Secret Lives: Fine Arts publicist knits one, scales one

This is the second in a series of "secret lives" stories, showcasing the breadth of interests and hobbies that York staff pursue in their free time.

Amy Stewart goes nowhere without her knitting. Tucked in a little drawstring sack in her purse is her latest sock-in-progress, threaded onto double-pointed needles, which she pulls out whenever there’s a free moment – on the bus, in the doctor’s office, over lunch, in a pub, on a couch listening to the radio, in front of a crackling fire the evening after a challenging day scaling a mountain cliff. 

Right: Amy Stewart knits and models her favourite creation – knee socks dyed with Kool-Aid

“I never go anywhere without my knitting,” she says. “When I plan a vacation, I plan what I’m going to take to knit before I plan what to pack.”  

The granddaughter of a veteran sock knitter took up the craft seriously only after starting at York in January 2008 and suddenly facing a two-hour daily commute. Gramma had taught child Amy to knit but she’d forgotten how by the time she picked up a how-to-knit book and decided to make scarves for her college friends one Christmas about 10 years ago. Needless to say, knitted gifts failed to materialize on time but eventually she was presenting friends with hats, mittens and baby sweaters for new arrivals. “I didn’t like to follow patterns so I’d just make things up,” says the 29-year-old. "The little sweaters were very cute but sometimes they didn’t fit very well."

No longer. In 18 months, she’s graduated from simple one-piece constructions to complex multi-piece garments like the red coat with intricate cables, bobbles and knitted appliqués she’s working on for next fall.    

Knitting – like rock climbing – has changed her perception of time and being in the world. “I love the fact that I never, ever wait,” says the Faculty of Fine Arts publicist about knitting. “If I’m standing at a bus stop, I’m not waiting, I’m knitting. If I’m sitting in a doctor’s office, I’m not waiting, I’m knitting. I can feel pretty productive and have my feet up at the same time.”  

Stewart knits very fast, partly because she taught herself the continental method, using her left instead of her right hand to loop the yarn around the needle. In six months, she’s knit two miles of yarn, based on calculations she made using the knitometer on, the knitters’ version of Facebook. “I race myself a little,” she admits. “I try to see how many rows I can get done in a day. I’m counting all the time.”  

Left: Amy Stewart scales the Spires at El Potrero Chico in northern Mexico in 2007

“Socks are my favourite thing to knit.” Hers are soft and seamless and fit like a second skin. A pair takes at least two to three weeks to knit and has as many stitches as a sweater. Stewart has a pair for each day of the week and wears them all winter. She still swoons over a lacey pair of knee socks she dyed turquoise – which has displaced red as her colour of choice – using Kool-Aid. So keen was she to wear them, she knit five hours a day in a marathon that almost crippled her right hand and forced her to put down her needles for two weeks.  

Her boyfriend James has five pairs of homemade socks and is always asking for more. One winter day after work, while they were downing a pint at the pub, she handed him the first of a pair of socks she was knitting. He was especially excited about this pair because he had dyed the yarn himself. He took off one boot and sock, pulled on the new one and modelled it for the people at the next table. “It was the sweetest reaction to a knitted gift I’ve ever seen.”  

“James is my number one recipient of knitted gifts,” says his girlfriend, though she still makes mittens and baby jackets and hats and scarves for family and friends, and stuffed toy kittens to swap with strangers on She likes knitting for herself most of all and has found a way to discourage friends from wheedling for a pair of socks: she gives them a price – $60 (still a bargain if you factor in the cost of labour at minimum wage!). These days, “I’m on a yarn diet,” declares Stewart, which simply means she’s trying to resist buying new yarn and to use up her current stockpile, squirrelled away in four vintage suitcases and on bookshelves, before the spare bedroom becomes the yarn room.  

James is more than the beneficiary of her knitting largesse; he is also her rock climbing partner. Five years ago, Stewart was looking for something physical to do and joined a climbing gym. “It was a lot cheaper than yoga.” By the time she met James, she’d progressed to climbing outdoors. Now she’s a certified indoor climbing instructor through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and she and James volunteer to lead climbing trips for the Alpine Club of Canada.  

Right: Amy Stewart top-ropes Bottle Glass Cliff at Rattlesnake Point in Ontario

Skilled and experienced, Stewart can scale sheer cliffs. She has climbed in mountain ranges such as Snowdonia in North Wales, the Sierra Madres in Mexico and the Canadian Rockies. Her current goal is to lead a route called Bottle Glass Cliff at Rattlesnake Point on the Niagara Escarpment. To lead it, she will secure the rope with her own equipment as she moves upward. She’s top-roped it twice, pulling herself up with a rope already anchored above her.

This summer, she and James are planning a two-week climbing holiday to Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, Val-David and Montagne d’Argent in Quebec, and Rumney in New Hampshire. But the highlight of 2009 will be scaling mountains in France – or maybe Iceland – in October to celebrate Stewart’s 30th birthday. 

As addicted to climbing as to knitting, Stewart loves being outside in nature with friends. “When you’re climbing, you forget everything else in the world. You’re just concentrating on how to do something and how to stay safe. It’s nice to be in the moment.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer