Monday, November 7, 2011

The Fiber Festival of New England

This past Thursday immediately after my Thursday class, I drove off in the general direction of Ohio and Pennsylvania -- this time on the American side of things instead of the Canadian side because, at late hours, it can be hard to find motels immediately next to the Queensway in Ontario -- and got as far as Astaubula, Ohio, which I have just misspelled.  I HAVE NO IDEA how to spell it.  The town does harbor a particularly nice Hampton Inn, and Hampton happens to be my all-time fave because of the nice, white, lofty bedding and great mattresses.  Not to mention hot breakfasts.  That's what you pay for, and they deliver, for only a few dollars more than the less predictable bargain hotels.  I am really gunshy now about Super 8 and some of the others -- twice burned recently, and after long hours in the car, that's twice too many.

I booked another Hampton in advance for Friday and Saturday nights (though I ended up cancelling Saturday in order to get back on the road) in Lenox, Massachusetts, perhaps an hour from West Springfield, which is where the fiber event was housed.  What a lovely, new motel, and what charming communities there near Tanglewood.  I will deliberately stay there again if and when I return to the festival, which I probably will do next year -- it was worth it just to meet so many truly amazing new people (at least new to me).  I will have photographs when I recover from the headcold I picked up along the way, and when Larry downloads what few pictures I managed to take before the camera's battery ran out.

For now, let me just talk a bit about what I found.  First:  The Berkshires are always beautiful, and I think I hit them just after their prime in fall-leaf-season terms.  But they were still gorgeous -- the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers still wending their way along broad, sleepy courses, a watery iteration of Rip Van Winkle........The colors were mostly burnt-sienna, brown, spruce green, with the occasional spash of sumac red.....What complete joy when the forest covers an entire mountainside or valley!  It's as if the decorating committee went out of their way just for me.

In Lenox, the marvelous staff at Hampton put me onto a small bistro, called Jonathan's, in an otherwise nondescript (though pleasant) small strip mall perhaps a mile back toward Lee, Massachusetts (which has a fabulous downtown area, a darling coffee house and bakery, and some high-quality antique shops).  I must say that I have rarely enjoyed a meal or a setting so very much.  If you are ever anywhere near Lenox, MA, find it.  Go to dinner.  Fresh food -- gorgeously cooked -- and well served by a young Argentinian named Andrea, who wants to go to graduate school.  I didn't discourage him, though, given the state of our universities, I perhaps should have said at least something to the contrary.  I still think that cream rises, though, and so he ought to see if he measures up.  If he does, and if he indeed is cream, all will be well.

I drove from Lenox to the festival mid-morning on Saturday, had something of a time finding it (the address given on the website was wrong, and to make matters worse, the site was down when Larry tried to help), but I consulted locals and found the so-called Big E in another direction altogether. 

While I was looking, though, I drove through some neighborhoods in West Springfield.  And I must say that I have NEVER, EVER seen anything like what I found there.  The news media has not given us anything like a true picture of what has happened there in the wake of the huge snow storm of a week ago.  The snow was mostly gone, though not entirely -- in West Springfield, they apparently had 1.5 feet.  But it was very, very wet and heavy.  Old trees came down.  Branches came down.  Wires came down.  Lampposts hit by falling trees came down.  On sidestreets, where I did manage to get a few pictures before the batteries died, branches and dismembered trees are piled halfway up the remaining trees, waiting for some kind of pickup.  I can't imagine what it will take to remove all of that lumber and dead foliage.  It was enough to make me weep -- and especially because New Englanders are really attached to their trees, always have been.  The people I talked to at the festival were really devastated.  The oldest trees went first, of course, because the young 'uns were much more flexible.  What a horrible, visually devastating freak of nature.

