Brooke Emrich is what you would call an extreme knitter.
The educational seminars coordinator with the UW Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology spends a not insignificant amount time with needles in hand.
In 2008, going through a period of creative stagnation, the self-described “knitting addict” picked up her first pair of needles, participating in a beginner knitting class at the U District’s Weaving Works.
She was hooked.
She knits on the bus commuting to and from work. At Mariners games. While watching TV. In bed. During webinars. At restaurants. Waiting in line. Listening to podcasts…really, any chance she gets.
Knitting, which is the process of using two or more needles to create a fabric made of a series of interconnected loops, has boomed during periods of social isolation, demonstrated by the huge uptick in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also historically been a means of and venue for community building.
And building a community is exactly what Brooke is doing.
In the loop
Quickly mastering the various basic stitches back in 2008—and discovering the many mental health benefits of her new passion, akin to a yoga or meditation practice—Brooke began connecting with fellow knitters at UW, soon forming an organic group of enthusiasts who knit and lunched together every Thursday.
“Whenever I saw somebody knitting at a meeting or event or even in the cafeteria, I would introduce myself and invite them to join us for lunch,” she said.
With the help of some marketing through The Whole U’s social groups listing, interest in the group skyrocketed, and the UW Knitting & Crochet Club was born. Group meetups alternated between lower and upper campus until the pandemic forced the group onto Zoom, where they remain.
“I am so grateful that we can still connect with each other regularly,” Brooke said, “but I sure do miss seeing and touching everyone’s projects.”
Brooke is hopeful that the group will soon resume their monthly outings to lunch or happy hour—Shultzy’s is a popular spot for its good food and good lighting, which is essential when knitting—and looks forward to the 2023 Mariners “Stitch and Pitch” knitting night, among other events.
Interested in meeting to knit or crochet with other Huskies? Join the UW Knitting & Crochet Club! All members of the UW community are welcome.
Brooke has a Ravelry shop, an Instagram page and a website where she shares her projects, including those of her own design, which are invariably multicolored: Brooke rocks what you might call a punk rainbow aesthetic in both her craft and her personal stylistic choices (she knitted the rainbow sweater in the photo above herself, naturally).
Knitting is cool again
Knitting has fallen in and out of favor over the course of the 20th century, more recently metamorphosing into an avenue for both creative expression and social activism on issues such as climate change, fast fashion and women’s rights.
In fact, knitting groups have long been hotbeds of activism and progressive causes. Identity-forward groups like Black Girl Knit Club and Knit the Rainbow—a favorite of Brooke’s for their support of homeless LGBTQ+ youth—empower crafters in affirming spaces while championing diversity and equity.
Indeed, by subverting the lingering perception of knitting as tedious and mundane “women’s work,” extreme knitters like Brooke are changing the narrative and using the sustainable craft as a tool for community building.
For those looking for a local yarn shop, Brooke recommends Spincycle Yarns, a woman-owned dye mill out of Bellingham: “Their yarn is BEAUTIFUL. I’m obsessed,” she said.
And interest in knitting only seems to be growing. Enthusiasm for the shared digital knitting space, popularized during the pandemic, has led to countless online knitting communities—and many apps—where yarn swaps and charity knitting drives are routine.
UW knitters are no exception: under Brooke’s leadership, the group has volunteered their time and skill for Knit-A-Square, a nonprofit that makes blankets for children orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa; Knit for Life, a charity that teaches knitting to cancer patients; and Holiday Stockings For Homeless Children, an organization that provides warm hats for homeless kids and teens.
No, this is not your granny’s rocking chair pastime any longer.
Not just pushing paper
Brooke does engage in other activities besides knitting—like her job. In her role with the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology (DLMP), she is an expert in continuing medical education programs, managing various ongoing lecture series including two grand rounds and two research conferences.
She is on track to become a UW lifer, having worked for the University for nearly 18 years—all of it in health sciences. For more than a decade Brooke coordinated the residency program in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a role she found fulfilling.
“I loved being able to support doctors-in-training whose work benefitted women and children,” she said.
In 2020 the Departments of Lab Medicine and Pathology, previously separate, merged into one super department with more than 1,700 staff, faculty and trainees working at multiple sites across Puget Sound.
