Sunday, May 30, 2010

HOW many miles???

[Above: Eric and Tedd of Green Mountain Spinnery -- Putney, VT; a delightful antique shop near Pittsfield, Massachusetts ; and an interior shot of one of the Mass. Sheep and Wool Festival Buildings].

.....How many indeed! 1,328.2 miles, to be exact. And now I'm home, listening to a replay of the National Memorial Day Concert. Those of us who deeply regret war, killing, invasions, and other kinds of violence are often suspected of treachery, but....patriotism surely can be found in dissent. Tonight, I'm remembering my brother Randy, who was a hospitalman in Vietnam, and who returned home a ruined man in a spiritual sense, broken, unfixable, unable to love himself ever again. And I am feeling desperately sad: all of those men and women in the Middle East....

.....but let's have some fiber talk. The Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival was a new experience for me. It typically coincides with other festivals, and so I have opted for larger or better-known events. This time, because two friends said I ought to go sometime, I went. It was indeed a small event, and there are pictures, which I'll deploy the minute I figure out how to do it. [LATER NOTE: See pictures at top of post!!!].

But it's a high-quality festival. I loved having a chance to talk with Eric Robinson (a woman!) at the Green Mountain Spinnery booth and her new colleague, Tedd, who's in charge of spinning and some other important matters. For those of you who don't know Green Mountain: It's a very important, small spinnery -- there aren't many genuine spinneries in the United States -- in Putney, Vermont. Charming, small, easy to miss if you're driving too quickly. It's now a worker-owned cooperative. Years ago, Green Mountain was instrumental in reviving the wool and spinning industry in New England, and they're still at it. As Eric reminded me with a laugh, GMS was advocating 'small farm' growing long before there was a "small farm movement," as there is now. And she has a new book out, which I"ll carry at Artisan Kniworks as soon as I can get it. AND I got to feel some of the most beautiful alpaca yarns I've seen in years. I was reminded, too, of how gorgeous their Tencel-wool blend is, and how complex the colors are. We will find a way to expand our stock of GM Yarns in the next six months or so, beside our present supply of the wonderful Mountain Mohair. Our clients deserve the opportunity to participate in GMS's important work. Because they make some of the highest quality undyed yarn in the country, I'm also going to give thought to some dyeing classes using their "white" (meaning natural) alpaca and wool yarns.

Along the way, I poked my nose into a number of small-town antique shops. This is where we often find the best vintage buttons: Often the freeway antique malls are picked over and wildly expensive. It's in the small shops in out-of-the-way places that we come up with real treasures -- as with a small place in North Carolina, where we found a button collector's entire holdings, and as with the small place near Pittsfield called Allendale's, where I didn't find anything at all, but passed a really delightful twenty minutes and made a friend, who promises to look out for buttons for me and to call me up.....and he will. There's also a great place called Interstate Antiques, in New York enroute to Albany, where I found really amazing vintage jewelry and a handful of very special Bakelite buttons. One set is a dead-ringer for buttons that I vividly recall on what my mother's mother called a "housedress." I haven't heard that word used in over 20 years.

Cummington's fairgrounds, the site of the Massachusetts show, is in a splendidly wooded, bucolic settng, near town but not a part of it. The show occupied several big farm buildings; tents surrounded the buildings for vendors unable or unwilling to pay hefty table costs (this is how new producers get a start). It was cool, sunny, and breezy........Never mind that I almost lost the car. I have to get a bright orange one next time. I sometimes wander through the animal buildings to pet llamas and alpacas (though llamas are much less nice than their smaller counsins), and when I did, I found Linda, a gifted dyer (mohair, wool, alpaca) who also had made some darling coasters from 200-year-old slates recovered from a demolished building in New England. Of course I bought her out. Hang the cost -- it's not unlike the way a man from Grosse Pointe drove a truck at his own expense to the site of the implosion of Mackenzie Hall (at my university in Detroit), carted off hundreds of bricks, and again at his own expense had them transformed into brass-plaqued paper weights, sold for the benefit of a scholarship fund. It's on my desk in the history department. Students sometimes look at it and get that look on their faces ("What's she doing with a brick???"). If they come back twice, I tell them.

Well, then I piled all of the yarn and coasters and buttons, and so on, into the VW and beat it back through New York, which had got bigger in the meantime. It took me an entire week, I SWEAR, to get to Erie, Pennsylvania. I had also forgotten completely about Memorial Day, Niagara Falls, and holiday travel. So there I was, nearing Buffalo (and the Falls), ready to find a room for the night, only to discover that there was no room in ANY inn, most especially not my faves (Hampton), anywhere near Buffalo or even Erie. Much frantic calling ensued between Larry and I (could I make it all the way home? Could I make it to Cleveland?). While he looked on Expedia, I called a Hampton in Cleveland, where a sweet young woman asked me gently if I'd tried the 800 number printed in plain sight on the back of my directory. DUH. I soon had a reservation between Erie and Cleveland (Ashkanauba), which was much further than I had wanted to drive by about three hours, but which got me closer to the Wooster festival.

