Steve Uren is too cool to knit -- or so you'd think. His thick, russet glasses offset short, spiky hair, and his tee shirt, which boasts a menacing skull with crossing swords, doesn't exactly scream craftwork.
Even his gritty last name (pronounced the way you think it is) fits his punky persona better than a pair of knitting needles, which rest oddly in his plump hands. He's a big guy -- the type more likely to heckle old ladies than crochet with them.
But Uren's not the outcast he once was. Stitchin' n' Bitchin', a part-craft, part-gab group that meets once a month at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, has seen a recent influx of young, unlikely knitters like Uren.
In fact, a majority of the group that gathered at a recent meeting were under 35, mimicking a national trend that has placed knitting in the same category of hip as Ashton and appletinis.
Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe and Cameron Diaz tout the tradition, and the Craft Yarn Council reports that the under-35 set makes up the largest number of rookie knitters among America's 38 million who know how to stitch in time.
"It's really been catching on," says Kim Dallas, 34, founder of Stitchin' n' Bitchin'. "It's a great way to meet people, and it's therapeutic."
Dallas, a petite, stylish stay-at-home mom, picked up the craft while living in Portland, Oregon, where anyone who's anyone knits, she says. "It can be an elitist hobby."
Now she lives in the Valley, and she's thrilled about her burgeoning group, which is much more egalitarian and had only three members when it first met at a Chandler coffee shop a year ago. On this April evening, the small back room of the independent bookstore is flooded with roughly 40 of the group's 60 members.
Before Dallas can say hello to her regulars, she spots Uren -- a novice to the group -- and gasps. Finally, a touch of testosterone in the room. "A boy! I've always wanted one!" she shouts.
Uren came to the meeting with his girlfriend, Melanie Parkes, but he denies being dragged there. He says his curiosity was sparked after he bought Parkes the wildly popular book Stitch 'n Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook (Workman Publishing).
Debbie Stoller, the brash founding editor of the feminist mag Bust, published the sassy guide to knitting last September. Shortly after, young, chic professionals from New York to Switzerland started forming knitting happy hours, where they'd knit, drink and socialize. (Would you like a cocktail with that sweater pattern?)
They trashed demure labels like "knitting guild" and opted for trendier variations on the book's catchy title.
"Stitch 'n' Bitch sounds so much cooler than knitting group," says Jenny Rank, 24, who took up knitting two weeks prior to April's meeting. Rank sits among a room full of twentysomethings, most beginners to the hobby and some alone in their newfound craft.
"I tell my friends I'm going to a knitting group, and they're like, 'Uh, okay, old lady,'" says Rebecca Dewey, a 24-year-old aspiring cosmetologist.
Dewey has been knitting on and off for 10 years, picking it up again after she quit smoking. It keeps her hands busy, just as cigarettes did, but she says it can consume too much of her time if she's not careful.
"My friends have a limit on how many times I can take my knitting somewhere when I'm out with them," she says, admitting that restaurants and coffee shops aren't safe from whatever scarf or sock project she's looping up.
Just like Uren, Dewey's funky appearance -- chunky, dyed-black hair, tongue ring, Converse All Stars -- might startle the fundamentalist knitter. But she doesn't mind being an oddity of the hobby, and she has a solution to her friends' teasing.
"Anyone who laughs doesn't get presents," she says adamantly, explaining that knitting is a great form of cheap gift-giving.
Stitchin' n' Bitchin' isn't the only local group with a youthful membership. Cactus Needles, Arizona's chapter of the Knitting Guild of America, meets several times throughout the month, including the third Monday at the Scottsdale Fashion Square food court.
Beth Rees, the group's former president, says that roughly a third of the guild's 40 members are in their 20s or 30s. But fads die fast, and knitting, she fears, may be one of them.
"I've seen crafting trends come and go, and right now we're on top," says Rees, 36, a legal assistant for a Phoenix law firm. "It will lose some of its faddishness."
For now, the fad is flourishing. According to Terri McCook, co-owner of the Fiber Factory in Mesa, younger crowds have been flocking to the craft store in search of hipper patterns, brighter fabrics and, of course, the knitters' bible, Stitch 'n Bitch. The book barely stays on the shelf, she says, and in each of the 20 knitting classes offered through the store, roughly half of the students are younger than 30.
Among the cooler things to create, she says, are scarves, hats, felt purses and cell phone protectors, which is Uren's virgin knitting project.
He fumbles through Dallas' initial instructions; the series of looping motions on crisscrossing needles can be confusing. After minutes of slow maneuvering and faulty starts, Uren finally gets it.
"There's my X!" he exclaims, proudly crossing his needles in front of his chest. The skull-and-crossbones cell phone protector he started might take time, but knitters have to be patient, Dallas says.
After all, knitting is the new yoga, some say. Even Rees, who scoffs at the suggestion, grudgingly agrees, adding that knitting is even better because it's portable. "You can't exactly do a downward-facing dog in a business meeting."
Get your knit on! Following is a select guide to the Valley's knitting supply stores and social groups:
Arizona Knitting & Needlepoint Inc.: 3617 North Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-945-7455.
Cactus Needles Knitting Guild: Meets several times throughout the month. Contact Jackie Taylor, 480-948-3329, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fiber Factory: 150 West Main, Mesa, 480-969-4346, offers several knitting classes, call for fees.
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In Stitches: 2330 West Northern Avenue, 602-995-5959.
Knitting in Scottsdale: 7116 East Mercer, Scottsdale, 480-951-9942.
Phoenix Knit and Needlepoint Company: 5044 North Seventh Street, 602-230-8104.
Stitchin' n' Bitchin': Meets first Tuesday of the month at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 South McClintock Drive, Tempe, and third Tuesday at undetermined location. Contact Kim Dallas, 480-699-4496 or email@example.com.