Yeah, I know. I have been trying to live that truth for more than 50 years. Not because there's something wrong with being a male knitter, but because of how society views something like that.
In 1960, when I was 10 years old, there was a heavy snowfall that was intense even for the Northwestern corner of Wisconsin. My mother decided the entire family would stay in and learn something new. She dug into her supplies of metal needles, crochet hooks, and ball after ball of colorful yarn; the whole family would learn to stitch and we were going to like it. Luckily, I took to it like an addict.
While I loved my new craft, I decided to hide doing such a "girly" activity -- this was nothing new as I was forced to hide the fact that I was gay in those days, out of fear of being beat up or bullied. Because of my knitting and much more, I had constant fears of name-calling, teasing, and being laughed at by others. Those fears became reality, as I was soon the target of three boys in my class. There was a long list of traits that could have bothered them: Maybe they didn't like that I was bright and overly charming. Maybe there was something they found effeminate about my behavior that they didn't particularly care for. Or maybe they didn't like my sense of fashion, my high-pitched voice, or my popularity with girls. Whatever it was, this trio found me unacceptable and decided to dim my shine.
Over time, my bullies had trained me to be fearful of them wherever I happened to be -- in the classroom, walking the halls, participating in activities, or even just turning a corner. Being physically beat up, pushed into urinals, and having live chickens thrown at me were only parts of the abuse I endured. There was also the mental taunting. The only way for a reprieve, I found out one Friday night, was by paying -- literally. I paid the boys' way into a local movie and they gave me a break.
Fast-forward to 2018. I saw an Instagram post that mentioned a "knit night" at Club Cumming, Alan Cumming's cabaret hotspot on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A sexy male knitter named Josh Bennett hosted this group and my antennae went up. Knitting. Men. Josh. Multiple train connections downtown ultimately delivered me up front, next to the stage, where there was only one seat. It was meant for me.
Eventually, an energetic, curly-haired young woman named Shira Blumenthal was introduced by Josh to talk about #HatNotHate. It was a knitting effort she'd started that involved stitching and delivering blue hats to school kids. These garments would come alongside discussions about the epidemic of bullying in the U.S. As Shira told her story of terror from her own childhood bullying, tears started to stream down my face. The two of us connected that night and I committed myself to her cause on the spot.
I began making as many blue hats as I could get off my needles shortly after. And while I was doing it for the cause, in some way the work quietly allowed me to practice forgiveness. I needed to let go of the hold those boys still had on me after 45 years.
In a bid to spread the word, and contribute to the project, I started my own knitting group at The Asbury Hotel, in Asbury Park, N.J. I asked the hotel owner if I could sit in the lobby and knit, and invite others to join. That first night started with five people, and since then, Knit in the Pit has grown into a group of more than 110 knitters and crocheters, all enjoying drinks and snacks while making blue hats -- 2,000+ and counting. Our group mission is simple: "Stitch for Good."
To grow the group I had been posting about what I was doing and why all over Facebook. One day, I got a friend request from one of those three boys from my childhood. We had thankfully lost touch after graduation. Stunned, I accepted the request, and shortly after he messaged me with a sincere and heartfelt apology.
"I hurt you as a young guy, and I didn't mean to," he wrote in the lengthy message. "When we screw up, we just need to say sorry. Love ya' bro."
Reading his message I wept. After all of this time, the little boy inside of me who still was tormented by those bullies four decades ago was finally released. I replied, accepting the apology.
When I found out that #HatNotHate was in a charitable partnership this year with It Gets Better (donating a portion of all its merchandise sales to the LGBTQ+ non-profit), it struck me because the honest truth is I'm living proof that it truly does get better. When I knit, I do it with the essence of people I have lived and loved with -- people that influence me still. And by knitting blue hats, I continue to heal and forgive. It's an exercise that's truly allowed a weight to be lifted from me, all while helping to spread an important, and ultimately personal message.
Jon Giswold is a New Jersey-based crafter and fitness expert. He is the author of Basic Training and Beyond Basic Training, from St. Martin's Press; maker of the home goods brand Made by Hand; and host of the podcast "Moments That Matter with Jon Giswold." Currently, his Knit in the Pit groups are held virtually every Friday on Zoom.