When Janet Szabo moved to the Flathead Valley 15 years ago, she wasn’t planning a career as a professional knitter. A biology major with work experience as a tech support specialist at a software developer in Baltimore, she interviewed for a similar job in Kalispell.
The offered pay was half her former income and would barely cover the resulting daycare costs for her 1-year-old daughter. “My husband and I decided it wasn’t worth it for me to take the job,” Szabo said, “but my husband asked me, ‘You’re always knitting. Is there a way for you to make money off of that?’”
But, before Szabo could take up the challenge, her plans were derailed again. Nine months after moving to Montana, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was forced to relocate, returning to her hometown of Cleveland for six months of chemotherapy. The leukemia went into remission, and hasn’t returned.
“I tell people that having cancer isn’t like having the flu,” she said. “You don’t just wake up one day feeling better. You need something to do to help you get up in the morning, to keep your mind off of the fear of getting sick again.”
For Szabo, knitting did the trick.
She had an idea for a knitting book on finishing – the final stage of knitting projects where the individual pieces are attached to create the whole – and began pursuing publishers. It took a couple of years and “lots of pink slips” before Szabo decided to publish the book herself.
“I hocked the title to my car, got a $1,300 loan, printed 500 copies and started sending them out to knitting magazines and yarn stores,” she said.
That was in 1996. Since then, “The ‘I Hate to Finish Sweaters’ Guide to Finishing Sweaters” has sold more than 10,000 copies. The book did so well that Janet published her second book, the “Handbook of Aran Sweater Design,” just 18 months later – this time without even bothering to look for a publisher. She’s also started a quarterly newsletter focused on Aran and cable knitting design and published a third book – the first of a three-book series on cables. The second edition will be done this fall.
In between publishing, Szabo completed the Master Knitting program with The Knitting Guild of America, a tiered achievement program for advanced knitters, and started teaching at national knitting events and conferences and developing her own designs. Her knitting career has landed her on national television as a guest on Knitty Gritty, a DIY Network show, and taken her to cities around the country. Next year, she’ll teach on a knitting cruise to Alaska.
But, this year, there’s a new teaching stop on Szabo’s schedule – Kalispell. Szabo has two classes scheduled at Camas Creek Yarn this month, teaching brioche knitting and a fitting class. Also in April, the new downtown yarn store will be giving free yarn to anyone willing to make a hat for cancer patients. Szabo will provide a hat design – one she wore when she’d lost her hair during chemo.
“We’re pretty lucky to have someone of her talent in this area who’s so willing to come in and help people with their projects,” Melanie Cross, owner of Camas Creek Yarn, said.
Even after all her success, Szabo describes herself as more determined than talented. “I don’t even have a very good sense of color; I just wouldn’t give up on this idea,” she said. “I consider myself successful because I’ve been able to make a career out of something I really enjoy.”
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