Craftlands: QuiltCon

Craftlands: QuiltCon - Peppermint Twist by Irene Roderick

This past weekend, I had a house full of guests and several action-packed days surrounding the first occurrence of QuiltCon in Nashville. It’s an event I’ve wanted to attend for several years and never get to, but what could be more convenient than it happening in my own backyard?

QuiltCon is the quilting equivalent of a Stitches event for knitters, except in addition to the convention-center rooms full of classes, lectures and vendor booths, there are also over 500 modern quilts on display. It’s pretty dizzying. The marketplace area is fairly small compared to a Stitches event (though still plenty vast) but try to picture rows and rows of pipe-and-drape “walls” hung with that many quilts. It’s a lot to take in! And it took us two visits to see it all.

Craftlands: QuiltCon - Exit Wound by Audrey Bernier

I snapped photos of all of my favorites (too many to share) and of those only Exit Wound by 17-year-old Audrey Bernier was one of the official prize winners. It was among the Youth quilts, an area that was robust with social-justice quilts done in conjunction with the Social Justice Sewing Academy. Exit Wound is a statement on gun violence in the US, and the design was inspired by the fact that the exit wound for an AR-15 is the size of an orange. It is a mix of strong concept and subtle details, and a collage of patchwork, appliqué, embroidery, hand- and machine-quilting. Truly powerful work.

If I could have brought any one of the quilts home with me, I would have chosen Peppermint Twist by Irene Roderick, pictured up top. There were lots of quilts in the show that used tiny little strips of fabric, which was mind-boggling to me, and this one just really struck me as both technically amazing and visually stunning.

Or maybe I would take the quilt called Six Pairs of Pants by Sherri Lynn Wood, who was the featured quilter for this year and had about three aisles of quilts on display. She previously did a residency at the dump in San Francisco and made art and quilts from some of the discards. This one is literally made from six pair of pants, which takes you a minute to realize. I also loved the dress shirt one, where she’d left the buttons intact.

Craftlands: QuiltCon - featured quilter Sherri Lynn Wood

Of course, the best part was seeing old friends and meeting several new ones. In particular, I was thrilled to find out Karyn Valino was in town for the event. When I first got back into garment making, Karyn (aka @make_something) was a huge inspiration — I basically just wanted to sew every pattern I saw her sewing, and still do. (I definitely quizzed her about every garment she had on and added a couple of things to my list.) So it was great to get to meet and spend some time with both her and the lovely Jaqueline of Soak, who she was here with.

Craftlands: QuiltCon - Karyn Valino and Sandra Johnson

And in the aisles at the show on Friday, a woman walked past me wearing a fantastic hand-quilted, shibori, haori-style jacket. When I said “I LOVE your jacket,” she spun around and showed us her hand-stitched jeans and bag as well, then quickly told us her name, what all and where all she teaches, and that we could follow her on Instagram at @sandrajohnsondesigns for more, which of course we promptly did! Sadly, we didn’t get to see her quilted pants in person.

That’s barely skimming the surface of the incredible display of talent that is QuiltCon. Photos don’t begin to do the quilts justice, and if you get a chance to see a future batch in person, I definitely recommend it. I believe next year’s QuiltCon is in Austin TX.


PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Slow fashion retreats

Craftlands: Slow Fashion retreats

Craftlands: Slow Fashion retreats

One of the sure signs that the Slow Fashion movement is growing all the time is the number of slow-fashion-focused retreats that have been cropping up. At present, I’m aware of 4 that are happening in the coming months, and no doubt you’ll know of others — please do mention them in the comments! Some of these are sold out while others still have openings, but I believe all of them have wait lists and will also be repeated. So make your interest known to them!

Slow Fashion Retreat / Saco, Maine / July 22-27, 2018
Launched by Samantha Lindgren of A Gathering of Stitches last summer, this was the first one I heard of. Sam organizes 30 students into smaller groups that rotate between in-depth classes taught by Cal Patch (garment sewing), Katrina Rodabaugh (mending) and Jessica Lewis Stevens (dyeing), so everyone gets to learn everything. There’s also a clothing swap, guest speakers and more. Katrina says, “It’s held in a summer camp venue in Saco, Maine … we have a private classroom that’s literally across the street from the ocean.”

