Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tis the Season...

...for fiber festivals! Here is a shot, admittedly amateur, of some of us (Melissa Craig, for one!) at the Michigan Fiber Festival lin the recent past.....and probably we'll do it again this year as a collectivity. The festival is at Allegan, on the western shore........I hope all of you think of Michigan as The Third Coast, a state bounded by water. Once there was a marvelous place called the Third Coast Bookstore in Grosse Pointe. First, they got a ticket (!) from the police department for daring to have a sale book stand on the sidewalk. Then, they went out of business in the face of Big Box Stores. Sigh. But they had a wonderful name, and I still miss their wonderful books. I once thought of starting a book review, in fact, and calling it either the Third Coast Review or the Northernmost Review of Books. Never did it obviously. Anyway: the festival season will feature a number of jaunts, long and short -- from northern Ohio and Indiana (and Allegan and Charlevoix and North Branch and Romeo in Michigan) to places remote from here (Taos, Manchester, Eugene). More soon. I only did this to put everyone on alert.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

O to be a child.....

Tuesday nights at Artisan Knitworks began to be very, very special when a local knitting group decided to meet in our comfortable little 'social' area instead of at at coffee shop. They told us that we should open the group to others, and so we did. Months later, it's the most amazing sight. Not only has Tuesday Night at AK developed into a marvelously congenial group of adults -- if not the most interesting of all of our social knitting periods, then surely among the top two -- but it's also attracted a growing number of children.

And the children have got me thinking about youth, old age, how we learn, what difference it makes that we turn fiber into cloth. Consider Alex. I've mentioned him before. He came to us at age 11, a young fellow trained in music, pretty good at math, not very good at certain other subjects (I won't mention them!), who took to knitting like the proverbial duck to water.....He is now teaching his middle-school teacher to knit (!!!) and helping me teach other kids. He brings his little girl friend; she finished a hat last night, partly with my help (she made an I-cord topper on a hat destined for her grandmother). She is 12. Dierdre, who is also a friend of Alex, is one of the most beautiful children I've ever met, and a patient person with really good fine-motor skills -- working now on a beautiful red fuzzy scarf, and a baby blanket out of non-baby colors for someone she knows.

But then there are the younger children. I didn't have my own children to raise, so much of this is new to me. For instance: The beautiful little girl who is seven is eager to learn, able to master the knit stitch, but having trouble with attention span -- She still makes holes, of course, as all starting people do, but wants to get going on something "real," as she put it, rather than endless practice. To her, everything in the shop is beautiful -- She wants her mother to "make something" out of absolutely everything, in a few hours -- and then she thinks she'd rather see her make whatever it was out of something else, and so on. While helping her mom pick out yarn for a hat (her mom is trying to remember how to knit), Elyse found about 15 yarns that were "perfect" -- and she didn't find it impossible to imagine that every one could be part of her life. So, while she is okay with her hands (though not yet what I would call fully developed), the problem at age seven is attention -- patience, focus. Dierdre has it, Elyse does not. She WILL. But not yet. Her magical, sponge-like brain soaks up everything, wants to soak up more and more, and will be doing that for the next five or six years. Something is lost when we STOP doing that -- when we become perfectly rational, less given to mental flight.

So we need to find ways, don't we, to communicate with the very young, to say that it's okay to make something with holes, to find it beautiful. I shouldn't have warned her about holes. She has taught me not to do it the next time. I tried to have a different kind of conversation with her last night -- "Just promise me that you won't quit if it doesn't turn out to be something just like your mom would make....It's yours, not hers." I think she understood.

But I also thought, as I struggled with all of it, that I need to rediscover a language that I once spoke fluently. In the end, it's not the young people who need help. It's us. When we are 65, or even 55, we forget how we once found happiness. I had almost forgotten. Once, I was a young child learning to crochet at my gifted grandmother's knee. She was not patient. She was not even very pleasant. I almost gave up a dozen times; she fairly bludgeoned me into finishing a doily -- a doily in fine crochet cotton as the first project, for heaven's sake. Afterward, I didn't crochet for a year or two. I see now that I just didn't have either of the necessary ingredients for success at age 6 -- not the fine motor skills, nor the patience/attention span.

