Monday, April 29, 2013

Back from Kentucky & Indiana, y'all....

....Just back from the Indiana Fiber and Music Festival, 3rd Annual (I have not gone to this one before).  I keep forgetting that southern Indiana is really southern -- and it was much the same this time, lots of pickup trucks, southern drawls, in both Kentucky and Indiana.  But some other things surprised me:  I had forgotten how gorgeous the drive from Covington, Kentucky, to Louisville is in the early spring, when baby-green leaves appear in maybe twenty different hues, all of it peppered with generous doses of drop-dead-beautiful mauve from full-bloom red bud trees.  Honest to god, it was enough to make you want to weep -- to my eyes, much more beautiful than autumn because it's so much fresher, so full of promise.....and as last time, I was wishing the whole time that I was a dyer.  I can imagine a fingering-weight yarn, for instance, that would blend those soft greens, that exquisite mauve, with some kind of gray-brown (there are trunks and limbs mixed in to temper the mixture).  But I'm not a dyer.  Too bad, to say the least.

I spent the night in a nice motel north of Louisville (pronounced LOO'vul by the locals), and got off to a nice, late start on Sunday morning, more or less in time for the opening in Charlestown, Indiana, over the border but not by much.  The weather had turned unpleasant, and when I got where I was going, I was horrified to see that none of the promised outdoor vendors were there -- a bad sign.  That often means not just that the weather was about to turn, but that people haven't shown up.  It's a good thing I go to these things as much to take a road trip and check out antique malls as to buy handcrafted yarn -- the vendors indeed were fewer than the website had promised.  And there were a lot of crafters selling their wares -- ruffled scarves made from big-box yarns, crocheted baby gear in big-box acrylic, etc.  This is not poke fun.  It's to say that I personally don't come for that kind of thing, and so it narrows the field substantially.  And only two of the dyers were doing work that I thought was first-class work -- the problem with hand-dyed yarn is that it requires more skill than a lot of people realize to get the borders right between colors, without blurring or ending up with a motley collection of brown zones.  

Here's a glimpse inside the first building (there were two buildings plus a half-dozen vendors in a livestock enclosure): are some wonderful, gifted spinners:

....and here are the amazing Riin Gill and friend Robert -- from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and two of our best friends.  Riin's line is called Happy Fuzzy Yarns.  She is one of THE most imaginative and technically proficient indie dyers I've encountered in all of these years.  So here they are, here is a shot of part of her booth, and HERE is the pile (part of it) that I ended up buying.  We have quite an array of her stuff in the shop -- as well we should.  It doesn't get much better.  Click on photos to get a closer look.  Plus, Riin is involved in the small-farm movement in Michigan, so much of what I bought is Michigan wool.  Part of what makes Riin an exceptional dyer/retailer, by the way, is her gift for labeling and naming.  It matters.  If people find the colorway name engaging or funny, they will identify more readily with the yar.  One of the colorways I bought this time is called (are you ready?)  Death and Taxes.  

BUT THEN the real fun began.  I left the festival a tad disappointed -- not in Riin, but in the fact of so few choices beyond Riin.  A wonderful alpaca grower from Kentucky did catch my attention, but she had only a few broken lots of beautiful, achingly soft alpaca (she has since taken on a new mill and the newer lots are not as soft, and are mixed with wool and also plied too tightly).  So -- I left without the usual sense of mission accomplished.

But then I went to Florence, Kentucky.  I knew there was a truly amazing antique shop there, so I turned off the GPS and decided just to look around.  LO AND BEHOLD.  I did NOT find the antique mall, but I DID find the old, original Main Street from the early 19th century, and there I found a series of businesses built up in what I gather is called Stringtown.  Look at this!!!  It's called Yesterday's Cafe and Tea Shop, and the yellow building is the old Florence Hotel.

This is a woman-owned business comprised of a tea room (above, in the middle), a gift shop with teas and all manner of gift-y stuff, and then a separate café and coffee shop with outdoor plaza.  Here are shots of the owner Susan (in black polka dots on the right) and the incredible Erin, in front of the array of coffee and tea-making equipment in the separate café operation.  I had a delectable lunch, and left without some of their Matcha green tea, which I passed up only because I was stuffed to the gills with gorgeous chicken gumbo.

