"It keeps me sane, " Barbara Riering, the co-owner of Rita's Needlepoint, said, referring to the craft that has now become her job. She told me that her grandmother taught her how to do needlepoint when she was nine years old and that she has stuck with it ever since. Originally a lawyer, she came to Rita's Needlepoint first as a customer before leaving law in 1989 and then as Rita's partner in 2005. She says that she often tells lawyer friends who are still deep in their stressful careers, "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, " a time when they can do what she did and leave their high stress career and follow a passion. Many of the women in the shop are retired and work with Barbara part time. As for Rita, who quietly sat painting a belt in the back room, she got her start working in tapestry in France. She came to New York in 1968 and opened her store in 1976. Barbara believes that Rita's Needlepoint might be one of the oldest needlepoint shops in the country. Exploring the space, I discovered both needlepoint tools and patterns. Along with spools of every color thread imaginable, I saw hand-painted designs for a variety of items, including belts, eyeglass covers, and handbags. There were Christmas items on display, which I learned are out all year round, because people often only work on one big holiday project each year. Barbara told me that some of the most popular items are the little ornaments. She explained that while they try to do as many custom projects as they are able, demand often overwhelms them. After all, the needlepoint community is a reasonably large one and Rita's is a destination for this tight-knit world. Barbara said that people come to the store from as far away as Japan and Morocco, sometimes straight from the airport. There are also customers who are native New Yorkers and "who have grown up with Rita, " she said. She referenced a woman who occasionally helps out in the store, Jennifer. She has been with Rita since 1974 and used the store as a creative outlet when she was working in the world of finance. "People come here and decide to spend part of the day with us, so we make sure they are happy they did so, " Barbara shared, adding, "It's stress reduction to all! "
When I walked into Knitting 321, I learned that the owner, Valeria Kardos, had recently returned from a trip to Italy where she had taken a landscape painting class just outside the Pope’s Palace. The store was filled with her beautiful artwork. Valeria, who has a Masters in Art History, has been painting all her life, and I learned that her artistic abilities span a whole string (no pun intended) of media and styles. Valeria emigrated from Budapest with her mother in order to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology on a scholarship. Although her grandmother had taught her how to knit and crochet as a child, she only decided to take it up again while at school. She was surrounded by high fashion and wanted to buy much of the beautiful clothing that she saw, but had no money. Her mother encouraged her, saying, “You know how to make it, so just make it! ” Valeria started knitting and sewing her own clothes. She specifically remembers knitting a rose colored skirt and having her mother praise it, but say, “You absolutely cannot wear it on the street. The holes are too big. ” She went in search of a lining to match, but had trouble finding the right shade. “I’ve always been very particular about color, ” she admitted. The only thing she found that worked was a piece of bridal silk. She bought the expensive fabric, made the garment, and wore it to her first interview after graduating. She credits that outfit with getting her the job. When Valeria left the fashion industry, her husband, a pediatrician, asked how she would fill her time. He encouraged her to open Knitting 321 in 2000. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have this store, ” she commented. Because they lived nearby, her husband would pick her up at the shop at the end of the day and take her out to dinner every night. Though her husband has since passed away, Valeria looks on those times fondly, and feels that the happy memories are now wrapped up in her shop. As we were speaking, one of Valeria’s frequent customers, Linda, walked in. Linda told me that she had only just started knitting again after a decade-long hiatus - and she considered Valeria the perfect coach to guide her back into the art. “Everything she does fits perfectly, " the slight, small-statured woman said, adding, “If I followed traditional shirt patterns, I’d get a nightgown. ” Valeria credits her ability to create custom-made patterns with her experience in the fashion world. “I absorbed a lot about how things fit, ” she explained. Linda continued to gush about the store, saying, “She buys only really good yarn. ” Looking around and observing Valeria, I realized quite quickly that she provides everything that one could ask for in a small knitting shop: instruction, guidance, yarn, and excellent conversation. As Linda declared, “This store is a definite gem. ”
At most hours of the day, Knitty City is bustling with activity. Customers are constantly browsing through the soft woolen rainbows of yarn lining the walls, flipping through books, or simply chatting with each other while working on projects, needles in hand. "I'm really proud of the community we've built here, " Pearl Chin, the owner, told me. She said that some people come into Knitty City just to use it as a bookstore. She originally opened Knitty City in 2006 as a "yarn studio, " but it has become so much more. People come by to take classes, to attend book signings, and sometimes just to hang out. Pearl learned to knit when she was in her 30s and pregnant with her daughter. She taught herself from Barbara Walker's book, Learn-To-Knit Afghan. Pearl told me with a smile that she originally bought the book as a hardback for $6. She still carries the book, which she says is one of the best sources to learn from, but now it's a $20 paperback. Pearl knit for personal pleasure long before opening her store. She ran a wholesale business called A Thousand Cranes for many years that dealt in origami paper and kimono textiles. Her family once owned a grocery store, Bob's Supermarket, which evolved into a neighborhood hub. She yearned to have that sense of community again, and so she opened Knitty City, a place she hoped would attract a wide array of neighborhood faces. Her dream has become a reality. One personal touch to the story that warmed my heart is that the little girl that Pearl gave birth to shortly after learning how to knit, Julie, is now in her thirties and an active member of the knitting community. Julie is responsible for coming up with the name, "Knitty City. "