The first time Brendan Girak knitted in public, he took a friend for support. “Lara and I went to a big park and that put my mind at ease,” the 28-year-old from Perth, Australia, says. “There weren’t that many people around and Lara’s a very confident person.” Knitting makes him calm. “It keeps my hands busy and stops me from being anxious. In the park, I was concentrating on what I was doing. I was being really mindful and in the moment.”
Soon he was taking his yarn out in cafes, during college lectures, at the beach and down the pub. “An older guy came up to me yesterday in the park and said it was unusual to see a young man knitting. He reckoned I was using it to pick up girls. I don’t see a lot of guys knitting, either – just on Instagram.”
But even off social media, there are signs that other men may soon be joining him. The online community hub LoveCrafts reports a rise in young men crafting, with more than a third taking up some form of needlework during the pandemic (including knitting, crochet and sewing). High-profile newcomers such as diver Tom Daley have recently joined their ranks. Men account for 10% of Girak’s 65,000 followers on his Instagram account, @knitwitsandyarns. “A lot of men who knit have come out of the woodwork,” he says. “What else do you do in lockdown?”
Once hooked, these new converts tend to give knitting their all. Girak has knitted the complete set of 30 National Basketball Association team beanies and 120 baggy jumpers. Daley, meanwhile, has shown Olympian-level dedication to needlework, making booties for his son Robbie, a version of a Gucci dress for a friend and a pair of crochet swimming trunks for himself. “I wouldn’t do Tom’s budgie smugglers,” Girak says. “But I respect the work that goes into it.”
Daley came to crochet after his coach encouraged him to find a way to recuperate between dives. Girak initially sought to alleviate boredom. “I was watching the test cricket and it goes on all day. My mum was knitting and I thought, I can do that.” He got into knitting in earnest a few years later, when he returned from travelling in Europe. He was 24, and a combination of too much partying, a broken relationship and a sense of disconnection from his old school friends had taken their toll. Knitting was something he could do on his own, and it led him to a new circle of friends.
“My mum took me to the local wool shop and then I started going on my own,” Girak says. “I’d sit by the counter and knit and chat to one of the ladies who owned the shop.” He felt the women had no particular expectations of him, unlike his former friends. He joined the shop’s knitting club and met Lara. “She’s 50 and one of my best friends. We were both there because we were going through things,” he explains. “We’d chat afterwards. It was just, do you want to grab a coffee and knit?”
Girak was fortunate to find a local knitting circle. Vincent Williams Jr is a knitter from Lithonia, Georgia, in the US, who didn’t see anyone like himself when he started out. “It was frustrating not to see representation of myself as a black man,” the 27-year-old says. “Knitting was always marketed as an elderly white lady thing to do.”
The new breed of so-called “sew bros”, young men who make their own versions of catwalk clothes for a fraction of the cost, have shown that needlework is an accomplishment men can be proud of. But Williams Jr had more utilitarian reasons for getting into knitting: he needed something to keep him warm on early winter mornings, when he works outdoors with horses. “I bought a scarf and it looked like I had shopped at Baby Gap,” he laughs. So he got on YouTube and taught himself to knit a chunky, cable-knit version.
Williams Jr’s scarf was such a hit that friends and family started making requests. He set up a website, selling patterns and giving tutorials. On his Instagram page, @visuvios_crafts, he knits along to Harry Potter films, and shares moments from family life, such as teaching his dad, an air force veteran, how to crochet. “I want people to see me infuse my passion for music, for animals, for black culture into my craft. You can see how well-rounded the maker world is.”
As a teenager, Williams was already 6ft 3in with a full beard. “People would bombard me with questions about sport. As a tall black man, they assumed that I was going to play football. But I wanted to play instruments or perform gymnastics instead.” Then, he found solace in Harry Potter. Now, he recognises the same instinct in picking up his knitting needles. “I can just chill out, put on a candle, make a tea, listen to music and knit. It’s not always just a fun thing to do – it can be healing.”
When Ola Ogunlolu, 21, became obsessed with knitting three years ago, he didn’t expect to find similarly minded hobbyists at home in Lagos. “Nigeria tends to be quite hot most of the time, so who is going to be making a chunky blanket or sweater?” he asks, not unreasonably. But, inspired by a granny square his cousin had crocheted, Ogunlolu looked online for ideas. He followed YouTube tutorials and made vibrant beanies, scarves and a rainbow-patterned cardigan. “The process is so therapeutic. A lot of things I make don’t have utilitarian value, but the fact that I made them gives me joy,” he says.
“Craftivism” is an important aspect of the current movement, with makers stitching political and social messages into their work; when the Black Lives Matter protests gathered momentum last year, Ogunlolu, a psychology graduate, felt compelled to add his voice, with a pattern for a BLM square. “I had to say something. Some people said we should keep crafting separate, but I felt it wasn’t enough to retreat into this sunshine world and pretend the real world wasn’t happening.”
Men who knit in public can expect to attract attention, and Vincent Green-Hite actively invites it. He crochets small, stuffed yarn creatures, in the Japanese amigurumi tradition. He’s also a heavy metal fan, and dresses accordingly. So when he’s shooting photos for his Instagram account, @knot.bad, around his home city of Portland, dressed in leather, sporting a mohawk and holding a cute crocheted ice-cream cone, he appreciates that people might have questions. He’s just been a little surprised by what they ask.
“The only thing they ask about is my sexuality,” says the 26-year-old, whose followers also know him as Yarn Punk. “Which is such a weird thing to be asking in public. I’m straight, and I’d be proud to say I was straight or gay. I just don’t really know what it has to do with crocheting.”
Green-Hite started to crochet as a side hustle to his pizza delivery job. He has since managed to turn it into full-time work, selling designs online and doing commercial tie-ins. Like his fellow crafters, he says it has boosted his wellbeing and allowed him to explore his relationship to gender. “I was taught that, unless I’m getting callouses on my hands, it’s not a man’s craft,” he says. “Crocheting made me feel more in touch with my feminine side, even though I’m not sure it should be considered feminine.”
Increasingly, knitting is being used as a tool for men to have a dialogue about masculinity, such as the Brazil-based collective Thread of Conversation, which meets to knit and talk. Girak volunteers at a school, where he teaches knitting. “I want to help boys talk about their mental health through knitting. It’s helped me,” he explains. “Having my own little knitting community helps me deal with a lot of stuff. We knit, and then we start talking about life.”