Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska

I had this post scheduled for earlier in the year, but realized it belongs to Slow Fashion October when Dotty Widmann, the organizer of everything you’re about to read, said the following about George, pictured below: “I want for people to see how beautiful the work was on those sweaters, like the one Val made and George could not wait to put it on. He asked Valerie to make the sleeves tight on his forearm so he could get them into his gloves, and a little shorter as well. Just one of the several special touches on each one.” I mean …

Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska
Photos above, clockwise from top: George and Valerie Covel both in Dutch-style ganseys knitted by Val; Cordova Harbor; Sheridan Glacier

If there’s a more scenic place for a fiber retreat in the US than Cordova, Alaska, I don’t know what it is. But for organizer and shop owner Dotty Widmann of Cordova’s The Net Loft, it goes way beyond scenery — and even way beyond yarn. (And this post is going WAY beyond the standard Craftlands post, with good reason.) Dotty held her first large-scale retreat in 2014, with high-profile teachers flying in from all over and more than 100 people in attendance. Then she traveled to Shetland, experienced the entangled histories of knitting and fishermen first-hand, had an epiphany, and launched the Cordova Gansey Project. You may remember me linking to her blog series way back when. It’s almost criminal to summarize, but Dotty was inspired to bring awareness of that shared history to her own remote Alaska fishing community. To simultaneously create and revive a tradition, with locals knitting ganseys for themselves and the fisherfolk they love.

In summer of 2015, Dotty brought in experts to teach the Cordovans about ganseys and their history, and the gansey project wound up inspiring and informing the second large-scale retreat, FisherFolk, which happened in June, and which included an exhibit of ganseys on loan from Moray Firth in Scotland. My good friends Anna Dianich and Kathy Cadigan were lucky enough to attend, and if you follow them on Instagram (@toltyarnandwool and @kathycad) you already know how amazing their photos were — from the sweaters to the fisherfolk to the glaciers and beyond. The photos in this post were all taken by Kathy, but definitely go scroll through their feeds for more. And Anna has also posted a bunch of photos on the Tolt blog today. In fact, go take a look and come back — we’ll wait!

Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska
Photos above: Jacob Hand aboard the Morning Star in a sweater he designed and knitted; the Cordova marina; Anna Dianich in her Seascale sweater

I asked Anna and Kathy about the trip and the retreat and they couldn’t have been more effusive. Anna had this to say about the gansey she knitted for the trip: “I knitted the Seascale sweater and used our Snoqualmie Valley Yarn, wanting to wear the sweater while in Cordova. I have to say, though, after seeing the sweaters that were knitted by the Cordova women and men, I am a little embarrassed. I was knitting to get the sweater done in a timely manner but these folks really took their time (years!) and put so much thought, love and care into their garments. Each knitter designed their sweater, either for themselves or a loved one and put in design elements that represented them or their surroundings. These sweaters are breathtaking, and Kathy and I vowed to design and knit one too. It will take us years to finish but that doesn’t matter.” Anna loved the air, the sounds, the fresh catch for dinner, the wildflowers, but most of all she loved the people: “The landscape is gorgeous but the people are spectacular. I wanted to know everyone’s story and they were all so fascinating! Most of the people in town fish; around half live in Cordova year-round while the other half are only there seasonally, choosing to travel the world or live somewhere else during the off-season. A lot of the people are artists and creative folk, very talented and worldly people. Some families have been doing this for generations while others are new to the industry. I learned about the Alaska fishing industry and how it’s all families, about 500 of them. We need to support our fishermen — eat wild wild-caught Alaska salmon!”

Kathy concurs: “All in all, it’s a very cosmopolitan place! There are artists, poets and musicians that live in Cordova. I think the remoteness promotes creativity. Visitors mix in with local fishermen very easily. I love that even though it was obvious many people who attended the retreat came from outside of Cordova, none of us felt like we stood out as ‘tourists.’ The surrounding landscape is more breathtaking than can be described, and in the center of it all, the harbor with all of its fishing vessels and little houseboats looking onto the sound just makes you smile. There are so many beautiful things to see and do. You can drive about 45 minutes from town to hike Sheridan Glacier. Anna and I saw a moose on the way there and we hiked that glacier in like 30 mins! Really the most tremendous visual payoff for the least strenuous hike I’ve ever taken!” And the classes went beyond knitting, just like The Net Loft itself does. For instance, Kathy took a class that incorporated found elements into the tying of fishing nets and Dotty inspired Anna to take up watercolor by giving her an impromptu painting lesson at the shop.

But all of this just scratches the surface. Nobody can talk about the Cordova Gansey Project or the FisherFolk Retreat better than Dotty herself. I asked her a few questions, and the depth and feeling of her responses speak volumes — so what follows is Dotty’s interview in full. I promise you’ll be glad you took the time to read it!

Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska
Photos above, clockwise from top: Dotty Widmann welcoming FisherFolk attendees; foraging for dye plants at Sheridan Glacier; Moray Firth Ganseys at the Cordova Museum; Cordova resident Jane Allen in Elizabeth’s Johnston’s Spinning for Fisherman’s socks class

. . . . .

KT: This was your second retreat, correct? But the first one since the Cordova Gansey Project. How different would you say this one was from your previous? How did the gansey project factor into the retreat this time around?

DW: The Net Loft sponsors small retreats and an ongoing variety of workshops, but this was our second large-scale retreat, and the first of those since the inception of the Cordova Gansey Project. Both events were “personally driven,” meaning they stemmed from a personally driven theme. The one in 2014 was centered around friendship, and the fiber and friends connections made along the way. This friendship theme was the thread that tied the workshops together, as well as the hope and desire to bring quality instructors to our remote community to encourage growth in our knitting skills,  but the classes themselves were widely varied.

The FisherFolk retreat this past June was different in that the entire event and each class was connected in some way to the FisherFolk theme, which focused on commercial fishing and its various fiber art connections. The Cordova Gansey Project was the core of the event. Even the skill-based workshops were supportive of the underlying theme of fishing and the fiber arts. The idea for this particular retreat was to be a larger event that would offer the original gansey workshops from the summer of 2015 to a wider audience, as well as provide an opportunity to view the local ganseys that we had been knitting over the past year (as well as a few from out of the immediate area, but still within the state). It was a very personally driven event, the essence of which continues to be intricately woven into the many lives of those who are knitters as well as members of our active commercial fishing community, both directly and indirectly connected to our town.

You wrote extensively about your idea and plans for the gansey project before it began. How was it seeing it take shape in your community and beyond? How does it compare to what you originally imagined?

My first thought when I read this question was that I feel uncomfortable calling it my idea when so many people, past and present — some I have never known personally — have influenced and directed me. It is not so much what I imagined as what idea was planted in me. As the story unfolded, I began to realize how so much of my life and all those knitters and friends and past times were converging into this project, as well as into the FisherFolk event, and that the emerging idea was not so much mine as one that needed a willing person to carry it out.

The project is both simple and complex. The simplicity of it is that it is about knitting a working garment in wool for someone we love. This is nothing new, unique or different, as to knit for those we love is universal to knitters and transcends time and place. By its very nature, hand knitting is a personal experience. So much of our knitting is tied to family, friends and loved ones. For us as a fishing village, this concept translates into taking a functional working garment designed many years ago for the fishermen of the past, and recreating it for the fishermen of the present. The actual manifestation has grown into something that resonates with a wider audience, for even if you are not a fisherman, if you are a knitter, when you study about and learn how to knit a gansey, you are connecting with your knitting ancestry, regardless of your actual personal cultural identity. The project is complex in that it has taken on another life in terms of logistics and events, and how to best get other people started, and managing what first started out as a simple idea of just basically making my fisherman son and family members a gansey to wear out on the fishing grounds.

In regards to how it compared to what I personally had imagined or envisioned, there are different aspects of this. The motto for the project is “In proud tradition of harvest, heritage, and handknits.” First, in our fish town of Cordova, Alaska, last summer (2015), when we had Beth Brown-Reinsel come and get us started on the traditional garment, it was wonderful to see others here in town embrace the concept. It was emotional for me to see my knitting friends take on this idea and join me on this adventure, especially in light of our interwoven lives and history. Seeing the idea manifested into concrete charts, yarn and swatches, and later into actual finished garments, was especially touching to my heart, because just like my blog story, they each had a story and their garments reflected that, which was something I had somehow deep down hoped would happen. This was the handknit component.

Second, this summer. I was touched by the comments from many of our local fishermen who viewed the gansey exhibit from the Moray Firth region of Scotland, while it was here at our museum. There were many fishermen who took time out to come to the museum and check out the exhibit, as well as those knitters and non-knitters from our local community. They scrutinized the many vintage photos, read the verbiage on the banners, and as they wandered through the sea of garments suspended in the room and on the walls, you could see them connect with those faces and sweaters of the fishermen of the past. For us here, there are basic elements that have not changed over the years — boats, nets, corks, lead lines, ocean, fish, and those who are involved both directly and indirectly with catching fish. The vintage pictures had them all. It is hard to put into words, but the same connection that I had felt when I had visited the Shetland Islands was felt by those who came and saw the exhibit here. One of my original missions for the project was to connect our fisher knitters with our fishing knitting heritage, while showing how we valued them as harvesters, and this began to be accomplished, or at the very least ignited. I heard over and over, “I want a gansey”, or “My husband wants me to knit him a gansey.” One day this summer, while the exhibit was here, a sailor arrived in town from Britain and was walking through our little town. He just happened to be wearing a gansey into our isolated village. That day I had call after call to the shop that there was a visitor in a gansey walking about town. Everyone was noticing and wanted me to know. Men and women alike were stopping him all around town and asking to look at his gansey. Poor soul, but evidence that people here now know what a gansey is and what the story is behind it. They feel a kinship to the gansey heritage as somehow part of their own personal history.

