Good Work, Stories

Knit Well. Do Good. – Dorothy Brown

Some people make their living doing unusual jobs. Others do ordinary work with particular skill and dedication. Still others offer their talents as true amateurs, because they love what they do.

They all do good work. And we’d like to showcase their efforts here. Check back weekly for the newest essay in the Good Work series.

Ellen Graves opened her knitting shop on Solano Avenue in Albany, California in 2007 as a second career. She grew up knitting in a small town about 90 miles outside of Dallas, Texas. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t knit: when she was a little girl, through school, as a graduate student in molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, working on the Human Genome Project at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and even when she was studying the genetics of alcohol and drug abuse at UCSF. Knitting was challenging, creative, and relaxing for her. She calls it a scientific art.

When Ellen realized that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in front of a computer, she began to reflect on the elements that would make up the perfect occupation for her. And then she engineered it. K2Tog promotes the art and craft of knitting with an inventory of gorgeous yarns. Ellen calls her brand of business “service retail.” She hires staff who know how to knit or crochet or both, and then trains them to be experts at answering questions and helping customers. She offers classes and simple “knit togethers” where people can drop in and enjoy each other’s company as they work on their projects. People tend to linger in her shop, and not just because the yarns are so enticing. It’s a friendly place.

Seven women are gathered around the worktables in the classroom at the back of the shop on the morning I visit. I crochet, so I understand the tactile pleasure of working a string of yarn into something soft and real and growing. But I never really watched the process before. There is something quite beautiful about these women’s hands on the knitting needles. And the moments when Ellen bends down to help a knitter solve a problem are so personal. There is a genuine connection here.

And Ellen extends those values of service and community beyond the four walls of her shop. She organizes projects that her customers are happy to contribute to, and that benefit the local area. They celebrate students at Richmond High School who pass a particular test with bright and silly proFISHency hats. It’s kind of a goofy tradition, but the fish hats are much more memorable than a certificate and the kids seem to get a kick out of them.

There is something very special about making something useful and giving it away. At holiday time she collects hats, scarves, and fingerless gloves and donates them to local homeless shelters. She heard about an older man who came in to a shelter and was invited to choose from the colorful selection. “Really?” he said. “I never get to choose. I always have to just take what is given to me.” Ellen is clearly moved when she tells that story. “It’s a small but powerful thing to give someone a little dignity. We who have abundance can share our abundance with others. That’s my philosophy. That’s what this shop is to me.”

Knitters seem to be generous folks. Many who came in to the shop on the day I was visiting were working on projects that they would end up giving as gifts. There was a lot of laughter as they shared tips and stories. Some of her customers have become Ellen’s friends. “I have laughed and cried with people as they have gone through stuff. They have supported me through challenging times.”

The shop is a fixture on Albany’s main street now, and Ellen knows she has found home. This is what she wants to do: knit well and do good.

You can view more of Dorothy Brown’s work here.

Visit the K2Tog website here.

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