Knitting helps teens explore their identity and learn to be creative.
Four years ago, Mary Visconti took an unconventional approach to keeping her North Lawndale students out of trouble.
The communities where many of Visconti’s students grow up are impoverished, and crime rates are high. In North Lawndale, Chicago, nearly 40% of the residents live under the poverty line, and 30% do not graduate from high school, according to the 2010 US census.
Visconti, the CEO of the Better Boys Foundation, decided the dismal data could be combated with something radically different – knitting.
“Our neighbourhood can be chaotic,” she said. “It’s a hard space to move around in as a young person. I thought that knitting would offer some peace and quiet. It’s a refuge where students can create things together and be peaceful, calm and safe.”
Visconti rounded up donated skeins of yarn and plastic knitting needles, and she hired an art teacher. KnitLAB, a fibre arts workshop, was created.
“Once the kids got over the trauma of learning to use the needles, they really picked it up,” Visconti said. “Part of our logic behind the lab was that they would form a community. The knitters are a tight group.”
Ana Spencer, the instructor for KnitLAB, said many of the students were initially uncomfortable with the craft and struggled to manoeuvre the needles. Their fingers were clumsy as they fumbled through the rhythmic over-under pattern typical of knitting.
“At first, it hurt my hands a little bit,” said Ariana Trimuel, 15. “You just get used to it. My friends think it’s pretty cool, and they’re always asking me to make scarves for them. It makes me feel really good to be able to do that.”
Shukurieya McClennon, 13, said it has helped her develop her own sense of style.
“I don’t have to buy things anymore,” she said. “I can just make them. At first I was shy about creating and sharing my designs. Now I’m more open to it. Knitting forces you to be open to other ideas.”
KnitLAB operates like a small business. Students are paid stipends to create products ranging from hat and scarf sets to rugs and quilts. Students are allowed to keep one item each, and the rest are sold. The after-school programme’s last winter sale brought in US$500 (RM1,860), Visconti said.
The money is reinvested into art supplies like yarn and fibre material. The students were each given a portion of the winter sale profit to buy yarn at Loopy Yarns, a business in the South Loop.
Spencer calls the students her “employees”. If they call in sick one day, they have to make the time up. She said it instills life skills and gives them a sense of self-efficacy.
“It’s about being proud of yourself when you’ve finished something and seeing it come to life in your hands,” Spencer said. “They’re in a generation now where everything is instant. They’re on their phones, they’re texting and instantly getting a response. With knitting, it can take weeks to finish a single project.”
The lab has about 15 kids enrolled in each session. At the end, they can choose to re-enrol. Students have learned to dye yarn vibrant colours, weave rugs with strips of ratty old T-shirts and “knit bomb” – knit around objects like chairs, handrails and bike racks – portions of the foundation’s campus.
On a gloomy day last month, the students clustered around a folding table in the KnitLAB to create fibre scarves. The room at the foundation is small, and boxes of donated yarn in a rainbow of colours crowd a massive bookshelf. Knitting needles are stuffed haphazardly in vases and cups.
Akenna Mack, 13, laid wispy strands of magenta and orange fibres on a strip of plastic. Artreuna Dotson, 14, rearranged the colours with long, nimble fingers and sprayed them with a soapy solution, setting the design.
“I thought this would probably be boring at first,” Akenna said, smoothing a flyaway fibre. “You think of a grandma sitting in her front room knitting with all her cats. You get the hang of it and it’s really fun.”
“Yeah, we all love it here,” Artreuna added. “I like that we can make stuff. The fact that I could be wearing or using something that I actually made myself is a good feeling.”
Spencer said many of the students initially felt as though knitting was only for old people, a notion she quickly dispelled.
“It’s actually a serious craft; it’s not just for grandmas,” she said. “As a kid, especially from this neighbourhood, it’s important to be able to have the confidence to say, ‘I made this.’ It’s an amazing feeling.”
Willow Messier, an art therapist and child life specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said crafts like knitting are important for students – especially teens – as they explore their identity.
“Teenagers are working on becoming independent and autonomous,” she said. “This gives them something to engage in, and the strength to boost confidence and have a product that they can feel proud of. It allows the opportunity for identity-building.”
It is even more important for students from at-risk backgrounds to find a sense of stability and quiet, Messier said. Knitting can be that oasis.
“The actual knitting process is very comforting,” Messier said. “You’re holding something soft, and you know the specific steps to take. It gives you that sense of control and mastery of what you’re doing. For kids from a challenging situation, it can bring a sense of grounding that they can take home with them.”
Dorothea Tobin, a teacher at North Lawndale College Prep, runs a similar programme at her school. The knitting club, BT Lives in the Stitch, is a place where students can feel safe and in control, she said. The students are paid about US$20 (RM55) for each item they knit.
“My favourite thing is seeing kids who haven’t really succeeded in other things join,” Tobin said. “They come here, learn to knit and all of a sudden are very proud. I never suspected so many boys would be doing it. It felt like a real surprise, definitely a plus.”
Visconti said the number of boys interested in KnitLAB also surprised her. There are usually one to two boys each session.
“We always joke that it’s the smartest boys who sign up for knitting because they’re surrounded by girls,” she said, chuckling. “Teenage boy life is a lot of strutting and being cool. The quieter boys who don’t feel like being in that macho competition go and hang out with the knitters. I think they’re equally proud of the things they make.”
Michael King, 13, learned to sew when he was 11. He said his mother taught him to use a needle and thread so he could mend his much-loved teddy bears. It sparked his interest in knitting.
Michael said it doesn’t bother him that he is in a class filled with girls.
“Doing this is a different type of motion in your fingers,” he said, purling a skinny mustard yellow scarf. It was smattered with a few holes, which he pointed out unabashedly. “I really like it. For knitting you have to be focused. You can’t look away. If you do, you might lose track of what you’re doing and it would be a disaster.”
Visconti said KnitLAB has been a success and has instilled a sense of pride in her students.
“The energy they bring is the kind that young people bring anything,” she said. “They’re excited, they’re fresh and they wear the stuff they make. It demonstrates to everyone that they are skilled, creative and have a lot to contribute.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service