The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

A Shared Life in Oaxaca

Mis hermanos Jim, Arturo, and I just finished hosting a week of culinary and knitting adventures in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before our week together, I would have called this a map. But the illustration has become animated and breathes the daily communion of life in Mexico that I have fallen in love with.

If you could zoom in on almost any inhabited spot on the map, here is what you would see: A woman is standing beside a table, tending a wood-burning brazier, patiently waiting for a hungry passerby. She presses freshly made masa into a tortilla to cook on the comal, then adds beans, cheese, meat, salsa, avocado, or vegetables to order. All the while she and her customer are chatting, their smiles lit from within.

Every meal is a sacrament. This intimate, soft exchange happens all day long and into the night all over Mexico. It is a slow dance that lodges in the heart.

Everywhere people are carrying fresh ingredients from the mercado.

Papayas wrapped in newspaper to keep them from bruising, avocado leaves for flavoring beans, passion fruits, small sweet bananas, peanuts roasted with garlic cloves and chiles, string cheese rolled up like a ball of yarn…

…chickens the color of marigolds.

The sound of mass flows out of open church doors, and men with bundles of thin branches meticulously sweep the sidewalks.

Young lovers, oblivious to everything, kiss and embrace in slow motion beneath shady trees, leaning against walls, and sitting on park benches. Jacaranda flowers flutter to the ground to form a purple carpet.

We stayed in a small garden hotel in the Jalatlaco neighborhood. Each morning we gathered on the rooftop terrace amidst flowers and bird-song, drinking steaming mugs of Café Tequio, while our very own Arturo, an award-winning musician and song-writer, played and sang for us. Each morning there were still more pink flowers than before on the trees in the neighboring churchyard, and we all forgot winter existed in the north.

One by one, the hotel staff crept upstairs to see our knitting and to ask if they could join us. Even Panfilo the parrot showed an interest (1 beak + 1 claw = 2 hands, si?), and our communidad flourished.

Alejandro, a young boy whose sister had abandoned him there a year and a half earlier, turned out to be the fastest learner I have ever encountered. When one minute into his knitting career, his needle fell out, he simply reloaded the fallen stitches and continued onward.

Flowers spilled over every wall.

 

Mole, Oaxaca’s most famous dish, is a living, breathing celebration of all that nurtures a community, from seeds to family, and to the commitment of every individual to contribute to the greater good. It is stirred over a fire for 3 days and nights in a cauldron large enough to swim in, with an abuelita at the helm, and then shared with hundreds of people. We were able to spend a day making a less ambitious mole from scratch with Oaxacan chefs in the home of one of Jim and Arturo’s long-time friends.

The number of ingredients is staggering: chiles, chicken, nuts, seeds, chocolate, fresh tomatoes and onions, garlic, herbs, cloves, cinnamon, tortillas, and much more. Here are some of the ingredients.

Mole is the work of fire, of intense heat that explodes flavors open…and then the the metate, which grinds open anything that remains closed and marries it to its neighbors…and then more fire, as everything is combined in a large clay pot set right on the flames, and stirred and strained and simmered and thinned with broth until it reaches perfection.

 

At every stage, we each breathed deeply of the flavor combinations and each of those inhalations was a profound journey of sensual ecstasy. Here is the mole almost ready to pour over chicken and rice. Just looking at it makes me catch my breath.

There is no photo of us at the table sharing our feast because apparently we were so joyful that we forgot. Perhaps it is better to carry the memory without a photo.

Another day we traveled to Santa Ana del Valle to visit master weaver Ernesto Martinez and his extended family who together manage all the endless and complex tasks involved in being self-sufficient farmers and textile artists.

Ernesto had saved several triplet ears of corn to show us. His sense of awe at this gift was very beautiful, and he made sure we understood that it came from the divine nature of the sky.

