It was just over a year ago that I returned to the states after my Shetland Wool Week
and Fair Isle excursion. If it is true that "tradition is a river that flows towards new ground" *
, then I was headed downstream, afloat on a vessel of its own accord, surrounded by satchels of unformulated ideas and plans, and a seed of inspiration held close in hand and heart.
It is an interesting habit and tradition that we name our waterbound vessels. Sometimes we may name ranches, or cottages, or even cars, but water vessels are most always named, and proudly painted on bows and sterns to identify and admire . Sometimes one may inherit a boat name, and other times one gets to choose their own. In 1980, when we had our first boat built, we had the opportunity to give our new boat a name of its own. My husband wanted to call it the ORION, the mighty hunter, after the constellation, and consequently, the ORION became a part of his personal identity and that of his crew and his fishing operation. He even named his next boat the ORION as well, wanting to maintain the identification that had attached itself to his persona and commercial fishing life.
And so, in like manner, the "vessel" that I was aboard and headed downriver was deemed officially "The Cordova Gansey Project", whose home port of call would be Cordova, Alaska. The project would not necessarily be limited to our town, nor represent the migration of just a single pattern or knitting style, but would rather be a broader collection of traditional handknit working gear borrowed from those in other regions with a shared fishing and knitting history, and would hopefully extend its reach to anyone who was interested and grasped its vision.
As I began to move forward, ideas emerged. First, as an American, I thought this project would ideally be integrated regionally , and I knew of an American author Beth Brown-Reinsel who had a book, Knitted Ganseys, that we carry in the shop. Awhile back, we had hosted a small study group workshop on the book, taught by one of our local knitting instructors, Valerie Covel. Even though I wasn't able to be part of Val's group, it still interested me. Beth was my first inkling and first stop. I started emailing her to initiate a conversation about this idea that was brewing.
Through my emails and phone conversations with a very kind, helpful, and receptive Beth, I began to formulate a plan. We would start with a core group of knitters who were interested in knitting a loved one a garment designed specifically to suit the modern fisherperson. My thought was..
- I have fisherman son in law (who I had promised to knit a sweater for over two years ago)
- I have a fisherman daughter married to the son in law
- I have a fisherman son
All three are current fisherfolk (although we call everyone male and female fishermen here) and part of a group of young fishermen who have recently entered the fishery
- that I would love to enrobe each of them in a functional handknit made-to-fit garment that they could work in that would actually be superior to its synthetic counterpart. This would be the “working in wool” component.
- I love the thought of taking fishermen sweaters back from fashion to function, although there is nothing to say that these would not just be functional, but I hope that they would be fashionable as well.
- perhaps others might want to join me in this project, and we could be work on this project together....
The plan would be to start in June 2015, and it would involve Beth and begin with a Fiber & Friends Gansey Workshop.
The initial workshop with Beth was set for 20 students to be predominantly locals that were interested in creating a “working in wool” garment, whether it be for fishing, forestry, or other outdoor use. For two days we would work on constructing a reduced size model and for two days we would design a garment specifically geared towards a specific person, with the goal of completing the garment by the first day of the gillnet opening in May 2016. At the same time we made these arrangements, I had this idea in my mind that we would bring her back again the following summer and start a new group, as well as invite other instructors and build a symposium style event centered around the fishing/knitting/fiberart connection, and so the Net Loft Fiber & Friends:FisherFolk event was sketched into the calendar for 2016. It would be an opportunity to launch our first set of ganseys and share this concept with others, as well as celebrate our local fishing fleet and community.
An important element to be figured would be our yarn choice(s) for the project. One advantage the United Kingdom had was the great sheep close at hand, and since we have no flocks of sheep in Cordova, I began to research who was making gansey yarn in the United States. Beth Reinsel-Brown referred me to Upton Yarns on the East Coast, as they sell an American 5 ply naturally hand dyed sturdy gansey yarn. I initiated a dialog with Sarah of Upton Yarns, hoping we could make our initial set of garments for this year with her yarns, but there just wasn’t enough available at this time. Sarah was good to talk with and we made a plan for her to have some of her yarn available in gansey quantities spun and naturally dyed with indigo by June 2016 for our planned FisherFolk event. We decided people could choose the yarn they wanted, but also had available a wide selection of Frangipani traditional gansey yarn from the UK, which the majority of the group chose. I had spoken to Russ at Frangipani, who was also very helpful, and even shared stories with me of his time as a commercial fisherman whose boat went as far as Greenland years ago. He shared his story of how when he first got there, they gave him a close fitting gansey to be worn right next to the skin, and though a bit rough, it "did the job".
I was able to take a workshop with Beth at StitchesWest in February. Such a wonderful teacher, just being with her that day and seeing her in her gansey cardigan made me look forward to our summertime sessions in Cordova with excitement and anticipation. I was assured that she was the perfect person to help and guide us with our project.
We warmed up to Beth's gansey workshop with a knitalong where those interested could knit a gansey wrister designed by Beth. Particants could use Frangipani, and Sarah from Upton made some of her yarns available for those interested in working with a domestic 5 ply yarn. Beth met us online for a Ravelry chat online, and we were off and running. I was really glad for this opportunity to practice the channel island cast on and to practice some of the techniques we would be learning more about in her upcoming class.
Beth came to Cordova in early June, and our pilot group had 4 days with her lessons and instruction in traditional gansey knitting.
The days were filled with knitting, planning, studying reference books, calculating, and charting.
Using our swatches, measurements, favorite garments, and input from our end users, we began the design process for our individual garments.
Our new gansey knitting knapsacks would hold our yarn cones,
and there was a little exploring around the area thrown in, just for fun, for those from out of town.
As far as who would receive the first gansey from me for the project, I decided on my son Nathan, who was excited about the prospect of a custom fit sweater and I obtained his measurements to help with the process, and already had ideas on ways he wanted it customized to suit his particular practical needs as a fishing sweater.
As we were working in the classroom, I looked around and I thought about my time in Shetland and more specifically the fisher lassies and the old photos that had drawn me in. I thought about the friendships and the smiles on the faces of the women in the photos with their knitting in hand. I was reminded of this as I scanned the room and watched the faces of the women who "hopped aboard" and joined me on this venture, and feel grateful for their friendship and willingness to take part.
