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"Hey! How's school going? I heard you're doing your Masters in knitting! How'd you manage THAT?" Although slightly inaccurate, one thing is sure: word travels fast among fellow knitters. I tell them I am getting a Masters of Philosophy in Ethnic and Racial Studies. The inquiries usually stop there with a polite smile.

Sometimes, more venturesome individuals ask about the topic of my dissertation. The working title is "The esoteric underpinnings of hand knitting in late modernity: An auto ethnographic exploration into knitting circles among university students in Canada".

I think some background information is required at this point. I am from Cambridge, Ontario, originally. I finished my undergrad degree in anthropology at the nearby University of Guelph in 2003. Four fantastic years at Guelph had left me with the desire to further my academic studies, and to branch out a little further from home. A little further away turned out to be Dublin, Ireland. Quite a jump.

A few years ago, I had traveled Ireland with a friend. Of course, when in Dublin, every tourist absolutely must see the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is housed right in the middle of Trinity College, a branch of the University of Dublin, which is over 400 years old. The campus, located in the heart of the city center, is absolutely marvelous. A collage of old stone buildings with flourishing green squares and cobblestone pathways. I fell in love.

So, applying to Trinity College for a Masters program was an easy choice.... Awaiting a reply was a bit more difficult, Irish time moves at a much more relaxed pace. To my delight, I was accepted. Last October, I packed up whatever belongings I could fit into two suitcases, and peregrinated the Atlantic.

Thinking that I was going to have no trouble building up a stash in the land of wool, (after all, that is what we North Americans knitters think, right?) I packed only my essentials: my needles and other knitting accoutrements. I also took what I believed to be a rather modest collection of yarn. Some hot pink Lopi, bulldog blue Lamb's Pride, an assortment of Philosophers' Wool, and really, only about a dozen other random balls, hanks, and skeins of yarn. A conservative stash, right? My flatmates in the graduate residence though otherwise. You see, the knitting phenomenon hasn't hit the Irish university student population the way is has in North America or even the United Kingdom. Knitting in Dublin is not a popular activity with younger people.

Just as I was having anxiety about being labeled "the crazy yarn girl downstairs', the last of our six rooms in the flat was filled by Rachel, a wonderful tricoteuse from New York City, who had also brought a stash. Hooray! I am not the only one! Better yet, I had someone to share with and talk to about my moderately obsessive passion for knitting. As the months carried on, and graduate students sporadically emerged from their somewhat isolative studies, Rachel and I began to meet other knitters, mostly of North American origin, who had come to Trinity to do a masters or PhD, who also thought that they were the only knitters on the island. We would get together whenever our studies would allow, to knit together, seek advice, teach new knitters who wanted to learn, and gripe about the lack of yarn in the city -- our combined stash was becoming sparse.

Rachel and I soon made it our mission to seek out yarn stores in Dublin. This country was known for their sheep. Aran sweaters were the coveted souvenir for so many tourists. So why couldn't we find yarn in the city? The truth is, because hand knitting is no longer economical, and knitting as an activity of leisure is not popular, there is not a strong demand for yarn here. I have found more Irish yarn available at home in Canada. So desperate, I began accosting old ladies I saw knitting while waiting for the bus. More than happy to share, they told me of two shops in the center of Dublin that sold yarn. Both of these shops are not very big, and the selection is not very great, even to those who have only a whiff of yarn snobbery.

The best yarn store Rachel and I found was in Bray. Bray is a 35-minute train ride out of Dublin on the east coast of Ireland. It's a very touristy place during the summer. The coast is beautiful, and the climate is temperate enough even for the odd palm tree to grow. We found The Wool Shop located at the top of the hill on the main street. The Shop is very small. So small, that a generously sized pram could potentially create a traffic jam of customers if positioned correctly. No sooner had we found the wall of Rowan when a pram-induced traffic jam began. Things became more hectic when a second pram, unfazed by the apparent challenge of squeezing anyone else into the store, let alone another baby carriage, miraculously positioned herself and her pram just inside the door. Not one to run from a challenge, I maneuvered my way around the prams and patrons and somehow managed to escape with some super soft kid mohair for a baby blanket (I paid, don't worry). Phew!

