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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