Wonder of Woolies; For many years deemed an "old woman's" activity, knitting is becoming increasingly hip with the younger generation. JESSICA TRAVERS reports.
IT'S a Tuesday night and a procession of women are making their way towards the Chantry in Morpeth on the banks of the River Wansbeck.
Once there they pass through the door of the quaintly named Treacle Wool Shop and head upstairs.
Follow them up and you would come to a largish room with exposed stone walls and a wooden floor almost filled by a pine table and matching chairs.
And sitting there talking quietly you would see the women. In fact, this particular night there are so many of them they can't all fit around the square table.
Some are perching on the wide sills of the floor to ceiling sash windows that in daylight afford a picturesque view of the riverside.
They range in age from their 20s to their 50s. They seem a disparate group. But closer inspection reveals they all share one thing in common, apart from being female - they're all knitting.
The click-clack of needles forms a soundtrack to their chatter. There are 18 of them packed into the cosy room and they have convened for the monthly meeting of the increasingly popular Knit2gether group.
For two hours on the first Monday of the month, the women meet-up with other local knitters, get help if they are stuck with a design, start new projects and gain inspiration from the gorgeous range of pattern books, yarns and accessories on sale in the Treacle Wool Shop.
The group is the brainchild of shop owners Kym Hewison and Claire Lawson. Both 41 and with six children between them aged four to nine, the pair also run specialist knitting and crocheting courses and workshops.
Kym and Claire are feeding into a renewed and growing passion for knitting and crocheting.
Once seen as a hobby for grannies, by the 1980s both crafts had fallen out of favour. It was the era of massive shoulder pads, big hair, bling, conspicuous wealth and the beginnings of the vogue for throwaway fashion.
The new Yuppie culture became hooked on fast returns, and crafts like knitting and crocheting were seen as time consuming and old-hat, a throwback to a make do and mend era that was no longer relevant.
Wool shops closed in their hundreds, knitting needles and patterns were hidden away in cupboards and handmade jumpers were cast aside as food for the moths or blankets for the family dog.
Of course, knitting has fallen in and out of fashion throughout history. In the 19th century women capitalised on the rise in sport, knitting golf jumpers and cycling socks. In the First and Second World Wars - and virtually every other conflict before and since - they knitted socks and gloves to show their patriotism.
Knitting went through a bad patch in the 1920s, but women were won back to it with new yarn colours and fashionable patterns. The hardships of the Depression coupled with a desire to imitate the knitted two pieces often sported by Hollywood actresses, saw knitting reach new heights of popularity in the 1930s.
Women on the Home Front knitted their way through the Second World War and while the pastime saw a decline in the late 1940s and 1950s as new technology and efficiency became the order of the day, it again staged a comeback in the 1960s as many young people rebelled against commercialism in favour of handmade fashion statements.
But the 1970s and the birth of feminism dealt what seemed the final blow for knitting's popularity, however. It gradually declined until by the 1980s the number of people doing it nationwide could be counted in their tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.
But the pendulum is now swinging the other way and the skills our grandparents relied on are becoming increasingly hip.
Women - and some men it has to be said - now want to reclaim the ancient traditions and expertise that served our forebears so well.
Hence the gathering at the Treacle Wool Shop. It's a comfortable, domestic image that is being replicated across the land as people worn out by the stresses and strains of modern life seek to take a step back to a gentler more caring time.
Even celebrities are getting in on the act. Actresses Sienna Miller, Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman and Sarah Jessica Parker have all been spotted knitting in public.
It's no longer pass to be seen knitting on your lunch break, on public transport, in cafes or while out having a quiet drink with mates.
Kym Hewison is herself a born-again knitter, although she got back into the craft out of necessity rather than as a follower of fashion. Originally taught by her paternal grandmother when she was eight years old, she abandoned it in her mid-teens.
"I suppose I knitted for about eight years first time around, and then you hit your mid-teens and suddenly lots of things you enjoyed doing no longer appeal. It was in my late 20s that I came back to knitting when my and my friends' thoughts were starting to turn to babies. I was frustrated that I couldn't buy nice clothes for my children without either going into Newcastle or ordering via the internet, so I started knitting again."
This led to Kym starting her own wool business. Originally an online affair, she persuaded a tea room to let her use their premises to sell to the public once a month. "I was keen to get the community on board as I knew that was the only way the business could survive," she says.
The events were a huge success, and Kym decided the time was right to set-up her own high street outlet. The Treacle Wool Shop opened in April 2009. Kym ran it on her own until her accountant, fellow knitting fanatic Claire Lawson, joined forces with her last year. The shop sells everything a knitter could need - yarns, patterns, books, magazines, gifts and local crafts. Wherever possible, Kym and Claire support local wool suppliers and currently offer alpaca yarn from Fallowfield Alpacas near Hexham, as well as Arran wool supplied by a farmer's wife who lives near Morpeth.
Prices range from pounds 1.99 a ball to pounds 15 for a skein of silk and alpaca. "We have to cater for all tastes," Kym says. "We are, after all, a business."
Unlike many retailers that are struggling in the recession, however, business is ticking over nicely for Kym and Claire. But why would a 20-something want to learn a craft that Miss Marple did while solving a murder-mystery? Many have claimed just as the Depression of the 1930s saw women picking up the needles and wool, so our current economic crisis is fuelling the latest surge in interest. Kym disagrees. She says knitting isn't necessarily a cheap alternative, although in the case of a chunky garter stitch scarf she spotted before Christmas on the high street that was priced pounds 200, she maintains you could make a better alternative for pounds 20.
