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Knitting's popularity leads to more than one good yarn for author

Sunday, December 07, 2003

By Susan Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What do Tyne Daly, Angela Bassett, Queen Elizabeth II, Iman, Isaac Mizrahi and Julia Roberts have in common?

They all knit.

Knitting has, once again, become the trendy thing to do.

Tell that to Sally Melville, author of "Book 1: The Knit Stitch," and "Book 2: The Purl Stitch," two extremely popular how-to manuals, from XRX Publishing ($19.95 paperback), and she'll just laugh. Her mother taught her to knit at age 7, and although mentioning age isn't nice, Melville's daughter Caddy is in her 20s -- so Sally's been knitting for a while, trend or no trend.

"When I learned to knit I really took to it," she says. "I felt it was something my hands were meant to do. There isn't a time when I don't have something on needles."

She's glad others have been embracing her passion. Her books have been disappearing off shelves almost as fast as they appear.

XRX originally asked Melville to write a knitting book that featured designs for using leftover yarn.

"The publisher knew it would sell OK because there was nothing on the market with that mandate," Melville says. She wrote the book, "Sally Melville Styles: A Unique and Elegant Approach to Your Yarn Collection," and at the photo shoot for that completed text, her publisher turned to her and casually asked her how many more knitting books she felt she had in her. That was about five years ago.

"Out of the blue, I said seven," says Melville, laughing at the memory.

She told her publisher what she really wanted to write was a how-to book, for beginners. The publisher contended that nobody would buy a book about learning to knit because nobody was learning to knit.

But by the time Melville's "The Knit Stitch" hit shops in 2002, the craft was gaining in popularity, and the book sold out rapidly; it was two months before the second printing could be sent out to stores to fill backorders.

Don't mistake Melville for the proverbial granny in a rocking chair. This Canadian native, along with being a wife and mother, has worked in academia, teaching writing and working in university counseling services after her first husband passed away. She's an active outdoorswoman, pictured in "The Knit Stitch" dangling from a rock face, although she admits she was terrified during that photo shoot. And the success of her books means that she is in demand nationwide for lectures and seminars.

While there are scads of how-to books on knitting out there, Melville's took a different approach to teaching knitting.

The key to the book's success is its systematic approach to the craft. Readers are introduced to skills as needed, one step at a time, and appealing projects build upon each lesson.

The knit stitch, the basic stitch in knitting, is the first thing most people learn. So Melville explored the versatility and simplicity of that stitch.

A lot of learn-to-knit books are daunting, says Melville, because they tend to throw too much information at a beginner, who just wants to sit down and knit, not sit down and read a book.

"Why invite someone to make something that is going to frustrate them and cause them to make mistakes?" she asks.

Besides, "Knitting can truly change your life by saving you from boredom, but also [by] giving you a sense of purpose," says Melville. "Well, knitting may not be your life's purpose, but it teaches you to set goals and finish what you start, which are really important messages."

"The Knit Stitch" is full of encouragement, meditations by Melville, quotations from people as diverse as Winston Churchill ("Creativity is the ability to move from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm") and delicious patterns.

The garments in "The Knit Stitch" run the gamut. From scarves, which seem to be the first project for most (a personal favorite is the Minimum scarf on page 29; the scarf is simple, the yarn is luscious), to stylish patterns for sweaters and jackets. All are done with just the knit stitch. And as Melville points out, "There is some value to very, very easy knitting. You need to have something easy [to knit] while you are watching a movie [even if you are an expert knitter]," she says.

Recently, her daughter, Caddy, a non-knitter until she was 25, decided to learn to click the needles. A cap was designed for her on page 52 of "The Knit Stitch."

"At first she just knit projects I designed. Then she said, 'I want to change that,' and I'm thinking, 'who the hell are you?' " says Melville with a laugh. "Before I knew it, she designed a hat that was brilliant. It's just amazing what she's done. She stepped off the edge almost immediately and I've very proud of her."

Susan Banks can be reached at sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.

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