Slow Textiles Retreat / Hudson Valley, New York / September 21-23, 2018
Katrina and fellow dyer Sasha Duerr hosted a retreat last fall, which they’re repeating this year in Katrina’s own barn-studio. This one is more intimate, at 12 guests, and the focus is on foraging for and working with natural dye plants as well as incorporating dyeing and stitching/mending into a slow-fashion practice. In other words, a serious consideration of our relationship to the textiles we wear and how to make it as meaningful and long-lasting as possible.

A Study in Slow Fashion / Oceana County, Michigan / August 23-27, 2018
This will be the first retreat from newly formed Kinship, and will explore various aspects of building a handmade wardrobe, all in a gorgeous yurt in rustic Western Michigan.

New England Fiber Arts Summit / Wing & A Prayer Farm, Vermont / Spring 2019
Tammy White has been hosting small-scale gatherings on her beautiful Vermont fiber farm the past few seasons and has one in the works for next year that’s slow-fashion-centric, with an incredible lineup of teachers, but that’s not quite public knowledge yet. So I’m just giving you a heads-up on this one! Watch @wingandaprayerfarm for further news.

I’ve been invited to attend or guest/speak/teach at a few of these and have yet to be able to make it, but I hope one day my schedule and a gem of a retreat like this will line up!


PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Lost and found at Stitches West

Photos courtesy of Katrina Rodabaugh

Lost and found at Stitches West

Lost and found at Stitches West

My whirlwind trip to Stitches West was a punch in the gut and a slap on the back. Flying into Oakland — looking out the airplane window across the whole of the bay — was more emotional than I expected. And then it was like Old Home Week being back in that convention hall, at the first knitting convention I ever attended as a knitter, the first I ever sold at as a vendor. It was a joy to see so many of my industry friends, longtime customers, new faces, IG acquaintances, former students, well-loved totes and Field Bags, and so on and so on. I can’t say thank-you enough to everyone who stopped to say hello to me. It can be a weirdly isolating thing, writing a blog and/or running an online business, and to have people with actual faces take the time to stop and tell me what they like about what I’m doing is the just the sort of encouragement a girl needs sometimes, you know? So thank you from the bottom of my heart — and of course thanks also to everyone who bought off the Fringe shelf in Verb’s beautiful booth. And to the Verb crew for making me feel like part of the family,

This might come as a two-part surprise to you, but A) I knitted some log cabin mitts and B) I bought some yarn. The California Rambouillet, Range, that Verb has used for their pretty Log Cabin Mitts kits, which is what I was knitting in the booth, was such a beautiful and surprising yarn that I had to have a few little skeins. And sitting next to the indigo-marl Pioneer of theirs that I’ve been coveting from afar left me incapable of leaving without any. I couldn’t decide what I might want to make of it, garment-wise, so I was a good girl and bought a single skein. For now. From my dear friend Brooke of Sincere Sheep, I bought naturally dyed US Cormo, special stuff, for my niece’s hat. And I also couldn’t resist buying a skein of Plucky Knitter’s new Yakpaka. (If Susan Anderson hadn’t been cleaned out of the worsted weight of her Wisconsin Woolen Spun by the time I got there, some of that would likely have followed me home as well.)

On Preview Night, in YOTH’s booth, I went straight to the display of Veronika’s project for the #fringeandfriendslogalong (FO post coming soon) and the yarn she’d used for it. Dubbed “Neighbor,” it’s a collaboration between YOTH and Abundant Earth Fiber mill in Washington state. I have a couple of skeins of Abundant Earth yarns in my stash — one I purchased at Tolt long ago, and one I kept from that time I sold a tiny batch of Wensleydale she’d milled. In this case, YOTH had dyed the wool and Abundant Lydia had milled it, and it was completely irresistible to me, in a slubby, true faded-denim blue. So I bought a SQ (I know!) plus one skein of the marl. And on the way out of the hall after the show that night, along with so many other vendors, learned of the terrible news about Abundant’s booth. On their drive down for the show, their entire trailer had been stolen off the back of their truck, with all of their yarn inside. It was so heartbreaking to read the sign posted in their otherwise empty booth explaining the situation. But it ended with “we’ll be back tomorrow” and I’m so impressed with how they handled it. Rather than letting the booth sit empty and licking their wounds, they filled the display panels with photos and text, spent the time telling people about what they do (from the mill to their new Wool Tinctures) and taking online orders. Such a brilliant show of resilience — my hat’s off to them.

