Tight Knit

A rare fraternity in a female-dominated sphere, SF Men Knit helps men get crafty.

Huib Petersen with a crocheted shawl.
According to a recent study, approximately 30% of American knitters are male. Huib Petersen, pictured here with a crocheted shawl, is one of them.

Along with sourdough baking, vegetable gardening, and other tactile pastimes, knitting has picked up popularity during the pandemic shutdown. “It’s been helpful to go into the beautiful, mind-numbing Zen place of knitting and escape what’s going on,” says Rich Russo, a diversity and inclusion educator in Mountain View, California. “Being creative and being able to connect with my community is super important right now.”

Russo is one of the newest members of SF Men Knit, a men’s knitting group where you can get advice on how to fix that dropped stitch, find encouragement to finish a project, and laugh a lot. For three hours every Sunday morning, they meet—previously at a café in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, currently via Zoom—to knit, crochet, and, occasionally, manbroider. A shared love of handicraft allows the members, who range in age from late 20s to late 60s, to form friendships at a pace that feels refreshingly sedate in today’s frenetic world. The 15 to 20 regulars who compose the core group of SF Men Knit are gay, but straight men are welcome and have attended over the years.

While women’s “stitch and bitch” groups are common, SF Men Knit is one of just a few such in-person gatherings for men in the United States. Male knitters can still get side-eye or even hostile reactions from those who perceive them as transgressive. But according to a 2016 Association for Creative Industries survey, 30 percent of U.S. knitters are male. Thus, it appears that many men are knitting in the closet. “This is a way to bring to the forefront that there are men who knit, and for guys to be more comfortable knitting in public,” says Lakegan Harris, a corporate librarian, who founded the group in 2011.

Left: Shan Naziripour, working on a knit jockstrap prototype. Right: SF Men Knit leader Lakegan Harris founded the group in 2011.
Left: Shan Naziripour, working on a knit jockstrap prototype. Right: SF Men Knit leader Lakegan Harris founded the group in 2011.

Harris started a Facebook page called SF Men Knit that year, hoping to make social connections after moving to San Francisco from Washington, D.C. After a couple of years, when enough of a virtual community had developed, he organized a meetup in a centrally located café in the Castro. The group filled the front window, attracting new members as well as tourists who stopped to take photos. “There’s still the sense that eight men knitting together is amazing, like ‘Oh my God! Cats can sing opera!’” says Robert Hopcke, a marriage and family therapist who makes the drive from Berkeley to crochet intricate lace shawls.

Indeed, to spend any time with the group is to realize how it would push you to step up your knitting game. On a Sunday in early March, before Bay Area counties adopted shelter-in-place restrictions, the group met up in the San Francisco home of Huib Petersen, a professional bead artist. Shan Naziripour, a software engineer based in the city, was knitting a blue-and-pink-striped jockstrap, a raffle prize to benefit the Bare Chest Calendar, an annual San Francisco fundraising effort. To give his prototype more support and shape, he learned the knitting technique of “decreasing three stitches” from Petersen. Next, Naziripour stripped down to model the item. “I knew if it didn’t look right, I could get advice from the group,” he said. “You can resolve your issues in person much faster.”

Petersen and other wise elders help the more junior members decipher patterns—written in occasionally confusing shorthand—and undo errors. “You will reach a certain point where you become a perfectionist, and that mistake will glare at you until you fix it,” says Harris.

Left: Philip Dawkins, knitting Stephen West "bubble" sweater. Right: Huib Petersen, wearing a crocheted shawl and a beaded bird ring of his own design.
Left: Philip Dawkins, knitting a “bubble” sweater inspired by designer Stephen West. Right: Huib Petersen, wearing a crocheted shawl and a beaded bird ring of his own design.

On that same Sunday, Philip Dawkins, a Chicago playwright visiting the area, dropped in to work on a sweater with orange and blue scallops. “It’s called the bubble sweater—it’s a Stephen West design,” he said, as if name-dropping Gucci or Prada. (West is a knitting-pattern designer with a large Instagram following.) Also present was professional knitter Kevin Ames, whose latest commission was a vest for a friend’s “very Catholic” father. For this garment, he custom-designed a textured stitch pattern based on the syllables of the Lord’s Prayer. Members of SF Men Knit have also made hats for the homeless, helmet liners for soldiers serving overseas, and prosthetic breasts for breast-cancer survivors.

Beyond artistic expression, knitting can be highly therapeutic. It was “lifesaving” for Tom Taylor, a retail worker who lives in San Francisco and prefers to knit Portuguese-style, keeping the yarn taut by passing it behind his neck. Since being hospitalized for a severe panic attack last year, Taylor has found that knitting and the friendships he’s developed in the group help him cope with anxiety.

After the pandemic shutdown began, Harris started holding two online happy hours each week to keep the community in touch. He also created a safe word that attendees could use at the Zoom meetings if the conversation got too heavy: “Pineapple” is regularly interjected, both seriously and in jest. “Knitting keeps me from overthinking things—I’m lost in another world,” says Taylor. Not a bad place to be as we await a return to normalcy.

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.
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