But of course in 1950, people didn't think about such things; they were the depression generation. They thought about doing work, making things that would be useful at home, training little girls to be little women as quickly as possible. Childhood, especially in the working class, was a luxury, and it ended at about age 6-7. I should have remembered. But I didn't -- not at once, anyway.

So now I think that those of us who have stopped remembering the many stages in life, the ways in which we learn at different ages, need to step back and recall, remake in our minds the many pathways we actually followed before we got it right. I'm trying. I'd like to hear from all of you who have remembered how to be a child! svb

Monday, June 14, 2010

The boys from Coloratura

...and for those of you who have wondered what they look like: Here are Bjorn and Rex, the owners of Coloratura (Missouri), makers of those amazing, huge variegated skeins (actually a dozen skeins in one!) hanging in the center of the studio. Bjorn (on the left) is German-born and the master dyer in the partnership; Rex is the marketer and Common Sense Fellow. svb

Saturday, June 12, 2010

To and From Columbus....

....and so I have returned from TNNA....a name known only to people who deal in the fiber arts (The National Needlearts Association). This year, the Big Show was just a tad disappointing: I think I've seen most of the garment samples, in one way or another, in previous years, though I could be wrong. Mostly it looked tired. Exceptions: Laura Bryant's new models at the Prism display; the utterly gorgeous yarns at MadelineTosh, so gorgeous that I have trouble calling up accurate memories of what they looked like; the new colors in River Twist (by Mountain Colors of Montana). I bought a boatload of bags, needle cases, and dolls (yes, dolls!) from the lovely woman at Two Sticks. Beyond that, I didn't do much damage. And that's interesting: it only took me three hours to get all the way through the event, unlike last year, when the voyage took twice as long. So I think I'm right: It was less riveting, less FULL of sizzling ideas, and even less well attended. I hope I'm wrong.

On the way home, however, I decided to drive around awhile on side roads and found some amazingly beautiful lanes right off of Highway 23 -- more or less hidden from view, and very like the English countryside in their verdant splendor, complete with curlique roads. Ohio is much more beautiful than people realize. I also managed to find the Yarn Farm, which I looked for the last time I went to the Ohio State Legal History Colloquium -- had the wrong highway! It's on Highway 15, not 23 (I found 15 this time by taking the wrong turn -- those who know me well will realize how usual this is). Sue runs a slightly down-at-the-heels farm store with a quantity of mass-market yarns (not particularly interesting to me) and racks of farm-dyed, farm-raised mohair and woolen yarns (very, very interesting). Some are hand-spun. All are 'toothy' yarns -- that is, still permeated with some lanolin and 'prickle' -- traits that I really love in plied yarn. But, nowadays, people have it in their heads that animal fiber has to be soft as butter always, which means (usually) single ply and so softly spun that they will pill simply by running fingers over them more than once. This isn't the way wool should be. There is no reason, in other words, why you can't have softness and a resistant surface. I may be the only fiber fanatic left in all of Michigan who truly distrusts all of this artificially 'soft' wool. Yes, I mean Malabrigo.

Anyway: Sue raises her own Angora goats (the source of mohair), which is spun with good wool at a Michigan spinnery. Here, the nap isn't brushed, so the yarn is shinier than usual. The last time I was at the Yarn Farm, I walked off with a big ball of cobalt wool with black hand-painted streaks. It sat for over a year (toothy, remember!), but finally sold to a woman who understands that wool and mohair soften and bloom when washed. particularly when they're still lanolin-bearing ('grease wool,' as they say in the trade.) This time, I absconded with two huge balls of blue wool-mohair hand-dyed yarn, one a full two pounds, the other only a pound. So one will make a small sweater, the other a coat. They're both semi-solid blue, one light, one darker. And I'll bet they will sit in the studio for two years, one year for each ball. I don't care. They're authentic American handicrafts and very high quality. And Sue has a lot of integrity.

The corn in central Ohio fields is about 15 inches tall, so it WILL be the proverbial knee-high by the fourth of July, perhaps taller. People who grow up in cities don't understand how very special corn fields are to the rest of us. In small-town Minnesota, they were obvious symbols of a direct relationship between workers and the soil, even when you weren't farmers; everything and everyone depended on the well-being of all of those corn and soybean fields. All of us were custodians and sometimes tenants of the fields. They were places of retreat (I used to walk through cornfields when I wanted to escape the world) and places of raucous play, like labyrinths where you could get well and truly lost, and then magically be found. Animals lived there -- sometimes, does with fawns, but more often pheasants and quail and crows. It was a sign of real mastery to be able to creep up on the birds and study them, unseen behind veils of corn.

