Miriam Tegels
Heistraat 47
NL 6071CG Swalmen


Stitches in Time

Knitting Whizzes
Go for Speed Records

Contests Rev Up a Hobby
Many Find Relaxing;
Ms. Tegels Races Clock

February 28, 2005; Page A1

ZWOLLE, Netherlands -- A 40-year-old part-time yoga instructor from the tiny Dutch village of Swalmen, Miriam Tegels went after the world knitting speed record a week ago with nickel-plated needles and an idiosyncratic left-handed technique.

The reigning record holder, Hazel Tindall, was at home in the Shetland Islands, a remote part of Scotland that produces power-knitters the way Texas produces high-school football players.

Long the province of grandmothers and first-time moms, knitting is supposed to be relaxing. But speed competitions are drawing contestants from living rooms and sewing bees across the world. At the second annual world championships held in London last October, more than 100 women came from as far away as Japan, hoping to win a trophy and a free weekend in London.

Records are falling fast. In the first international contest, which was held in New York in 2002, the fastest knitter could manage only 180 stitches in three minutes. Ms. Tindall easily outknitted that early record with a stunning 255 stitches in the London competition. When news of competitive speed-knitting reached Ms. Tegels in the Netherlands, she tested herself at home in her living room and, she claims, did 283 stitches in three minutes.

Part of her secret: listening to Motown and R&B music, especially Jackie Wilson's "Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher." The steady beat helps her knitting rhythm, she says.

But there was nothing official about Ms. Tegels's record, and the speed-knitting community was skeptical. Ms. Tindall's native Shetland Islands are home to thousands of sheep and are famous for wool sweaters. A school administrator in a fishing town of 250 people, Ms. Tindall reckons that half a dozen of her fellow islanders could have beaten the second-place finisher at the world championships. Girls there learn to knit before they can read and pursue it with passion all their lives. Some knit for several hours each day. Could a woman from outside the Shetlands network really be that much faster?

Ms. Tegels got her chance to prove it in public at a Dutch handicraft fair here on Feb. 19 and 20, though it wasn't a sanctioned event. The Craft Yarn Council of America and the British Hand Knitting Confederation have strict rules for competitive speed-knitting. Knitters, for instance, must do the same stitch, use needles 4 millimeters in circumference, and use the same medium-weight yarn. To be awarded the championship, they have to compete head to head. Something as simple as the lighting, which can affect how sweaty a knitter's hand gets, can influence the outcome.

But to show off a record speed at a public event would make other knitters sit up and take notice. And it would surely earn Ms. Tegels a slot at the next world championships, likely to be held in New York in 2006. So, perched on a folding chair beneath a digital sports clock set up for speed-knitting heats, she offered to compete with anybody willing to take her on.

Interest in the competition comes as celebrity knitters like Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz are helping make the craft trendier. According to Craft Yarn Council figures, the popularity of knitting and crocheting among American women ages 25 to 34 has surged 150% since 2002. In total, 36% of American women, or 53 million, know how to knit or crochet, a 51% increase in the past 10 years.

Most aren't in Ms. Tegels's league. On the first day of competition, she was knitting fast. In three minutes, she completed a 230-stitch swath of needlework, about a foot long and 2 inches wide, compared with around 150 stitches from her top challengers.

Her nickel-plated needles make it easier to slide the yarn down the needle. Her left-handed method, wherein she feeds yarn onto the needle with the tip of her left index finger rather than wrap it around with her right hand, impressed fellow competitors. "She has a special technique that really seems to help," said Herma Betten, a self-described "passionate" knitter who made 136 stitches over the three minutes.

But Ms. Tegels was making mistakes. The jitters -- a common problem for competitive knitters -- were making her hands shake, leading to dropped stitches, and producing sweaty palms, which can lead to moist fingers, making it hard to push yard down the needle. "Her heart is going tick, tick, tick," said her watchful mother, Mien van Buggenum, who taught her to knit at the age of 6 in order to keep her occupied after school.

Ms. Tegels tried to combat her nerves with liberal amounts of talcum powder and by holding cool bottles of water to chill her hands. But here there was no R&B music playing, and the spectators were getting under her skin. "I can feel their eyes on me," she said after a disappointing timing. After the first day of competition, the best Ms. Tegels had been able to do was 248 stitches -- and that was no record.

Ms. Tindall was waiting back in Scotland for word of the competition. Like Ms. Tegels, she has her own technique, steadying the butt end of her right needle in a leather belt. But that's just the way she had learned to knit at the age of 4; it didn't have much to do with speed.

Indeed, Ms. Tindall never pursued the record as aggressively as Ms. Tegels. She didn't know what her needles were made of. She didn't train, as Ms. Tegels did, by timing herself at home. She hasn't knitted in two months -- busy as she is with "poor man's bridge," a Shetland Islands version of the card game, which she plays with girlfriends a couple of nights a week. She e-mailed Ms. Tegels the day before the competition with words of encouragement and some tips about talcum powder.

The second day of the fair, Ms. Tegels's hands were stiff from the morning air, and her right arm and shoulder were stiffening, too. "I don't think today's my day," she said after early fits and starts. But she suddenly found her groove. Her speed climbed to 252 stitches on her third attempt. Then, she tied the record at 255. "I don't care that I didn't break the record," she said. "I'm happy with that result."

But Ms. Tegels, who used to annoy her high-school teachers by knitting in class, isn't one to put the needles down for long. She wanted another try. With nobody around at that point to challenge her, Ms Tegels asked that the timing clock be set again.

The day before, she had often muttered under her breath when things went poorly. This time she was impassive. With 15 seconds left, she finished the fourth row of 60 stitches -- "turning the corner" as she called it. "I could see my mom looking at the clock just then so I knew it was getting close," she said later. "But I knew if I had just a few seconds left, I could make it."

After the timekeeper shouted "time," Ms. Tegels feverishly counted the stitches in Dutch and shouted the record result, 257, in English, throwing her arms and outstretched needles in the air. One curious bystander had long since wandered off and only the timekeeper witnessed this unofficial world record.

A few hours later, back in the Shetlands, Ms. Tindall received an e-mail from Ms. Tegels's husband breaking the news. "Anything that helps promote knitting is good," she said later. "I think it's a very good bit of rivalry."