I LIFTED my head up from my knitting needles and glanced over at Martha Moore, whose gaze was fixed somewhere in front of her, I wasn’t sure where, but certainly not on the sea of navy that was spilling forth from her own needles, which she was clicking together at the speed of lightning.
I ducked back to my own baby blue coloured stitches, which I had created, snail-like, and under the expert eye of another of the lovely ladies from the Cregagh Library Knit and Natter group, all the while inwardly chanting the old rhyme from school which I just about remembered and came in surprisingly useful for casting on: “In through the little bunny hole, round the big tree, out through the bunny hole, and off goes she.”
In recent times, what with the recession having an impact on many ladies’ spending habits, and the general resurgence of and renewed interest in crafts, knitting has become fashionable again.
Even my own mother - who is very gifted with her hands - sought out someone to teach her how to crochet, so she could make little bits and pieces of clothing for my niece before she was born.
Sadly I have always ruled myself out when it comes to art, needlework, cooking or generally anything which involves being proficient with one’s paws, so this quite possibly made me more curious to meet some people who were, and I jumped at the chance to pay a visit to Cregagh Library last Tuesday afternoon, where the members of the Knit and Natter group gather to do just that every week at 1.30pm.
“The Knit and Natter concept started off in Comber Library,” Alison Earley, branch manager at the east Belfast based group tells me in hushed tones, as we chat quietly behind one of the large book shelves.
Apparently Comber’s former branch manager Geraldine McGrattan had “heard about the relaxing properties of knitting and crochet” and contacted her area manager, Julie Reid, to see if a group called Health in Mind could help them set up a similar project.
(Health in Mind is a partnership project that brings together Libraries NI, Aware Defeat Depression, Action Mental Health, CAUSE and MindWise in providing positive mental health and wellbeing information, learning and reading resources and activities across Northern Ireland.)
The answer was yes, and Health in Mind provided support, buying supplies of wool, knitting needles and crocket hooks.
They also sourced knitting patterns for charities - for example, little squares to be made into blankets and hats for premature babies - and visited the group to help with the talks, generally being on hand to provide support to library staff.
“Our group started in April 2012,” says Alison of the Cregagh ladies.
“We thought it would go down well here because we have quite a lot of people who would be interested in the Arts. Health in Mind supplied a start-up kit which contained crochet hooks and wool and things like that. We put up a poster and during the first couple of weeks there were only four or five ladies. Now we are up to about 20 regulars.”
She says that there are a number of ladies who have learnt how to knit through attending, but many already enjoy it as a pastime, and love to come along to “meet up and chat and just get out of the house.”
It’s time to face my fear. Luckily, it is no den of lions I am being thrown into - moreover, a group of lovely, friendly women, sitting in a circle, needles in hand, exchanging tips and conversation.
“I wasn’t doing anything in the house, so just thought I’d come along,” fellow newcomer Dora Robinson tells me.
“I would knit to keep me occupied. I knit hats and scarves, I learned at school. It’s very relaxing.”
She adds: “In the winter time it keeps me occupied in the dark nights. My husband’s dead now, he died six years ago.”
Just across from her is Kathleen Sloan, who reveals she is 91 years old. Her unlined face and stylish demeanour conveys quite the opposite.
She is slowly knitting (“my hands give me bother these days so I stick to plain things”) what will be little pouches, in festive shades, for her great-grandchildren for Christmas.
“You push it up like so and then put money and chocolate etc. inside,” she explains, before revealing that she learned to knit at school - “and that was before the war.”
However Kathleen has a story which conveys that knitting can be as beneficial a pastime for others as for the person enjoying it.
“My daughter knows a lady who had triplets, two boys and a girl,” she says.
I later learn that she is referring to the Carrick family from Co Wicklow - parents Julia and Stuart, and their children Emily, Matthew and Leo.
Little Leo, four, has cerebral palsy, and to help raise funds for life-changing surgery which cannot be carried out in Ireland, Kathleen ran a stall at various craft fairs, and the ladies from Knit and Natter knitted and crocheted gifts to be sold to help out.
“They are all so good here,” says Kathleen, who was encouraged to come along to the group by a girl from the library handing her a leaflet and telling her that “even if you don’t knit, you can natter.”
She adds: “I like the people, they are all nice, they’re so friendly and if anything is wrong they will help you.”
She’s right; far from being precious about their knitting skills, the ladies all seem happy to share tips with each other, talk about whatever particular item they’re working on that day, and help someone who is poring over a pattern, stuck at a stitch.
To my right appears to be the ‘crochet corner’, where the ladies have beautiful pieces of work fanned out on their laps, in an array of pastel colours, perfect in their symmetry.
Sixty-five-year-old Elsie Harris is working on a baby’s blanket, and tells me that she has made all kinds of clothes for herself over the years.
“I taught myself - I had a baby at the time and I thought I would love to learn to crochet,” she says.
“I just bought a book. It shows you what to do - all the stitches, where to put your needle and pull it through.
“I would crochet most nights at home and sit and relax.”
A few moments later, Irene Coates shows me a Christening shawl she made for her grandson, and which since has been used by other grandchildren - a true family heirloom, she agrees.
Comprising a total of 230 stitches, it is made from the finest Shetland wool and is intricate and beautiful.
“I found the pattern in My Weekly magazine,” says Irene.
“I had to order the wool online. It took me nine months to make it, and the worst part was that if you made a mistake you had to rip it out stitch by stitch.”
She admits: “It was the trickiest thing I’ve ever knitted - but at the end of the day, it was enjoyable.”