I was amazed to see how each of the participants embraced the spirit of the project and watched as they each brought their ideas to life as they began to chart and create their own unique gansey sweater blueprints.
Finishing off our time together with a shared potluck feast which included fresh grilled Copper River Red Salmon was the perfect ending to our fisherknitter four day "Traditional Gansey" workshop. We are continuing to meet periodically in town, and also stay in touch via Ravelry and a Facebook Group which you can join if you are interested in following along with our progress.
This was Part 1 of the plan that emerged and focused primarily on the history and knitting of a Traditional Fisherman's Gansey. Part 2 focused on another version with a contemporary twist, and I will share more on that coming up...For those who would like to join in, you can contact us and I can get you started now using Beth's book, DVD (excellent), and Frangipani yarn, OR you can take Beth's workshop which we will be repeating again next summer. It was a wonderful experience, and loved seeing all her knitted samples, and having her close at hand to answer all my questions. We will have online registration available soon.
I would especially like to thank Beth Brown-Reinsel for her guidance and expertise as we embark on this journey to help an old tradition flow into new territory here in our commercial fishing village of Cordova, Alaska, and we look forward to her return next summer for Net Loft Fiber & Friends 2016: FisherFolk when she will start another group of FisherKnitters on their way.
credits: Painting by Jen-Ann Kirchmeier Copper River
* see previous blog entry #8G
I left the cool and crisp outside air and entered the warmth of the Auld Haa Guest House, welcomed by the fragrance of a savory dinner and a glowing coal fire. I love to eat, and to be cooked for is a real treat, as usually I am the one commanding the kitchen and this meal happened to be a very fresh leg of lamb. For someone whose diet generally consists of salmon, salmon, and more salmon, this was a special delicacy, and Tommy cooked it to perfection with a crusty layer of his own blend of herbs. Followed by a warm chocolate pudding cake topped with chocolate ice cream, an evening of knitting on the couch, and a deliciously cozy bed, it couldn't have been a better ending to a perfectly lovely day.
For the rest of my time on Fair Isle, I was able to spend more time with Kathy, enjoying a lesson and first time spin on her great wheel, not so much my usual "craft nap" which I often call my spinning time, with a bit new coordination needed to keep the wheel spinning with my right hand while standing, and then drafting and winding into the spindle with the other hand. It was a fun first attempt on her great wheel, and something I have always wanted to try. Kathy is a kind and gentle instructor, and also has accommodations in her home. If you are planning a fiber artist visit to the island, her place would be a nice spot to stay as well.
Kathy then shared her three hundred year old flax wheel with me. Dear "Lady Haddington", as she was called, with her golden drive band, spun like a charm, swift and fine with the Fair Isle fleece Kathy provided. I felt it a privilege to push down on her treadle and watch her work as my hands did their best to keep up with her pace, amazingly smooth for her age, and with a just little song in her step, which filled the air with a harmony and clickety whirr, as Kathy spun on another of her wheels alongside.
I always feel a little sad for the spinning wheels in museums perched motionless in a display, so much usefulness still within, yet silently frozen in time, held captive within an exhibit. In my mind I imagine them eager and waiting for someone to just place their foot on the treadle, allowing their wheel and flyer to be set free and fly once more. How fortunate for Lady Haddington to have such a home as Kathy's, living a continued life of productivity and providing others with the joy of taking her for a spin.
Sometimes I wrestle with feeling older and outdated, and Lady Haddington gave me a nudge and reminded me that there can still be usefulness and productivity, despite my aging years, and though time goes by and we get a little worn, there are still those who appreciate and find joy in our longevity.
As my stocking foot found its place on the wood worn pedal, I thought and wondered who was it so long ago that had spent so many hours at that wheel, most likely out of necessity, spinning spinning spinning. Who were they and what was their story?
We spun and talked, talked and spun...and at one point we discussed the difference held in the handmade. Kathy put into words what I had thought and felt so often about the part of us that becomes embedded in that which we make by hand, especially in hand spinning and knitting, as every single strand and stitch has physical contact with our hands as we touch the fiber or yarn. There is something concrete, yet esoteric, that is transmitted from the life in our hands to the objects we make.
This relationship between the creator and the created, I think is the component that is hard to describe, but well understood by anyone who is a maker or the recipient of that which is made by someone. It is like my hat from Elizabeth Johnston, the handspun and hand knit one that I treasure. Kathy's idea was that it is as though a bit of our DNA is knit in as we touch and make, and it is what makes a piece authentically unique on a molecular level. (Kathy, if you read this, please correct me if I didn't get that right).
I know for me, and for those who make things, we all know that our love for those we make things for, is the most important and significant ingredient we put into the things we make. But in terms of what Kathy was saying, it does seem very true that a part of ourselves is in that which we make, even if we don't know who will be the recipient, and those in tune know and understand on a deeper level the difference that that human touch makes in the final product.
In addition, Kathy commented in regard to this final end product, the garment itself, and the nature of how it is worn provides the other half of the story, one that goes beyond the hands of the maker. In her own words, "The garment itself witnesses and teaches you its story, more than just reading about it." It is this interesting combination of the makers making and the wearers wearing of it that tells the full story of a handmade garment. There are so many stories to be told, and it is interesting to think that the knitting itself and its life in use is able to be a testimony and means to reach backward and forward through time.
This time with Kathy was a perfect compliment to my visit to the George Waterston Memorial Centre & Museum, just a short walk up a small hill from Kathy’s place, where I met with Anne Sinclair. I studied the cases thoroughly as I wanted to glean everything I could from them and from any knitting articles I could find there. There were several examples of fisherman's caps (keps) on display and I even was able to purchase a pattern for the traditional design which Anne had written up. My ears always perk up when I hear that word..."Fishermen? Did you say fishermen? These are my people...boats, nets, fish, lines...."
What is it that we expect from our places of rich history, and what did I expect from all those books that led me here, from all the stories, patterns, sweaters, old photographs that beckoned me to come? Perhaps it is to catch just a glimpse of some remnant of that history to touch and feel for our very own, and to entwine somehow our history into theirs, even if just for a little bit.