When I was a very small person, perhaps 12, 13, 14, I used to hire out to local farmers in Worthington, Minnesota -- large gangs of us would go out into corn fields and detassle the corn plants at a certain point in the plants' development. This is to encourage plants to put energy into ears rather than into sex (!). We got something like 20 cents an hour -- I can't remember exactly how much, but I remember thinking, even then, how much work it was for so little money. This was only one job among many. I had four REAL jobs when I was only 14 -- church organist (yes, at 12), two paper routes, and waitress gigs. Often, poor kids lied about their age; nobody cared very much (in the 1950s, nobody paid much attention to labor law, particularly in small rural towns, and day labor or waitressing in any case were exempt). I worked, to give a particularly unsavory example, at the Adams Hotel, in the upper reaches of which resided some Golden Gloves boxers who liked to pinch waitresses' behinds. I didn't stay at that job very long. I also vividly recall a carhop gig (three weeks -- I hated the little short skirt) and a longer-term job at Norton's Cafe, where I once dropped a dozen chocolate malts on the floor and had to pay for them out of my 40-cents-an-hour wage. That was a lot of money, by the way. Really it was.

I should reveal that, on Thursday night just past, I didn't sleep. I had left the seaming of a sweater, some edging, and a hat crown unfinished, thinking I'd wrap things up, once I got to Columbus. The items were due at the registration desk at TNNA by 11:00 AM on Friday (semi-finalist entries for design contest at the Knitting Guild of American contest upcoming). Well. I hated one of the borders. I took it out four times before deciding on a new treatment. Then the yarn I'd chosen for another garment decided to snap everytime I pulled on it while seaming. I thought I was going to die. Or maybe commit homicide. At about 3:30 AM, I discovered that I'd left circular and double-pointed needles at home for the hat. All in all, a harrowing time. At age 65, you can't stay up all night without suffering some pretty unpleasant consequences.

The big news was the hotel -- a hidden gem in Columbus called The Lofts, across the street from the convention center, on special at, and by far THE most interesting hotel I've inhabited since I stayed in a boutique Klimpton Hotel in Washington, DC. Really cool. Huge loft-like rooms, an old historic building done exactly right -- exposed brick, wonderful big beds, HUGE spaces, real bathrooms, a big coffee center -- in Manhattan, the place would go for about 500 a night. Anybody reading this who attends TNNA should stay there next time. You can barely see it from the street. It's an amazing retreat -- nothing frilly, nothing cramped, just pure urban elegance. Complete with Italian linens! svb

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Remembering Beatrice Galli....

........and for no good reason at all, I am thinking about the magical little wool shop run for so many years by Beatrice Galli in Florence, just over the Pont de Vecchio to the right....full of Italy's best yarns -- with a back door, visible in these shots, that led to a small balcony over the Arno River. The last time I was there, I bought her out of house and home, which delighted her; now, she is closed. While she was there, however, the shop was something a lot of people from around the world visited first when they were in Florence. I wonder why I'm thinking about her today? Maybe because June was when I used to go to Italy each summer. Time to do that again ... and she will be missed. svb

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

...almost forgot ...warning to travelers...

and if you're driving east, watch the road. The tractors are strangely confrontational. svb


[Here's part of the Cummington [MA] fairgrounds, the buildings that housed the Mass. Sheep and Wool Festival; a slightly loopy llama; Linda, from whom I bought 200-year-old roof slates made into coasters; and some stunning hand-painted yarn; and a smiling Merino sheep, plainly amused by the entire proceeding.]