Wooster is always a major treat. For openers, it has a fabulous FABULOUS Hungarian espresso shop and bakery downtown (Turalo's) just off of Liberty Street, for which I made a beeline. If you are ever fifty miles away from Wooster take a side trip. What a place. I talked with some locals today (that was only 12 hours ago, for heaven's sake!), and learned that people drive 25-30 miles twice a week just to buy their pastries and open faced sandwiches, not to mention the brilliantly brewed coffee. I did the Saturday NY Times crossword puzzle and headed down Liberty which also has a really fine knit shop) toward the fairgrounds.

I found SO many good friends there (I have been driving to Wooster for at least five years now) -- not least of which is our friend, Maureen, who has taken one of our dyeing classes and sold us some socks (still in the shop) on an antique knitting machine. She sold me some outrageously beautiful handspun hanks at a loss (in the sense that, if she sells them to me for even five bucks under retail, which is what she finally did, she can't sell them at full price at the next festival -- this is the dilemma of the small producer -- how can you sell at even a slight wholesale discount when you might sell out at full price? And since I aim to SUPPORT small producers, I can't disagree with them -- often my 'discount' is nominal, and we have to make it up with other goods).

I also discovered Lee Ann, who selects alpaca fleeces, sends the fiber off to an American mill, and handpaints the resulting soft, soft, soft yarn. I bought more of it than I will confess (it filled my large Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival tote bag), and tried not to notice that she was almost crying: "Nobody has been particularly interested in the handpaints," she said, grateful for the biggish sale at a festival where many people were looking, I'm afraid, for inexpensive stuff, not really good stuff made with great care by a master artisan. I wonder if I will ever see, in my lifetime, a general decision to pay people (especially women) for their skills and hard labor?

By 2:30, the Bug's trunk was full. It perhaps saves the checking account to have a Bug. So I programmed Matilda (my GPS) for "home" and took off. Matilda took me over the Ohio countryside for almost 75 miles before connecting me again to the Ohio Turnkpike -- for which I was grateful. I shared roads with Mennonites (horses, carriages, black and white costume), tractors, a small flock of sheep crossing at the confluence of two gravel roads. It was what I needed at that moment -- to become a small-town kid again, living for maybe an hour in Worthington, Minnesota, all over again, a stone's throw away from working farms -- the small of barns, the sounds of cows just before milking, the feel of corn stalks against the body in August when you run through, the odd little sounds that happen only in corn fields. For now, though, the fields are barely colored with 6-inch corn shoots, like very tall grass not yet mowed.

More soon when I can learn how to insert photographs [I learned....see above and below!].

Friday, May 28, 2010

....If It's Friday, It Must Be New York.....

....and here I am, ensconced in a civilized Hampton Inn in downtown Albany, New York -- the launching point for my assault on the Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival tomorrow morning. My secret plan is to high-tail it away from Cummington, Massachusetts, by mid-afternoon (it's a medium sized festival) and make a bee-line for Wooster, OH, so that I can walk through the Great Lakes Fiber Event before it ends on Sunday. Somebody should remind me gently that, when you're in your mid-60s, you shouldn't drive for ten hours at a time, and certainly not twelve. To which I'd probably say, But I love to drive....and that's true. But I am tired, and I'm sure this wouldn't have happened so predictably even fifteen years ago. The body betrays us -- after all of those years of careful tending!!

Driving across western New York, and many parts of Pennsylvania, can be a Zen-like experience. Those who haven't been there might be surprised to learn that the New York portion of the drive especially is both very long and very beautiful. I find myself mesmerized by the accumulating evidence of age -- the further east, the more obviously old the countryside becomes, less raw, more visibly used and rounded at the edges. The fields, where there are fields and where they have been tilled, look more like their European counterpart, the ruts from many more centuries of cultivation actually showing in slanted sunshine, even more dramatically from the air. And, in New York, very old (by American standards) barns, shed, and four-square brick houses with widow's walks populate hillsides -- the equivalent of manorial houses in England or Ireland. Or Holland. It's probably my imagination, but here in New Amsterdam (sometimes called New York, especially by non-historians!), the countryside in valleys looks remarkably like Dutch landscape. In Holland, trees seem to crouch down, with small gaggles of livestock underneath; fens and small ponds are everywhere -- and the same here. Some part of it could indeed be an ancient Dutch imprint on the land, particularly along the Mohawk, where I actually got out this time and studied surviving locks from the Erie Canal. The camera is somewhere in the car, god knows where, so no pictures this time of that rather important artifact.

