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A Massive Knitting Convention Gave Me (Some) Hope About the State of the World

A fashion show, a yarn sale, and a creative support group, all rolled into one.

Bundles of yarn. Photo: Alanna Okun

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January is a terrible month filled with broken resolutions, bleak holiday-less expanses, and inaugurations that could very well set the free world back 50 years or more. But every year I look forward to one weekend right smack dab in the middle, because that is the weekend I get to go to Vogue Knitting Live.

For the uninitiated, Vogue Knitting is a magazine (no relation to the fashion mag). It comes out quarterly and is filled with patterns, yarn reviews, and interviews with designers. Vogue Knitting Live (a.k.a. VKL, a.k.a. “knitter prom”) is a massive convention, always held in New York and periodically in other cities as well, that brings all this yarny goodness to life. There are classes and demonstrations, booths upon booths of yarn for sale, and even a knitted fashion show.

“Will I see you at VKL?” is a common question among knitters (and crocheters, and weavers, and basically anyone who cares about yarn). At this year’s VKL — my fifth, if I’m counting correctly — that spirit of connection, camaraderie, and innovation was stronger than ever.

The first thing you always notice when you walk into the massive Midtown hotel where the convention is held are all the outfits. VKL is a time for flexing: Everyone wears their most impressive handmade sweaters and accessories, and we knitters have been known to force the extra items on our long-suffering-yet-cozy friends and family. (This year, I broke my own personal record by wearing a hat, scarf, cardigan, and mittens. I would have kept them on all day if not for the pesky contraption known as central heating.)

It’s not uncommon to be stopped by a complete stranger and complimented on your creations, or for attendees to realize that they’re wearing variations on the same pattern. People just look different when they’re wearing something they made themselves; there’s a power and a calmness that comes with choosing every element of an item’s creation, from the fit to the color to whether or not it has pockets. (Knitters have learned the essential secret to life, which is that everything, even a scarf or a hat, can and should have pockets.) Pretty much everyone is supportive of each other’s work, no matter if they’ve been knitting for decades or are total newbies.

Image: Aurora Lady

That supportive culture is evident IRL and online. This year at VKL, there were many attendees wearing Pussyhats, a symbol of solidarity for the upcoming Women’s March on Washington (find out more about them here).

The convention is also a time to peep some new developments in the fiber world, as well as to spend your entire life savings on yarn. Bulky, oversized knitting has been rising in popularity for years now — it’s fast, eye-catching, and just very deeply satisfying to do yourself. Yarn companies have responded in kind, with modern, easy-to-pick-up kits like these irresistible ones from Spain-based brand We Are Knitters and wildly squishable yarn like Gentle Giant from New York’s own Purl Soho.

Kits available from The Rare Creature (starting at $49)
Photo: Alanna Okun

The Rare Creature, a brand-new sustainable yarn company by Parsons graduate and former Gucci stylist Lisa Li, features just one yarn at the moment, a cloud-like alpaca with a touch of polyamide that’s somehow both chunky and light as air. It took all my willpower not to steal a sample sweater dress from the clean, simple booth, a respite amid all the bright colors and noise of the rest of the convention.

The Third Piece, a Boston-based shop, was selling some of those colors, including an enormous, electric chartreuse I found myself drawn to like a magnet from 20 feet away. Equally magnetic is the brand’s name, based on the idea that you should never leave home without wearing your third piece, that one magic component that draws your outfit together and makes you feel like your best self.

And speaking of our best selves, I spent a delightful 15 minutes talking with James Cox, a pattern designer who’s been knitting for 38 years and sells menswear kits — a rarity among the mostly female-focused pieces on display at the convention. His knitted ties and bowties in particular are amazing, as are the knitted baseball caps he just debuted at VKL. He started selling the kits, he told me, after taking a trip to Paris four or five years ago. He was shopping at an upscale boutique specializing in sweaters and wearing one of his own creations. Who had designed it? the owner asked. James replied that he had. And who made it? Again, James had made it.

James Cox Checkered Bow Tie Kit
James Cox Checkered Bow Tie Kit ($45)

“He told me to send him my line,” James recalled, and that was when he realized he had a product on his hands that people genuinely wanted. He’s not in the fashion game yet — he hasn’t created a formal line, besides the sample sweaters he hand-knits himself — but he’s been selling his DIY kits ever since. Even though the clothes are designed for men, he estimates that 90 percent of them are purchased by women, and most of these women are knitting the pieces for themselves. I totally get it — they’re cozy, simple, and incredibly lightweight. And having tried and disastrously failed to knit an old boyfriend a bowtie, I could use some instruction from an actual expert.

Photo: Alanna Okun

Finally, there’s the fashion show. Knitwear designers show their new pieces throughout the weekend, and I prefer these vastly to the ones at Fashion Week. (Sorry, fashion.) They’re set up exactly the same — there’s a well-lit runway and a parade of spindly models, only instead of wearing, like, crop top capes or light-up smart corsets or whatever is forthcoming for fall 2017, they wear sweaters and scarves.

An announcer, usually the designer, reads out the pattern specs and instructs the models to show off different features. They spread their arms to reveal the patternwork on a shawl and spin to show the way a sparkly yarn catches the light, like giant sexy birds. Everyone in the audience is knitting furiously and grinning widely, neither of which I have ever seen at Fashion Week.

Vogue Knitting Live is enough to remind you, however briefly, that the world is still full of warmth and creativity and joy. That you can start with almost nothing, just sticks and string, and create something that has substance, that exists because you wanted it to, and that there’s a community of people who value and support you while you do just that.

When I entered the building, it was a bright, cold day; when I left, the sun had set and snow had started to fall. I didn’t mind — I had my knitwear to keep me warm.