Brooke took advantage of a newly created role following the merger to take on more responsibility and lead a team while still supporting continuing medical education.
“It’s not just pushing paper around,” she said. “I believe in the mission of UW Medicine—innovative research, patient care and outstanding educational programs—and I love being a part of making it happen.”
Of course, DLMP was front and center in the media during much of the pandemic, leading the nation’s response and managing numerous COVID-19 testing sites testing thousands of people. Since March 2020, in fact, the department has run more than five million COVID tests.
The virology team had been keeping an eye on the coronavirus since late 2019, when the first case in the nation happened in Seattle. DLMP’s lab was one of only two in Washington state at the start of the pandemic with approved COVID-19 tests.
“It was CRAZY,” Brooke said of her department in the early days of the pandemic. “We were short-staffed, and it was all hands on deck.” She recalls trying to order filing labels for the thousands of tests they were processing: “We essentially cleared out Office Depot’s entire stock of labels.”
Although things have settled considerably, the recent Monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. has lab techs busy again: DLMP was among the first reference labs in the country to offer a laboratory-developed PCR test for the detection of the virus.
Brooke genuinely values her work furthering the public health mission of the department and doesn’t see herself working anywhere but UW: “I appreciate that I get to see the impact of the work I do,” she said. “Our department is doing so much cool research, and it’s so satisfying working with medical trainees.”
“I couldn’t do 40 hours a week at a for-profit company,” she continued. “It would be soul-sucking and I would hate it.”
A stormtrooper, Spider-Man and Harley Quinn walk into a bar…
…which means it must be comic con season.
Since graduating from UW with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2004, Brooke has found ways to channel her creative energy and love of geek culture. There’s the knitting, naturally, but she also enjoys photography—particularly black and white portraits of people—and all things comic con.
As a matter of fact, Brooke—and her husband Will, a longtime server and bartender at Seattle’s venerable Lowell’s in Pike Place Market—have been to every Emerald City Comic Con since 2009.
They’re superfans. They go to every day of the four-day event, and dress as their favorite characters (known as cosplay).
“It is SO FUN,” she said.
Comic cons, for the uninitiated, are venues offering inclusive space for comic book fans and multi-genre popular culture enthusiasts to celebrate their fandom.
Short for comic convention, these events are held in cities all over the world, drawing tens of thousands. Often celebrities and industry leaders attend comic cons and sign autographs or pose for photos.
Brooke and Will have met some interesting folks at comic cons: Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and Brendan Fraser, to name a few.
And Brooke had some notable cosplay costumes, or ‘fancy dress’, too: there was the Princess Leia outfit, for which she knitted her own bun-hat and poncho cape, and the Scarf Ace—a little-known villain from The Tick comics—outfit, for which she knit her own scarf and gloves and wore knitting needles in her hair.
Another passion of Brooke’s is the UW Combined Fund Drive (UWCFD), our workplace philanthropic giving program for faculty, staff and retirees.
Brooke has been a volunteer coordinator for the UWCFD since 2014, lending her time and enthusiasm to silent auctions, raffles, bake sales, coin drives and, one year, a virtual comedy show.
In a department as sizable and spread out as Lab Medicine & Pathology, getting the word out to employees about giving opportunities is no easy task.
She is up to the challenge, though: her efforts over the years have helped raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 for various nonprofit organizations.
And these efforts have not gone unnoticed: Brooke has been nominated for statewide volunteer awards three times, winning twice for her spirit of service and innovative events.
“Brooke is an inspiration to other UWCFD coordinators,” wrote one nominator. And another: “Brooke’s bright cheerfulness, enthusiasm and “can-do” attitude were invaluable.”
Like the knitting club, volunteering for the UWCFD affords Brooke the opportunity to meet and connect with UW employees outside her immediate work group, particularly now that remote and hybrid work environments are the new normal.
“I have found so many points of connection with people through knitting and the UWCFD,” she said. “I’ve made many good friends.”
If our collective pandemic experience has demonstrated anything, it’s that we need our various communities to maintain our wellbeing; at our workplaces, robust communities can help prevent burnout and assure good work-life balance.
In other words, our health and happiness are inextricably linked with the strength of our communities.
As Brooke writes at the top of her personal website: “Knit on, my friends.”