Anne was very kind, and after finding I was a spinner invited me to her parents home, so after my museum tour, we headed to their place up the hill.
She introduced me to her father, Stewart Thomson, and her mother, Annie, well known for her exceptional knitting. Stewart invited me to spin on a wheel of his own making there on the island. He showed me his wheels, and the tools he had made, as well as the wheels he was teaching his grand daughters to make. This time with Stewart in his spinning room was a gift, and his daughter Anne must have seen my heart without it being spoken that day when she invited me to spend that time with her father.
For the rest of the day, we spun yarn and shared stories. Every moment precious, both in conversation as well as in the quiet lapses of simply spinning, the time beyond words. The hope and desire for a touch of that remnant that I had been seeking that had originally drawn me to the island, I found in that time with Stewart.
It gets back to that human element. It's not just the knitting or the handspun yarn, lovely though they may be. The time with Kathy around the kitchen table drinking tea and sweets was the treasure of my time with her and the same held true for Stewart. Life is so fragile and so short, sometimes the knitting outlives us, and grateful we are for the brief moments and human touch, and the warmth of the smile from a new friend, amidst the aches of the human heart from the trials and challenges we can't help but encounter in our earthly lives, and that no place can escape regardless of its beauty or seemingly idyllic life.
When I returned home after my trip, I was digging through all my old books, so curious and hungry for more information on Fair Isle and Shetland, and there I found in the fine print, two photos of Stewart Thomson, from one of those early early books that had started the trail so many years ago, leading me onward to this place and time. It was so perfect to have this perspective, like the view from the mountains at camp, I could look back and see where all the trail had taken me. There he was and there I had been, and when I realized it, I found the physical touch of Stewart, spun into every fiber of the skein he gave me as I left, to be the treasure I continue to hold as a symbol of all I learned and encountered on Fair Isle. I'll have to make something special with it someday soon, but not sure just what that is quite yet...
But as far as this tale is concerned, I had not quite yet left the island, with still some tales to tell. And although my time across the sea was drawing near to a close, these ideas of handmade and fishermen and spinners and knitters were growing a life of their own, with an old purpose made new, and soon to blossom for us here in Cordova, Alaska.
the story continues HERE
Today as I was writing, I was feeling bad for taking so long to tell this story. It is just that so much life goes on imbetween my telling of it, and each little part plays a part in it and hard to leave those things out. Isn't that so true of life itself.
Each little part is part of our stories and each little part has value. I think of The Net Loft and how for me, each and every person that walks through the door, or for those who find us from afar online, each of you is important and has value, and I thank you for finding us. So onward with the story, which for The Net Loft, for now, is ongoing, and glad to have you listening and following along. We appreciate you.
And now....back to our story and my first afternoon on Fair Isle...and a special afternoon it was for me.
Tommy dropped me off at a home just around the bend from the Auld Haa Guest House, and I was greeted most pleasantly with the warmth and hospitality of Fiber Artist, Kathy Coull. Kathy is a spinner & knitter and instructor who has her own sheep and small yarn production. She recently had completed coursework for a BA in Contemporary Textiles with honours at the University in the Shetlands, but was now back on Fair Isle and her life here. In no time I found Kathy to be a kindred spirit with a sharing heart. On her wall was a large cross stitch bearing the words, "Laughter brings sunshine into the home" and that certainly was so, for in each moment her joy overflowed and filled the room.
There were so many jewels I wanted to hold on to and not forget. I had thought so much about everything while on this trip as I had spent so much of it alone driving or in the quiet of my down time as a solitary traveler. I wanted to take down so much of our conversation, as she had such a wisdom and appreciation for handcraft, and found myself taking notes and scrawling down bits and pieces of her sentences so as not to forget.
These conversations were timely and memorable. With all the taps on the shoulder, pats on the back and lumps in my throat up until now, I was prime for these days of mental sorting and one on one discussion versus my days in Shetland racing from one workshop to the next. Things were beginning to gel for me and this idea for the “Cordova Gansey Project” was taking a literal shape in my mind. The idea was no longer just a slight tap or nudge, it felt tangible somehow by this point, be it small, more like the size of a very tiny seed that I could almost feel being carried in my pocket. Like any other seed I felt it had a true possibility for growing into something far bigger. As I talked with Kathy, it was as if I brought the seed of of my pocket to show her, and watered by our shared conversation and discussion of thoughts and ideas, I could somehow feel it swell as our dialogue deepened and ventured from the practical to the philosophical aspects of handcraft, which I found we both shared a high regard for.
In the midst of our discussion she brought out her current commissioned project, a pullover of finely spun naturals knit in bands of traditional Fair Isle design. Beautiful inside and out, we analyzed the spinning, pattern, and structure of her work in progress. The practical interwove with the philosophical as we ventured into the topic of "tradition", and her perspective on the subject. I had this question, "What REALLY is Fair Isle knitting, and what features distinguish it from other stranded colorwork?" I was trying to understand the distinction and details that set it apart, which led us into a deeper discussion on tradition, and the conflict and controversy that sometimes comes at the juncture of tradition and the progression of pattern and design.
It seems like no matter where you are there exists an interesting relationship, and sometimes tension, between traditional and contemporary, and yet it seems they are interwoven and dependent on one another. Contemporary builds on the past and tradition is dependent on the present here and now to carry it into the future. Sometimes those who have a high regard for tradition desire to preserve it intact unchanged.
Kathy talked about how sometimes traditions may not necessarily be an institution from the faraway past or surrounded with pomp and circumstance. A tradition may just be someone deciding to do something here and now. It could be started by any of us. It is interesting to me having lived for a little while now, to see how traditions cycle and how they sometimes are made new possibly having been disregarded for some time or on the verge of being forgotten.
We talked about this in light of the gansey project, and how I might show honour to the past while at the same time starting something new and relevant for our current generation of knitters and fisher folk. Right now I see so much of the older styles of knitting being given a rebirth as they integrate and find new life superimposed on newer and updated styles as well as how they were, being appreciated by a new generation, and this is what I see for our project as well.
