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Hilary's Passion for Knitting

By Jason Laurenzano |  July 19, 2019

When I walked into Hilary Cerbin’s yarn shop, "Nina Chicago”, I was struck by the wall of bright and varied colors.  Located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, the shop is light and airy.  Floor to ceiling were bunches ("skeins") of wool, cotton, silk, linen, alpaca and other yarn in many textures, colors and weights.  It was like walking onto a pallet of oil paint, or through a prism of refracted light.


As my field of view expanded I saw many examples of finished knitted, crocheted and weaved items. Creative wearables hung throughout.  Wall art displayed stitched and woven designs in many patterns and hues.  

Seated in the shop’s lounge were women chatting, their hands in constant fluid motion, their eyes occasionally glancing at the pattern instructions set out in front of them. 


I don’t knit.  Not yet anyway.  I had tagged along with my wife to Nina Chicago for her private lesson.  Her objective: to refresh her skills so she could knit and crochet a baby blanket for our grandson (pictured below).

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What a happy place this is.  One learns from that Nina, the yarn shop, opened in 2004.  Nina, the original owner created an inviting space filled with “beautiful textures, colors and lots of inspiration”.  After nearly 13 years the shop transitioned into the hands of Hilary, “a lover or all things crafty”.  The shop was rebranded as Nina Chicago.  With the encouragement of a strong core staff and customer base, Nina Chicago will soon expand into a larger brick and mortar store (there is no such thing as too much of a very good thing).  Nina Chicago also plans an expanded to incorporate an online business.

Of particular interest to me is Hilary.  More precisely, her PASSION for fiber arts, particularly knitting.  We met to discuss her Passion and its effect on her life and outlook.      

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I asked Hilary how she got her start in knitting.  She had no interest until seeing how “into it” a good friend had become.  Hilary was in her mid-30s when she gave it a try.  She started, as many do, by knitting a square to become familiar with handling the knitting needles and yarn.  The result wasn’t all that good, “it was full of holes”.  It was frustrating.  Naturally she wanted to be good at it immediately.  She practiced the dexterity, learned more stitches and moved on to making scarves.  “They looked good” and it felt “pretty amazing”.  She enjoyed both the activity and the fact that something tangible came out of it.  She was hooked (pardon the pun).  

“I went to every yarn shop and yarn show I could.  It’s the best way to get out and explore new fibers, much better than online where you can’t really see and touch them. Some of the most unusual yarns I’ve found are made from stainless steel, seaweed fiber, and pearl fiber.  I was so overwhelmed by how many different fibers and weights there were and had no idea how I would ever learn them all. Now I think it’s funny when my new employees feel the same way, because I know they eventually will think nothing of it.

Nina’s shop became her home away from home.  She took Nina’s classes.  She loved talking with other knitters.  Before long she became a seasonal employee and then a full time staff member.  

I asked her how she progressed to the point of creating her design label, “Hilary Hues”. “I can get bored easily, so as soon as I learned something I was ready for the next thing.    Once I started giving lessons I became interested and started creating my own patters.  I wanted to make clothing and wearables that there were no existing patterns for.  I look forward to developing it more.”  


After initially being disinterested in the business side, Hilary became enamored with that too.  She enjoys the business side now.  “I love my employees.  I’m very lucky to work with such talented people.  I love teaching and sharing and discussing fiber arts with customers.”  She particularly enjoys helping customers achieve breakthroughs.  She and her staff emphasize that mistakes are a part of the overall experience.  Errors are not to be feared, as they are necessary to becoming proficient.    


Also gratifying to Hilary and staff is seeing the several mother/daughter pairs coming in, and even mothers with their sons.  “It’s truly a wonderful way to further bond with family members.”  New friendships are formed among customers and knitting circle participants.

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From watching my own mother knit and crochet “back in the day” I had a sense that there was a meditative element to knitting.  Hilary confirmed that, describing knitting and other fiber arts and crafts as being both meditative and therapeutic.  By way of example, she told me of a customer whose mother had terminal cancer.  Knitting became her therapy.  She learned to knit and met other Nina Chicago customers (their “fiber community”) from whom she received incredible support.  Hilary explained that this is a common experience.  They meet many who are going difficult times, such as Illness, divorce, career challenges and financial hardships.


But, how does she experience the tactile act of knitting?  I wanted to know how it made her feel.  And, given that it can be frustrating to learn, and that mistakes are common, how can it be so relaxing?  Not surprisingly, Hilary finds knitting to be wonderfully relaxing.  She explained that she (and many other knitters) have multiple projects going: “With the more complicated patterns you have to pay close attention throughout, but it is still relaxing.  Other patterns or stitches are simple and you can relax and socialize with others while almost mindlessly knitting”.