It’s never possible to sum up a thing like a weekend among knitters (and there’s never enough time to see everyone!), but suffice to say I’m grateful for the experience. I only wish I had taken more photos!

p.s. If you’re the lovely woman who embroidered the Woollelujah! tote pictured above, please raise your hand — I didn’t catch your name!


PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Scene at bought at Rhinebeck


Scene and bought at Rhinebeck

Scene and bought at Rhinebeck

Got back from Rhinebeck late Monday night — more properly known as New York State Sheep and Wool Festival — exhausted from the fun of seeing so many beloved people and meeting so many new ones. I know I say this a lot, but it’s always a pleasure to get to put faces to some of the many names I see on comments, orders and Instagram accounts, and to hear from you what it is you enjoy about this blog, so thank you to everyone who stopped to introduce themselves! And also to everyone who shopped the Fringe Supply Co. shelves in the Harrisville booth — it was such a mob scene I never even got to take a picture of it!

Scene and bought at Rhinebeck

My housemates* and I arrived a day early this year, which gave us a chance to hike up Overlook Mountain (amazing) and wander the streets of Hudson (adorable). The festival, for me, was pretty much just like last time: totally overwhelming on Saturday, relaxing and lovely on Sunday. It was quite warm — I was sleeveless both days — but no complaints, after I nearly froze last time. I bought a spectacular sheepskin from Sawkill Farm after having been close to getting one from her newsletter awhile back, and a sweater quantity of Harrisville’s denim-y blue wool heather they made special for the show. And in Germantown Sunday eve, I bought a gigantic vintage colorwork cardigan that was hanging on a rack on the sidewalk at Luddite Antiques, which I plan to bundle up in for porch knitting now that the weather in Nashville seems to have finally turned a corner. (Knock wood.) All in all, a most excellent trip.

Scene and bought at Rhinebeck

The same heartfelt thank-you goes to everyone who stopped by our booth at Fiber in the ’Boro on Saturday, which I’m so sad I had to miss! I love that sweet festival so much. As lovely as Rhinebeck is, I can’t say this often enough: There are wonderfully charming sheep and wool festivals all over this country and around the globe. Clara Parkes keeps a sizable list but I’m sure not even that is comprehensive! So please seek them out, have a blast, pet some sheep, and support your local/regional farmers and fiber folk.

p.s. Bravo to this gentlemen who was spotted carefully guarding his partner’s Field Bag at the festival while he napped and she shopped—

Scene and bought at Rhinebeck

*Pictured left to right in the group photo: @fancyamber, me, @knitknotes, @jen_beeman, @kategagnonosborn, @fancyjaime, @courtneykelley


PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: What I Know About Rhinebeck






What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

I’m cross-posting this lively interview to both Craftlands and What I Know About. You see, I’ll soon be making my second pilgrimage to the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck NY for the knitterati-packed New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, and rather than telling you what I know about it, I asked Kay Gardiner — mover and shaker, knower of things — to give us her much more informed perspective on how it has come to be the most famous fiber festival in the US, as well as her tips for how to get the most out of the event. I’m already wishing I’d had this advice before going my first time!*

You can find Kay’s wit and wisdom on the regular at Mason-Dixon Knitting and on Instagram @kaygardiner.

. .

How long have you been attending the NY Sheep and Wool Festival, aka “Rhinebeck”? What was it like in your earlier years?

