But the fact that knitting-related businesses, in particular, are seeing a boost during this time of social and economic stress fits a historical pattern. When Danielle Romanetti opened her yarn shop in Alexandria, Va., in 2009, it was the pit of the Great Recession.
Loans were nearly impossible to get, and for the most part, people were holding onto their money. Yet Ms. Romanetti’s business immediately did well, she said. “Where travel and a lot of other things weren’t happening,” she said, “people were turning to needles and yarn.”
Now some of Ms. Romanetti’s customers are reaching out about a T-shirt that her shop, Fibre Space, used to sell. It debuted during the 2016 presidential election, and features a skull-and-crossbones motif — the skull in a stockinette stitch, and the bones, a crochet hook and a knitting needle. The text reads: “Come The Apocalypse I Will Have Clothing.”
“People are digging them out of their closets, wearing them again, sending me pictures,” Ms. Romanetti, 39, said of the T-shirts, which she reissued because of demand. “I guess it feels like the right time to bring it back.”
Knitting is a renowned stress reliever, at least for those not bothered by the clacking sounds made by its more ardent practitioners. Ms. Romanetti picked it up when she was in graduate school, to soothe her anxiety disorder, and for decades it has been suggested as a cure for rheumatism, tension, addiction, nervousness, insomnia, so on. But it has long been a foil to external chaos too.
Let us pause to recall the tricoteuse, a woman who sits and knits, coolly carrying on with her handwork as the world unravels around her. Fiction’s most famous was Madame Defarge, knitting through public executions during the French Revolution.
Then there are those who take a more active hand, wielding their needles as the novelist and knitter Barbara Kingsolver sees them: “the point-nosed plow of preparedness.” These knitters confess to squirreling away skeins of yarn as if they were disaster supplies. They share memes proclaiming knitting “a post-apocalyptic life skill.” For them, knitting isn’t merely a way to keep the hands busy; it is preparation for end times.
In mid-April, the pandemic forced a major knitting industry event, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, to go online (with less emphasis on the sheep than usual). Shannon Okey, 45, a textile maker and the owner of a small press in Cleveland, needed something special to help her make back some of the lost income from the canceled fair. She settled on reissuing a book that spoke to this very idea.
“Doomsday Knits,” first published in 2012, was a cult favorite collection of patterns for comfy knit survival gear that landed somewhere between, as one knitter put it, the attire we imagined we’d wear when the world ended (Mad Max-esque accouterments) and what many have ended up wearing (pajamas).
In recent years, copies of the out-of-print paperback started going for $60 at independent bookstores and listing for upward of $200 online. As this strange spring progressed, Ms. Okey said she received a number of inquiries as to whether it would be available again.
“We rereleased it, and in no time it goes from zero to ‘Oh my God,’” Ms. Okey said. “Did everyone get their stimulus checks or are we all whistling past the graveyard?”
The creator of the book, Alexandra Tinsley, 34, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a former professional knitter now furloughed from an enamel pin company. Each pattern in the book had its own vivid apocalyptic scenario. The cover features a garter-stitch balaclava paired with a Chernobyl-era military-grade gas mask.
An apocalypse knitting book was bound to happen at some point, according to Franklin Habit, 47, who works full-time in the knitting industry, by writing, illustrating and teaching internationally. “You know that thing: If something exists, someone’s made porn out of it? Well, if something exists, knitters have done something with it.”
“There are fandom knitters — knitters who are into ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Trek’ — knitters who are into burlesque, preppy cardigan knitters, knitters who are into punk,” Mr. Habit said. “You have everything, including the extreme spectrums of left wing and right wing.”
After Ravelry, a social network with nine million users that is at the heart of the online knitting world, banned open support for Donald Trump on the site in 2019, Mr. Habit said he was placed on a conservative knitters’ blacklist for being Arab-American and openly gay. But while politics may divide them, knitters can agree on at least one thing: Come the apocalypse, they will have clothing.
“In times of peril and crisis, handwork people find ways to make the best of what’s available,” he said. Indeed, beyond tending to their own needs, knitters have been called on, war after war, to stitch lifesaving “service woolies” for soldiers. (“Remember Pearl Harbor: Purl Harder” and “Knit Your Bit,” American World War II-era posters read.)
The practice is perfectly suited to conditions of scarcity. Sure, one can spend nearly $300 on a baseball-size skein of Jacques Cartier vicuña hair yarn (from an Andean relative of the llama), but one could just as soon unravel a forgotten garment, cast on and make something new, as pilgrims and pioneers may have, knitting by firelight on the decks of ships and in covered wagons, and as Britons during the World War II were ordered to under the “Make Do and Mend” campaign.
There’s also the easy comfort of the finished products themselves.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the post-apocalyptic branch of science fiction is not where we are headed,” said Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a Hollywood costume designer and fashion scholar. “I don’t think anybody wants to look like Neo from ‘The Matrix’ right now. I think people want to take embroidered handkerchiefs and stitch them together to make a blouse — things that are pretty and soft, that help with a feeling of security in a time that’s so unknown.”
Ms. Landis, 67, created the costumes for the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and recently curated a science fiction-themed show for the Science Museum, London (postponed because of the pandemic). She believes knitting is an extension of the innate human drive to make something out of nothing.
“It’s very much part of the human condition to go back to basics,” she said. “In the joy of making something you can wear yourself, whether it’s a mask or a sweater, there’s an enormous feeling of confidence — in that ability to be self-reliant.”
And so customers new and old continue to patronize yarn stores like Ms. Romanetti’s (or their online outposts). She or members of her staff are there six days a week, fulfilling orders and hosting virtual shopping appointments on Zoom.
But there is one caveat.
“There is something very strange about knitting when 2020 is going to be the hottest on record,” Ms. Landis said. “If we’re knitting, we have to knit linen. I’m in Los Angeles. It’s going to be 85 degrees here tomorrow. What are we all doing knitting wool?”