I left reluctantly.  What complete joy!!!  Often, this is the best part of one of these trips -- finding truly unique, high-quality operations that have nothing to do with the fiber arts.

If you're in northern Kentucky or southern Indiana, for heaven's sake find this place.  Everything is delectable.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Off to KENTUCKE!!!!!

(That's what they  used to call Kentucky in the early 19th century, which is when I mostly understand the world....).   I'm off to Charlestown, Indiana, which is really a northern burb of Louisville, Kentucky.  This is a kind of homecoming:  I haven't been near Louisville, really, since finishing my now-ancient Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1980s.   (Am I really THAT old?).  This is the third annual Indiana Fiber and Music Festival.   Mostly I just want to take a drive.  I have grading to do, and THE best place to grade essay exams is a motel room, where you are more or less captive.  Powhatan, Virginia, was simply too far, and I don't feel like hassling with customs today (there are TWO wonderful events at this very moment in Toronto -- the Creativ exposition, and the Toronto Knitting Guild's annual Frolic).  So Indiana it is.  I will bring home an array of photographs, and probably some yarn, buttons, etc........!   svb

Friday, April 26, 2013


There's a huge, huge sale afoot at Artisan Knitworks -- trying to clear the decks of older merchandise to make room for new.   Don't waste time -- we had a major crowd for the first two days -- looks like more of the same today.  It runs ONLY through Saturday.   svb

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Off to Virginia....!

On Thursday night, the weather willing, I will drive off to a medium-sized, one-day fiber festival in Powhatan, Virginia.  I don't recognize some of the vendors, and I need a weekend away from home, since the trips to Massachusetts and Indiana were prevented respectively by terrorism and weather....This is the town where we once stumbled upon a small company called Scarlet Fleece; I don't know if they're still operating there, but if they are, I will be SURE to come back with some of their beautiful yarns and patterns.  More later.   svb

Friday, April 5, 2013

Call for Vendors -- Third Coast Fiber Arts Festival, 2nd annual....

Larry has completed the new web page that permits vendors to apply for booths at the upcoming (October 18-19) Second Annual Fiber Arts Festival.  It will take a couple of days for the site to be up and running everywhere, but in the meantime, just go to and click on the 3rd Coast link -- then on Vendors.  Workshops will be up and running by the first of May.  This year, the vendors will be entirely above ground -- on the first and second floors of the wonderful conference center.   svb

Monday, April 1, 2013

Brick-and-Mortar, Cyberspace, and the Fiber Arts

Over the past few months, those of us who run brick-and-mortar fiber arts stores in Michigan -- the small ones, not the big-box kind – have watched helplessly while yet more small shops decide to close their doors.  Most recently, my good friends in Ann Arbor at Knit-A-Round have announced a late spring closure.  Before that, it was a shop in downtown Detroit, Howell, Dearborn, and so on. 

 Some things need to be said here.  Making it through the recession has been a trick, no doubt about it.  And to some extent, the fiber arts industry has suffered with every other industry in America, with the exception of fat-cat investment bankers.   But that’s not the only cause for concern.   When hard times hit, a lot of people down-scaled – that is, they went from their local yarn store to big-box or on-line sources because it was cheaper.   More and more, people get patterns from on-line chat rooms.  More and more, the brick-and-mortar operations find themselves decimated by on-line retailers, by half-price coupons at the big-box stores (so that yarn regularly priced at 5 bucks becomes 2.50 – and why should those mega-companies care?  They get yarn of at least marginally acceptable quality from places where workers receive almost nothing and still make a profit).  There are a couple of large on-line yarn purveyors that manufacture yarn in places like South America and China, where both materials and labor are cheaper than cheap.  The dyes used are often suspect.  Workers are basically used up and thrown away.  But still – it’s cheap, and it’s been a hard economic time in America.

