Frisky Q&A: Stitch ‘N Bitch Knitting Queen, Debbie Stoller

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t know how to knit. My mom taught me after college, but I messed up my stitches and abandoned it in frustration. Debbie Stoller promises she can teach me. Why shouldn’t I believe her? The editor-in-chief and co-founder of Bust magazine has taught hundreds of thousands of women to knit and purl with her first book, Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitters Handbook. Her small library of Stitch ‘N Bitch books — there are many — are in every yarn store, groups of gals meet at hundreds of Stitch ‘N Bitch knitting groups that have sprung up around the country, and there is even a line of affordable yarns that bears her name. In other words, Debbie Stoller is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for the hipster knitting craze that swept the 2000s.

So, naturally, when I heard Debbie Stoller had published an advanced knitters’ pattern book, called Stitch ‘N Bitch Superstar Knitting, I knew we had to chat (despite being one of those fools who hasn’t learned to knit from her first book yet). After the jump, find out what Debbie thinks of being responsible for the 2000s’ knitting craze, why left-hand versus right-hand knitters are like the Crips and the Bloods, and her intense mama pride for what is now 17-year-old Bust magazine.

Really, among knitters, that’s like Crips and Bloods or West Coast/East Coast thing. You can knit with your right hand, you can knit with your left hand, and there’s a lot of animosity between the two camps.

When did you learn to knit?

My mom’s from Holland and those people are practically born with knitting needles in their hands, or some kind of needlework. I was always surrounded by my aunts doing something. I learned a lot of needlework as a kid, including knitting. But knitting was the one that I haaaaated. Later on in life I thought, “I’d really like to learn to knit again,” and I tried it and I thought, “I hate it. It’s so uncomfortable in my hands.” I’d give it up and try again. I had this one sweater that I had hardly knit anything on — and it had taken me five years to get that far. I was going on a book tour for a book [The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, co-written with magazine co-founder Marcelle Karp] that was coming out based on Bust magazine in 1999. I don’t like to fly so I figured I would go cross-country by train, which meant three days on a train, and I thought, This is a perfect time to work on that stupid sweater that’s been tormenting me. The first day on the train, I took out this tiny little primer for children about knitting, opened it up, re-taught myself, and all of a sudden it clicked. The stitches all came together and it was both wonderful and fun. When I got to the other side of the country, that sweater was done and I had a new addiction.

You published your first Stitch ‘N Bitch book that teaches basic knitting skills in 2003. What made you go from hating knitting to writing a book about it?

I got back into the groove of knitting and one of the things I noticed is when I told people I was obsessed with knitting, I got a mixed reaction. Some people were like, “Oh, that’s so cool. Can you teach me, too?” And other people say, “Um, you’re knitting?” I could tell people thought it was a stupid thing to be doing, different from if I had said to them “I’m really into playing soccer” or “I’m doing a lot of karate.” [With those things] they’d be, like, “You go girl!” But knitting, they thought was kind of lame. I was thinking, Why does knitting get this bad wrap? The only conclusion I could come to is that it’s been traditionally done by women. Unfortunately a lot of the things that women do, our culture tends to devalue. That put me on a mission to get as many people knitting as I could, or do whatever I could to help raise knitting’s profile, or a required skill and worth appreciating.

So you started Stitch ‘N Bitch knitting groups.

I started the first Stitch ‘N Bitch group in [New York City’s] the East Village to teach whoever wanted to learn. I just set a date and a time in the evening to knit at this cafe in the East Village. It was free, of course. Whoever wanted to learn to knit could come — I would teach them or someone would teach them — and we could also learn from each other. We met every week for a year or so and it just started to grow and grow. Now, I don’t even go anymore! I’ve kind of been busy with my three different jobs.

There are tons of Stitch ‘N Bitch groups around the country now. Do you have any idea how many?

Let me look at my website! (looks on computer) Right now, there are 860 groups in 289 locations — that includes all the different states, countries and cities. Argentina, Australia, Cambodia — for crying out loud! Costa Rica. Oh, yeah, someone in St. Kitts had one! Dubai. There’s lots of them in the U.K. There’s some in Abu Dhabi apparently!

Why do you think knitting became so trendy again when it did? Half the young women I know knit and there’s even a knitting cafe where I live in New Jersey that’s filled with moms teaching their little girls to knit!

Whenever anything becomes such a big trend, it’s always a number of different things coming together at the same time. At the beginning of the century, one thing that was happening was feminists like myself were starting to think about reclaiming a lot of traditional women’s work, things that had been looked down upon like knitting and crafting and cooking and keeping house. There was a reevaluation of all that.

There were also a lot of young people who were tired of feeling part of a machine. They were tired of feeling like a cog in a giant global corporate culture. They were tired of feeling like companies were being really wasteful with the products they make and being abusive of the people making it for them. A lot of people wanted to rebel and get off that grid. So there was more and more interest in people making things themselves.