Monte Alban is one of Mexico’s greatest archeological sites and speads across the top of a hill less than an hour from where we were staying. We could have spent days taking in the vast spaces, carvings, ruins, and vegetation (from a kapok tree to wild arnica growing in cracks in the ancient stonework). The pre-Columbian architects of Monte Alban engineered an acoustic miracle: in a space larger than a modern sports stadium, a voice can be heard clearly at the other end.

Partway down the hill from Monte Alban is the small village where Jim, his wife Mags, and their two young children lived for nearly 8 years. As we left Monte Alban, Jim veered off the paved road to take us there. One member of our group was a retired architect, and Jim told him, “I’m about to show you the most amazing arch you have ever seen!” For nearly a whole mile we drove, breathless with wonder, through this natural bamboo tunnel, which every so often opened into sunlight.

On our final evening we sat knitting with our companions, young Alejandro, the hotel owner, and her friend.

The warm amber light itself seemed to express the communion all knitters know so well, and I struggled to articulate this in Spanish to our friends. The two women leaned towards me, listening intently, and then they offered me a beautiful Spanish word that matched my feeling: convivir…to share a life…convivencia…a shared life…

Yes.

Jim, Arturo, and I will continue to lead groups of knitters into intimate convivencia in Latin America. We have three groups going to Peru in 2014:  March, June, and November, and hope to schedule one or two trips to Mexico this fall. To learn more, visit my workshop page on this website or email me via the contact page.

We would love to have you join our shared life.

I had no idea my world was flat until it became round…

After ten days in Perú, my heartbeat now pulses with a Peruvian rhythm and my dreams float like soft alpaca mist rising in thermals up Andean peaks. I am going to try to tell you about our trip but I shall fail utterly to convey the grandeur and life-altering nature of the experience.

 

 Our plan was to scout out pockets of traditional knitting in Perú in order to shape a 2014 knitting tour. We soon discovered that if we walked around while knitting, knitters, mostly older people, spontaneously reached out to us with radiant smiles and we instantly found ourselves together in that deep space of comfort and kindred recognition that knitters know so well.

Here my friend on the left is knitting my grandson’s sock (she just learned how to do the Coriolis band) and I am knitting her sleeve—we traded for a while. It took her approximately 3 seconds to understand how to knit on 2 circular needles. This sort of thing happened again and again.

 

My companions were Jim Petkiewicz of Frog Tree Yarns and Community Links International, and his colleague Arturo Ortega. Jim and his extended family have been my beloved friends for years. From the moment in the airport when Jim said I was his sister so I could board early with him, we agreed we really were sister and brother. Then Arturo met us in Lima and gained a sister (hermana), and I was surrounded by two dear brothers (hermanos) from that moment on. Here are my hermanos.

Jim’s family lived for years in Latin America and are bilingual, and Arturo lives in Mexico. I’d been studying Spanish diligently for six months. I was tongue-tied much of the time, but in Perú the delicious sounds and sensations of español melted through me and my abilities slowly grew deeper.

Arequipa,our first destination, is in southern Perú, nearly 7, 000 feet in elevation. Snow-topped volcanos circled us, with the highest, Chachani, nearly 20,000 feet.

Our hotel was a little sanctuary near the center of the city, with a variety of quaint buildings, a small pool, gardens, and a restaurant. Mornings we enjoyed fresh fruit juices, avocado, tomato, ham, cheese, eggs, breads, and grainy cereals like quinoa. Arturo brought coffee from Mexico that he helped grow and process, along with a small French Press. We were spoiled.

 

We visited the Plaza de Armas and admired the fountain,

wandered through the local mercado

and spent several hours exploring the beautiful and labyrinthine Santa Catalina Monastery, built in 1579.

One enters through this arch.

And then the color changes begin. Azul…

Rojo…

azul y gris…

Arturo taught me a new word: tragaluz—a hole that carries light.

From the highest point of the monastery we could see the mountains over a turbulent sea of rooftops.

Walking back to the hotel, children wearing hand-knit sweaters were playing in the streets…

That evening we made friends with our server Gerda, a knitter. She mischievously lifted Jim’s knitting out of his hands, vanished for ten minutes and brought it back with an inch completed. From her we learned that garter stitch is called “Santa Clara” in Perú. Jim is very pleased.

