Culture / In English / Portraits

Aimée Gille, knitting people together in Paris

Knitting is everywhere. On the internet, on the street and in cafés. More and more, people meet and knit. Almost ten years ago, a young American opened the first knitting café in Paris, L’OisiveThé, inspiring many others to do the same.

Aimée arrives on her bike, and we settle in the brewery across L’OisiveThé, her knitting café situated in the Butte-aux-Cailles neighbourhood in Paris (in the 13th arrondissement). As we start talking, she explains what led her to open her café, and later her yarn shop, La Bien Aimée. Passionate about knitting, she remembers having to go back and forth from the United States to buy and fill her suitcase with “all these beautiful hand-dyed yarns that [she] wanted to knit with but couldn’t find in Europe or in France”. When she arrived in the capital almost 15 years ago, Aimée had instantly tried to find a place to knit. That is when the community was born. “I didn’t have any friends. I went on Meetup and started a group for people who would like to knit. We started knitting together and that is how I met some of the best friends I have today”. Starbucks “was the only café that we could find that we felt comfortable knitting in” regularly. It is when the idea of opening a knitting café emerged in her mind.

aimée

Aimée Gille and her “knit gang” (©La Bien Aimée/Facebook)

Creating a new home for knitters from all around the world

Having a place for people to come, meet and knit is what all knitters look for. And it was what Aimée intended to set up with L’OisiveThé. More than a place for people to relax around yarn and a cup of tea, the homesick-American saw this as a haven: “I wanted to make sure that expats who came, no matter where they came from, could come in and speak English and feel welcome”. L’OisiveThé was a new adventure for Aimée, at the opposite of her previous life (in marketing): “One of the major catalysts for opening the café was a sudden personal loss and the need to make a life change and do what I really wanted to in life. I wanted to be happy in the work that I was doing, and knitting made me happy”.

Yet, her project was a risky bet. A knitting café was a very new and unknown concept. At the time in Paris, knitting was quite out of fashion and full of “movie-like clichés”, says Aimée. An activity for older women, living alone and knitting in front of the TV with their cat and a cup of tea besides them. “But I feel like that’s breaking down. When people tell me that, I pretend to be offended and they get embarrassed”, she likes to joke. Knitting also is very often considered as an exclusively feminine activity. Although, Aimée explains that she “[has] a lot of clients who are men and come to shop for yarn”. There were no knitting cafés in the city, and very few quality yarn shops. She knew that it would be difficult to open just a wool boutique and be successful. “I knew I would that I would have to mix things up and have a café. This way I could reach a broader audience”. People instantly took interest in her project. “They were intrigued. So when I opened my door, everybody came to see what I was doing, they were very curious. It was nice.” With time, it evolved and she has been able to open her boutique dedicated to yarn, La Bien Aimée.

The importance of social media

Since 2008, France has known a revival of knitting, much to Aimée’s joy. With l’OisiveThé, Aimée spun threads that lead to many other knitting cafés in Paris. Knitting workshops and classes now flourish all around the French capital in the most unexpected places, from devoted little shops to pop up events at the BHV Marais. Knitters, curious hand crafters and websites list places and weekly rendez vous for this ever-growing community. Just as Aimée formed her “knit gang”, Meetup groups are often created for knitters to meet. From all around the world, skilled needle workers are coming to share their techniques and specialties all year long as guests, writers or musicians. Every February, the salon “L’Aiguille en fête” in Porte de Versailles is the occasion for knitters to meet and display an incredible variety of techniques and yarn creations. Aimée and her hand-dyed high quality yarns usually have their own corner there: “it’s a way for me to reunite with people from the café”, she says.

Many more people, of all ages, knit and display on the Internet their creations for everybody to see and reproduce. “Social media have been a big component of this, knitters are very savvy on them, Instagram’s very popular for knitters to show what we’re doing, use hashtags and to tag our projects”. Through the Instagram’s accounts of l’OisiveThé and La Bien Aimée, she herself shares photos with her followers. Similarly, in the past few years, many hashtags flourished on the Internet, such as #KnittersOfInstagram, for people to find every post related to it. This high visibility wove the international community on the web, notably on Ravelry, the Facebook of knitters.

A place for people from various “walks of life”

Proximity is also part of the creation of the knitters community. Knitting cafés – as well as reading cafés to another extent – have the same purpose: bringing people together. Even if they don’t know each other, they can talk and make friends. Small and friendly like a dining room, l’OisiveThé exploits this characteristic. Entering the café feels like coming back home. “I wanted to have a place that was quiet and relaxing. It makes a nice place for people to come have lunch in the middle of the day”.  People are thus “purposely” sat next together even if they don’t know their neighbour. “Knitting always interests other people who don’t knit. That’s part of the conversation people have with each other”. L’OisiveThé is transformed as a home for knitters.

knit night l'oisivethé (photo facebook) 2

Knit night at L’OisiveThé. (©L’OisiveThé/Facebook)

Aimée distinguishes three different clienteles, from people who just come from tea and brunch and others only for yarn and knitting. Lastly, she has “the really great clients who come for tea and brunch, see that [they] do yarns and get curious and become knitters as well”.  Her clients love to consider knitting as a new social media in real life. Meeting and bonding with people, knitters or not. A pleasant idea for her, who delved into it by creating knitting nights every wednesday for the past nine years – “and it has been full everytime!”. Just as any other reunions or cafés dedicated to a specific activity, building a community and creating a family around it is her main objective. From curious people to experienced knitters, her community has expanded through the years. “These are people who are from different walks of life who come and we’re all together. We would never be friends in real life, because how would I meet these people other than with knitting? And It’s really wonderful.”

Julie Beaurain

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