As we looked through her notebooks we talked further on these topics of contemporary versus traditional concepts. Much food for thought. I felt as though she had helped me sort out some things, just being able to talk and discuss them, thanks to dear Kathy, with many smiles and much laughter.
At one point, as we talked, I looked out the window and there was Kathy's "catty" wistfully looking in on us, as only cats can do, and it dawned on me, that here I was sitting at a kitchen table peacefully having tea and a chat with a kitty peering in the window on the island of Fair Isle, and the thought of it just made me smile and laugh a little to myself. There is no place in the world I would have rather been than just right then and there.
After showing me her yarns that she has milled and produced from her sheep, and her wonderful upstairs loft filled with an array of spinning wheels, including one three hundred year old flax wheel named "Lady Haddington" that caught my eye, we agreed to meet again the next day for more time together which I really looked forward to.
Several hours had passed and I walked home in the quiet of the approaching twilight along the single lane path and eyed the glow in the window of my Fair Isle home that welcomed me in the distance. The gentle sound of the wind and lapping waves along the rocky coast was the only sound, and though far around the world from where I had come from, for tonight, this home was where I felt I belonged and felt grateful for where life had taken me this day.
Back to our story...
(For those who are just dropping in, start here to read the full story)
A place to stay and a way to get there... that was the extent of it.
Pressed for time, once I decided that the island of Fair Isle would be on my itinerary, I did a little searching, wrote off some emails, and ended up making arrangements with a gentleman named Tommy at the Auld Haa Guest House, built for the island's Laird in the early 1700’s. Tommy kindly made my flight reservations from Tingwall to the island, so I was set.
A place to stay and a way to get there.
I had heard repeatedly that the flight to Fair Isle was weather dependent, and there was always a chance that if the weather wasn't right, then the trip would be off. This being said, I was delighted when the storms of the previous week had passed and appreciated the blue skies I awoke to on the morning of the flight. Knowing that this wasn't always the case, I was grateful for the clear and wonderful view of Shetland as we lifted off from the runway. I loved that I could see below many of the places I had traveled to and from throughout Shetland Wool Week as we passed across the islands and headed southward.
I was in the far back seat and could see the view on either side of me. On my right I could look back towards my little home at Vementry Farm off in the distance, and to my left I could look out and see as we nearly flew right over the bridge and the village where I had traveled to weave in the evenings with Emma Blain of Aamos Designs.
Continuing south I spied the outline of the lengthy Burra Island where I had silversmithed with Mike Finney, and could see in the distance the ridge and on down the east coast where I had taken the spinning course at Hoswick. What a wonderful week it had been.
Soon the Shetland Islands were behind us, and as we flew across the deep blue waters, I reflected on these present times and this little lone crossroads island I was headed for that at one time was only reachable by sea. Once an important way station for North Sea seafarers, now not so necessary. How swift the changes come and go through time as inventions that create new opportunities sometimes cast shadows on those they displace.
As we flew, I knit and thought about this tug of war between traditions and the need/desire to keep them intact and the inevitable forging forward into the future and allowing of ourselves to break free from the traditions that somehow might possibly limit us.
I thought of Joan Fraser, the designer at the town hall Makers Market just a few days previously in Lerwick, and her fine gauge machine knit merino cowl I had bought from her that incorporated traditional patterns into a contemporary piece, yet still made and designed in Shetland. In contrast to this refined "high tech" accessory was the handspun handknit mushroom and lichen dyed hat I had purchased from Elizabeth Johnston that same day, which has since become my favorite day by day cap. Though very different, I love them both.
Fodder for future conversation…but for now, we were sweeping around the island preparing to land. This was it now, the island of Fair Isle right below me, where the trail of years and friends and fiber had led me...
Which takes me to the idea of expectations...I hadn't had a chance to form many concrete expectations, and believed I was wide open for whatever lay ahead, especially since I had so little preparation. But preparedness isn't always an indicator of how much or how few expectations one may hold within. And sometimes they are deeply embedded, and we don't even know we have certain expectations or assumptions until they are not immediately realized. Perhaps it is like the person arriving for the first time in Alaska and thinking to themselves, even though perhaps they may know better, "Where are the igloos?"
I stepped out of the plane and although I was just barely above sea level, as I my foot rested on solid ground, I felt as though I was taking a step on to the top of a mountain peak. Like my old camp days, the view and perspective from above was akin to my view back through time and what had led me here, and in all of that, my heart swelled with emotion. My host, Tommy, greeted me donning his Fair Isle knitted cap. As we drove to my new "Fair Isle home" I peered out the car window scanning the countryside, and found myself looking for what I didn't realize that I was thinking and expecting to find. Maybe down deep I thought I was going to see the road lined with cottages with rows of hand knit jumpers (sweaters) on wooden stretchers drying on their porches and alongside the fences. I didn't know that I expected to see them until I didn't.
Perhaps it was the scenes in the Alice Starmore video I had viewed so many times so long ago that had made a long forgotten impression, or possibly I had been influenced by the photographs in those Fair Isle books cast away on the shelf at home. All seemed very very very peaceful and still, except for a random birder binoculars in hand ( or "twitcher" as they called them) here and there, walking beside the stone fences harboring grazing sheep, but other than that, not a soul or sweater in sight.
Like I said, it is funny about expectations, sometimes we don't know we have them until things are different than what we sometimes don't even realize we are expecting.
We arrived at the Guest House and I loved what would become my "Fair Isle home" for my days here, a two story building with worn wooden floors and deep window sills resulting from the thick stone walls, and a large fireplace with coal burning insert and mantle topped with Tommy's wonderful handmade wire & carved cuttlefish creations.
Tommy knew I was a knitter and that I was interested in seeing the "knitting sites" on the island because of our shared correspondence. After a light lunch, he kindly showed me his personal knitted examples, his Fair Isle hat collection. Each hat a story, some were handknit, some were hand spun, some were natural Fair Isle Wool, some were hand dyed colors. I soaked in all the stories which wove into the history of the island itself, and through them, tried to get a feel for what the current state of knitting was here on the island.