 I don’t think there is much that can be done about the on-line pattern purveyors, even though a lot of the so-called designers are no such thing and write disastrously awful patterns.  I see them all the tme; people buy yarn, then come into the shop gnashing teeth over an idiotic pattern “free” from some website.  But many of the patterns are decent.  When knitters and crocheters go to company sites, to PatternFish, to Etsy stores, or to Knitty, the results can be satisfactory.  Shops can’t carry every pattern that can be secured on line.  And books are expensive.  I have not been able to persuade people very often that a really good knitting  or crochet book is worth every dime, because it’s usually NOT just a collection of patterns.  The best books are COURSES – a class between covers – or a collection of stitches or techniques that can vastly expand your capabilities and repertoire.  A downloaded book is a pretty pathetic thing.  The paper doesn’t last; you have pages flying around; it’s not the equivalent of a lovely binding and glossy pages. 

 But I’m prepared to give up on the patterns (if I could only persuade people to check with me as to whether the pattern is decent before they spend money on yarn).  I might even get a computer set up in the shop so that people can show me what they have found -- to prevent disaster.

What I am NOT prepared to concede is the silly idea that chat-rooms are somehow equivalent to a brick-and-mortar store.  A “friend” on Facebook, a contact on Ravelry, is not a friend in the face-to-face sense.  These are scarily asocial relationships – that is to say, not physical or tested in any meaningful way.  You need to have coffee with someone before you can decide whether that person is a friend.  It’s what students at the University of Michigan apparently do – sitting in their dorm rooms “chatting” by computer with students in the next dorm room.  It's the mistake I made once, when I was much younger:  My friend Barbara set me up with a fellow who was serving in Vietnam.  We wrote dozens of letters.  He was sure he was in love with me.  I was sure I was in love with him.  Then he came home.  Face-to-faceness happened.  He didn't like the pimples on my forehead; I didn't like his receding chin, his swagger, his ... everything.  We agreed that we were not in love after all after about three hours.  Face-to-faceness, which can be unfortunate in its outcomes, is nevertheless REAL.  Cyberspace is NOT real.  

These are profoundly destructive habits.  They make us autistic, incapable of empathy.  We forget that it's nice to be hugged -- which can happen in yarn shops.  We can't teach one another or debate important issues or disagree or get into fights in a spontaneous way.   So when people stop coming to brick-and-mortar shops, when they decide that they can get the equivalent STUFF from websites, I have to say I am horrified.  What about those friendships?  What about the knitting groups, the conversations, the laughter?  What about the ideas that spring up like flowers in a garden, every time a group meets?  And what ABOUT the yarn?  Isn’t it better to feel it?  To compare things on shelves where you can actually see what it’s made of?  Where you can actually swoon over it, or say ICK, before plunking down your hard-earned money?  I have always said that I welcome everything in the shop -- no matter where it was bought.  I still do.  But I worry more and more about the quantity of yarn I'm seeing made by Peruvian children and Asian slaves (I mean that term literally -- the factories often are basically prisons).  Most of it didn't come from small shops. 

 I haven’t even mentioned the whole business about shopping locally, which is supposed to be a big deal, in Michigan and everywhere else.

 The handwriting is on the wall:  The shops will close eventually, one by one.  This is not just a market sorting itself out.  These are low-profit enterprises.  You don’t get to empty the ice cream machine each night and start over the next day with a fresh batch.  Yarn sits on shelves for years.  If you don’t sell it, you lose your shirt by selling it at cost.  Employees in yarn shops typically make little more than minimum wage, or work for nothing (as with Larry and me).  Lots of yarn shops succeed only because somebody, somewhere, has a living wage to fall back on.

 So knitters, weavers, crocheters need to decide, sooner or later, whether the shops are worth keeping.  Artisan Knitworks is actually a (limited) success story:  We have survived, at least for now  … so this is NOT about my own shop.  It is, however, a kind of warning across the bow.  Everywhere, shops are closing.  Owners are exhausted.  When we talk about it, the exhaustion is pervasive and sometimes unrewarded.  It will be up to clients to decide whether they are worth keeping.  The decision may be NO.   But one way or the other, a decision will have to be made.  I’d like to see empathy and sociability prevail.  But it’s truly hard to say what will happen over the next year or two.  Face-to-faceness is pretty old-fashioned & its survival is uncertain.