Knitting not just for grandma

Younger crowds picking up yarn, needles

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Knitting needles, as improbable as it may seem to some, have become symbols of hipness, and a new generation of young women is discovering the satisfaction of creating singularly wearable art along with their mothers. The strength of the trend has been measurable this month as two new businesses in Steamboat Springs, one at the ski area base and one in Old Town, opened to a rush of success.

The local businesses are tapping into an international trend. The Craft Yarn Council of America reported that 30,000 people attended a "Knit-out" in New York's Union Square Park this year. And national retailers report that women in their teens and early twenties account for an increasing share of their business in fiber based crafts.

Cynthia Zittel of Knitch theorizes that young women enjoy the freedom of creating knitwear the way they like it -- breaking the rules is encouraged. The Craft Yarn Council points out that young women can stretch their budgets by creating fashion accessories for much less than they would pay to purchase a one-of-a-kind piece.

"You don't have to be an experienced knitter to make a fancy scarf," Jodee Anderson of The Fiber Exchange said.

Knitting, weaving, needlework and rug hooking aren't the exclusive domain of women, of course. But the trend was plain to see on a weekday afternoon last week as mothers and their adult daughters on vacation shopping excursions streamed into The Fiber Exchange, 68 Ninth St., and Knitch, 1910 Ski Time Square Drive.

Knitch and The Fiber Exchange are noticeably different in their approaches to helping people learn to enjoy a fine craft.

Knitting shop taps into trend\

Cynthia Zittel had established her niche in the business world with a needlework wholesaling enterprise that does nearly $250,000 in sales annually. She had no plans to open a retail knitting store in Steamboat Springs.

All that changed when her daughter asked her to teach her to knit.

"Hana asked me to teach her to knit, and I was immediately addicted again," Zittel laughed.

She already had ruled out the possibility of opening a retail version of her successful wholesale needlework business, The Drawn Thread.

"I didn't think the needlework business would work here," she said. "I knew it wouldn't."

However, the ease with which people can learn the basics of knitting, the growing popularity of the pastime among young women such as her daughter, and her inability to find suitable materials locally intrigued her.

Her new store, Knitch, opened Dec. 18 and nearly sold out in the first week, Zittel said.

The idea began with an impulse, but after Zittel made up her mind to try opening a knitting and yarn shop here, she took a deliberate approach.

Zittel has a lengthy background in commercial graphic arts, including a stint with a San Francisco advertising agency and another with a corporate in-house design office in Denver. She has learned the critical numbers side of running a small business through The Drawn Thread.

With the help of her husband, Stephan, who owns and operates Mad Creek Gallery on Lincoln Avenue, Zittel began looking into available space in Old Town Steamboat. But she couldn't see a way to make the numbers work in downtown Steamboat.

Stephan encouraged her to look at the mountain, and Cynthia noticed that most of the businesses in the vicinity of the ski base are sporting goods stores or restaurants. She concluded that there was an unfilled demand for businesses that provide alternative activities for people on vacation. And the many high-rise condominium and hotel buildings nearby provide a built-in customer base. Zittel was able to sign a lease that she thinks will allow her to coast through the shoulder seasons and summer if necessary -- just as long as she has a prosperous winter.

Zittel's premise, that vacationers needed more varied things to do, has proven true.

"We've had more tourists come in than anything else, although we've had local high school boys and girls, too," Zittel said. "People have been just thrilled to find out there is a knitting shop at the mountain. We had one woman, a lawyer from New York, who spent the day here knitting. When she left she said, 'Best vacation I ever had.'"

Knitch is thoroughly modern in appearance. One-half of the small shop is devoted to cleanly designed cabinets that hold skeins of yarn. The other half of the store hosts a comfortable couch and chair and a tall table that can accommodate a knitting class of six to eight people.

"We think we can help educate people about knitting," Zittel said. "It takes me 20 minutes to teach somebody to knit (using the most basic techniques). They will have to go home and practice, but they can always come back and knit with us."