Do you gather that I'm RUSHING? I am BEHIND -- need to finish the fourth garment for the TKGA design schtick before end of day today, and I've not yet done the sleeves. Fortunately, it's a VERY thick and cushy knit, so I have some chance of managing it. Trendsetter Dune and Tonalita knitted together........stunning hot pink halo with multiple 'pop' colors rising up from the second, smooth strand. But while I'm resting the right hand, which gets immensely tired these days after hours of knitting, I want to try to download some more photographs. I can't seem to get them into the text at certain junctures, so I'll just post them up front. And now back to the sleeves. svb

Monday, June 7, 2010

Women's Work and a Quilt in Exile

For my mother’s mother, Carrie

When she died in 1964, the boys heaved piles
of sheets, table runners, doilies, tea-
stained curtains, housedresses patched
with flour sacks, Workbasket pattern
books from attic windows. On
the floor they left the pale
yellow friendship quilt – not for love
of an unloved woman – they simply ran

out of time. In 2010, the cheap cloth probably
from Woolworths is egg-
shell frail, the flossy names little more
than intimations, the granddaughter

legal guardian of Bertha, Emmy, Belinda, Rose,
Melba, twenty-four working-class girls
from saggy blocks of South
St. Paul porches razed in the 1980s
for Swift & Company’s cattle-
yard expansion. Not for shame, only

for modesty, the thread-bare
white square in the bottom left-
hand corner never
embroidered with the maker's name
that only I now recall – Carrie Warren,
daughter of Mary, mother of Gladyce,
whose sons threw her away in 1964.

S. F. Van Burkleo, June 2010, Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gifts from Ann Arbor....! today I was minding my own business, frantically knitting the final (FINAL!) of four sweaters due in less than a week for the TKGA competition, when suddenly the phone rang. It was Larry. Very gently, he reminded me that "the Happy Fuzzy person" was in the studio. EEP. I had arranged for the wondrous Riin Gill to come by with a wagonload of new handpaints, and.....I COMPLETELY FORGOT. Was it creeping senility? More likely knitting overload. I was in my caftan (the at-home unifom in the summertime). Within ten minutes I was no longer in disarray, and within fifteen I was in the studio, loudly prounouncing myself a complete idiot.

Riin didn't care. What a gifted woman she is. I learned today that the gorgeously colored (and fancifully named) fingering and DK skeins she produces are done in turkey roasters (!), which makes it possible for her to produce artful, close-range colorations while not bending over tables for long hours, hurting her back .... The down side: The technique makes if more difficult to produce more than a couple of skeins at the same time. I think I've persuaded her to try to increase the number of skeins per lot so that people can make big shawls, sweaters, and other stuff with more square inches than, say, socks. Her colorways are exquisite: There was once a ravishingly gorgeous mix called "Mallard" and another called "Duck" that sold out literally the day after I got them. This time, we have "Gothic Rose," which is a beautiful (and also amusing -- it reminds me of Abby on NCIS!) black/navy/rose mix, with the rose bubbling up through the 'gothic' tones -- and other eye-catchers.

This woman (and her Happy Fuzzy Yarns) came to Artisan Knitworks indirectly -- in fact, the story illustrates why I so love dealing in small-producer yarns. It's not unlike historical research or detective work: The evidence leads in particular ways, but almost always those ways could not have been predicted at the outset. In Riin's case, I first encountered her former business partner, Susan Forbes (Wisconsin), because I was looking for sock blanks (the 'flats' that people like Conjoined Creations are selling) that were not as tightly knit as, say, "Flat Feet," which to my eyes yield yarn that is much too kinked, and which has been 'killed' in the process of making it into machine-knitted fabric. Why risk losing all that elasticity just to be able to paint directly on fabric and unravel it so that it can be reknitted?

I had it in my head that if the blank were less tightly knitted, the result might be more satisfactory (that is, more elastic, less like 'used yarn'). And the painting sounded like great fun. I even went so far as to buy a tabletop knitting machine at a Big Box store (which is now in a closet). Hence, Susan. I found her on-line. She was selling loosely knitted blanks as well as pretty painted flats. So I invited her to come to the studio for a trunk show. She said, "Do you want me to bring Riin? I will be staying with her in Ann Arbor -- she makes really nice hand-paints and does some spinning...."

So they both came. I have since decided that, however beautiful the painting might be, I still don't like the 'used' and kinked quality of the resulting yarn. But -- we have Riin! What a joy. There are maybe two dozen beautiful new skeins of Happy Fuzzy Yarns on our big black table. She'll come back sometime in early fall for a trunk show of her own. I want her to become famous. Big things can spring from small beginnings. She has a rare eye for color, and she knows how to paint a skein with real artistry.