Also, right then in the world of fashion, there was a lot of big, simple knitwear coming out. When people saw those posters, they would think, “You know, I could probably make that myself.” So all those things came together. Sometimes on the news back then people would interview me and say, “Oh, it was because of 9/11, right?” But it was already happening before then. That was actually the time when I couldn’t knit. I knew I was starting to get better [after 9/11] when I could knit again.

I know you get really irritated when the media talks about your knitting books and says something like “It’s cool now! It’s not your grandmother’s knitting!” because it’s disrespectful to the real, undervalued skills many of our female ancestors possessed.

This started even before my book came out, “It’s not your grandmother’s knitting.” But my book was often used as an example of this “It’s not your grandmother’s knitting” nonsense. Even people send me knitting books at BUST and say, “Did you know young women are knitting these days? (laughs) It’s not your grandmother’s knitting!” You’re telling me? (laughs) Yeah, that always bugged me because it makes it sound like your grandmother was kind of lame and this is the new, hip knitting. That was never my intention. In fact, it is our grandmother’s knitting. A lot of our grandmothers were exceptionally skilled knitters. My grandmother knit for 90 years of her life. She learned to knit when she was 6 and she could knit anything.

In my latest book, Superstar Knitting, I go into a lot of more advanced skills which are not just your grandmother’s knitting and your great-grandmother and your great-great-grandmother’s knitting. Those traditions go back centuries. So, yeah, I just say it’s not your grandmother’s patterns. The patterns are more contemporary.

The patterns are amazing. Even in the basic skills book, the first Stitch ‘N Bitch book, I was flipping through it and thinking, I could make that myself? The patterns in the advanced skills book are even more incredible. Like, you can knit skulls onto a sweater? How cool is that? There is definitely a lot of disconnect for some of us about just how much can be DIY (do-it-yourself).

When you first start knitting, you really want to do things in big chunky yarns. Simple. A lot of the projects in my first book are simple. Otherwise, it gets much too frustrating. In those beginning years, there were some knitters who were looking down on all these new knitters, like, “Oh, they just want to make garter stitch scarves!” And I thought, “Why not? That’s how anybody starts to knit.” But now it’s 10 years along and people are really ready to do much more sophisticated things. I think it’s surprising to people that you can make, with your own hands, sweaters that look like they came right out of a little boutique. It’s within your power to do all of that.

Do you have any suggestions for knitting books, other than your own, that advanced knitters might want to pick up?

I doubt there is any advanced knitting book that I could suggest that an advanced knitter wouldn’t already know about. But I can say that anything by Elizabeth Zimmermann is fun to read, even though I don’t do Elizabeth Zimmermann’s message. She was really big with holding your yarn in your left hand and I knit with my yarn in the right hand.

Really, among knitters, that’s like Crips and Bloods or West Coast/East Coast thing. You can knit with your right hand, you can knit with your left hand, and there’s a lot of animosity between the two camps.

(laughs) I always like Maggie Righetti and I think she gets overlooked a lot. And you can mention as the Facebook for knitters.

So, being the Stitch ‘N Bitch queen isn’t even your #1 day job. You’re also the editor-in-chief of Bust magazine.

We’ve been doing Bust for 17 years, but I would say the first seven years were more of a hobby. We were sort of growing it. It’s been a real magazine for the past 10 years.

Does the fact so much print media is now moving entirely online make you concerned for the print magazine? Bust’s website introduced a fantastic blog awhile ago and really ramped up its content online.

I think it’s two completely different things. I don’t know [if] I believe this whole business that print is dead. There are longer format stories that we do in Bust, photo essays that we do in Bust, long interviews that I just don’t think anybody would have the patience to read on a blog. Blogs kind of require that you do a short-form thing. And then there’s just the fun of being able to rip something out — if you like a recipe or a craft, you want to be able to have the magazine spread out in front of you. I don’t know; I like it. I got myself an iPad — well, Bust got an iPad because we’re looking into developing for it — and I’ve gotta say, it’s a million times easier to just whip out a magazine when I’m on the subway instead of pull out this device. I feel like somebody’s going to want to steal it.

A magazine like Bust can be an ambassador for feminist ideas for a lot of people. I started reading Bust in high school, before my parents even had the Internet in our home, because I saw it on the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble. Then I started buying it every month because it was so unlike all the other magazines geared towards young women that just had diet tips and puff pieces with boring celebrities.

It was always our intention to take our rightful place on the newsstand and let people know girls like us existed or girls like them existed. Not everything that you read about what women and girls are supposed to be in women’s magazines are true and that there was a more realistic and truthful and positive voice. That’s what we’ve tried to be.