There was something settling for me about seeing all the knitting and patternwork. Down deep, I think it was because this was Fair Isle and I was primed to see "authentic Fair Isle knitting". I guess you could call me the epitomy of the "knitting tourist". Knitting...could you show me your knitting? Embarrassed to admit..Such a tourist. My expectations were calmed and quelled by this handful of handknits.
What is interesting is after looking at all those patterned hats, and studying them so carefully as we set them on the floor to photograph, I looked beyond and over to the rug on his floor and noticed how several of the shapes on the rims of his hats bear a close resemblance to this motif on his rug. It was an innocent observation, but interesting to note and observe, knowing this rug was more than likely from a faraway place, and loved thinking about how from makers hands, through craft and pattern, distant cultures may find common ground and connection. This, of course, rekindled my own personal curiousity about the trail and movement of patterns that have followed migrating cultures, especially when worldwide communication was more difficult. This was not just about the movement of people, but also about the traveling objects of their making, even when they didn't, and that part of them that unbeknownst to them influenced others as they melded and mixed with the designs along the way.
I also loved his use of worn Fair Isle jumpers which still had some usefulness left in them in these seat cushions, pillows, and even in his whimsical wired bird creations.
But what I liked most were the stories he shared entwined in the knitting. I was listening carefully to Tommy's tales and really appreciated the foundation they provided for my time here. With only 55 permanent "Islander" residents and several of those away at school, it was a small world here, and because of its geography, somewhat like Cordova, but on a much smaller scale, limited and isolated in the flow of passing through traffic. It wasn't always this way, for in the days when ships were the main mode of transportation, Fair Isle was an important stopping place, and frequented by fishermen. He mentioned that the hat he wore and several of his hats were actually traditional fisherman caps or as they called them, "keps". I had seen photos of them in the books long ago, but it just never really clicked, and now that all my gansey thoughts were stirring, I was more in tune to hear that this hat style he had was another fishing, fisherman and knitting connection, especially I would find out later on my trip, in regard to Fair Isle knitting. Aha....
Because of our emails back and forth, Tommy had so kindly pre-arranged for a knitterly focused visit and had planned meet ups for me with certain people on the island. While on the phone to someone I was scheduled to visit, I overheard him say, "I have Dotty the knitter here to see you", and as I heard him speak, I felt somewhat intimidated by the title he was referencing me by. In my head I thought, perhaps I would consider myself "Dotty a knitter" but certainly not "Dotty THE Knitter".
I had two instant thoughts. First it reminded me of when I was homeschooling our children and when we were studying history through literature and how we read this one book which we all loved which told the story of Leif Eriksson, called Leif the Lucky and how his father was known as "Erik the Red". It just felt like that same sort of title.
Then I thought back on this concept of the worthiness we sometimes wrestle with in our lack of confidence concerning our abilities, like those I spoke of earlier who I ask those that come in the shop if they are a knitter and they question if whether or not they are REALLY a knitter. In my own self consciousness, I just didn't believe I was anything special to deserve any such title.
I had to laugh at myself, however, as I soon realized that this was merely a reference to what had brought me here. I was simply being referred to as “Dotty, the knitter” in contrast to "Dotty the birder, or ticker or twitcher", the names they give the birders who bring the greatest number of visitors to the island. Silly me...
But for now, Dotty the knitter had people to see and places to go, and I couldn't wait to see where the rest of the day would find me, and Tommy was preparing to drop me off at my first stop. And so from my new two story "home", the Auld Haa Guest House, we left down the lane, and I was on my way to my next adventure...
#5 of lockers and fishing boats, fishermen and those who love them ...part B (for part A, please read first)
And so, alas, 'twas in the Shetland Islands, after I walked down the cobblestone path through the narrow village walkway from atop the hill that fine October day, that I reached the harbor in the town of Lerwick and made my way excitedly down the modern dock to the F/V Swan LK243, the boat on which my next Shetland Wool Week knitting class would take place.
I just remember walking along the planks of the wooden ramp that early morning and taking a big long deep breath just to really take it all in. I was so happy and grateful to be where I was right then and there.
And then, there it was, as clear as could be, "the diesel and the docks", and though half way around the world in an unfamiliar place, the fragrance spoke to me like the voice of a familiar friend. Just like that day of Nathan's hug, I was somehow reminded of other places and other times, and there was something quite endearing and comforting about that and the start of this very special day.
Grinning from ear to ear at this point, I joined the group as we were aided on board by the crew with our satchels of yarn and knitting. One by one we climbed onto the boat and down into the cabin. Here to take a class on Dutch Ganseys with Stella Ruhe, pictured below, the group of us from the UK, Europe and abroad arranged ourselves in the galley on benches squeezed around a small wooden table, rocking slightly with the lilt of the ocean, even though we were still tied up to the dock for the day.
Knowing nothing about the boat, its history or much about the fishing industry in Shetland, I assumed the Fishing Vessel Swan LK243 was still actively being used for fishing. At one point, as we were getting settled, I asked the skipper more about the boat and fishing life. Of course I wanted to know more about “his” boat and what he fished for and how they fished in the Shetland Islands. I thought myself somehow a compatriot of sorts, though I truly had no idea. I was wide eyed in general about being in this new place and so much to soak in, but so eager to connect to this place at 60 degrees latitude (just like Cordova) and what we held in common, ie: fishing for a living. Besides that, it was such a charming little boat, and I was somehow caught in this romantic nostalgia enhanced by the atmosphere and surroundings.
Ah yes, without a word at first, in answer to my question, the skipper patiently motioned me back up the stairs and up on the deck. In all honesty, I thought he was taking me up to show me his nets or something, but instead, he simply pointed in the direction of a VERY large vessel, at least 300 feet long on a MUCH larger dock off in the distance, and explained to me that although the Swan LK243 was at one time used as a herring boat, that these days, the herring fishery was performed by a few mega boats such as the one off on the distant dock and all is accomplished in just a few days of the year. He told me that the boat we were on was actually owned by a historical trust and that it’s fishing days were long gone. So sad I thought.
With that I returned down the stairs and back around the table, reflecting on the skipper's news and listening to the mesh of voices and accents from Shetland and Fife in Scotland, London, Suffolk, and Cullercoats in England, the Isle of Man, Denmark, and New Zealand as we all handled and studied Stellas's swatches and discussed the pattern ideas and were inspired by her stories of the Dutch ganseys that grew out of the herring fisheries in the UK.
