Inside a small shop in Santa Monica, visitors study the goods with the reverence of a baseball aficionado seeing his first Mickey Mantle rookie season card.
The shop is called Compatto: a Yarn Salon, and the shoppers are seeking skeins of natural-fiber yarn not carried by the big craft chains -- hand-dyed silks, alpaca and even bamboo -- or to spend some time knitting and chatting with other devotees.
One is Ellen Bloom, who by day is a secretary at HBO and by night is a fiber-arts-centric blogger.
"Instead of the bar where everyone knows your name, there are places like this now," said Bloom, a knitter from the age of 7. Bloom, who gives her age as "40-ish," left with a bagful of treasures because, as she said on her blog, "we ALL NEED MORE YARN."
Compatto, which opened two months ago, is the latest in a string of small businesses hoping to capitalize on one of the hottest hobbies around: knitting. An estimated 53 million U.S. women know how to knit or crochet, up from 36 million 10 years ago, according to the Craft Yarn Council, an industry group. Knitting is attracting not just traditional crafters but also the hip and tattooed as well as an increasing number of men.
Many of these businesses are part store and part gathering place, mixing hard-to-find yarns and supplies with a comfy area to work on projects. And more often than not, they feature a groaner of a pun in their names, such as Hissy Knits in Glendale and Happy Hookers in Chatsworth.
Compatto is Italian for "compact" or "close-knit." That is particularly important for co-owner Nancy Hannah, 55, who was looking to create a sense of community with her business.
Hannah was weary from eight years of counseling homeless women, domestic-violence perpetrators and victims, and the mentally ill. Three years ago, she moved from Connecticut back to her hometown of Los Angeles and began selling yarn over the Internet.
Now, in running a yarn salon, Hannah wants to provide a respite from stressful lives. Knitting, she says, allows busy people to quickly complete creative projects. Equally important, knitting brings together like-minded people in a safe and welcoming atmosphere.
"Knitting is such a wonderful way to express creativity," Hannah said. "You take string and you turn it into something beautiful."
Hannah and other yarn-store owners are using knitting as a way to interlace creativity, community and therapy, said Mary Colucci, executive director of the New York-based Craft Yarn Council of America. Adding to knitting's attraction are new styles of yarns with heftier textures that require thicker needles, leading to more output from less work, she said.
"You can sit down with your knitting to an episode of 'Desperate Housewives,' and by the time the credits are rolling, you actually have something substantial to show for your time," Colucci said.
But it runs deeper than that. Particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Colucci said, women have embraced knitting as a peaceful way to interact with one another.
"It's a very easy and nonthreatening way to make a connection with a group," Colucci said.
To help set up Compatto, Hannah took on a partner, Lora Anthony, 53, whose job was visual presentation.
Anthony divided the store into sections she calls "vignettes." Easy chairs and a cushy couch line the west wall off the entrance. On the east wall is the yarn, organized by gauge or thickness and color. A case of books, magazines and fully self-contained "knit kits" separate the sections. The kits contain yarn, needles and instructions for simple beginner's projects such as baby hats, baby blankets and pet sweaters and were a staple of Hannah's online store.
Before she committed to a retail store, Hannah used her online business to get a sense of the marketplace.
"I used it as a focus group, to see what the temperature was," Hannah said.
She sold kits, expensive yarns and knitting bags. She also sold her goods at industry conventions. At times, Hannah said, it was crazy how fast items sold, particularly the yarns.
One thing she quickly noticed was that everyone seemed to buy more yarn than they actually used, hoarding some for projects they hoped to do in the future.
"They all had stashes of pretty and fabulous yarns, things they were sure they were going to use to make something at some point," Hannah said.
Working part time, Hannah said she grossed about $30,000 a year from the online store.
Hannah also scoped out other yarn stores throughout Southern California. She settled on what she hoped would be a profitable niche: yarns from a few dollars a skein to upscale varieties for as much as $130 that were not represented or were in short supply at the stores she studied.
"You have to have a niche. Ours is natural fibers: alpaca, cotton, silk, cashmeres, corn, wools," Hannah said.
Some of the store's unusual offerings include Blue Sky Alpacas' Brushed Suri, which feels like mohair but is softer, and looks like angora but doesn't shed as much. Blue Sky yarns sell for $9 to $18 a skein. Another line is Tilli Tomas yarn, which includes Purple Reign, a hand-dyed silk woven with indigo-colored Swarovski crystals. Tomas yarns start at $16 a skein and go for as much as $130 for the varieties with the crystals.
Compatto also carries finished items, such as a hand-painted bamboo yarn sweater that includes 1,000 yards of yarn and retails for $360.
One immediate goal is building a community of knitters. For that, Hannah and her employees have started knitting and crocheting classes. One of those classes, "Stitchin' & Sippin' at Noon for the Troops," is part of a charitable effort to knit or crochet helmet liners and boot socks for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I was just walking Wilshire Boulevard one day and saw all these yarns spilling out at me," said Annette Abernathy, 53, a vice president of Pacific Western Bank. "I was thrilled. Everyone greeted me when I walked in. Even their dog was friendly."
"I think it is going to be the nicest yarn shop in Los Angeles," said Joan Greiff, 60, an avid knitter who makes sure she visits yarn shops wherever she and her husband travel, including cities such as Vienna; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague, Czech Republic. "So far, they have a very lovely way of doing things."