Of particular interest to me, and what I seek to illustrate in my Profiles in Passion, is how having such a passion can be the difference between merely living and being “truly alive.”  I asked Hilary how her love of knitting has impacted her life.  She explained her passion this way:   


“My love of knitting as completely taken over my life.  Any free moment I have it seems that I’m knitting.  I love road trips and plane trips – more time for knitting.  It never gets stale because there is always something new to learn and to create.  For me, it’s nearly impossible to watch television without knitting as I watch.  If I could knit and exercise at the same time I’d be incredibly fit.”


Thank you, Hilary, for introducing me and my readership to the PASSION of fiber arts.  I enjoyed learning about it and how it can mean so much, to so many.  



More About Knitting


Knitting has an interesting history and place in cultures the world over.  For an interesting treatment of knitting in the United States, and knitting “how-to’s” and “why-to’s” related to techniques and patterns, I recommend Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook, by Debbie Stoller (Workman Publishing, New York).  


From Stitch ‘n Bitch one learns that knitting is rapidly increasing in popularity with 4 million newcomers in recent years, joining an estimated 38 million knitters in the United States.  It has dramatically evolved from the gender-defined and necessity-driven activity to one embraced by all genders and several age groups.  It is not unusual to see young women knitting on transit buses, trains, subways and car shares or at coffee shops, on lunch lines, at the movies and even in bars.  According to a 2000 survey the percentage of women knitters under the age of 45 has doubled since 1996, and that surely is a conservative estimate for 2019.   Newbies are represented across the social fabric: college students, indie rockers, middle-aged Brooklynites, theater people, political activists, bohemians, academics and professionals.  Men are getting the stitch of it in increasing numbers.


Ms. Stoller organized the first Stitch ‘n Bitch group in New York as a forum where men and women interested in learning to knit could mingle, learn and make friends.  Since then Stitch n’ Bitch groups have sprung up in many major cities and small towns in the USA and abroad.  Yarn shops and knitting stores, are making a huge comeback. 


From Ms. Stoller, the reader learns:


  • The meditative and peaceful quality of knitting is an ideal antidote for the stress of daily life or life’s difficult challenges 

  • The incredible satisfaction and sense of serenity that could come from the steady, rhythmic click-click-click of one’s knitting needles 

  • The portability of knitting yarn and needles makes for an ideal urban activity or coffee break

  • An tactile alternative to gaming, watching video and online or other computer use

  • Her experience that whatever she was thinking about when she last worked on a piece would immediately spring back into her mind when she picked up the work again, “as though knitting were a sort of mental tape recorder.”

  • Many find knitting to be a statement of sorts: the reclaiming of lost domestic arts; freedom from dependence on exploitative corporate culture; rebellion against a culture that rewards the mass produced.


“A Stitch in Time: A Brief History of Knitting” is also included in Stitch ‘n Bitch as is a list of “Famous Knitters, Real and Fictional”. The list includes, among others:

  • Audrey Hepburn

  • Aunt Bee (The Andy Griffith Show)

  • Cameron Diaz

  • Betty Rubble (The Flintstones)

  • Goldie Hawn

  • Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H)

  • Hilary Swank

  • Jane Jetson (The Jetsons)

  • Joan Crawford

  • Madame Defarge (A Tale of Two Cities)

  • Julia Roberts

  • Monica Geller Bing (Friends)

  • Kate Moss

  • Phoebe Buffay (Friends)

  • Marilyn Monroe

  • Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (M*A*S*H)

  • Madonna

  • Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)

  • Tyra Banks

  • Wilma Flintstone (The Flintstones)

  • Sandra Bullock

  • Queen Elizabeth II

  • Laurence Fishburn

An online search reveals that German Chancellor Angela Merkl, TV celebrity Vana White (who has her own line of yarns), actors Kiefer Sullivan, Dakota Fanning, Tracy Ullman, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Sara Jessica Parker, Scarlet Johansson and many others enjoy the click-click-click. 

On May 21, 2019 the Wall Street Journal published an article written by Ellen Byron entitled: In Mindful Knitting, It’s the Journey, not the Scarf; ‘Medknitation’ aims to get the overstimulated to turn off their phones and achieve flow by stitching, ‘just try to find your rhythm’.

And, I saw this in a publication.  What’s next?


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