....and then I thought of my mother, particularly when I fairly soared over one utterly ravishing foothill and found myself witness to a painting -- I swear -- by the Hudson River School, all of the world laid out in front of me. Mom and I used to drive together, sometimes quietly, more often singing or talking about something of extreme importance (piano lessons, how to put food on the table, how to keep the brothers in decent clothing without any money at all -- which is how we both learned to tailor for men). She was the single most resourceful person I've ever known, and that from someone who has met some of the most resourceful people on earth. Mom (whose real name was Gladyce) was not a high school graduate; she became, through sheer intelligence and grit, secretary to the president of 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. We crocheted together, sometimes by campfire at Spirit Lake, Iowa, where we had a tiny, ramshackle lakeside trailer for many years -- after the menfolk had gone to bed. I cannot describe the sense of quiet with her -- a woman who had no guile, so far as I could tell, and who could make something out of nothing each and every time. When there was no food, we had supper. She and I started some small businesses with handicrafts -- some of which actually made money for awhile. She was brilliant, undereducated, fiercely loyal to her children, appropriately critical of her romantic, impractical husband (what a dear, naive man he was!). I owe her everything I've ever done, and I think of her when I travel, particularly with bales of wool in the car. It would have made her puff with pride to see the contents of Aritsn Knitworks -- though the knitting part would have mystified her. Everyone knew that tailoring and crochet were the really important things.

I will never resolve the puzzle of why so many more crocheters than knitters operate without patterns. I didn't read a crochet pattern until I was in my 30s; it was simply more natural to create doilies, cafe curtains, tablecloths, tea cozies, and so on, without thinking much about it -- you just started and worked your way along. It's because (I think) crochet is more clearly a working-class art than knitting is, at least in the modern age; it is passed from woman to woman, part of the household lore that little girls are supposed to know to be suitable wives. Knitted items are simply more complex, and (bad information to the contrary notwithstanding) more time consuming. When I was studying for Ph.D. comprehensive exams I made (ready for this?) over 200 lace doilies -- a huge stack that I used for years afterward to wrap small gifts. And now, when I need to soothe the fevered brain, I don't knit. I crochet. It's second nature, almost inbred. And I can have wonderful, secret talks with my mother.

I will make report after I visit the Massachusetts festival -- perhaps by Sunday. It remains to be seen whether I will have what it takes to get myself to Wooster, Ohio, in time for the Great Lakes Festival, also tomorrow and Sunday. Forgive all typos. I am using my wee laptop, with its idiotic too-fast action and its keyboard designed for dwarves or small children. Time now to knit. svb

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lake, Steamer, Scarf

Tonight, just as day began to fade into late-day, I decided to take a slow drive along Lake St. Clair. I had been to the mall – a hateful place to be – to buy summer clothing. There, seemingly suspended in mid-sky, was a particularly imposing Great Lakes steamer. A small sailboat was chasing it.

On this lake, on all of the lakes of childhood in Minnesota and Wisconsin, at a particular moment and not later, sky and water flow into one another. Sometimes, as tonight, the watery line is a shimmery mauve, like an ancient scarf of silk moiré. It always sinks within two or three minutes.

Is this a story about lakes? No. It’s a color story. It made me think, all over again, about Laura Bryant’s important visit a week ago at Artisan Knitworks, where she handed over the great gift of her color theory course to a roomful of mesmerized students. They’re still talking about it. Two of them reorganized an entire wall of wool yarns in glass cases according to what Ava McDowell called “Laura’s principles”; three or four others spent this past Tuesday evening talking about why particular colors in their new, Bryant-inspired projects “pop” and others do not. They now see the blues and purples, the ash brown, in asphalt pavements – and if they don’t yet, they soon will.

I’ve seen variations of that shade of mauve at least a thousand times over dozens of bodies of water. But tonight, the fact that it always happens that way when the elements fall into place -- that it can happen in Oban, Scotland, or Brainerd, Minnesota, or Spirit Lake, Iowa, just as surely as in Grosse Pointe, Michigan -- made me want to cry. It’s never the same color story exactly -- the steamer, a flock of upside-down geese, the sun’s angle can change things. Color is a construct. All of this no doubt has something to do with recent, close encounters with Laura. Enough said. And for the record: I didn’t seriously cry. I was, after all, driving my precious bug.

What About Alex?

