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LONDON (Reuters) - A knitted wall hanging featuring scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and piles of yellow and tangerine merino and alpaca wool were among items attracting interest at the Knitting and Stitching Show in London this week.
Britain has seen a resurgence in the popularity of knitting in recent years, helped by a BBC sewing "reality show", and the London exhibition, the world's biggest gathering of knitting and sewing enthusiasts, appears keen to instill the image that knitting is now trendy not frumpy.
Groups of teenagers, along with young mothers and middle-aged women, but only the odd man, turned out on Wednesday, the opening day of the show which has drawn hundreds of retailers.
Britain was home to 7.2 million knitters in 2013, according to the UK Hand Knitting Association, and its appeal as a hobby has been endorsed by celebrity knitting enthusiasts such as American actress Sarah Jessica Parker and "Mad Men" star Christina Hendricks.
Sewing is also enjoying a revival, highlighted by the popularity of reality show "The Great British Sewing Bee". Launched in 2013, the programme gets amateur sewers to take on challenges such as how to make a bow tie, or a silk blouse using a 1930s pattern and sewing machine, as they vie to be named "Britain's best home sewer."
“There's definitely a resurgence of interest in all sorts of crafting at the moment,” Jonathon Burton, one of the directors of the Knitting and Stitching Show, said.
For some in Britain, the trend taps into a rising entrepreneurial spirit that has driven a revival in cottage industries and into the appeal of escapism from the stresses of city living to a more relaxed rural lifestyle.
Rachel Hebditch runs UK Alpaca Ltd, which sells alpaca yarns from a farm she manages in Devon, western England, which has 200 alpacas.
Their yarn has become a hot item in recent years, she said.
"It’s a very beautiful fleece and they’re an interesting animal to farm. They’re different, calm, easy-going.
"The husbandry is really quite easy – they stay out all year."
Consumers like the "Britishness" of her wool, she said, the fact that it is home-grown.
Organisers said they expect 35,000 visitors at the five-day Knitting and Stitching Show. Attendance over five events put on by the organisers in the past year has grown by 15 percent overall, Burton said.
An exhibitor selling cat insurance at the show does little to dispel the stereotype of elderly ladies cranking out patchwork blankets in the company of their feline friends.
But the mood across the exhibition hall is mostly contemporary, from displays of the latest sewing machines to how to download knitting patterns onto a PDF file on a computer.
Textiles on display include knitting as art.
“This is something a little bit different,” said Jean Bennett, 50, an art therapist from Derbyshire, England, pointing to a brooding sculpture she created from black thread, which looks like a figure hanging from a cross.
“We can bring something that might be a little bit more thought-provoking,” she said.
For those who would not be caught dead with a stuffed wild animal or an animal skin in their house, Louise Walker, 23, who is based in London, sells "faux taxidermy kits", allowing people to knit a moose head or a tiger rug.
“One of the biggest compliments I've ever had is people saying we’ve not seen this before,” she said.
“I think my stuff is more contemporary as I’m a younger person doing it. So I make stuff that I like and it gets a good response from all ages.”
The rising popularity of knitting and stitching is spawning other new businesses, including Sew Over It, a sewing cafe in London, and TOFT, a luxury knitting company in Warwickshire, in central England.
Sew Over It, set up by a graduate of the London College of Fashion, now has two outlets in the affluent London districts of Clapham and Islington, providing space for seasoned sewers to enjoy their hobby along with a cup of coffee, and also offers classes in dressmaking and needlecraft.
TOFT is currently running a hashtag campaign to promote its knitted animal patterns, available as PDF files.
“We’ve had no negative reactions to PDF patterns today, and that’s changed, even from last year,” said Kerry Lord, 29, TOFT’s creative director. Last year she received complaints about the patterns having to be downloaded from people who were not savvy about technology, she said.
She predicted the next big thing in crafts would be crocheting, as it appeals to a younger crowd.
“It seems to be the thing everyone wants to do,” she said. “It’s portable, you can commute with it, which I think is a big thing. It seems to have caught a new generation.”
Editing by Michael Roddy and Susan Fenton