Christina Wright
Happy Hookers and Smiling Stitchers

Milwaukee’s secret knitting society

Knitting needles in their expert hands, they gather each Thursday at Anodyne Cafe. Our reporter tries not to poke an eye out.

By - Apr 28th, 2013 11:45 am
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Carol Biermann and Jenny Sagerillo are all smiles at the knitting meetup

On Thursday nights at Anodyne Cafe in Bay View a secret society convenes around the large table from 7 to 9 p.m. Strange, sharp instruments are splayed across the wooden surface. A trio of miniature creatures, made from various fibers, sits by one of the society’s members.

Each member handles half-finished, colorful garments. No, this isn’t Milwaukee’s version of The Skulls and, no, these materials won’t be used for some voodoo ritual; this is a knitting club.

“People always stare at us when we’re meeting here,” says Leah Midgarden, one of the club’s members.

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Kathy Thrasher shows off one of her creations.

Midgarden invited me to attend the meeting and to try my hand at knitting. She lends me a pair of very sharp looking needles and a ball of thread. All I can hear in my head is the creepy Santa Claus from A Christmas Story yelling, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” I just know I’ll puncture my cornea with one of these things.

I’m terrible at knitting–the yarn won’t stay on the pointy weapons and my fingers are clumsy with the entire process. But Midgarden and her friends are patient and they don’t laugh at me, so I stick around.

“I started knitting about seven years ago. I was shortly going to give birth to my daughter and I saw a knitting kit with a DVD, yarn, and needles at Target. I was in my very late 20’s,” Midgarden says. “I blame it on my nesting instinct. I needed to do something to get ready for this baby. I started on a simple hooded blanket in a white acrylic chenille yarn. It was very difficult to get the technique down. But I plowed ahead and I did finish the blanket. It looked awful. I don’t think I ever used it and I don’t know where it is.”

She didn’t give up, though. A few weeks after her daughter was born she was at home on maternity leave watching  a knitting show on PBS.

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Melina Martin Gingras shows one of her projects while Thrasher points out a design on the Ravelry website

“There was an innovative designer, Cat Bordhi, on the show demonstrating this amazing technique of knitting a moebius strip,” Midgarden adds. “That tripped my geek wire and I had to learn how to make one for myself. I ordered the yarn online and bought some needles at a local yarn shop. I downloaded the directions for making a moebius strip and I have never looked back.”

Jenny Sagerillo, Carol Biermann, Kathy Thrasher, and Melina Martin Gingras join Midgarden at Anodyne. They met on Ravelry.com, a social media website specifically for knitters. With three million users, Ravelry is THE place for knitters online.

“I’ve connected with knitters on Ravelry who live as far away as Kyrgyzstan and I regularly meet with local crafters,” Midgarden says. “Thanks to that, I’m now spinning my own fiber and I have found the encouragement to do design work.”

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Yarn and coffee in Bay View.

According to the group at Anodyne, Ravelry is the nicest and most self-policed of all social networks. It’s sort of a Facebook and Pinterest hybrid–users create a profile, join groups, organize their projects and favorite designs on boards and learn about the craft. And there is a lot to learn, from methodology to lingo.

“I’m a happy hooker,” Biermann says with a laugh. “That just means that I crotchet.” (Crotcheting requires the use of a hooked needle.)

“Are you a picker or a thrower?” Thrasher asks the group. She’s asking which hand each knitter carries her yarn in. Picking is the American way where the knitter holds the yarn in the right hand. Throwing is the English way in which the knitter holds the yarn in the left hand. A few of the women are pickers and others are throwers, but it doesn’t matter. This knitting conclave is equal parts craft-making and fellowship.

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Leah Midgarden and a very pointy knitting needle

Each of the women has a specialty or two–Midgarden designs her own patterns; a few have been published on Knit Picks. On this Thursday she wears a sweater patterned after the Art Museum’s Calatrava designed Quadracci Pavilion. Biermann enjoys crocheting little creatures and yellow pikachu hats. Thrasher makes her own hand-spun yarn.

“An hour with yarn is cheaper than a therapist,” says Biermann. “My husband doesn’t really understand why I knit, but these women do.” The rest of the knitters nod their heads in agreement.

“Knitting is very relaxing, but it also keeps your brain active,” adds Sagerillo.

“It really helps you do math problems in your head,” Martin Gingras interjects. She loves knitting so much that she opened Midwest Yarn about a year ago.

Marin Gingras has likely made a profitable decision as the price of yarn can range from $3 to $4 a ball to over $300 for such luxury varieties as vicuna. And those expensive threads mean that these knitters aren’t selling their creations for low prices at summer festivals and craft fairs. If they sell at all, it is through word of mouth. Due to the quality of yarn and the labor involved, Midgarden’s Calatrava-inspired sweater could go for at least $200. These women mainly knit for themselves, sometimes borrowing ideas and patterns from high-end designers.

“I once knit a pair of socks that were selling for $150 at Prada,” says Midgarden.

“We will knit for other people if they pay us enough,” says Sagerillo. “Or if they’re knit-worthy. I knit for my husband once a year.”

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Midgarden shows one of the more intricate knitting designs that she has mastered

Throughout two hours of conversation, these women have been busy on their projects, their fingers moving quickly and almost automatically to repeatedly poke the needles through yarn. I’m amazed that they are all completely injury free. If I tried to move those spears at such a fast pace I would have given myself a septum piercing by now. They don’t judge; they invited me to risk my life again next Thursday evening and offered to lend me a pair of needles and some yarn. I’ll have to find my own goggles and helmet.

One thought on “Happy Hookers and Smiling Stitchers: Milwaukee’s secret knitting society”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This may be the place to go on Thursday evenings…and then on to dinner at LuLu’s, Alterra or Cafe Central.

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