Third, for those outside our area, I had hoped that the gansey project would be a vehicle to tell the stories of our current local harvesters, and most importantly, the value and faces behind those who harvest the wild fish they purchase. There is no getting around it, the original ganseys were intricately connected to fishing, fishermen, and the fisher knitters. The fish were and continue to be the driving force. When my fisherman daughter caught wind of the project, she saw the handknitted ganseys as a way to clothe with love and care those who take the time and effort to carefully harvest and prepare the best quality product for market. We invite others to join the project in the spirit of this harvest and heritage, but for us, essentially, this goes back to the simple idea of knitting a beloved fisherman a garment designed originally for a fisherman, and that is being accomplished, one gansey at a time.

We also invited other designers to participate in the project and have patterns available that have aligned themselves with the Cordova Gansey Project. This includes the Fisher Lassie cardigan by Bonne Marie Burns, which is a contemporary gansey-inspired garment that takes the basic elements and turns them around and into a female garment. Bonne’s design was inspired by our project and she has come and taught workshops both this summer and last on this fascinating knit. Tin Can Knits designed the Bowline Hat as our FisherFolk hat. Kate Davies designed Pink Fish, a set of lovely mittens with a scale pattern, and Julia Marsh from the Highlands of Scotland designed us a small color stranded fish pattern for making a fish with yarn that we had from our one and only sheep in Cordova, Shawn, and using wool we dyed in a group indigo dip at our event.

What was your favorite thing about the retreat?

I loved seeing the fellowship between knitters, and newly formed relationships and connections made. I loved the excitement and anticipation throughout the week. I loved peeking into the classrooms and watching the learning taking place. It is like having a garden. Seeds are sown, and I get the pleasure of watching the seeds sprout. As our small knitting community grows and learns new things, I get to see what that growth blossoms into. In light of this, I think my favorite part of the entire event was the evening when the ganseys that people had been knitting for the past year were shown one by one on the stage. Although honestly, I was a bit exhausted from all the preparations and follow through for the event, as I listened to each person’s gansey story and looked at the beautiful garments that had been made or were almost finished, and saw the look on the faces of those who had knit and those who had been knitted for, many of whom were dear friends, I was deeply moved and my heart was touched beyond words.

What’s been your favorite thing about the gansey project?

I believe it is both honoring and appreciating and connecting to our knitting family ancestry, as well as how involved and interested those being knit for presently have been as we knit for them.

Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska
Photos above: Lake Eyak; Jane Allen wearing the gansey she designed and knitted for her son, and her daughter Elaina wearing a Fisher Lassie cardigan, also knitted by Jane

Is the gansey project ongoing, and what do you have planned next? When will the next retreat be?

The gansey project is an ongoing project. The shop carries an extensive supply of Frangipani 5 ply gansey yarn from the UK in a wide variety of colors, including a custom color named Cordova that they made for us, which corresponds to the color of an aerial view of the Copper River Delta, which is where the silty glacial waters meet the sea, and is the headwaters for the pathway of the Copper River salmon and the site of the Copper River wild salmon commercial fishery.

We also are carrying a domestic artisan yarn from Upton Yarns, milled in the United States using wool from sheep from an island off the coast of Maine and hand-dyed naturally with indigo by Sarah. We carry all the elements needed for designing and creating a gansey including the Traditional Ganseys book and DVD by Beth Brown-Reinsel, large sheets of charting paper, knitting needles and heaps of encouragement. The project is open to anyone, anywhere who is interested. One can go through the process of making their own, which begins first with making the miniature gansey in Beth’s book, but it is also fine to use a pattern to make a garment in any size, any gansey pattern, with your choice of yarn. Frangipani and Upton give great stitch definition as well as our 12 ply Alaska Fisherman yarn. We are working on putting together a kit that will be on our website, due to the interest we are receiving form outside our area. If one is interested in finding out more, they can always contact me and I am happy to answer any questions. There is a great gansey group on Ravelry and we have a Facebook group.