I tried to figure out the correct factual answer to this question, but the archives of Mason-Dixon Knitting did not yield it up. The oldest Rhinebeck post I could find was in 2007, which was certainly not my first or even second Rhinebeck. I think my first Rhinebeck must have been 2004 or 2005. I remember my husband dropping me off with my daughter, who was a little girl then (wearing a Rowan Denim pullover that was very long on her), and that I was surprised and a little worried that a few people recognized her from the blog. The power of the Internet! Husband (who had a shockingly low interest in sheep) gave us something like a two-hour time limit before picking us up again, but I was hooked. I have missed very few Rhinebecks since that first one, and I’ve generally stayed two days instead of two hours.

What was it like? The early 2000s were the heyday of knitting blogs, which were the first blossoming of the rich, deep and wide Internet knitting community that we know today. Rhinebeck, a country livestock show, was inundated with roving packs of very excited knitters from all over the region and country. People would run into each other and start jumping up and down and squealing when they recognized each other. Many virtual connections became real-life friendships on the Dutchess County Fairgrounds.

How would you describe the difference between Rhinebeck then and now? Better/worse? Anything you miss or feel has been lost along the way?

The crowds seem to grow every year, but otherwise the fair retains its character as a sheep-centered event, despite the knitters thronging the yarn stalls. The fleece sale thrives, farmers and their kids still show their sheep, and the sheepdog trials are as lively as ever. We continue to mourn the tragic loss of the chicken pot pie stand, but we still have the Artichokes French and the apple cider donuts. I miss the Culinary Institute of America (based in nearby Hyde Park, New York) doing a big food tent. I can’t remember if that was for just a year or for several, or if I just dreamed it.

One fun event that did not exist for my early Rhinebecks is the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show, of which Mason-Dixon Knitting is a proud sponsor. Now in its fourth year, the Trunk Show takes place on Friday evening from 4-8 at the Best Western in Kingston, New York. Independent yarnmakers and dyers, from all over, are gathered in one place to discover.

Of all the fiber festivals all over the country, how did this one come to be the Mecca for the entire knitting world? Do you have a theory?

Timing is everything, and the third weekend in October is Peak Autumn in the Hudson River Valley. The show hits the exact moment when one most wants to be outdoors, breathing country air, looking at animals and wool, buying yarn, and checking out spinning wheels and looms. Winter lies just ahead, and we have to eat a bunch of kettle corn and get ready to hunker down for the duration.

I cannot remember a single Rhinebeck that was not beautiful, with the trees glowing orange. (OK, it may have been blustery and overcast in 2009.) On a few occasions the weather has been too warm for sweaters, but the knitters still manage to pile on the handknits. One of my lifetime goals is to knit a special-purpose Rhinebeck Sweater, as many knitters do (they’re frantically trying to finish them right this minute), but that would require planning ahead.

Do you remember that time I had a sweater photo contest? My way of living vicariously that year. For those who might be contemplating their first Rhinebeck visit, what’s your advice?

I’ve given this some thought! Rhinebeck is a whirl of sensory and social stimulation, and it’s also seven-hour days on your feet, exposed to the elements. Here are my tips for having a good time.

1. Make a plan. Before you get there, spend a little time with the new-and-improved vendor list. Jot down the sellers you absolutely must see, and see them first. Or, do as I do, and just walk through the barns in order, ready to be surprised and amazed by what you find. Popular vendors get hit hard very early, so if there is a yarn that you will be disappointed not to take home, get to that booth right at the start of the day.

2. Keep your strength up. Carry a bottle of water and some energy bars so you don’t get woozy. I’m not kidding! When you’re in the Rhinebeck Zone, two or three hours can go by without your noticing it until you need to lie down on the bleachers at the dog trials and look up at the sky. The Artichoke French and cider donuts lines are very long, and they are not going to get any shorter over the course of the day, so just get in line and enjoy the experience. You are going to meet lots of people and see lots of handknits while you wait. I like to save the kettle corn for last, and pick up a big bag of it on my way out of the fairgrounds, “for the kids.”

3. Take care of your feet. This is no time to break in a pair of new shoes, or for sandals of any description. The fairgrounds are dusty and uneven when dry, and sloppy when wet. Ideally you want to be wearing old Frye boots, Blundstones or the like. If it’s been raining, you are going to want full-on rubber boots, like the farmer in Babe wore.

