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The Cordova Gansey Project: The Long Story #8F December 01 2015, 3 Comments

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


The Cordova Gansey Project: The Long Story #8E Fair Fiber Artist November 28 2015, 4 Comments

Dear Friends,

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.

 

onward...

The Cordova Gansey Project: The Long Story #8D Fair Island November 27 2015, 1 Comment

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...