Her words “follow the fish, follow the patterns, follow the herring trail and you will find the trail of knitting patterns that spread through this region" sunk deep into my heart and mind.
As mentioned before, Stella is an enthusiastic speaker. She is genuinely excited about her topic and what her research has revealed, and even now in the midst of a second collection of ganseys collected from Holland. She was a diligent detective and investigator, hunting and searching out photos and digging up clues as to the origins and evidence revealed by these garments she so eagerly sought. With little physical evidence left behind, she relied on the photos she uncovered through her research, and reknit them based on what she could see in the photograph. One reason she cited for so few being around, at least in Holland, was that they were worn until they were worn out, and that once a gansey became no longer able to be worn, the fisherman would often use it as a deck mop at the end of a stick.
One of my favorite stories and photographs she shared with us concerned the pompoms that were on the end of some of the men’s gathered gansey collars. It was odd and amusing to see these grown men with pompoms hanging from knitted strands tied in a bow on the front of their garments. As she explained the reasoning for the pompoms, I had to laugh to myself, as they weren't a decoration as I had assumed, but rather they were there to wipe away the jellyfish that would land in their eyes as they brought up the nets, and the drawstring were there to help draw up and secure the neckline. Beginning with the basic elements they found in the UK sweaters , these Dutch women who had knit the sweaters had added practical special touches of their own at the request of their fishermen husbands to help them as they worked, implementing their own tradition and creating a Dutch gansey knitting heritage.
As she spoke, still caught in an emotional fishing memory state, I was once again mentally transported to the days on the back deck of our seine boat, stacking the leadline, one of my jobs, and to the unforgettable memory of the hurtful sting from the jellyfish as the net came over the power block splattering jellyfish bits into our eyes. Right then, glancing at the photographs I felt an immediate connection to the gentlemen in the old photographs, for we shared the sting of the jellyfish, as well as the connection to their knitting wives with their desire to care for their loved ones via their knitting. If you look closely in the second photo below you can see the bits of peachy gold in the net, which are the bits of jellyfish.
The class was wonderful and halfway through, we all shared a delicious potato and smoked haddock soup with home made bread cooked for us by the "galley girl". After Stella's introduction and history lesson concerning the Dutch gansey version and how they came about, she further elaborated on the graphic designs that were incorporated via knit and purl in a way that varied from gansey to gansey.
These ganseys were "a reflection of life, fishermen, and their families". I think I continued to be most struck by the willingness of the Dutch women to make it their own and to comfortably adapt the patterns in a way that genuinely personalized them as they interjected their own motifs and that which they held important as translated graphically into their designs.
In light of this, as part of the workshop, instead of merely copying their ideas, Stella invited us to think about what we felt was important in our lives, and how we might graphically translate those values and images into simple patterns. WIth graph paper and pencil, then yarn and needles, we set about to reflect on this and bring our own ideas to life.
She also spoke about the garment she was wearing which wouldn't be immediately identified as a gansey, in the traditional sense, for it incorporated the essence of a gansey, yet looked completely modern and contemporary. In the quiet moments that followed, as I began to knit my swatch, I mentally wrestled with this myriad of thoughts concerning traditional, contemporary, fishing, fisherman, fishing boat, fishing towns, old patterns, new patterns then, now, now then...I wondered if anyone else's head was spinning as fast as mine was right then.
What rattled around in my mind was the thought of this fiber (ie:wool), this wonderful fiber with these wonderful qualities and how it was incorporated into a garment and personalized via the handknitter and worn by loved ones. I thought again as I had the night before when Stella had given her talk, that the Dutch gansey, in regard to actual fisherman was shrouded by these words, “was” “in the past” “historically” “traditionally”, and yet Stella was weaving together past and present in regard to ganseys.
Yes, it is true, ganseys ARE still around, and I do see ganseys and their influence all the time in the knitting fashion world, modified and unmodified, but what about the fishermen? If these were fishermen sweaters originally designed and worn by fishermen, then why weren't more fishermen still wearing them? The first realization, at least for today, was that at least here in the Shetland Islands, there weren't a whole lot of independent fishermen anymore.
Hmm....The pat I had felt earlier was no longer a pat, it was a lump in my throat. This is precisely what went through my mind.
- We are a fishing town. It is our proud identity.
- We bring a healthy sustainable product into the hands of the consumer.
- We are more than historical, and we are continuing to make history.
- We are an active, living, and thriving coastal fishing community and state in an industry where independent fishermen in small boats are presently harvesting an unadulterated product that is nutritionally superior than its farmed counterpart.
- We are knitters by choice and desire.
- We love to knit and we love to knit for those we love.
- Wool is a superior fiber with superior qualities, ideal for those working in cold and wet environments and we are a cold and wet environment.
With all this in mind, why could we as handknitters not put all these together once again in a way that was somehow new and different and incorporated our unique and special Alaska harvesting heritage?
The words, “working in wool” came to my mind. Just as the Moray Firth Gansey Project was about ganseys of the past, why couldn’t we have a project that clothed the fishermen of the present. Just as the Dutch women modified the patterns that they came in contact with that followed the fishermen on the herring trail and integrated them with their own designs and modifications and had implemented their own tradition, why couldn’t these patterns follow the fish once again and come to OUR fishing port and OUR fishing fleet, and be modified by our local hand knitters for an active present fisherman?
Simply put, why couldn’t we put fisherman sweaters back on the backs of the fishermen?
Wouldn’t it be ideal to not only knit my fisherman son, daughter and son in law each a gansey ( I promise, no pom poms...), as I have thought and wanted to do for awhile now, but also to pull together and collectively knit as a group wool gansey sweaters that we designed ourselves for our fishermen and outdoorsman loved ones to work in. I know this is nothing new and that there have been those in our town who have knit for their fishing family members for years, but this would be something we could do together as a group, just for fun as well as function, and maybe not just for us, but eventually we could ignite from Cordova an idea that could spread amongst this next generation of other Alaskan fishing communities as well.
