When Betsy Lee McCarthy was five years old, her grandmothers taught her to knit. Five decades later, McCarthy walked away from a more than 20-year career as a sought-after health care administrator so she could devote more time to knitting.
McCarthy, then 57, wasn't having a nervous breakdown. No reputation-sullying skeletons were about to pop out of her closet, nor was she going to be fired. It was just the opposite: McCarthy had been offered a promotion and a significant raise.
"Knitting relaxes me," she says, reflecting on the decision she made 10 years ago. "I wanted to learn more about knitting and become a better knitter, and working the way I was didn't leave me with any extra time or energy." About her Seattle employer's attempts to keep her, McCarthy explains, "I just thought, nope, this is it. It's time to go. I've been working since I was 16, and I'm ready to be myself rather than the person who does my job."
After announcing her plans to leave the company, McCarthy says, "The chief financial officer came up to me, and in a tone that sounded as if he felt embarrassed or sorry for me, said, 'I understand that you are planning to…knit.'"
Too often, says McCarthy, knitters aren't given the respect they're due. "There's a stereotype that knitting is about little old ladies making doilies and baby afghans," observes McCarthy, who focuses her knitting on making socks, a skill she honed while traveling for business. (Sewing and quilting were earlier interests, but knitting socks is a more portable pursuit.) "Most people don't see that knitting is artistically and intellectually challenging," she says. "There's a lot of math and technical skill involved, and it's very creative." (Watch the video at top of Jane Pauley's "Your Life Calling" interview with McCarthy to see the knitter at work.)
When McCarthy's last day as a corporate executive came, her husband, Terry, asked, "How does it feel to have earned your last paycheck?"
"He wasn't being unsupportive," McCarthy, now 67, explains. "I think he was being protective of me, and he was worried. But I wasn't. Some people aren't comfortable going into that 'gray zone,' of not knowing exactly what they're moving toward. But at that point in my life, I had learned that if you're open to something, you can find it."
McCarthy found that something, and then some. Soon after leaving the executive suite in 2000, she took a part-time job at a yarn shop near her home. "I went from making a six-figure income to earning a little more than minimum wage," she says. "But I've always found that any time I do something new, I learn something new, and for me working at a yarn shop was almost like being in a graduate program for knitters."
A manager at the store suggested McCarthy put her sock designs to paper; she did, and she later submitted patterns to a book about Christmas stockings. A casual conversation with one of the book's editors landed McCarthy a deal for Knit Socks! 15 Cool Patterns for Toasty Feet. (See "A Close Knit Family" for more about McCarthy's book and that of her daughter, science writer Rebecca Skloot, 37, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a current bestseller.) McCarthy's success as a knitting author led to invitations that she teach at knitting events around the country, and even in workshops on cruise ships. Among serious knitters, Betsy Lee McCarthy is a star.
A Master of Reinvention
McCarthy is no stranger to changing the way she lives and works. After college, the Illinois native and mother of two (son Matthew Coale, 41, is a shipping terminal manager) worked as a high school English teacher and later took a job as a budget and policy analyst with the state of Illinois. Says McCarthy, who has a master's degree in English: "My career followed a very crooked path." Her work as an analyst led to positions in public sector health care administration, including several years as Illinois' Medicaid director.
During the 1990s, a divorced McCarthy was living in the Pacific Northwest and working and commuting long hours for a private health insurer. She quit the job in 1997 after remarrying and moving to Seattle for her husband's work; she was set to live a simpler, more creative life centered on knitting. Then an eager headhunter made McCarthy a job offer she couldn't refuse.
Going back to work with a health care company for a few more years was the right choice, McCarthy says, because the money she earned and saved "enabled me to do what I do now." Three years later, when she left the corporate world for good, the couple's house and cars were paid off. After her husband, Terry, retired and grew tired of caring for their suburban lawn, the pair sold their home and moved into a Vancouver, Wash., condo with their two border terriers. (For more about the economics of knitting for a living, see AARP's "Reality Check." )
While McCarthy's later-in-life career as a knitter has brought her fame, it hasn't brought fortune. She says she's lucky if her annual earnings break the five-figure mark. "We live within our means,"McCarthy explains. "We live in a walkable area, we eat at home, and we don't travel much. Also, we're not recreational shoppers." In fact, other than groceries, McCarthy's most consistent shopping expenses are for yarn, which is put to good use in both her work and personal life. Because she typically completes a pair of socks a week, McCarthy has a stash of creations at the ready to give as gifts. And when getting dressed in the morning, she and her husband are never without a clean pair of socks.
Melissa Stanton is the author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-tested strategies for staying smart, sane, and connected while caring for your kids. Her work has appeared in LIFE, People, The New York Times, and other publications.