Extreme knitters jump feet first into challenge

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      Just before 6 p.m., six women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, convene at Urban Yarns in Point Grey to devote an evening of their lives to–wait for it–Sock Boot Camp. In a single three-hour session, they will learn how to knit a sock from instructor Jackie Blackmore, an actor, writer, part-time store employee, and dementedly obsessed knitter. (She has five projects on the go, and at one time sold her work at Dream in Gastown.) Some of tonight's students cut their plain and purl-y teeth on entry-level scarves, then moved on to making a hat. "Everyone's been kind of scared of socks," Blackmore says. "It's not as hard as everyone thinks," and she's about to prove it. Not all of the students are sock virgins. Stephanie Long, who works at UBC Childcare Services, started one once, but "It didn't work out so I stopped." However, for her colleague Amberly Campbell, it's the first go-around using four needles, the most daunting aspect of sock knitting.

      Class starts with Blackmore handing out reference sheets that include a step-by-step pattern and instructions for tonight's project: a training sock. She holds up an example. It would fit a fat-footed three-year-old. "The reason it's so small is it's doable in three hours," Blackmore says as she demonstrates the first stage of sock knitting, the "long tail or double cast-on. It's the most elastic and also the prettiest." That achieved, and their stitches divided between three needles, everyone is off and knitting.

      I'm just an observer, so I seek out store manager Kathleen Seeley to talk about the sudden strange resurgence in making a garment you can pick up for a few bucks. She thinks it's partly the appeal of creating something beautiful in a mass-produced world. "It's an intimate gift, and it's a piece of art," Seeley reasons, also citing the beauty of the new generation of yarns. Modern knitters turn up their needles at the idea of making grey, navy, or black socks. Instead, they work with yarns that are wonderful rainbows of subtlety: moody blues and greens, flaming reds and oranges, the colours changing as they knit, socks designing themselves as they fall off the needles.

      There's soft-focus mohair, as well as bouclé yarns combining the multiple colours of tropical fish. A brand called TOFUtsies incorporates soy fibre and chitin made from crab and shrimp shells and is said to have antibacterial qualities–very useful in socks. Store co-owners Anina Hansen and Leslie Jones also bring in the intricately hand-painted Koigu label from Ontario, and the hand-dyed Fleece Artist line from Nova Scotia, which includes a yarn that incorporates Seacell, made from seaweed and a cellulose-based fibre. Evidence that Canada's cottage industries produce an astounding array of yarns is that the store mails orders as far as Ireland, and New Zealand.

      While I've been chatting, the stitches have been piling up and, back at Boot Camp, confidence is increasing by the minute. Says Campbell: "I'm going to make socks for everyone in my family." But beside me, Julia Arthur, formerly a nurse and now a stay-at-home mum–and a veteran of one hat and several scarves–holds up what looks like a tepee frame topped with a giant spider web and says plaintively: "This doesn't look like a pair of socks." True, but Blackmore quickly sorts it out, her constant mantra, "It's all good."

      By 7 p.m. Long is about to turn the heel, but she's acquired an extra stitch. Blackmore fixes it, going from student to student correcting errors and giving advice. "Essentially what we're making is that right there," she says, using the demonstrator sock to show the little "cap" that cups around the heel. To a novice knitter, a pattern reads like impenetrable code. SKP? (Slip one, knit one, pass slipped stitch over–you'll get there when you get there.) It's all very intense, the mood focused and conversation scant, the only sound the occasional silvery rattle as a needle falls to the floor.

      Everyone successfully negotiates the sock corner and begins picking up stitches to complete the heel. "This is as hard as it gets," Blackmore says as she leads a student through it stitch by stitch, reassuring her class that they'll be able to find photos and even videos on-line as reminders.

      At 8:15 p.m. Campbell is "in a happy place". And a half-hour later, everyone is racing down the final stretch, decreasing the number of stitches needed to narrow the foot. A few seconds' work with a darning needle and they're finished. "Easier than I thought," Campbell says. "Way more difficult," Arthur corrects.

      Sock Boot Camps take place at both Urban Yarns locations (4421 West 10th Avenue, 604-228-1122, and 3111 Highland Boulevard, North Vancouver, 604-984-2214). See www.urbanyarns.ca for dates, or contact the stores.