'Prince of Knitting' spins a good yarn

KYOTO — Being male and knitting for a living has earned Mitsuharu Hirose the reputation of being somewhat “strange.” Parading about on television in women’s knit tops and makeup probably played a part as well. But that doesn’t needle Hirose one little bit.

Even the name-calling is fine. Great names like the “Prince of the Knitting World” and rather less-than-accurate ones like “Tamasaburo,” after the famous kabuki actor who specialized in female roles, they all fit well into the 46-year-old designer’s plans.

“If people develop any interest in knitting because of me,” said Hirose during a recent visit to Kyoto, “I don’t mind the names.”

Whereas elsewhere knitting is rooted in everyday life, in Japan it has the image of being strictly naishoku, the work of housewives. This is perhaps, Hirose noted, because many women widowed by the war scraped by on earnings from knitting work.

With respect for the past, though, Hirose wants to change knitting’s image, to open people’s eyes to the joys of knitting and the possibilities of two needles and yarn.

Hirose’s own interest in knitting started in his teens. As a boy growing up in Saitama Prefecture, he’d always liked making things by hand, so when his female classmates began knitting in high school, he found it natural to do so himself. He made his first sweater at age 17 and wore it on a school excursion. It won him so much praise from friends and teachers, he was encouraged to continue with various other items.

Still, knitting was just a hobby. After graduating from high school, he joined a fish-processing company and began attending knitting school at night. It was only after passing a knitting certification examination that he considered taking up knitting as a career. So after four years with his company, he quit and took another job more in line with his dream.

“My parents first opposed my decision to quit the company, but I persuaded them by saying that, as I was only 22, I could always try again if I failed,” he said.

The new company published magazines for knitting and other handmade products, and Hirose was made a reporter, covering knitting classes across the country. Then, in 1993, NHK hired him as an instructor for a television knitting course, and Hirose swiftly became a well-known figure.

Now he runs his own company, Nittokobo Hirose, which sponsors knitting classes and lectures across Japan. In his free time, he works on his own knitting designs, averaging more than 100 a year, including formal knitted dresses.

Hirose’s knitting courses are very popular, with most packed out with enthusiastic followers. But, he stresses, “Being a man [in the knitting world] alone does not command respect. I have to show that I can knit fast and well to be admired.”

Although most participants are middle-aged or elderly women, Hirose says he has seen interest in knitting grow among young people in recent years.

“I think people have begun to rediscover the warmth of handmade products,” he explained. “The [increasing] popularity is also in line with growing environmental awareness, as knitting sits well with the idea of recycling knitted items can always be returned to yarn.”

He notes that knitting is also a good means of relaxation in an increasingly stressful society, and laments the fact it is no longer taught in school.

“It is important to let children try knitting. Some may like it and some may not. But at least they should be given an opportunity to learn, regardless of sex,” Hirose said. “It would be great if my existence as a male knitting-designer encourages many parents to give their children a chance to knit.”

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