The one thing that is taking place in our industry is the attention drawn to the care that our fishermen are purposely tending to the fish they catch in order to preserve best the quality of their product. What better way to care for these harvesters than to clothe them in that which is made with care and purpose. As I continued to knit, my mind mulled over all these thoughts. Sitting on the benches of that boat, rocking gently with the water, I felt both calm and excited at the same time.
As class came to a close, I climbed up the ladder and out of the cabin of the F/V Swan LK243 and into the ocean air. Once again, the diesel and the docks swept over me reminding me of the fishing life back in Alaska, and more questions filled my mind. With all this talk of ganseys, I wondered if ganseys were ever worn long ago by the fishermen in Cordova, or anywhere else in Alaska? And for now, would there be a way to combine these ganseys with our wonderful local Copper River Fleece gear in a way that would bring out the best of both worlds?
And so from all the taps on my shoulders and pats on the back, and beyond the lump in my throat, I began to put to words what had been stirring within all week, now grown from concept and idea into something tangible, so much so, I almost felt I could touch it..
I traveled back to my little cottage that night full of ideas and wrote in my travel journal about the day's adventure. I looked over my notes from Stella's class as I wrote and came across these words that I had written down, which she had shared concerning the growth of her idea and what was going on in her mind as she was just getting started. As I reread them, I felt a bit of myself in them, "...but if I don't do it, what would happen?" How I could relate. These words seem to be what has kept me doing so much of what I have done over the years in The Net Loft, and although inadequate in so many ways, I always have thought to myself, "it might not be perfect and someone else could probably do it a whole lot better than me, but if I don't do it, what would happen?".
What was even more interesting were the next words in my notes that I had jotted down and put in quotes from her sharing. It was just a phrase..."With enormous joy in my heart". I wrote this down because she was so beaming in describing the journey she had taken in making the Dutch Gansey Project happen. I believe it wasn't just an impersonal and technical study on sweaters, but rather it was the stories about them and the people in and around that brought them to life that brought her joy. It was the joy she found of the human experience and the people she met along the way, those from then and those from now, as she unraveled the Dutch gansey story.
Stella's excitement and passion concerning her project is that which happens when we follow that inkling, that tap on the shoulder, that pat on the back, that lump in the throat, even when we are not so sure always what we are doing or where it will take us. Thank you Stella for an inspiring day...
Finally, before dropping off to sleep, touched and inspired again by the hand knitters who came before me, and from all that led up to this day in Shetland and in my own fishing and knitting life, the closing words I wrote at the bottom of the page of my journal posed a simple question... "What about a Cordova Gansey Project?"
As a sidenote, from a recent correspondence with Stella, she now has 125 sweaters in the Dutch Gansey Collection that are hand knit reproductions of Dutch ganseys found in old recovered photographs, and is just as excited about her second book in the making as she was the first, which promises more stories of life and living conditions on the herring boats in the early 1900's, and further history of the life and times of these fishermen and their families. To be published in the future initially in Dutch, here's hoping an English translation will soon follow.
top photo from: http://www.historiegaasterland.nl/Sites%20hist.archief%20%20HWG/Haringvisserij.html
bottom photo: http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/nl/items/ZZM01:F021570/&p=44&i=19&t=911&st=breien&sc=(breien)/&wst=breien
all other archival Dutch Photos courtesy of Stella Ruhe Dutch Ganseys
#5 of lockers and fishing boats, fishermen and those who love them ....part A
Years ago, before we built our fishing warehouse at 6 1/2 Mile Copper River Highway, we kept and stored our gear in an equipment storage locker in the Alaska Packers Association warehouses. APA, as it was called, was where our newly purchased first fishing boat had been stored by its previous owner, and so became our inherited new home of sorts.
In order to get to our storage locker, there was a maze of steps and corridors that wandered through the multiple story old metal and wood buildings which were connected by enclosed wooden catwalks. At one time, these structures housed a cannery that used to pack salmon and later clams, but these days, the old buildings were storehouses for boats and fishing nets.
At first, because we were new, they gave us a locker on the uppermost level of the buildings. At that time, we lived on the boat and didn't have a bunkroom yet, so whatever we owned in our fishing life either was on the boat or in the locker. In order to take things on and off the boat, we had to first climb up and over the rails and across the decks of all the boats we were tied up next to, at either the pilings or the floating dock at the end of the buildings.
From here we had to climb up a precarious rusty ladder, or up a wooden ramp, depending on where we were docked, and then follow along on a very narrow wooden plank boardwalk under the warehouse structures along the rows of pilings that supported and were just below the warehouses. From under the buildings you emerged and continued around the dim walkways, winding through narrow passageways and multiple stairs until you finally arrived at the locker. Although some of the details are a little fuzzy, I just have this recollection that at low tide it was quite a journey, especially with boxes or armloads of gear.
I do remember, however, that at that time, everything I owned seemed to reek of diesel fuel and mechanical fluid. We (mostly Fred our mechanic and crewman) had put a new engine into our "new" 35 year old wooden boat before launching it for the season. I remember standing there passing tools back and forth, when I wasn't busy repainting the exterior and letters of the boat name. Launching it was an adventure in itself, as the whole building seemed to quiver as it was lowered into the water. Mechanically speaking, it was one thing after another, and from that point on it just seemed like everything I had was drenched, and I mean drenched in the fragrance of oil and fuel, hydraulic fluid, mildew from the dampness of endless rain, and the lingering aroma of past fish harvests.
As it turned out, the roof above our first locker leaked profusely, and consequently, we were given a new and different locker on another floor, and so we proceeded to haul our soaked gear and goods down to our new spot. Now, if my memory serves me right, it seemed that from then on, Captain Bob, my husband, was in search of the perfect locker. Somehow, he would find that someone was moving out of their locker, and had us crew move everything to this new spot. Of course, these new lockers were never close by or on the same floor. And so, it seemed, that over the next several years of our time at APA, when we weren't out on the fishing grounds, we crewman experienced an endless parade up and down the stairs, and around and about the warehouses hauling our gear from boat to locker, locker to boat as well as from locker to locker...buckets, ropes, oil cans, net mending supplies, raingear, clothes, and a myriad of odds and ends.