In Arequipa we also spent a mesmerizing afternoon with a Frog Tree Yarn partner, where I witnessed the astounding speed, agility, and technique of this woman, who could wind 12-15 skeins a minute. When she let me try, I soon realized I had missed many steps because she was so fast I couldn’t see everything she was doing (notice the blurred hand). I made quite a fool of myself, and she was very nice about my clumsiness. If there were an Olympic event of skein-winding, she would win a gold medal. She is my hero.

There was were lavish coils of silken alpaca, like soft-serve cones longing to melt into yarn…

And to our astonishment, a queso (a huge cheese-shaped bundle) of vicuña fiber that must have weighed 400 pounds, all wrapped in white cloth and having a gentle bath. Our guide opened it and gave me a little bit. I am not telling you where I have hidden it. Someday I shall spin it up, maybe when I am 90 years old.

We soon fell into the habit of having our main meal midday and then enjoying a simple supper of sopa in the evening. I think my very favorite was Sopa de Criollo, a rich broth with milk and bits of chicken or beef, noodles, a poached egg, and a few vegetables. I slept like a baby (or a wawa, as they are called in Peru) every night, out of sheer happiness and a belly lightly filled with warm soup.

We also made a trip to the Colca Canyon and saw dozens of condors, who have a striking white collar and long wing-fingers. They ride the thermals in the morning only, so we arose before 3 am to board our bus, drove into a sub-freezing climate, and later in the day broiled in the sun, then returned to our hotel later in the evening. It was worth it.

During this long day, we rode over the top of the world, nearly 16,000 feet high. I was able to walk and that made me very happy. One of my favorite things on top of the world was this moss, which grows only 1 centimeter a year and thrives as if it has a water source when there is none visible. Most of these are over a century old. So round and green and alive, and oh so beautiful.

From Arequipa we flew to Puno, on the sparkling Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, with Bolivia bordering the far shore. I had wondered how I would do at the altitude of 12,500 (although I was most encouraged by my ability to self-ambulate at 16,000), and it turned out that I was entirely fine. In fact, I thrived; I have since decided that my body loves high altitudes and is stronger and more vigorous in that environment.

But what excited me most about this striking landscape was that everywhere I looked there were knitters, sitting in doorsteps, walking down the street, in the mercados, everywhere. The first one I saw, a young woman walking briskly with a friend while knitting a cabled sweater front, I chased down the street in case she was the only one. Soon enough I realized that either I was dreaming or had landed in a knitter’s heaven. Driving down a road, I managed to snap this photo,

and this one.

At the very large artisan market, halfway up the first aisle we made such good friends that we planted ourselves with them and never went farther. The half-dozen tejedoras were indeed a kindness of knitters (in case you haven’t heard this before, a flock of birds, a herd of sheep, and a kindness of knitters). They pulled out a stool for me to sit on and brought out their bag of coca leaves to share, extolling their virtues for health (the leaves contain less than 1% of the compound that must be chemically extracted to produce cocaine, and chewing coca leaves has been used by indigenous people for centuries to support high-altitude health). After much intercambio (interchange of knowledge and enthusiasm and friendship) we promised to return next year.

I had to be dragged away and spent the afternoon asking Jim and Arturo when I could go back to be with my friends. If it weren’t for my hermanos I would still be there.

Off we went to visit a floating island, sailing through half-submerged fields of reeds which are used to build both islands and graceful, seaworthy boats. We visited with local women, whose tradition is not knitting, but embroidery of beautiful cloth murals. They were very curious about our knitting, all the same.

And I was very interested in this cat. Thinking he might be bothering us, the owner picked him up mother-cat-style, which is why he looks immobilized; she was firm but gentle, and the cat is fine. I later watched the cat sneak off with a piece of fish.

From the floating island we watched the sun go down and turn Puno to gold.