Back to the final FINAL FINAL contest sweater -- this one in Trendsetter Dune and Tonalita. Still haven't figured out the photograph mystery -- but hang in there. I will learn how, and you'll be inundated with pictures! svb

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Knitting the Raveled Sleeve......

...of care. What a wonderful line -- no wonder it survives, and not just in Shakespearean tragedy. I'm spending today trying not to contract some kind of mild intestinal and cranial malady (headache, upset, etc.), trying not to panic at the thought of losing my wondrous gray cat from either renal failure or cancer (more tests will clarify things) on the heels of having actually lost my beautiful (if dumb as a bedpost) white cat, and trying to finish four (FOUR) garments by the 9th of June for the Knitting Guild's annual design contest (all are semi-finalists). It's hard to knit when a certain gray cat is plunked smack in the middle of, say, the left sleeve...though not impossible, as I've been demonstrating just now.

...all of which reminded me, all over again, of how knitting and crochet, and probably tatting and quilting (I've never quilted, so I can't say), function not just as ways to create beautiful, useful objects, but also as remedies, palliatives, balms. When husband number one died without warning, I got through it partly by knitting myself to sleep, knitting my way across the country in my VW (the predecessor to the silver one sitting just below me in the carport), knitting my way through final exams. I once knitted my way through a trip to the American Virgin Islands. The guy piloting the pontoon plane was visibly flabergasted.

It was because of tragedy, in fact, that I found myself taking knitting more seriously than ever before -- taking classes, then more classes, joining groups, buying sketch pads. There really ARE silk purses to be made of sow's ears. When I thought I had breast cancer many years ago (because an idiot surgeon with all the tact of a sledge hammer told me that the lumps probably were cancer because, well, I embodied so many "risk factors" turned out to be absesses),I made an entire sweater back in one waiting room and the rest of the garment in two other visits. I still knit or crochet my way through particularly dull faculty meetings, conference papers that should never have been accepted in academic programs, and my students' end of term examination periods.

These life-saving projects aren't complex, by choice. Often, I choose very simple designs for such moments, albeit in really beautiful yarns -- the ever-gorgeous stockinette in an amazing handpaint; a sea of simple double seed stitch; three strands of yarns that aren't supposed to go together for a thick jacket fabric. Repetition and mindlessness can be part of healing, as the mind slides away into a zone somewhere to the west of Jupiter's biggest moon. There is another, similar place to which the mind goes near the end of one of Chopin's nocturnes. But, with music, the voyage to paradise can be tumultous. With knitting, that sense of existential harmony and peace can happen almost at once. It's linked, on the one hand, to the knowledge that, no matter what, wool looped over hooks or needles behaves in ways that are entirely within human control -- unlike death, disease, the Borg. On the other hand, knitting and crochet are also sensual (not just sensory) experiences. Good wool or silk or alpaca or angora or kid mohair reward labor with beauty, make us giddy when the yarn gives us what we had in mind, or surprise us by becoming something totally unexpected. Beautifully crafted yarn feels like butter or maybe French Brie as it passes through the fingers. I recently decided not to design garments for a firm that had been buying a couple of things from me partly because their yarns aren't welcoming, feel almost hostile to the human hand; that sense of almost-melted butter (as when a set-in suit sleeve is steamed over the tailor's ham and fairly melts into shape) is an essential component of 'knitting the raveled sleeve.' If the feel isn't there, I don't think that anything of real consequence can happen. There can be no rapport between the woman (or man) and the garment lurking in balls of wool.

Yesterday, I told a friend at the studio that the wool tells me what it wants to be while I'm knitting. If that's mysterious, and it seemed to be, I can't explain it entirely. But I know that, for such a conversation to happen, the feel has to be there...from which, the rapport follows and continues to the end.

My friend Elaine Clark (the second most generous person I've ever known -- first, of course, was my mother) and I once talked about gathering up stories from knitters and crocheters about their relationships with their avocations, and making a small book out of it. Maybe we will, if I can ever afford to retire! In the meantime, I need to finish four garments in four days. If anyone is reading this, please say some kind of prayer to your favorite deity! svb