Sedated by the rhythmic clacking and swaying of the train, content in the warm glow of the sun that hit my face through the window, I reclined in my seat a bit more, amazed at what I was willing to do to get good yarn. In anthropological terms, there are many similarities between life in Ireland and life in Canada. So back home, why was knitting so much more popular than here, especially with people my age? I played with the lofty idea of being able to incorporate knitting into my upcoming dissertation topic, but passed it off as wishful thinking.

My dissertation topic search was quickly becoming the cause of mounting panic. I wanted to do something that was not only applicable, but something that I was really interested in. In Ethnic and Racial studies, which is basically an extension of sociology and anthropology, the focus is on human identity, language, expressive culture, intercultural communication, migration, as well as the heavier stuff like human rights, racism, inequality, and the really upsetting stuff like ethnocide and genocide.

Although I strongly believe that investigation and research into areas of the heavier side of ethnicity are much needed and invaluable contributions within academia, my personal choice for a dissertation topic leaned towards areas that I had been most passionate about and happy studying. My personal choice, possibly a selfish one in terms of my own mental health, was to focus on a positive, creative aspect of my own culture. I had decided that I really did want to investigate knitting as an activity that increasing numbers of people my age had recently picked up.

I tossed the idea out to my supervisor rather sheepishly. I was elated when she smiled, and in her fantastic Israeli-Irish accent said, "I think that's a wonderful idea! Tell me more!" As our chat unfolded, I discovered that she, having lived in Ireland since 1969, used to knit all the time, had taught herself Aran sweater patterns. She had given it up years ago but often thought about starting again. The next time we met, I brought in some yarn and a pair of needles for her.

Since that chat, which took place back in January of this year, I have been at work on my dissertation. I have been narrowing down the focus, doing literature reviews, and designing my methodology. As it turns out, this will be the first sociological study on university knitters in North America. Actually, not much has been written from a sociological perspective about knitting in general. I have discovered a Masters thesis that was researched on Newfoundland women who knit for charity, but not much else seems to exist...yet.

I will be examining the ideas surrounding theories of identity and modernity (the complexity of which I will spare you from), and simply document stuff that we knitters know about our habit. Why we knit, the benefits of knitting for ourselves and for others, why we like knitting in groups, what the knitting community offers to its members. We all get it; that's why we do it. Informing non-knitters is the challenge. It is hoped that my dissertation will act as a starting point for further, more in-depth study.

Now I am back at home in Cambridge, conducting interviews, and doing participant observation in knitting circles at the moment, which really is blissfully tailored study for me. Of course, there is much work to be done, and there are challenges. But I get to knit while I hold interviews, analyze knitting books for content, read popular articles on knitting, reach out to amazing people who are also passionate about knitting, talk to owners of local yarn stores, and really get a feel for what is going on, all while accomplishing stuff for my schoolwork.

There are grandmothers who have proudly told their friends of my "Masters in Knitting" it's a good conversation starter. There are friends who are slowly coming to realize that I have substantial research to do. There are also critics who scoff at my topic, who discount it as easily as they devalue any kind of handwork primarily done by women. Coming at the topic from a feminist ethnographic perspective, I am also faced with criticism towards the choice of qualitative, open interviewing and the narrative style analysis of detail-rich data that I am producing. I have learned to avoid these critics, as efforts to inform them have led to nothing but frustration on both sides. This is all part of the journey, and will be included in my dissertation.

I had a wonderful time in Ireland. Searching out yarn stores was a great way to learn the city. My flatmates were full of kind words of encouragement and enthusiasm way back when my dissertation topic was just a dream. Whether in our kitchen, on the bus, or in the pub, knitting with my flatmates became one of my favorite activities. So, as it winds up, I kind of am doing my Masters in knitting.... I just have to carefully qualify what that means.


Sarah Van Norman (right) is currently completing research for her Masters, back home in Ontario. The end of her dissertation will be bittersweet, but hopes that it may lead to more school adventures. Eventually.

When not knitting or playing school, she is likely to be found canoe tripping, mountain biking, or skiing with her equally playful partner, Jason, who can't knit, but can ball yarn like a champ.

Thanks to Steph (left), fellow North American knitter, for sharing the burden of being a non-Irish redhead in Dublin, destined to be chatted up by tourists searching for the "authentic" Irish woman.