4. Handknits: more is more. Rhinebeck is a feast of knitwear. Wear as many handknits as you can fit, visibly, on your body. Compliment the beautiful handknits you see passing by — that’s why people are wearing them!

5. Buy stuff. Don’t get so overwhelmed by the amazing range of goods on offer that you forget to buy a few skeins of something beautiful. Rhinebeck is an opportunity to support people who have dedicated their lives to making beautiful, authentic yarns, tools and supplies for us. We didn’t always have so many choices, and we have them now because these craftspeople are able to make a living doing what they love, and what we love.

6. Make friends. Stop by the book barn (in building B, not far from the picnic tables) to meet authors who will be more than happy to sign their books. Ann and I will be there on both Saturday and Sunday from 11-2, hoping to say hi to as many people as we can.

7. Parties! On Saturday night, there are two fun events that I know of. One is the first-ever Mason-Dixon Knitting Rhinebeck Pie Party, in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s free; for details and to RSVP, go here. Stop by for a few minutes, or stay a while, have a cup of hot cider and a slice of pie from a great local baker. We’ll be there from 5-8.

Also on Saturday night, from 6-9 across the river in Kingston, is Jill Draper’s legendary open studio night, a great event of food and people and an incredible selection of her beautiful yarns for sale. Here’s her Eventbrite to RSVP.

And who are you especially keen to spot in the crowd this year?

You, of course!

. . .

I did not pay her to say that. Thank you, Kay! See you there—

As fun as Rhinebeck is, it’s important to note that there are amazing fiber festivals all over this country. If you’re not familiar with your own state’s (or region’s) offerings, definitely Google it. And please share your favorites in the comments below! Fringe Supply Co. will have a presence in the Harrisville Designs booth at Rhinebeck this year, and that same weekend we’ll have our own booth at our favorite Tennessee festival, Fiber in the ‘Boro. Mark your calendars!


*Please forgive me for reusing the images from my 2015 Rhinebeck recap here — the rest of my photos from that trip were all lost! I’ll take new ones this year.

PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)
PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: My week in the Craftlands

My week in the Craftlands

My week in the Craftlands

I got home from my weeklong, double-header trip Tuesday night, planning to write a bit about it for yesterday’s post. But in addition to being exhausted and wanting to hang out with my husband, my mind was just too full from the trip. I needed a minute.

I wrote a very short Craftlands post about Knitting With Company back in June, when I was first invited to be a featured guest at their October event in Minnesota. It overlapped with the Nordic Knitting Conference in Seattle — an every-other-year occurrence that I had planned on attending since missing the 2014 event — and I decided to do both, because I’m a crazy person. But sometimes crazy pays off, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss either of these events — especially because both wound up feeding my Slow Fashion October brain in various ways.

Knitting With Company is ostensibly just an opportunity to hang out in a lodge setting and knit with some well-known designers — and a bunch of other wonderful knitters — for a few days. While there are no classes, though, there are talks by each of the four headliners (for lack of a better word), which are always Julie Hoover and Catherine Lowe plus two special guests. At this one, that was me and Norah Gaughan, who is as delightful as can be. I absolutely loved hearing Julie, Catherine and Norah’s talks. Each discussed their path as a designer, showed examples of their work and talked about their motivation and their process — each of them so different as designers and presenters, but so exceptional when it comes to the thoughtfulness and knowledge and experience they pour into their patterns. For my part, this being October, I wanted to find a way to talk about slow fashion and Slotober without it being a “lecture” in any sense. So I decided to show slides of 12 garments from my wardrobe (knitted, sewn and mended) and talk about the lessons I’ve learned from them — skills, sentimental value, longevity — that variously highlighted slow fashion principles while also, hopefully, maybe, giving everyone something to think about with regard to choosing projects and yarns well. (Mostly a learning-from-my-mistakes scenario!) So for me, those few days were casual and relaxing yet thought-provoking and inspiring.

