The handmade sweater knitted by Grandma conjures up images of a scratchy, bulky thing that was uncomfortable to wear. Just thinking about it can make your skin itch.

The handmade sweater knitted by Grandma conjures up images of a scratchy, bulky thing that was uncomfortable to wear. Just thinking about it can make your skin itch.

 After losing popularity in the 1980s, knitting has made a comeback.

More than 38 million men and women are knitters. And since knitting clothing is no longer a necessity, the new knitters want more choices in the fibers they use.

Knitters are looking for wools made from natural fibers that are soft to the touch and drape nicely when made into sweaters, scarves, wraps and just about anything else, said Leslie Carroll, a University of Missouri Extension faculty member.

 “The yarn market had changed radically in the last five years,” she said. “Shoppers are more discerning about their yarn. They want to work with high-quality fibers.”

 The resurgence in knitting and other fiber arts – felting, crochet, weaving and spinning – has invigorated the natural-fiber industry in Missouri as consumers demand handmade yarns that have been expertly spun and carefully dyed.

 The annual Fiber Retreat, sponsored by MU Extension and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, March 12-14, in Jefferson City, is one of the few events in the state catering to the educational needs of Missouri’s burgeoning fiber industry.

 Hobbyists are welcome, but the focus is on adding value to what’s produced on the farm, said Helen Swartz, state extension specialist at Lincoln.

 “If I can take my product and sell it to you for your hobby, and the product I’m selling is from animals that I raised, then I’m taking steps up the ladder.”

 The retreat’s affordable price and reputation for nationally and internationally known instructors and speakers have made the event popular among people who sell fleece, prepare fiber and sell the spun, dyed finished products.

 “Many of the men and women here have raised the goats, sheep, rabbits, llamas and alpacas for the wool,” Carroll said. “Fiber Retreat takes it from the farm to the end product in the marketplace.”

 “Selling off of the farm will give the producer sales, but with fibers processed and ready for markets such as yarn shops and fiber shows, the possibilities grow for our Missouri products.”

 Darlene Megli, a sheep and wool producer from Lamar, was one of those growers who saw the economic potential in processing fibers. “We were already raising sheep,” she said. “Hand-spinning was a way to market the wool more effectively.”

 In business for 16 years, Megli and her business partner, Judy Crouch of Aurora, were the first to see the need for more education among fiber artists.

 Ten years ago, the owners of A Twist in Time approached Swartz with the idea holding workshops, which their fiber guild, Fiber Folks of Southwest Missouri, endorsed.

 “I said, ‘Well, maybe we could get 30 people to come,’” Swartz recalls.

 Little did she realize the Fiber Retreat would become so popular that registration would max out that first year and every year thereafter. Many of the same people return each year, but others are drawn to the event because the focus is on a subject of their primary interest. This year’s focus was spinning and dyeing yarns. Topics from past years include knitting and weaving.

 Fiber guilds representing weavers, knitters, spinners and other fiber artists have been instrumental in the development of the program, Carroll said. “The Fiber Retreat has created a group of people who spin finer fibers and have better products for the market.”

 And bigger profits for the producers. In the quest for new and interesting materials, fiber enthusiasts are willing to spend money. High-quality yarns can fetch anywhere from $12 to $50 per skein, depending on the fibers, Carroll said.

 “Customers ask questions today. They don’t just look at the product and say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty. I’ll take it,’” she said. “They question the type of wool, where it came from and how it was processed.”

 So while Grandma’s sweaters might be a thing of the past, the fiber industry is thriving and the art of handcrafted clothing evolving to the level of fine fashion.

 For more information, visit your local Extension Center or extension.missouri.edu.