"In the old days you could knit more cheaply than you could buy," Kym explains. "That is not necessarily the case nowadays, although we do sell yarn for pounds 1.99 a ball."
For her the resurgence in knitting is an antidote to the stresses and strains of 21st Century living.
Computers, mobile phones, and other gadgetry now rule our lives 24/7. It is becoming increasingly hard to leave work behind and relax.
"Knitting is a very creative and soothing process," Kym says. "You can have a really hectic day, get home, put the kids to bed and pick up your knitting while watching the TV or even just chatting to someone. It calms you down.
"It's also very portable and a sociable activity, especially if you get involved with a knitting group. It also helps that knits are fashionable again. Knitted scarves and jumpers are all over the place, and it does no harm when celebrities are seen doing it."
It's also very therapeutic, is known to improve motor skills and keeps the brain agile. "Some knitting patterns can be complicated," Kym says. "If you are doing a complex design it is quite mathematical and gets your brain going."
Kym always has "knitting on the go". She is currently making herself a jumper and has just completed a ballet cardigan for her four-year-old daughter. She admits her two older sons have reached an age when they are getting a bit iffy about their mum's knitting, but can still be persuaded to wear handmade socks and hats.
She thinks they will come back into the fold, though, especially with men's heritage knitwear - Fair Isle sweaters, cable knit jumpers and chunky cardigans - now fashionable.
"Knitting is great fun and you feel a real sense of achievement," Kym says. "I would recommend everyone give it a try."
So your grandmother might actually live to see you knitting, even if the fruit of your labour is some un-wearable garment reminiscent of the three-legged baby outfit Morticia once knitted in the Addams Family.
For details of the Knit2gether group and other courses and workshops run by the shop go to www.treaclewoolshop.co.uk IT'S less than a week since Joanne Cowens picked up a pair of knitting needles for the first time in 15 years, but already she has completed three scarves and three sets of hand-warmers.
"I think you can say I've got the knitting bug," she declares with a laugh. A teacher who works with adults with learning difficulties, she is not the only one in her household, near Coldstream, Northumberland, to have fallen in love with the art. Inspired by her mum, Joanne's 12-year-old daughter Amber is also currently clicking away. Mother and daughter can often now be found sitting together knitting one, purling one.
Joanne's mother taught her to do basic knitting and crocheting when she was around six years old.
The young Joanne would help with church projects, knitting and crocheting squares for blankets.
Then like many women she "grew out of it".
But feeling guilty that she wasn't passing on the same skills to Amber that her late mother had passed on to her, the 39-year-old decided to enrol both of them on a knitting course at Treacle Wool in Morpeth.
Neither has looked back since.
Joanne, who is married to Neil, 44, a plumber and heating engineer and has a nine-year-old son, Archie, says her interest now is in knitting funky items. "We holiday in France every year and if I see a really funky ball of wool I have to buy it and stash it away.
"Last time we went I found this fab pom-pom wool and bought three balls, and it is this I have been using for the scarves. I really thought it was time I started using all this wonderful wool."
She says her husband and son are bemused by her and Amber's latest passion. "There are balls of wool everywhere!
"But I find it very therapeutic. I have quite a stressful job - I often joke that my BlackBerry is grafted on to my arm - but when I am knitting I'm totally absorbed in what I am doing.
"It stops the world and the frantic pace. I do an hour or two on an evening and it helps me wind down.
"It's a lovely diversion."
UNRAVELING THE ORIGINS OF KNITTING ? KNITTING is believed, in one form or another, to date back to before the birth of Christ.
The earliest knitting needle was a brass rod that dates back to the early Iron Age.
Spinning wool started in around 4000BC near the Mediterranean Sea.
Knitting is believed to have grown out of the knitting of fish nets by men.
It is believed to have spread with Arabian sailors and merchants who travelled throughout the Mediterranean.
In the Middle Ages knitting flourished and the manufacture of wool stockings became an important industry in Briton. A number of knitting schools were set-up, but it was men rather than women who were the first to make a career out of the skill.
In more recent times, knitting has become associated with women and was passed down from one generation to the next alongside crocheting, lace-making and sewing.
CASTING OFF IF YOU want to learn to knit, brush up your needle skills, or just meet other like-minded people, there are a number of places in the North East you can go.
? The Knit Studio, Blackfriars, Newcastle, 0191 340 8478, www.theknitstudio.co.uk A shop selling a wide-range of UK yarns, books, magazines and accessories as well as hand-crafted gifts from the likes of Oscar & Toots and Hambley. They also offer a range of knitting workshops and courses to help get you started.
?Woolaballoo, 2 Beech Grove Terrace, Ryton, 0191 580 0103, www.woolaballoo.com As well as a high street outlet, Woolaballoo also has a fantastic online shop offering a sumptuous range of wools and all manner of knitting and crochet supplies. A selection of workshops, including Finishing Techniques, Let''s Knit Socks and Beaded Knits, cost around pounds 30.
?Treacle Wool Shop, Chantry Place, Morpeth, 01670 504 045, www.treaclewoolshop.co.uk
PASSION Treacle Wool Shop KNITTING TOGETHER Kym Hewison, left, and Claire Lawson are partners at Treacle Wool Shop in Morpeth