....since mentioning young Alex, he's been on my mind. He wasn't able to come to his knitting group session last night -- twelve-year-old lads have a lot to do in summer, not least of which might be to practice being a properly flirtatious boy around twelve-year-old girls (he already has a girlfriend, though I confess I like her a lot less than he does).
Alex came to me some months ago to learn how to knit. He was eleven then. When he walked in, I thought, "Oh my god, this is what Barry Klein [owner of Trendsetter] must have been like when he was eleven...." and I think I sat down that very night and told Barry that I had seen a ghost..........Anyway: since then, Alex (whose father is a surgeon, but who is adopted, so it can't be genetic!) has not only learned to knit, but has taken over the place. He now brings his girlfriend in and is teaching her to knit -- who needs me? Dierdre, who is another 12-year-old -- an achingly beautiful young woman with the kind of precise diction and porcelain skin once associated with the two Hepburns -- now relies on Alex and me, which is fittin' and proper. He has made multiple scarves and hats. He has almost finished a teal woolen vest that will have pockets (he made them with scant instruction) and buttons in the shape of fishes.
I wonder what will happen now? Once, when he was about 9 or 10, I taught my brother David to knit -- and he was almost done with a wooly scarf, but then he went to school (it was Worthington, Minnesota, in the 1950s) and told somebody about the scarf -- Suddenly, it was in the trash, and then it was burning, and I was persona non grata for weeks and weeks -- the source of his humiliation. I never did learn what his chums had said to him, but we can mostly iagine, can't we? Will this happen to Alex? He might not care. He brought some friends (mixed sex) into the studio one day, and they were more amused than impatient.
But as I think about Alex, what I see, really, is the shifting of culture, the ways in which a society really does progress, learn, develop. Barry (the wonderful Barry again) told me by e-mail, when we were talking recently about Alex and whether there might be summer camps that Alex could attend (the answer is, No) that he feared Alex might not be welcome in a good many places that teach knitting -- not because people don't like little boys, but because a lot of people just wouldn't know what to do. As if Alex were a member of a different species, or perhaps incapable of learning (poaching on?) female mysteries. He was glad that Alex had come my way, and so am I -- but I wonder about the world right now, whether the Alex's of the world could walk into any yarn shop in America and find friends. Would he be suspected of The Gay (I love Rachel Maddow)? Would he care? I want to take him to Stitches Midwest. What would happen? It's really a test of cultural advancement, isn't it -- of whether our nerves are any steadier than they were in, say, 1958.
And now I need to get back to book revision. svb

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's Going On Here?

May 25, 2010, the blog's opening salvo, with typos:
.....beginning with a photograph of the kind of thing that makes us very, very sad.... Detroit will heal, but in the meantime, here is a sign that should give pause, along Jefferson Avenue, once a crown jewel in the city's crown.

I'm sitting here late at night, which is my preferred way, trying to figure out what's going on, why I'm doing this. Yesterday I signed up for Facebook, for god's sake -- and now this. Maybe I've been shamed into it by all of the really hip people in my life -- including geeky husband Larry Hart and boatloads of students. Larry thinks I'm an idiot because I can't run the cash register. I think it's the cash register's fault. Might be true about Facebook too. I say it's their fault, and I stand by it.

I'm 65. That's part of it. I don't feel old. Tired is not old. But I do feel a need to disencumber (books, belongings, old wool yarn, friends who tell lies). And part of disencumbering just might be getting rid of all of the garbage laid away in the recesses of the brain. Thoughts that didn't deserve to live but survived anyway. Experiences of doubtful value in character building.

More than that, though, is the way life accumulates. Part of being 65 is a daily recognition, not just of mortality -- though there are glimmers of that one -- but of the richness of experience, the way in which we really are better as we move along, that strange but unmistakable ability to deal in more than one dimension as the brain ages. I really love sitting at a lake's edge or on the second-story deck -- a really staggeringly beautiful place to be -- late at night listening to the way everything still moves along, as if I'm not there. The world is unselfconscious, and so we can learn through observation.

This weekend I will get in the rental car (my wonderful 2004 VW bug is getting old, I don't want to die beside the road before I'm 80, and I don't want to buy another car in the middle of the Great Recession) and drive to the Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival. I go to most of the festivals, or at least as many as I can fit into a perfectly horrendous university schedule. They are my vacations. They are my private and deeply personal healing zone. And of course I find new artisans whose wares fill Artisan Knitworks with materials unavailable anywhere else. I am very proud of what I've found. But it's really the process that matters,. So I'll try to talk about it as I move along. No pictures yet. I need to learn how to insert pictures. But words are good enough for now. I leave Thursday. More soon.

In the meantime, I'm trying not to listen to the endless saga of unrefined petroleum spoiling the shorelines not only of North America but to some extent of the world. We are custodians of the earth. Are we really impotent in the face of BP's incompetence and corruption? We might be. The entire world ought to be sending tankers with vacuum-cleaner attachments. We ought to be mobilizing a world army. At stake is the health of the Earth's oceans, not simply the nation's supply of shrimp. But ... there it is. Chris Matthews on MSNBC going on and on, telling the truth, and the mindless senator from Louisiana assuring everyong that BP knows best, that 36 days isn't really as long as we think it is, that it's only a few brown pelicans so far. This kind of moral corruption will do us in as a race -- I fear in our lifetime.