Some people are continuing to finish their ganseys that were started last year and others are just now starting. Some have already completed three of them, and some are on their second. We have added the Faroe sweater to the project and those who took Mary Jane Mucklestone’s workhop at FisherFolk are working on their Faroe sweaters which are part of the project. We have woven labels for any hats that are completed including the Fishermen’s Keps that were started at FisherFolk, and printed canvas tags for those who finish their ganseys or sweaters. I am working hard now to complete my gansey for my son Nate and then make one for my daughter and son-in-law. We are a small town, but the project is really just getting going and would be nice to see it move throughout the state, and to wherever it naturally flows, and that its mission for honoring harvest, heritage and handknits would continue in whatever form that takes.

Next … in light of what was said above, I am still very much in the midst of this and with the knitting world moving so quickly these days from one thing to the next, I actually want to savor this. I want to enjoy finishing knitting this project for my son and focus and think of him as I knit all the love I can into his gansey. I don’t want to miss this opportunity to treasure this time and this project. Time is already moving so fast for me, and what is next after that are the next couple of ganseys I would like to knit for my family and just getting and keeping the shop in order. I am actually not sure what the next retreat will be. It will be smaller and perhaps with just one or two instructors. I am awaiting the next inspiration and tap on the shoulder. There are instructors we would like to have come to our area, and always so much more to learn, but for now after this FisherFolk event, we need to allow what we have learned to percolate, and take and put our new learning into use, and that takes time.

I believe also that this is a component of slow fashion, to appreciate what we have before us without feeling the pressure to keep up with an ever-changing world, as if we might be missing something, or as if what we have or even what we are doing in our craft life is not or never enough, and that even though it is important to take time to do our very best and to be thoughtful in our creative lives, we must remember to keep in perspective that the objects themselves are simply a vehicle for expressing our love and care for those we love and care for, and it is the people who wear and use these things that we value most of all.

Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska
Dotty on a hike to Crater Lake, with her Cordova Gansey Project backpack

PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Knitting With Company

All photos © Kathy Cadigan, used with permission

21 thoughts on “Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska

  1. What a wonderful report and event to take part in. A great and inspiring read. Thank you!

  2. This is so, so lovely. It’s wonderful to be reminded of the deep roots knitting has, and to feel connected to that whenever I knit. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up and feel frantic about completing projects, it’s nice to be reminded to take your time and craft everything with the love and care it deserves.

  3. Wonderful reading! My first thought is-Could I wear that gorgeous sweater cutting up fish??
    Another Slotober goal for me is to wear my handknits instead of shelving. Like why do people “save” their good china and silverware?
    Kudos to Jacob’s knitting skills!!

  4. Thank you for sharing this, what an inspiring and moving story. This quote really spoke to me:

    “we must remember to keep in perspective that the objects themselves are simply a vehicle for expressing our love and care for those we love and care for, and it is the people who wear and use these things that we value most of all.”

    I actually knit mostly for myself, and for me it is a way to feel be connected to others through time, and to connect with the earth itself. It isn’t about doing more, faster. It is good to be reminded that it is both possible and important to appreciate and take in the great things are happening in this creative and engaging making community without turning it into another consumption project.

    • Yes! Dotty is an inspiring woman, and I agree that the last two paragraphs contain the most important take-home message. Queues and wishlists and plans are fun, but they also distractions from the present experience. I appreciate that the Cordova Gansey Project is not Dotty’s marketing strategy for 2016, but something that will continue indefinetly in and beyond her community.

  5. Beautiful post, beaufitul pictures, fantastic. I have wanted to knit a gansey for a long time, more inspiration…

  6. I’m biased as I live in Cordova and know and love Dotty. You captured beautifully the variety and spirit of our town and the treasures that abound here in so many different ways. I loved the FisheFolk retreat and the snippets from the global world of knitters that I experienced. Thank you for this lovely article.

  7. i love this! i have been waiting for the right time to start my boyfriend’s gansey as i want it to be made with the consideration, love, care, and time that dotty so beautifully articulated above. and, i want to gain a few new skills before casting on! i just purchased a net loft tote as i think it’s the perfect way to carry this project around with me on trains, planes and automobiles, which i’m sure i’ll be doing as i do with every handknit i make. when his gansey is complete, i’ll be making the fisher lassie cardigan for myself, which i think is such a beautiful and wearable interpretation of a classic garment.
    thank you for the lovely interview!

  8. I had the opportunity to see some of the Moray Firth ganseys this past summer in Scotland and it’s lovely to read about the connection with Cordova and what Dotty is doing there. Thank you.

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  11. What a fun thing to stumble upon while going back through the archives — I was born and raised in a rural fishing town of about the same size in Alaska, I grew up on my dad’s commercial fishing boat, and I remember the two gansey sweaters my mom knitted him to wear while he fished. On a recent trip home I asked her about knitting them and she brought out an old book of gansey sweater patterns, spine broken, fallen apart, obviously very well loved. I asked if I could take it back with me so that I could explore making one, but my dad overheard and insisted it not leave the house. Next time I’m home I’m making photocopies!

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