An Itch to Stitch

Southsiders knit, crochet and spin their ways through life
By Rebecca Berfanger  // Photography by April Knox

On just about any day of the week, you can find people knitting and crocheting at Mass Ave Knit Shop in Fountain Square (don’t let the name fool you; the store moved to its current location south of downtown Indianapolis several years ago).

Among them, you’ll find store owner Susan Brannon, who has been selling needles and yarn to crafters for three decades. “We have a wide variety of customers, and we’re open for knitting all the time. We try to make sure people feel welcome. They can come and hang out. It’s very casual,” she says.

While there are some groups in the area that meet regularly, she adds, people who come to her store tend to show up on the same days. Many of them ultimately network with each other, whether it’s to show off their latest creation or ask about a local plumber.

They aren’t the only ones on the southside with a yarn to share. The Hoosier Hills Fiber Friends Guild meets at Starstruck Cat Yarn Studio in Greenwood, at least a couple of different groups meet regularly at Strange Brew Coffee, local libraries also host craft nights that include various types of fabric arts, and Garfield Park Arts Center has started offering fiber arts classes.

I felt that
And then there’s the Hoosier Hills Fiber Festival. For the last two decades, local fiber artists have attended this gathering, which takes place in June at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. It is a free event featuring vendors, demonstrations, classes, even animals so attendees can meet some of the sources of local wool firsthand.

Patti Hodge, owner of Patti’s Creative Felts in Whiteland, is chairwoman of the Hoosier Hills Fiber Festival. She encourages all levels — from no experience to those who often give their wares as gifts or sell them on Etsy — to check out the annual event.

“Our vendors are willing to share how they do things. They really have an excitement about it,” Hodge says. “When you make something from scratch from the animal you raise, when you shear them, brush the fiber and clean the fiber, what you’ve produced is straight from the farm. They are true artisans.”

The festival will also offer classes throughout the weekend where attendees will walk away with at least a partially finished product they can complete at home. There is also a range of options for classes from beginner to advanced.

Hodge, primarily a felter, shares her craft and its history with others.

“I love doing it. I love the creativity. It’s all done by hand and started as far back as the shepherds,” she says, adding that felt is known as the oldest textile and was possibly discovered by accident when a shepherd put wool in his shoe. The legend goes that the heat and moisture from walking a far distance turned the wool into a felt sock.

To learn the craft, she has taken lots of classes, including with teachers from Germany and Russia. “They do things differently, so you get their opinions and learn about their methods and pick what you like the best,” she says.

Hodge also creates felt creatures made from the wool of her own animals who live at Stormy Acres Alpacas. “I’ve come from felting smaller things, and now I do vests and jackets and capelets. I do the booties, and I even did a pair of shoes,” she says.

Got hooked, now spinning
Hodge belongs to the Whiteland-based Hoosier Hills Fiber Friends Guild, which draws members from around Johnson County who spin their own yarn, weave, hook, knit and crochet. That group meets once a month at Starstruck Cat Yarn Studio. Members are supportive, looking at each other’s works and helping with their projects.

One member, Kaitlyn Smith, who knits and crochets, appreciates the camaraderie of the group. “My mom had always crocheted, and I learned at 5 or 6 years old how to crochet. Later on, I learned to knit,” she says. “I got connected with fiber arts more formally and more avidly when I was at the state fair, probably seven or eight years ago, and a fiber arts organization was doing a demonstration there.”

She has since learned how to spin yarn, plus she does “a little bit of weaving, tatting, natural dyeing of yarn and fabrics, a little bit of acid dyeing, wet felting, and needle felting.”

“With knitting being so portable, I call it my ‘purse knitting.’ I always have a project that lives in my purse, 24/7. I can do it when I’m at the dentist in the waiting room or in the lunch room at work,” Smith says. For bigger projects that she can’t take everywhere, like baby blankets, she’ll work on them when she’s getting ready in the morning, or she might bring a project to someone’s house if she knows they’ll be sitting and talking for a while.

Dark side of knitting
Another southside knitter, Toni Carr — also known by her roller derby moniker, Joan of Dark — brings her projects wherever she goes. That includes her place of business; Carr co-owns Strange Brew Coffee, a Greenwood-based coffee shop that serves as the backdrop for two knitting groups.
Carr’s interest in the craft didn’t start until she was in college, when her grandfather passed away and she decided to spend more time getting to know her grandmother. She continues to knit almost two decades later.

“I’m one of those people who constantly fidgets. I even talk with my hands. I’m always moving them, and knitting keeps my hands occupied. I also like that you can take this little bit of yarn and create something beautiful. I’m not an artistic person. I don’t draw or paint, but this is my form of art. I can knit things,” she says.

She started making her own patterns based on vintage designs she liked but that needed some modern modifications. So far, she has translated her love of knitting into three books, each featuring non-traditional patterns. “Knockdown Knits” was inspired by Carr’s time as a skater for Naptown Roller Derby; “Knits for Nerds” features patterns from science fiction, comic books and fantasy; and “Geek Knits” includes her creations modeled by Neil Gaiman, Adam Savage and George R.R. Martin, names that the geek set will, well, geek out over.

“When you’re knitting with someone else, it’s an easy way to hang out. My grandmother would sit and tell me stories, and I could just be there with her. It’s also helpful to have someone with more experience to help when you get stuck as a resource and a guide,” she says. Knitting, she says, can be social or solitary depending on what you do with it. She enjoys inviting friends over for craft nights or knitting by herself.

It needles you
For someone wanting to get back into yarn and fiber arts or to just get started, an easy first step is to attend a fiber festival or contact a local yarn store. Places such as Starstruck Cat and Mass Ave Knits know how to connect newcomers to local groups, formal or informal. They also can suggest taking a couple of lessons where someone knowledgeable about the different types of needles and materials can explain what it all means for a range of budgets.

For example, Mass Ave Knit Shop offers an ongoing beginners class every Wednesday night for a one-time fee of $65 plus materials, which range from $50 to $120, and results in a sweater. The shop offers retreats, including one over the first weekend of April, as well as late-night knitting sessions and even a cruise every other year, including this August.

Starstruck Cat Yarn Studio offers classes, including a boot camp for beginners with some experience, open studios, private lessons and knit-along events for a variety of projects. If you want to wine about your projects, Mallow Run Winery has a Sip and Stitch at 6:30 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month. All experience levels are welcome.

For first-timers, Carr suggests, “Just do it. A lot of people go in toes first, and with knitting you just need to dive in. Find something you think will be fun. Even if it’s outside your comfort level to work with a group, you can use books, YouTube, or ask friends who can walk you through it. Even if your first project doesn’t turn out the way you want, as long as you learn you’ll be fine.”

Hoosier Hills Fiber Festival
When: June 7 and 8
Where: Johnson County Fairgrounds