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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The comedian and actress Tracey Ullman has won an armful of awards because she is a genius at slipping into one crazy character after another, like this character from her HBO series, Tracey Takes On.

(Soundbite of HBO Series "Tracey Takes On")

Ms. Tracey Ullman (Actress): (As Character) Okay, gang. We are not doing a fluff piece here, Danyelle(ph). This whole issue is devoted to Yugoslavian politics, history, cinema, art and fashion. You are an essential part of disclosing the horrors of Yugoslavia to the fashion community.

DANYELLE: Well, (unintelligible)

Ms. ULLMAN: Yes?

DANYELLE: Please, tell me the story you're doing - I keep forgetting my motivation.

Ms. ULLMAN: Okay. Yugoslavia is like a rent-controlled apartment. Okay? The Serbs and the Croats used to live together and then Tito was their landlord. But the couple split and the Muslims sublet. And then Tito died and the lease was up in the air. And now the Serbians want their apartment back. The Muslims don't want to move out. And the Croats are living in Jersey, but they want to maintain a (unintelligible) in the city.

INSKEEP: So that's one side of Tracey Ullman. But here's another. She is a serious knitter. In fact, she knits so much that Ullman got together with a friend, a yarn-shop owner, Mel Clark, to write a book. The yarn store is in Santa Monica, California, not too far from where Renee Montagne lives, so she stopped by.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Wild Fiber, the shop, turns out to be airy and bright. Of course, it's just blocks from the beach and there's a big, round table which invites knitting and conversation.

Tracey Ullman and Mel Clark have met me there. For their book, Mel Clark provided the designs - more cool than craft, like the saucy mohair apron and the knit shorts called witches britches. Tracey Ullman provided the contagious zeal of a recent knitting convert.

Ms. ULLMAN: These are the knitting needles (unintelligible). All right. Get some yarn. Now, let's start knitting. So we've got...

MONTAGNE: A proper English girl Tracey Ullman is. She learned the basics of knitting at an early age from her mother. Knit, pearl, knit, pearl, knit, pearl: Endless scarves ensued. It wasn't until decades later that she picked up the needles again. She was filming a raunchy John Water's movie called A Dirty Shame and a storefront there in Baltimore caught her eye.

Ms. ULLMAN: It was the window of this yarn store; it was, like, edible. The colors and the textures of all this wool, and it was bamboo baskets and needles and it was just so different than when I was a child - all this horrible acrylic post-war wool. And I went in and there was a sign that said knitting lessons. And I couldn't believe it. I thought ha! They're going to show me how to do this?

MONTAGNE: That one moment led to an obsession. Back home here in Los Angeles, Tracey Ullman made a friend in her local yarn shop. That would be Mel Clark. There, Ullman could get a regular fix among the delicious array of yarns piled in bins and lining the walls. One such tempting ball of yarn led to fingers wrapped in Band-Aids.

Ms. ULLMAN: I knitted with some very tough wool. Actually, it was that - this yarn. Feel this. This is quite gritty yarn.

MONTAGNE: Oh, it is.

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. I was obsessed. And I was making a bag, which I have to be there actually, and I couldn't stop knitting with it. And in the morning I did, I literally had blisters on my fingers.

MONTAGNE: That's right - blisters from knitting too much. It was just such a compulsion that inspired a 16th century inventor in Britain. The story goes that William Lee was trying to win the hand of the girl who was so obsessed with knitting she had no time for romance.

So Lee invented the world's first knitting machine. On the other side, says Mel Clark, there's what's called the sweater curse.

Ms. CLARK: It's a superstition that if a young woman knits something for a man before they marry that they'll break up.

MONTAGNE: Which, Mel Clark insists, is completely bogus. Still, it is mostly ladies knitting. The Knitting Guild Association says 99 percent of its members are women. And of late, it's more and more young women.

Ms. CLARK: My daughter works in here during the summer, when she's home from college. And she and I will work all day with knitting, helping people with their projects. And then we'll race home and she kicks off her shoes and say okay, let's knit.

Ms. ULLMAN: And you said oh, when she comes home she'll say: oh, Mom, let's watch something like Sense and Sensibility, make tea; let's hope it rains and we'll knit together.

Ms. CLARK: That's sounds so girly, doesn't it?

Ms. ULLMAN: And that's how me and Mabel - that's what me and Mabel, my daughter, do together. We just love it. It's like it's a woman's birthright to knit. It's primal. It's timeless.

MONTAGNE: But I guess, we are...

Ms. ULLMAN: You don't need electricity. You could do it with a candle, girls.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I do wonder, though, about, you know, the sort of contemplative part of knitting. Because on here it's for you, Tracey Ullman, I would think in the world that you're in, you wouldn't almost succeed if you were extremely calm. So does this tap a whole...

Ms. ULLMAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...different part of you?

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. I mean I use a lot of energy in what I do. And it's definitely a very common thing for me. I'm not a great flyer, so when I fly I like to knit. And I can knit through the bumps, if turbulence happens.

MONTAGNE: Can you take the needles on board these days?

Ms. ULLMAN: Yes. You can take needles on board. And I write about that in the book. My nightmare is that I'll have done this wonderful piece and then they'll say to me, you've got to take it off the needles, ma'am. I'll go, no, please, don't make me do this. You've got to pull it off the needles. You can't take those on board. And it was just, what a horrible folk. Can you imagine: Please, not my needles, please?

MONTAGNE: That's comedian and knitter Tracey Ullman, and knit designer, Mel Clark. They have written a book, Knit 2 Together: Patterns and Stories For Serious Knitting Fun.

(Soundbite of song "Knitting Bee")

THE CUBBY CREATURES (Musical Group): (Singing) Welcome to the knitting bee...

INSKEEP: Find step-by-step instructions for making that flirty apron at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

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