And of course, I like knitters and enjoy being surrounded by them — and especially enjoy being a curiosity to the other guests in an establishment. I witnessed one of my favorite knitterly moments ever, too. A woman named Tammi, who I was instantly fond of, had just finished Julie’s Ludlow scarf  pattern and wanted to know if Julie would be in a photo with her and her scarf. Julie hates being in pictures but is one of the best photographers around, and so she offered to take Tammi’s FO photos down by the water. Not only was it amazing — the very idea of the photgraphically gifted designer shooting a knitter’s FO photos — but Tammi owned that little impromptu photo shoot like nothing I’ve ever seen. She was striking poses and smiling radiantly and my heart fell out in a puddle as I watched from the balcony. And yes, Julie also submitted to the joint selfie. Everyone was just lovely, and if any of the attendees are reading this: I loved meeting you.

My week in the Craftlands

Nordic Knitting Conference was the opposite of Knitting With Company. Held at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, it’s a tightly packed schedule of classes and lectures, and I definitely nerded out on how focused and academic it was. Arriving late, I only got to take three classes: one on the Skolt Sami* people and their unique style of colorwork; one on a specific Sami woman named Skaite-Maria who was something of a minimalist going her own way; and a looser survey of Nordic styles and traditions and their influences. I ate up every minute of it and can’t wait to go again in 2018.

My week in the Craftlands

But here’s the thing — between the two events, I found myself in the midst of multiple tangential conversations about how, historically, much of one’s wealth was tied up (no pun intended) in the textiles one owned. Think of pirates stealing people’s chests of cloth and clothing, or of the traditions of trousseaus and hope chests. We talk a lot about how many fewer items of clothing people used to have in their closets (in, say, the first half of the 20th century), but long before that people spun and wove and tatted and knitted and crocheted. Farm folk pored over their lace borders and collars, tucking the finest of them away for their future lives, and rich people invested in brocades and tapestries and bespoke clothing. What we take for granted and amass thoughtlessly and toss off without a care, our ancestors placed incredible value on.

In the Nordic survey class, the teacher, Susan Strawn, talked a lot about museum collections — how they are built and cataloged and viewed. She mentioned that what gets donated tend to be special occasion clothes, worn once and not all that descriptive — wedding gowns, christening garments. What academics and researchers and curators long for are the everyday clothes that were worn and darned and have stories to tell. (I could talk about that green child’s sweater up there for hours.) Isn’t that what we keep saying in #slowfashionoctober? What I’ve learned from my clothes these past few years — what I was driving at in my talk and have written about so often — is I want every article of clothing in my closet to have a story to tell.

I also got to thinking, over the course of those three classes, about mending — and the fact that people not only made their clothes, historically, but that they were conceived with wear and mending in mind. The Sami mittens are one great example among many: The teacher of my two Sami classes, Laura Ricketts, was talking about the braided cord that hangs from each Sami mitten, which is used to secure them (to your waistband, your reindeer, whatever!) when you need to take them off for any reason. When she first began knitting replicas of mittens she’d seen in museums, for teaching purposes, she thought it would be clever to use her cast-on tail for the braid, to save time and yarn. No no, the locals told her — it’s attached separately, because if the braid gets damaged or worn, you want to be able to replace it without compromising the mitten itself.

There was an older Norwegian woman in the Nordic traditions class — a museum volunteer, who was dynamic and saucy and had the most awesome voice and accent. She was a child in Nazi-occupied Norway and had heart-wrenching stories to tell about life during the war, including the ways people had of removing the lower part of a sleeve to re-knit it when the cuffs wore bare, sewing clothes for the children from the worn or outgrown garments of the grown-ups, her father’s suit that was “so shiny and so thin” from wear. We, the general public, do not know how to darn our socks or elbows, or re-knit our cuffs. Store-bought clothes rarely even come with extra buttons stitched inconspicuously to the front placket or side seam anymore, because who ever replaces them? A shirt with a lost or broken button is one for the donation bin — where, ironically, the lost or broken button will likely get it sorted into the landfill pile rather than resold in the charity shop.

I feel this more intensely all the time: It’s not just knitting, what we’re doing. Not just sewing. Not just mending. It runs so much deeper than that.

Also: I got a lot of knitting done. ;)

My week in the Craftlands

*You may know the Sami as Laplanders, but that’s apparently considered a pejorative term. The things you learn!

PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska

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

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All photos © Kathy Cadigan, used with permission