Gerrard Allt had been smoking for around 20 years and was getting through a packet of cigarettes a day when a housemate introduced him to knitting. “It gave me something else to do with my hands,” says the softly-spoken Scouser, now in his 40s. “Before that I’d tried quitting, but I was going cold turkey and just wanted to eat all the time. Knitting calmed me down.”
After starting on scarves and hats, Gerard’s hobby soon progressed into a business and he opened I Knit, a south London yarn shop which hosts craft classes and groups, eight years ago. He has also hosted knitting workshops at Camp Bestival and was invited to set up a "knitting zone" at the 2010 Brit Awards.
Like him, he says, increasing numbers of men are taking up the pastime in a bid to de-stress. While men made up only around five per cent of I Knit’s customers when the shop first opened, last year 20 per cent of its clientele was male.
Yorkshire-based yarn company Rowan has reported similar trends, with the number of men registering on the website increasing year-on-year and now accounting for 12 per cent of members, while the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis last year offered men-only knitting classes in response to increased interest. Recent endorsements from the likes of Ryan Gosling and Nicholas Hoult have also done little to harm the pastime’s cause among the younger male demographic.
Brandon Mably, a British knitwear designer who runs classes around the world for men and women, has also noticed a boom in male interest over the past year. “I think the stigma of knitting just being a woman’s craft has passed,” he says, pointing to a history of men’s knitting, with many in the army and navy being taught needlework during the war. Further back, medieval knitting guilds were men-only.“For me, the attraction isn’t so much the act of knitting a scarf, it’s the effect it has on you. The motion of the needles is like the ticking of a grandfather clock or counting out worry beads.“I’ve had doctors, accountants and lawyers coming to my classes," he adds. "A lot of the guys who come to me to learn about knitting – I don’t like the term nerds, but they’re into being challenged mentally. They’re often into computers and technology.“It helps with stress as well – knitting is the new mediation or yoga.”Ben Wilson, 26, took up knitting in his early teens and is now a menswear designer. He also still uses it as a relaxation exercise, despite it now being part of his job. “For me, knitting combines an art practice, an engineering skill and a meditative set of maths problems,” he says, adding that his knitting needles turn him from consumer into creator.“When you've managed to get all the parts of your pattern balanced there is a sort of neat, tidy feeling of ‘rightness’. After the first few rows, there will be a ‘clicking’ sensation when the symmetry of the pattern starts to make sense to your fingers and then to your head.”Aside from the occasional funny look on public transport – more often than not from women – none of these men report any adverse reaction to their craft. (Ben lists the advantages of being a male knitter, the first of which is never being expected to make baby clothes, though admits there are occupational hazards; for example being treated like a shoplifter whenever you try to buy yarn. As I Knit’s Gerard puts it: “It’s a question of how you see yourself, and how confident you feel in your masculinity. My masculinity can handle a bit of knitting – and I’m sure plenty of other guys’ can too.”