As usual, I was being cheap. I mean frugal.
After seeing all the fresh, glorious knit items in stores for fall--little mini-capes and shrugs and bolero things--I got a powerful yearning to own a few. Then I looked at the price tags.
And, while I'm at it, why not knit some expensive-looking thises and thats for my friends for Christmas?
Let's see: 200 smackers for a glorified scarf at a chic boutique or . . . a couple of evenings on the couch with my needles and "Law & Order" reruns on the tube. I'm there. Or, almost there.
That's where Nina Rubin comes in.
She runs a cool, year-old Wicker Park shop called Nina. I'd wandered in there by chance last summer while researching a column about Division Street (still my favorite city shopping stretch, between 1600 and 2000 West).
Nina the shop (and Nina the person for that matter) is spare and stylish. The store is filled with fibers (don't call them yarns any more) that make you want to yank some needles off the shelf and start click clacking away.
My scheme--Nina was all for it--was to shop for knit items, bring some back to the store and talk about how to make them myself, only better or cheaper--or both.
I shopped the low end (Kmart, Old Navy, etc.) for some majorly ugly examples that could be improved upon. Meanwhile, Nina and her friend and knitting enthusiast Niki Hughes went looking in the boutiques along Division Street.
We then regrouped for a show and tell at the shop.
"We totally scored," Nina says, pointing to her purchases: a vast array of hats, fingerless gloves, legwarmers (or are they armwarmers?) and a nifty shrug (sort of the sleeves-only part of a sweater) that cost $130, a lot more than I wanted to spend.
Nina and Niki dash madly around the shop pulling out drool-worthy hanks of angora and wool, cotton and mohair blends, ribbon and metallics to illustrate how the assortment of store-bought accessories could be pumped up and funked out if we recreated them ourselves.
In a break from the frenzy, I ask Nina, "Why the knitting boom?"
"It's a combination of a desire to make something yourself and enjoy the process after staring at computers all day long," she says. "It slows you down.
"It's a huge social thing. People are looking for something to do while they're talking with a friend." In today's argot, it's multitasking.
"Stitch and bitch" groups have cropped up all over the country (stitchnbitch.org) and many of us have independently created a modern equivalent of the old-fashioned sewing circle. Since my own little group has only three loyal members--thank you Georgia LaRoche and Mary Gemkow--ours is more like a stitching triangle.
But, back to the project at hand. Nina and Niki assure me that with almost no instruction, in just a few evenings, I can create that $130 shrug--but prettier. Possibilities are limitless but Nina suggests delish fibers she sells like Berroco's "Softly" (four balls at $9.75 each), perhaps embellished with angora from the local Lorna's Laces ($14.50, lornaslaces.net), or Be Sweet's "Magic Ball" ($30, besweetproducts.com), which helps South African women who weave and dye the truly magical stuff.
The shrug is basically a scarf--the classic beginner's project--with two seams for arms. "Make a straight rectangle, then seam it up," says Nina. To which I implore, "Not so fast." When I say I want a mindless hobby, one where I won't have to think (or count stitches), Niki assures me that today's knitting is supposed to be an adventure. She learned to knit only a year ago at a Chicago Park District session and recommends a "winging it" style.
"She makes things up and they come out creative and beautiful," says Nina.
I had promised myself that I would not get sucked into a knitting project without further research and reflection. That didn't work.
I bought a book of patterns for (allegedly) simple clothes (Rowan's "Big Just Got Bigger"), a "Magic Ball" of sunset-colored fiber and knitting needles as thick as kindling.
As instructed, I'm winging it. Two hours later, voila . . . a stubby knit hunk that resembles a giant place mat. Evidently, I need a little more practice. But I've caught the fever. And once surrounded by the glorious possibilities of a well-stocked knitting shop, you will too.
- - -
Beyond the scarf
TIPS FOR MAKING A SHRUG:
- Measure the circumference of your biceps. Depending on how tight you want the arms to be, add 1 to 3 inches. That's the width of your rectangle.
- As you knit, throw the rectangle across your shoulders to see if the length is right. You're aiming for a piece of knitting that goes from wrist around your back to your other wrist.
- Measure length from wrist to armpit. That's the length of the seam for each sleeve. Take your rectangle and fold it lengthwise. Sew two seams--one on either end--the length you want your sleeves.
Classes: Type "Chicago knitting" into an Internet search engine and you'll be overwhelmed with options. We suggest Nina's beginner class at noon this Saturday. Tangled Web, 177 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, offers 3-4 week beginner lessons in January. Call 708-445-8335 for schedule.
Free knitting groups: Check stitchnbitch. org and windycityknittingguild.com. The Museum of Contemporary Art just started a free stitching group in the cafe the first Tues-day of every month (312-280-2660) and Nina hosts one every Wednesday evening.
How-to: Popular books include "Last-Minute Knitted Gifts" by Joelle Hoverson and "Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook" by Debbie Stoller.
Shops: Nina, 1655 W. Division St., 773-486-8996, ninachicago.com; brand new Chix with Stix, 7316 W. Madison St., Forest Park, 708-366-6300, chixwithstixknitting.com; and the more traditional Flying Colors, 15 Walker Ave., Clarendon Hills, 630-325-0888. Plus many others.
Your biggest knitting mishap? Tell me at chicagotribune.com/shopellen