A week ago today (7:30am, Friday, November 7), I was leaving Ellsworth on my way to my very first Gathering. I was squired by Maudie, an experienced Gatherer. The bear, sporting a scarf make by The Gathering committee, greeted us when we finally arrived at Sunday River in Bethel, Maine.
I say “finally” because we had been sucked into the Lewiston Vortex, and, listening to the “how’d you get here” chatter, we weren’t the only ones. According to the Google Maps directions, there appeared to be a leap of faith on leaving Augusta. They seemed to read that there were 52 miles we would be traveling until we reached Bethel. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, unnervingly (yes – all those adverbs) we were “Entering Lewiston,” and had tacked on about two hours as we wended our way back north. Coming home we stuck to Route 2, which is more winding and goes through more small towns which cut the speed limit down. On the other hand, we did not tempt the Vortex for a second time.
In the days leading up to The Event (I’ll let you know right now that I really do think of a lot of these things in capital letters), I had been increasingly excited about meeting people whose work I had long admired. I was taking a class with Myrna Stahman, author of the Stahman’s Shawls and Scarves in which she explores top down Faroese shawls and seaman’s scarves in a variety of pattern motifs. I hoped to meet Abby Franquemont, author of Respect the Spindle. These were both women I had followed in discussion groups on Yahoo, and whose patterns and skills I had incorporated in my own repertoire.
Then on the first afternoon at The Gathering, I was walking through one of the classrooms, and I saw a book cover. Dancing in a field of blue was a white coat, with streamers flowing off the sleeves and hems. I had long been a fan of Katharine Cobey’s knitted art, but had never known her name. Her style and subject matter, “Portrait of Alzheimers” and “Ritual Against Homelessness” among them, could have been created by no other artist. “Oh, my God!” I said to her as she was preparing for class. “You’re that woman!”
“Yes, I am,” she said, without the narrow look I had expected.
“I’ve always loved your work, but I didn’t know your name.” I immediately bought the book.
“This is not the sort of book you can just browse through and knit patterns. You have to start at the beginning and read it through.”
I am still not convinced that this is true, since I have yet to meet the book, fiction or not, that I can’t browse to some extent. Diagonal Knitting is, however, is the sort of book I most admire. Like the other two books mentioned, it discusses why and how a Knitter makes Structural Choices to accomplish goals. There is plenty of reading to do along with excellent illustrations to peruse.
The matter of Choices was the Thesis of Myrna Stahman’s class. During our introductions she opened a discussion of the difference between knitting dogmatically, adhering to a pattern as written, versus understanding the underlying principals about how the stitches are formed and having a toolbox of strategies. Reading your knitting is a vital skill in becoming a Knitter. Myrna brought bundles of samples for us to examine and narrated the stories each sample illustrated as she taught how to read stitches in situ.
We focused on the styles of increases and decreases (white). And all the while we heard stories: how Myrna learned to knit; when she was introduced to the Feather and Fan as a knitting element; knitting camps she has both sponsored and attended. We saw examples of how varied knitters’ gauges can be, and the effects of different yarn elements.
The class was small, discussion was free flowing, and help was plentiful. Although we were knitters of different abilities and interests, there was clearly room for us all at the table. I learned about the physics of how a stitch wraps on a needle and the torque added or subtracted by the way a yarn is spun, instructions that allow for left or right handedness, language that makes the process clearer, abandoning arcane vocabulary while still honoring traditional terms. I had a blast!
I was amazed that, of the six of us, four had been in the Peace Corps, all in the North West corner of Africa. Two had served in Liberia, one in Ghana, and I in Morocco. The woman from Ghana had served when the PC was still young, from 1963-65. It was fascinating to hear how the service had changed. We had all been teachers, all been young, and all been coddled by our host country neighbors. Myrna said that when she was there she had thought it was out of respect for being a teacher and from the US. Now, however, she realizes how young they were, so soon out of college. She thinks the welcome was more about the adults realizing just how far from home we kids were, and how much help we needed. From my own experience being taken into the tea drinking, joking, crafting fold, this rings true.
The other class I took was with John Mullarkey. It was a pin loom weaving class. I figured I should step out of my comfort zone of knitting and lace, and try something new. He had a great visual of a giant portion of a Zoom Loom (the re-vamped “weave-let” from the 30s) that made his instructions quite clear. As we were working on our first 4” square, I was struck by how much like a caned chair bottom this looked. I asked if there were patterns that made a more lacey fabric. John said that someone had sent him a sample they had done, using a caning strategy.
Both evenings we all gathered, many with spinning wheels, others with spindles, knitting, or crocheting. What impressed me most is that we were all story tellers. From instructors, to other participants, to evening speakers – all couched their message in story, setting the scene, describing action, illustrating conflict. I can see this developing from the need to entertain and be entertained while working to produce the fabric needs of the family, sharing the news of the region at the “bees” that decorated the social landscape of the pre-industrial revolution. Were handcrafters the family bards?
I certainly felt some of that when I was waiting to attend my first board meeting of the Northeast Handspinners Association, the group putting on The Gathering. I was sitting in a lounge area, spinning. First one, then a pair, then seven cleaning ladies were surrounding me fire questions about what was the group about, how do you spin, what is the fiber like, how do you get the colors. Some of them clearly had an idea, already, about the answers. Some knit or crocheted. Each had a story of her own to tell.