Veteran brings life to dying art of knitting

Mike Moore, Gillette News Record photo Willy Rosier, center, walks attendees through the beginning steps of knitting during a Learn to Knit class at the Campbell County Public Library. Rosier, a veteran, has been knitting for most of his life.

GILLETTE — Willy Rosier never kept it a secret, but that didn’t make it any more believable.

It would be a strange thing to lie about, but still, he just doesn’t fit the image most people see in their minds. They think of brittle-handed retirees in rocking chairs, not burly, bearded war veterans.

Even his wife, Sara, tried calling him out on it when they first met. That hand-stitched beanie he wore, and the others he showed her like it — he just did not seem like the type to have crafted each of those winter hats himself.

Luckily, he has plenty of evidence to back his claims.

Now Sara does too. Like the pile of knitted one-off socks he made for her, each one unique and without a matching sock to complete the pair. The Rosiers have been together for eight years and have children with baby pictures dressed in knitted hats and baby booties, all courtesy of Willy’s hands.

“A lot of people don’t believe me,” he said. “I’m 300 pounds, 6-foot with a beard. They don’t believe I knit.”

But nevertheless, Willy is sharing his passion for the yarn and stitch with the community and establishing himself as perhaps the most unassuming knitting instructor in Gillette.

Willy began teaching free knitting classes at the Campbell County Public Library in October. After a second class held in November, the next gathering is slated for January and expected to continue monthly from there on.

So far, the makeup of the class has been quite different from Willy’s own.

“A lot of them wanted to learn how to knit. Plain and simple,” he said. “I had all age groups in my class. Surprisingly there were no other guys.”

Through his first two classes, he said the turnout has been strong. Mothers and daughters, groups of friends and others curious to learn what it takes to fashion their own hats and scarves have filled the George Amos Reading Room in the library, necessitating a larger library room for future classes.

Those who came had their own reasons for learning a new skill. Some remembered their grandmothers knitting and wanted to learn for themselves. Others wanted to handcraft holiday gifts for a parent or significant other. Their reasons varied but the desire was shared by all.

“It was so beautiful seeing how many people want to learn to knit,” he said.

Rosier’s knack for creating with thread and yarn began as a child. But it wasn’t until he left the military that his interest in knitting really took hold.

When he was young, his grandmother, Elise Rosier, taught him and his like-aged cousins how to crochet. Willy would sit beside his cousins, both boys and girls, while grandma taught them how to work a crochet hook.

He still has a granny square blanket made all those years ago with his grandma and cousins.

But knitting and crochet are different.

Crocheting involves a hook and creates tighter textiles with less give. A lot of afghan blankets are crocheted. With knitting, there is more flexibility in the material, which gives the person holding the two knitting needles more freedom to create. Knitted materials have a give that make it more ideal for clothing, like cardigan sweaters or winter hats.

Right after high school, Willy entered the U.S. Marine Corps, where he ended up serving for four years, including two tours in Iraq.

“I had slight issues, I wouldn’t say it was PTSD but it could be and I ended up starting knitting,” he said. “It kept my mind occupied and it really helped me. Like they say, ‘idle hands are the devil’s playground.’ It really helped me through tough times.”

He compares knitting to fly fishing. Tying flies and knitting both have a similar soothing effect. They give a sense of calm. A fisherman himself, Willy would tie flies all winter and fish all summer. Those two hobbies gave his mind the comfort it needed during those early post-military years.

After his service, Willy returned to Gillette, where he was born and raised. Back in his hometown, he returned to a familiar hobby to occupy his body and mind.

With a baseline of crochet skills, he sought out information on how to parlay that talent into learning to knit. It’s fitting that he now teaches at the library, since that is where he went to find books that educated him on knitting.

Any number of hats, scarves, socks, gloves and more can be made with the basic knit stitch and the purl stitch, which he teaches in his class. He said his mother-in-law, Gail Lasham, has been his rock through the first couple of classes.

When he is in the class and unable to be in multiple places at once, she drops by groups of knitters and helps as needed. There was a left-handed person in one of the classes, which requires completely opposite knitting instructions. But luckily Lasham served as an extension of his instruction and was able to help her.

Through two classes, Willy has been the only man in his knitting classes. He knows that men are rare in the world of knitting, but he has never seen it as a strictly feminine hobby. In a sense, for anybody to knit these days is a rarity.

“It’s a dying art,” Willy said. “Not a lot of people knit or crochet anymore. It’s like playing the banjo or steel guitar, it’s one of those things that’s a dying art.”

That is why he encourages anyone of any age or any gender to come to his next class. Men, women, children, veterans — whomever.

Learning to knit goes well beyond the stereotypes of grandmotherly figures. Losing himself in the hypnotic dance between needles and thread helped Willy through his own challenging times, but it could help plenty of other people in plenty of other ways too.

How exactly could it help you?

You’ll have to visit his next class to find out.