Gaston & Catawba

Close Knit is both a shop and community motto

A hundred years ago, I taught myself to knit from a book. Being gung-ho but naïve, I knitted a sweater – a big, blue wool sweater.

When I got to the last sleeve, I ran out of yarn. It's impossible to match yarn two years after you start, so I knitted the sleeve crimson red. A big blue sweater with one crimson-red sleeve. It looked terrible, even though I pretended it was my new bohemian style.

I wore it to clean house. End of knitting.

Until a couple of years ago, when I met Sheri Balke. I have no idea how she knew I could knit, albeit badly, but she did.

She was just learning herself and forged ahead with exciting, beautiful things like gorgeous shawls and baby booties and complicated knitted embellishments on felted handbags. She pulled together beautiful yarn colors and textures and learned complicated stitches and how to repair mistakes. Not that she really made any. Everything turned out beautifully.

My stuff – a big black sweater I call The Oompa Loompa Woolly Worm and a couple of handbags – fits in a category I'll label “almost OK.”

Last week, Sheri jumped ahead of me again by opening a yarn shop in an old bungalow. It's called Close Knit, and it's at 208 S. Oakland St., right behind Carolina Lighting at Oakland and Franklin Boulevard.

“My mom tried to get me to knit for years, and I always thought I was too busy,” Sheri said. “And then one year, she said that all she wanted for her birthday was to teach me to knit. I haven't put my needles down since. My husband says it's the most expensive gift we ever gave her.”

Close Knit is packed with yarn with long histories from faraway places. A silk yarn from Nepal is made by women who scour the floors of sari factories for tufts of thread. Eco yarns made of alpaca wool in Peru are spun into rich browns and creams and grays.

Sheri carries local products, too. An organic cotton baby yarn is spun at Parkdale Mills in Gastonia and sold through West Virginia's Appalachian Baby Design. Champagne Maker, a Charlotte designer, stocks patterns at Close Knit. Sheri's mom supplies handmade, beaded stitch markers.

When stocking the store, Sheri was careful to provide a range of prices and types of yarn and supplies so that even budget-conscious knitters and crocheters could find beautiful supplies for their projects.

“I think knitting is a way for me to slow down,” Sheri said. “You can't be doing 59 other things when you knit. It forces you to stop and concentrate on what you're doing in the moment. It's like a form of mental yoga to me.”

Hours for the shop are generally Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. On Tuesdays, Close Knit is open until 8 p.m., when the shop will host an informal knitting group, Chicks with Sticks, which is open to everyone. On Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon, Close Knit will hold free help clinics for the frustrated.

Sheri plans to start knitting and crocheting classes in September, after customers let her know what they'd like best. And she'll offer trunk shows with pattern makers, jewelry designers and accessories makers once a month.

“I feel like for the first time in my life, I'm doing what I was meant to do,” Sheri said.

The name Close Knit, Sheri said, symbolizes a lot, starting with the community feeling she's looking for from the Oakland neighborhood where she's located. Neighborhood people have already stopped in to say they're thrilled to see something good happening in Oakland, she said.

Sheri further translates Close Knit to the wider community. The shop, for instance, collects Box Tops for Education for the nearby Piedmont Community Charter School.

Close Knit also collects old towels for St. Mark's Episcopal Church, which turns them into bibs for nursing homes. The shop collects hotel soaps and shampoos for First United Methodist's mission trips to Nicaragua. And the shop collects yarn for Altrusa, whose members create prayer shawls for the ill.

“I think it fits with the name; it makes us feel like a close-knit community,” Sheri said. “It's so simple to do little things that make such a difference in people's lives – why would I not do it?”