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Your Life Calling With Jane Pauley

Reality Check: Knitting as a Career

Knitting is a great hobby, pastime and social activity. What it's not is a practical way to make a living.

Not many knitters are professional knitters. Betsy Lee McCarthy is, since she wrote a popular book on the subject and teaches the craft at events nationwide (and even on cruise ships). Yet despite her name recognition as a knitter, McCarthy, 67, is hesitant to describe knitting as her job.

"I don't make a lot of money from it," she says, explaining that after buying yarn and other supplies, her trade often incurs as much cost as it does income. "I'm lucky if I break even," she observes. When McCarthy left a well paid career in health administration in order to pursue her passion, she did so with both a nest egg and a clean financial slate. Her two children were grown, her home and cars were paid off, and her husband had a steady job that provided insurance.

To women and men who enjoy knitting, or think they might, McCarthy offers the following encouragement and reality-based advice.

1) Knit for pleasure, not profits. Betsy McCarthy is talented at knitting socks, but she doesn't sell what she makes. In order to cover her costs for making a pair—say, $25 for the yarn plus 40 hours of her time—she'd have to charge an exorbitant price. "Who's going to pay several hundred dollars for a pair of socks?" she asks. As with any business or creative pursuit, to make money, the commodity must be affordably and efficiently produced. That's doable with knitting patterns, such as the ones McCarthy includes in her book, but it's harder to have a profit margin with handcrafted goods. "I knit because I love knitting," she says.

2) Knit on the side. McCarthy points out that a skilled knitter can earn supplemental income by teaching adult-education classes or working part-time at a yarn shop. (McCarthy, a former English teacher, did both of those things after leaving her full-time corporate job.) Knitters can also make money by selling easy-to-produce items—such as scarves or headbands—at online sites including etsy.com. Taking on selective commissions or teaching one-time lessons at, for instance, a mom's club meeting or a baby shower, can also generate income. For instance, shower guests can learn to knit a single square that will be gathered with the others to make a quilt for the new baby. The instructor can start the first several rows of each square in advance, so that all the attendees have to do is follow the pattern with in-person, step-by-step assistance.

3) Knit with friends for fun. Since you can knit alone or while in the company of others, knitting is both a solitary and a social activity. "Knitters provide a great community," says McCarthy. "We help one another, and we learn from one another." Knitting groups—often called "knitting circles"—provide women (and, increasingly, men) a chance to get together in a social setting that doesn't cost money or revolve around eating, drinking, or staring at a movie screen. Knitting is also a great way for people of different ages and walks of life to come together based on a common interest and pursuit. McCarthy especially recommends the circles as a social venue for older people who are looking to make new connections. "When you're in the workforce, you can make friends with colleagues or the parents of your children's friends," observes McCarthy. "But when you're out of the workforce for a while, and you're maybe in your 70's, where do you meet a new best girlfriend?" Knitters also have their own Facebook-like social-media networks, including Ravelry.com (of which McCarthy is a member) and several groups here in the AARP Community.

4) Keep yourself "knit fit". To prevent the type of discomfort or damage that can be caused by the repetitive movements used in knitting, it's smart to exercise your hands and arms, such as through yoga or other types of upper-body movement. McCarthy switches the hand (called the "dominant" hand) with which she controls her needles with the one she uses to manage the yarn. She also changes the sizes of the needles and yarns she employs. "If you use really big needles and really big yarn all the time, you'll be stressing the same muscles and tendons over and over again," she explains.

For information about knitting, visit The Knitting Guild Association

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