Before Anna Poe '87 opened the Knitwit Yarn Shop and Café in Portland in May, she met a fellow fan of the craft who could not have been more surprising.
"I never would have thought he'd be interested in knitting," she said of the big, burly man who sat next to her on a plane as she knitted the time away. "Right before we touched down, the guy turned and said, 'What are you doing right there?'" The man, a former football player, proceeded to look through Poe's knitting books. "He said that when he got off the plane, he'd go straight to a bookstore, buy Stitch and Bitch, and make his daughter one of the bags in it. He was so excited."
Back on solid ground in her yarn shop on Congress Street, a brand new copy of the cleverly-titled knitting handbook lies next to a local artist's handmade knitting needles, surrounded by knitters' knickknacks and binders full of patterns. Towering on either side, two massive shelves stuffed with yarn of every imaginable thickness and shade almost to the ceiling. In terms of interior design, you couldn't ask for a better color scheme. Poe should know: while at Bowdoin, she majored in Visual Arts. Now 40, Poe has been producing artwork ever since.
"There are a lot of artists who use knitting in their work," said Poe, who got her Masters in printmaking from the University of Arizona in 1993. At first, she thought she might use it in her own art, but later realized that it didn't have to be so serious a hobby. "Now it's something that pays the bills that I really enjoy, and it doesn't quite mingle with my artwork. And that's not a bad thing."
As is true for many self-proclaimed knitters, Poe knits not only to make something that's all her own, but also because it's relaxing. "It's portable, really comfortable, and can be completely fanciful or completely utilitarian. It's something creative that's manageable," she said.
Knitwit is not the only yarn shop in Portland. But it is the only one where you can use your needles to stir a cup of tea.
"I thought there was room for one more. I liked the idea of a cappuccino machine, of a place where you can sit," she said. "I had an image of a yarn shop I'd like to shop at. So I just made it."
Poe got plenty of help from her husband, Josh Eckels, a painter and printmaker who also dabbles in furniture design. His work is always on display: everything from the cubbyhole-like shelves to the coffee table displaying another local artist's cool designer buttons and the decorative café counter nestled in the far corner of the shop is indebted to his artistry.
For her love of knitting, Poe is indebted to a friend at Bowdoin.
"I had a brief infatuation with knitting at Bowdoin," she said. With her friend's inspiring, though sometimes less than patient, coaching, Poe first tried her luck with a sweater. "That wasn't a good thing to start on," Poe admitted undaunted. The two would spend hours making all sorts of knitted things.
"You have to be careful," Poe warned knit-crazed students, "because you might not get your homework done."
Poe gave up knitting for many years after Bowdoin, but now that she's back in and in the business, her repertoire runs the gamut from mittens to hats and everything in-between?and with quite the artist's touch. Some of her finer creations hang proudly on hooks by the café, inspiring browsing beginners and just begging to be touched.
Yet Poe insists she's no expert. "I'm not a fantastic knitter; I'm more of an intermediate one" she said. "But I learn a lot from the people who come in here."
Sharing tips, tricks, and patterns is a big part of what Knitwit's all about. In addition to holding various classes, Poe invites a local knitting expert to come and help beginners get started on new projects every Sunday. And once they start, it can be hard to stop.
"Knitting is good for people with addictive personalities," said Poe, who counts herself in that category. "You get the good 'I did something creative' feeling."
To satisfy all manner of creative tastes, the shop offers a range of yarns for a range of knitters. In making her selections, Poe strives to cater to both middle-aged women with traditional tastes and the younger crowd out for the more fun and funky. "It's catching on," Poe said of knitting among youth. And they're getting younger. "Kids 8 to 14 are coming in with their moms, and they teach [them] how to knit," she said.
With its selection of coffees and teas, cozy chairs, and good company, Knitwit is an ideal place for any knitter?young, old, or football player, to sit back, relax, and get creative. "It's got an atmosphere that makes you want to make something," Poe said.
Knitwit is located at 247 Congress Street in Portland. For more information on times, contact (207)774-6444.