And their thoughts on your stereotypes

Words by Kendall Wenaas

Picture a knitter.

Wait, stop—if the person you see in your head is over the age of 60, that’s not the knitter we’re talking about. And if you’re imagining a woman, we’re still not on the same page.

Knitting isn’t only a ladies’ craft. Anyone can benefit from expressing their creativity through the therapeutic outlet. It’s practical. It’s social. And just about anyone can do it.

Now there are classes, organizations, meetups and groups—all dedicated to knitting—especially in the Midwest. The Des Moines metro area alone has three shops: Hill Vintage and Knits, Knitting Next Door and Yarn Junction Co in Valley Junction. Des Moines residents Josh Irwin and Stephan Maras are both members of the Des Moines Metro Knitters.

Irwin, age 33, has always been interested in creative endeavors. He tried knitting when he was 19, but it took special circumstances to get him hooked. “I think it was about 2006 when I was dealing with a lot of stress—still trying to acclimate to a place where I didn’t know many people, college was really a challenge, and work stress was tremendous.”

Irwin learned firsthand about the health benefits that knitting can provide.

“The repetitive nature of knitting is very calming and centering,” he said. “Scientific studies have actually shown that knitting and similar crafts are beneficial to mental, spiritual and physical health. The benefits are akin to meditation and prayer. Knitting lowers your blood pressure and can soothe anxiety and depression.”

Maras, age 48, was getting his masters in library science back in 2007 and wanted to reward himself. He’d taught himself to knit a few years prior, and opted for professional knitting classes as his next step. Not long after, he was knitting and going to meetups every chance he got.

“The meetups are great, and everyone is supportive,” Maras said. “They don’t care about gender.”

While the members of the meetup feel that way, the general public often thinks of knitting as a primarily female pastime. Yet the hobby hasn’t always been gendered.

In fact, knitting used to be male-dominated. Back in the 1400s, knitting guilds were exclusive groups of men who would teach apprentices how to knit. Before that, according to Arabian legend, knitting was originally invented by Arabian fishermen while they were trying to catch fish.

The meetups are great, and everyone is supportive. They don’t care about gender.”

-Stephan Maras

Eventually, knitting machines were invented (the first one was invented by a man), and men knitted less and less. Then, sometime between then and now, it turned into a female-dominated hobby.

Even still, way more men knit today than you might predict. The Craft Yarn Council, a trade association for knitters, estimates that 38 million people in the U.S. knit or crochet and about 2 million are men and boys. While there aren’t male knitting guilds like there once were, there is a society for male knitters—Men Who Knit.

Maras knit socks (his very first project), shawls, scarves and has begun working on a sweater. Now, he said he easily spends 20 hours a week on his projects.

Maras is a perfectionist though—he’ll undo an entire evening’s work if he realizes it has a slight mistake.

“It’s called ‘frogging’ because you ‘rip it, rip it, rip it,’” he joked.

Irwin knits regularly too, but doesn’t seem to get as frustrated by mistakes.

“Honestly, it keeps me sane, especially when I have a bad day at work,” Irwin said. “Seldom does a day go by that I haven’t knitted for at least an hour. If I’m reading a book or watching TV, I’m knitting.”

Irwin is currently working on a Great American Aran Afghan, a blanket created by knitting 20 squares, then knitting those squares together (a huge undertaking), but has knit scarves, hats, mittens, socks, shawls, cowls, wraps and a stuffed teddy bear for his niece, among other projects.

Tamara Sprole started Des Moines Metro Knitters in 2005, so she’s gotten a chance to know both Irwin and Maras. Irwin goes on Thursday nights and Maras goes on Fridays. The group also meets on Saturdays and holds an annual retreat at a local hotel.

“Josh and Stephan are both very skilled,” Sprole said. “I like to watch them knit because they both have great stitches and color sense—they’re great knitters.”

Meetups, like Des Moines Metro Knitters, turn knitting into a group hobby. Both guys credit the community as irreplaceable.

“I’ve met so many people because of our shared hobby,” Irwin said. “I’ve made several life-long friends as well.”

Sprole notes that they have all types of people come to the meetups—sure, it’s a majority of women, but it’s certainly not all women. The group is also diverse in skill level and other interests.

As for Irwin and Maras’ thoughts on the gender stereotypes around knitting—they both roll their eyes.

“I just think anyone who makes a judgment about you because you knit has more problems than you do,” Irwin said. “Know what I mean?”

We do.