Maybe being bound in that little space had something do with it, but regardless of the location, upstairs or downstairs, our locker never ceased to contain this distinct "fragrant" concoction of dampness, diesel, and fish. Anything you put into storage would quickly absorb the fragrance of the locker, and I was always reluctant to store in there anything I really cared about, but often didn't have the option, and the same went for that old wooden boat, whose old wooden hull seemed like a sponge to every fluid it ever came in contact with. I thought about that in terms of all the people that had come in contact with that old boat and these buildings once astir with the rattlings of a cannery and cannery workers, and then and moreso now, the hum of fisherman's voices and their discussions on fish prices and dreams of better boats, with a hint of secrecy about how many fish they actually caught. I often wondered if somehow a bit of them lingered as well.
Eventually, we purchased our first fiberglass boat, and a few years later bought land and built a warehouse, and even farther down the line, opened up the shop in the net loft of the new warehouse. Everything was new and fresh, and although I missed my friends and life at the bunkhouse, I appreciated having a fresh environment for my possessions. It wasn't long after opening the store out the road that I started carrying lotions and perfumes in the shop as part of our repertoire. I knew first hand the need to smell something of a different sort of fragrance even more so while working on a boat or in the cannery.
Fragrances are known to stir memories, and although as years go by, one may sometimes forget what they have forgotten, a whiff of a scent can somehow bring it back to mind. And so it was one day last summer, that our fisherman son, Nate, wandered into The Net Loft for a hug and a hello. Surrounded by the usual Net Loft fragrances of lavender, lemongrass, perfumed Lollia lotions and candles, interlaced with fresh chocolates and wool yarn, Nate reached out and gave me a long hard hug, weary from working on his boat, which he had been tearing apart learning and figuring out how to fix and maintain.
To my surprise and without a conscious thought, in that moment of embracing him, loud and clear, I was instantly catapulted back to that old fishing boat and APA locker. I felt myself hesitate and had a sense of time collapse as past merged with present. In those brief seconds, I didn't want to let him or the memory go.
Having been recently out on the water for a fish opening, and then without stopping to change, as is common in fishing life, working on his boat for the last few days changing hydraulic hoses and doing engine maintenance, Nate's clothing and body had accumulated and become saturated with that distinct strong aroma and combination of just the right formula of diesel, dampness, engine fluids and fishing.
As I breathed in its "perfume" it had transported me back in time 35 years, and all the memories of those early days came flooding in and filled me with nostalgia. One more hug please, I thought. What once was something I willingly tried to avoid but could not get away from, I now longed for more. It wasn't so much for the buildings and the boat, but rather the friendships formed and the lifestyle lived while being in the midst of them...of weddings on boat decks, babies in the bunkhouse, conversations in the cookhouse around the big black iron eight foot diesel cookstove, exploring attics and finding "treasure", of youth and vitality, new love and a new life.
Our boat these days is down a dock, rather than at the end of an old cannery, and yet as you walk the docks you can still catch a whiff in the air in the Cordova Harbor of diesel, boat mechanics and fishing.
Though not quite so intense as that found in our old boat or locker, it is still a distinct combination, and evokes the thought of fisherman astir throughout the season. Perhaps one could simply call it the aroma of "the diesel and the docks", even though it really is so much more. And those who know it can tell you, indeed so very much more...
Soon to follow...Part B the docks of Shetland
Watercolors by Karl Becker , Cordova, Alaska
Oil Painting of Fisherman at the Dock by Jen-Ann Kirchmeier, Cordova, Alaska (there a few signed glicee copies of this fisherman at the docks painting available which may be ordered directly from Jen-Ann)
On a side note, our Net Loft Custom Colorway from Three Irish Girls Yarns was derived by the watercolor painting shown above by Karl Becker of the old APA Cannery. Though not in our online store, these yarns are available in a variety of bases at the shop. You can now understand where this color comes from and why it is so special to me. Yarn inquiries for yarns in shop but not online may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The First Tap
This past fall, October 2014, I had a wonderful journey to the Shetland Islands for Shetland Wool Week, a week long celebration of the legacy of Shetland sheep and fiber arts. When I first entered the arts center, where registration was taking place, there was a great exhibit on display of Scottish Ganseys, traditional single color fisherman sweaters .
The Shetland Islands are the northernmost region of Scotland and have a rich history of fishing in addition to their sheep farming. The large posters in this "Fishing for Ganseys" display featured old photos of the “herring lassies” and gansey clad fishermen, and as a previous fishing industry worker and present commercial fishing family member, I felt an instant affinity to the girls in the photos with their huge smiles and knitting in hand.
For those who don’t know the origins of The Net Loft, it was born in a fisheries bunkhouse room in Cordova, Alaska with an old wooden salmon egg box filled with cross stitch kits, and often inspired by knitter Bonnie Morris Phillips, the net mender who taught me how to hang fishing nets.
Bonnie would knit in her offtime, and would often be wearing one of her hand knit sweaters on the docks where she worked mending nets. She would invite me to her bunkroom for tea and her delicious home made sourdough bread toast with jam, and show me her latest knitting project, most often of her own design, and first and foremost, all about function and fit, but always with her extra special touches.
Fishing is what brought us to the old cannery bunkhouse where I met Bonnie. My husband had been a commercial salmon fisherman/deckhand in Prince William Sound, Alaska, since 1964. We were married in 1978 on our first fishing boat (the one shown above with me in a headscarf running the hydraulics). These days (37 years later) two of our four children, as well as one great son-in-law, are fishermen as well, so it was an unexpected special connection I felt from the moment I walked into the museum and saw the exhibit of ganseys there on the wall.
My mind drifted as I studied the display and looked into the eyes of the girls in the photos, and in that moment, I wished I could go back in time to share and exchange fishing and knitting stories. I felt such a commonality to their lives and lifestyle. They had no idea the part they played in the passage of patterns and design. I jotted down the name of the gansey exhibition which was “the Moray Firth Gansey Project”, rushed off to the registration desk, and conciously felt just the slightest tap on my shoulder. Onward…
To be continued…
Follow along to The Long Story #2
photo of Herring Lassies courtesy of Moray Firth Gansey Project