Knitch on the Mountain is hosting a Wednesday night knitting group with free instruction for participants who purchase materials at the shop. It's wise to call ahead at 871-6675.

The manager of Knitch is Michelle Wyant.

Fiber Exchange a place for learning

When Jodee Anderson began looking for a studio where she could revive her passion for weaving, she was stymied at first.

Her inclination was to be in downtown Steamboat, but rents posed a challenge for a single artist's studio. She looked at some of the light industrial areas on the city's western edge, but they felt isolated.

"I realized I'd have to get into production weaving in a big way to pay the rent," Anderson said. But that wasn't what she was looking for.

"I wanted walk-in visitors, and I wanted to be a part of cultural heritage tourism. I wanted to be part of more of a show-and-tell" process.

Her solution was to lease Kevin Bennett's building, 68 Ninth St., and redesign the rustic floor space into a learning studio and retail space for several of the fiber arts, incorporating knitting, rug hooking and weaving. She opened The Fiber Exchange, a fiber arts learning studio, this month.

It was while she was a student at the University of Vermont studying plant and soil science that Anderson discovered a passion for weaving textiles on a wooden loom. The traditional craft gave her a break from the rigorous science courses her major in environmental studies demanded.

"Weaving balanced me out," Anderson said.

Later, while helping to support her husband's college career at nearby Middlebury College, she designed leather clothing as a member of a craft cooperative in Middlebury and sold the clothing in a store on Lincoln Avenue.

At one time, Anderson envisioned herself launching a career devoted to weaving early American textiles, but her life took another turn.

Together, Jodee and her husband, Towny Anderson, launched a historic preservation business. During the course of three decades in the business, Jodee served as business manager as well as interior and landscape designer.

Anderson's eye for design is readily apparent upon entering The Fiber Exchange. She has taken a large space that many years ago housed the Van Horn Ford dealership and divided it by craft into distinct selling and working areas. The interior design encourages visitors to look to see what is around the next corner.

"Fiber artists want to be visually stimulated," Anderson said.

The old automotive garage

imparts a historic industrial feel to the new fiber arts studio. The concrete floor shows faint layers of faded paint, and the high ceilings reveal rough wooden trusses.

The industrial look is balanced with custom pine display fixtures and a massive Italian armoire owned by Bennett. There is a comfortable conversation and knitting corner with couches and stuffed chairs near the rear of the studio.

Upon entering The Fiber Exchange, customers are confronted with a display table showing over-sized knitting needles stuffed into a collection of used cowboy boots. From there, they are led into the knitting area, bracketed with triangular cubbyholes filled with bright yarns. There is a good selection of old-fashioned wool for knitting the Irish sweaters that recall the 1970s. But there's also a broad selection of less traditional yarns, including hand-dyed and hand-painted mohairs that create dramatic effects in finished scarves and shawls.

Just behind the knitting area is a space devoted to rug hooking overseen by manager Eileen Diamond. She and Anderson have researched and brought back samples of the traditional rugs being hooked by women living in the Maritime Provinces of Northeast Canada.

An upstairs loft at The Fiber Exchange has been refurbished for use as a classroom. Anderson hopes to develop a market for destination fiber arts classes that would attract visitors from other cities and states.

Finally, a good portion of the overall space has been devoted to hand looms for weaving projects including rag rugs. Anderson urges people not to discard their worn-out denim jeans -- they can be recycled into striking rugs.

There are four small jack looms for classes and two larger looms, one of which can be leased to people who don't have loom but want to undertake a multi-day project.

"This is your loom, and this is your studio," Anderson said.

The Fiber Exchange offers a variety of classes, and a special nine-week series of evening classes with noted area weaver Wendy Kowynia is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-January.

All the employees at The Fiber Exchange also are qualified to teach.

Anderson knows that her new business doesn't represent a path to wealth, but she'll be happy if it becomes a vital part of the community where people come together to learn and share a passion for the fiber arts.

"It's not going to make a lot of money, but it's going to feed my passion," Anderson said.

For details, call 879-9090.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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