorite knitting blogs. Pearl-McPhee, who has been a blogger for the past year and a half, has a list of about 38 links on her website.
Some blogs ask readers to vote on the direction of a project: "How should I knit these Christmas stockings?" asks a blogger at somecallthemsticks.blogspot.com. Sixty percent told her to use good wool and do the best job that she can. Others seem to have an almost competitive spirit: "The knitting Internet seems to have some kind of a lace obsession right now. I seem to have been bitten by the same bug," confesses Beetle Blog at beetle.cbtlsl.com, a 30-something father of four living in Arizona. Others have arranged sock swaps since many have never received a knitted gift of their own.
But what really solidifies the online friendships is the chance to meet in person. At Circles, the knitting store in Boston, there were continuous moments of recognition between the bloggers nestled among soft chairs. "Aren't you the Subway Knitter?" (subwayknitter.typepad.com) someone asked her neighbor. One blogger (happyfroggyknits.squarespace.com) who had traveled several hours from upstate New York, elicited clucks of concern when she revealed her town did not have a knitting store. Potluck dishes were gathered in a back room. Pearl-McPhee perched on a stool, legs crossed, fingers busy, and told a funny story or two. Soon the awkward social lines dissolved.
These blogging knitters - gleeful in their shared obsession - will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their new-found friendships, even if it means putting the computer keyboard so that they can scroll through pages with their toes while they knit.
"A year ago I'd never been anywhere alone, and now I've been to 45 cities in the US," says Pearl-McPhee. "Everywhere I went I had connection to someone I know. Really good for the soul, that."
As I sat on the plane leaving for Chicago, I pulled my knitting from my bag (a sock) ... and began to organize myself. As I did so, a gentleman near me stared intently at my knitting needles.
"Hello," I said, smiling. Lots of people ask me about my knitting. I thought for sure that's where this was headed.
"Are those metal?" he asked, gesturing at my 2-mm needles.
"Yup," I said....
"I'm uncomfortable with those," he says.
"What, the knitting needles?" I answer. "They're allowed items." And I smiled again....
The gentleman looks at me and says: "Yes. The needles. You know," he says to me, clearly feeling a need to elaborate, since I am starting to look at him with confusion, "for terrorist reasons."
- Excerpt from her Oct. 3 blog