At the festival, which is medium size and very high quality (only two vendors of Peruvian cheap crap -- pardon my language, but that's what it is, and I wish they would be excluded from vendor lists), I remembered almost at once that I was at the epicenter of the Small Farm Movement, which stretches up and down the eastern seaboard.  Booth upon booth testified to the power and productivity of the movement.  Old breeds were in evidence in the animal section; and old-breed fiber was everywhere, beautifully spun from local flocks in local spinneries (a couple very old firms in Maine, some new spinneries in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and of course Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont).  It used to be that spinneries no longer existed in the US; now, it's rebounding.  Craft people are taking to the land again, harvesing very high quality fleece and other fiber from angora goats, Romney and Corriedale and Leicestershire sheep, on and on -- and the results are drop-dead gorgeous.  The work of Romney Hills Farm, e.g., is dazzling -- lofty, softer than Romney usually is, and well-dyed.  Kelly also overdyes some natural, single-ply blended yarn (done by Green Mountain) in small batches.

It is important to view American wool not only as an indigenous product, but as an ORIGINAL form of wool.  Nowadays, there is a lot of ruined wool out there -- wool that has been overprocessed and plied far too loosely (or not at all), or blended with other fibers, or altered "at the molecular level," as one company puts it (it makes my skin crawl just a little -- why on earth horse around "at the molecular level"?) -- so that many of my clients think that wool is not supposed to be substantial, toothy, full of air spaces to keep us warm.  It is supposed to bloom when washed -- and it does.  But you have to trust in it.  They don't realize that there is more to wool than merino.  Merino is beautiful, but it may not be the longest wearing wool, and it surely isn't (in my view) the best wool for outergarments.  So I am going to lend a hand to the movement by featuring some of their products -- knowing full well that people don't believe me, won't buy the wool, think that all wool is supposed to feel like silk.  It actually annoys me, and I have a very hard time hiding it.

There were signs of economic hard times:  Twist of Fate, where I bought some incredibly well-priced alpaca in natural shades, told me of clientse who drop off fleeces and fiber and then can't afford to redeem the spun yarn.  What sadness that must be for everyone.  But it really is a story of our time, isn't it?

On another front, the women (the vendors are mostly, but not entirely, female) selling their beautiful productions are making me very happy:  They are charging MORE for their handcrafted yarn, buttons, jewelry, sweaters, and so on, than ever before.  For YEARS, I have been giving little lectures to people (especially at the very small festivals) about women's labor and how we need to make a living, can't just keep giving labor away (something women often are trained to do from childhood), need to understand that sharing and generosity can't stand in the way of making a living.

Well.  They are doing it more and more.  The great irony for me, of course, is that I can't really expect women to make their yarns affordable for ME (I need to mark up what I find) if I want them to earn good money.  This is particularly true if the women in question can sell everything they make at full price at the festivals -- and so, when I ask a woman if she CAN sell out at full price and she says yes, all I can really do is to give her a card and encourage her to call me if she does not.  Wholesale discounts also have shrunk.  So -- when you stock a shop with as much hand-retrieved yarn as I do, it's a mixed blessing, isn't it?  On the one hand, people are doing what I have been telling them to do for at least 8 years.

On the other hand -- I have to sell at a very slim margin.  (If I were to really factor in travel costs, I'd be selling at a loss -- but this is what I do for vacations, so....I choose not to figure it in).  Probably, over time, I will be stocking less and less handcrafted, one-of-a-kind yarn, or at least buying it mostly after full-price sale has concluded, probably by photographs.  And I likely will frequent the smaller festivals more and more, at the expense of the bigger ones.  That's okay.  In my view, New York and Maryland festivals have both been stuck in the mud for a couple of years -- same vendors, not much change in goods.  But this requires a slight shift in the business plan.  It's also hard to say how much of the downward pressure on discounting has to do with the recession -- probably some part.  Time alone will tell!!!!!!!!!!!  Meantime -- I truly LOVED seeing women defending the value of their labor.

I decided to come home on the Canadian side which, IF (and only if) customs doesn't slow you down, can be undertaken in two hours' less time than the American side.  I was lucky:  Especially at the American end, the bulging mass in the windows of the rented station wagon didn't even get a long glance.  Still, I sometimes feel almost hurt that customs people never, ever see me as a possible criminal, smuggler, mafia accountant -- whatever.  Must be the wasp-y face, the gray hair, etc. -- but just once I'd like to be viewed as a possible threat to national security for daring to haul thirty-six tons of knitting yarn and a half-ton of buttons across Canada without once offering receipts at either end!

Hugs to everyone.


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