Knit one, purl two: Guys, too, are now tending to their knitting

A growing number of men across the country are picking up an unlikely hobby - knitting - and changing the face of the knitting world in the process.

Jarrett Matthews was sitting on a crowded bus in Queens, N.Y., quickly and delicately maneuvering a ball of mauve yarn with two knitting needles, creating the beginnings of a scarf.

Two men climbed aboard at the next stop and stared at Matthews in disbelief, one snickering while the other just shook his head.

Matthews, dressed in a black pinstripe suit, ignored them and concentrated on his knitting.

“Only in New York could you see something like this,” guffawed one of the men.

Well, not quite.

Matthews, a 25-year-old graduate student, is one of a growing number of men around the country defying the stereotype of knitting as a hobby for old women making unwanted sweaters as holiday gifts.

Yarn stores in cities from Boston to Los Angeles report an increase in male customers and knitting class participants over the past two to three years.

Men's knitting circles have also cropped up in Denver, San Francisco and Minneapolis, among other cities.

The Craft Yarn Council of America, a trade organization that does research on knitting trends, estimates that number of men who knit has increased to approximately 2.6 million from 1.5 million, making them roughly five percent of the knitting population.

“This is part of the popularity that knitting gained beginning in the early 2000s with people ages 18-34,” said Mary Colucci, executive director of the yarn council.

“Now men and boys of the skateboard generation are driven to knit to create their own hats, individualize their looks.”

David Klueger, 26, an audio-visual technician from Hoboken, N.J., started knitting as a way to meet women.

“Turns out, I actually enjoy the knitting more,” he said.

“Knitting releases stress and it's something creative you can do with your hands.”

The women in his knitting circle were actually better suited to be surrogate mothers than girlfriends, but he stayed for the knitting.

“The old women love me,” he said.

They think it’s really cute that I knit.”

Many male knitters, like Barry Klein, 45, say they are drawn to knitting because they are able to create something tangible.

“There is nothing like the pride and satisfaction of having something that you made yourself and that's usable,” said Klein, who has been knitting for 13 years and is the owner of Trendsetter Yarns in Los Angeles.

“All it takes is two needles and some yarn to turn nothing into something.”

Others, like knitting aficionado Michael del Vecchio, author of “Knitting with Balls: A Hands-on Guide to Knitting for the Modern Man,” say that knitting is a way to build community and make friends.

“Washington, D.C., was a lonely town for me, and knitting gave me an opportunity to form a fun, social community,” said del Vecchio, who began knitting right out of college.

Though the surge of men knitting is recent, knitting wasn’t always considered a pastime just for women.

European sailors used to knit their own sweaters as far back as the 15th century, and, in the United States, knitting became popular for men during WW I and WW II.

“It is well-documented that there is a long history of men knitting,” said Susan Strawn, associate professor of apparel design and merchandising at Dominican University in Chicago, and author of the book “Knitting America.” Knitting wasn’t associated exclusively with women until the 19th century, she says, when the industrial era sent men to work in factories and left women with free time to knit.

In her research, Strawn found that knitting was particularly popular for men during the 1930s, and newspapers across the country ran articles about men and boys who knit and won knitting contests.

“The knitting community has always been open to men,” said Strawn.

“The perception of men who knit in society in general is a different story.”

Yarn store managers say that men are often nervous when they come in to buy yarn for the first time, as many of them are closet-knitters.

“Guys will be more reluctant to ask for help looking for yarn,” said Franny Garretson, a manager at That Yarn Store in Los Angeles.

“Last week we had a traffic cop who learned to knit while recovering from a shoulder injury tell us that he doesn't knit in front of his friends because he's afraid they will laugh.”

Klein said he gets more of a reaction from women than from men when they see him knitting in public.

“Women will come up to me and say, ‘What are you doing?’” he said, laughing.

"I want to tell them, ‘I’m making a cake, what do you think I'm doing?’”

But the stereotype of knitting as feminine is being challenged by the fact that many male knitters are athletes, mostly snowboarders and skateboarders, who want to create their own, individualized gear.

Boise State running back Ian Johnson made headlines when it was discovered that he spent three to four hours a night knitting beanies and scarves with logos after practice.

“When I was in high school, I was cold one day and wanted a scarf,” Johnson told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in 2006.

“My mom told me that if I wanted a scarf, I’d have to make it myself.

She was surprised when I called her on it.

I made it and really enjoyed it, so I went from there.”

Though men are still a minority in the knitting world, male knitters and their female supporters say that as the popularity of knitting grows, so too will the number of men who openly knit.

“Asking if it's acceptable for men to knit is as antiquated as asking if it’s acceptable for women to vote,” said del Vecchio.

And many men even win brownie points with their girlfriends by knitting for them, yarn storeowners say.

“It’s not about your grandmother knitting for you anymore,” said Charlene Garrett, the manager of Knit New York, a yarn store.

“Now it's your brother and your boyfriend.”