And sadly, in the morning we had to leave, and head to Cusco. I complained once more that I wanted to go see my friends in the market, and my brothers just shook their heads. Every time we left a place, I feared I could not love the next one as much, and I was always wrong. Always. Cusco is magical…

In Cusco I met the internationally revered Nilda Callañaupa, director and founder of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, whose decades of work for the region’s artisans has preserved their ability to pass on their age-old skills and to sustain their families in many villages. The textiles for sale in the Center were miles above the quality of anything else we came across, visually and tactilely stunning and representing hundreds of hours of highly skilled artistry, including handspinning, natural dyeing, preparing looms, weaving, and knitting. Everything is of museum quality (and the center includes a small museum that is breath-taking) and so beautiful that it is hard to leave.

Cusco is also a gateway to Machu Picchu. After an hour and a half bus ride, we boarded a charming train that wound for two hours along a river, with the mountainsides becoming more and more like a jungle, followed by a half hour bus ride on switchbacks up a nearly vertical mountain. I am a passionate lover of mountains and have never seen any so tall and erect, or so verdant, with soft clouds resting halfway down and slowly drifting upward, rubbing against the mountainsides like a purring cat. Machu Picchu felt like home to me. Jim and Arturo had been there several times before, and knew the best routes. We first climbed up high, where we had a view of everything. I knitted for a while.

Arturo played for us.

And then we began our descent to explore the ruins below.

My brothers were very careful to keep me from going over the edge, and I watched over them too.

Being in this amazing land-and-sky-scape was transcendent. The experience filled me so purely that it seems ever-present still. Do you see how the rocks in the foreground imitate the peaks in the distance?

The following day we went to Chinchero, which we had visited a few days earlier. I was so very happy to return. About an hour from Cusco, this village is where Nilda Callañaupa grew up, and is the original location of her Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. Abby Franquemont, who also grew up in Chinchero, later told me that it is known as the City of Rainbows. We had a double. When I look at the photos they seem unreal, but this really happened.

Nilda and I reviewed a collection of chullos, the traditional Andean knitted hat with earflaps, each region distinctive, and she explained the different styles of colorwork designs, the varieties of earflaps, and how children’s chullos vary from those of adults. I purchased about a dozen to study.

In the courtyard I sat on the grass with local knitters to talk and share. My friends are trying out the Coriolis Band, crossed stitches, and tendrils on a bolsillo (bag) that I was working on, and which I demonstrated for them. Never have I met such adept knitters, who learn and retain information so quickly.

When you see how chullos are knit, you begin to understand how adept they really are. Chullos are knit at a very fine gauge and every single stitch is interchanged with several other colors in a particular order that seems to shift depending on factors I could not identify. The plucking and rearrangement of the strands is like watching a virtuoso guitar player. It happens so fast that I could not follow it. Someday, on a future trip to Perú, I will learn this.

I shared Judy’s Magic Cast-On and Jeny’s Surprisingly Stretchy Bind-Off. Like knitters everywhere who learn these magical techniques, my friends were delighted to have solutions to age-old problems.

And someday, on a future trip to Perú, I will learn backstrap weaving. If only I had parallel lifetimes, I would send several of me to be born in Chinchero and learn to spin, dye, weave, and knit as they do.

I longed to bring this beautiful piece of weaving home with me, but had already spent too much on my new chullo collection. I could literally taste the colors and feel their energy. This piece represents hundreds of hours of shepherding, shearing, handspinning, gathering of dyestuffs, vegetable dyeing, warping, weaving, and finishing. At both the Cusco and Chinchero centers, there are many pieces like this on display and available for purchase. It is a miracle. The centers alone are worth a trip to Peru.

On our way back to Cusco as night fell, we paused here to look up at ruins on the hillside and down on the Sacred Valley.

Back in our hotel, catching up on emails before we went off to find the soup of the evening, with only one more day before leaving Perú, I began to dissolve, as if a membrane that had always contained me had broken. “You should have warned me,” I told Jim in a trembling voice, “I had no idea it would affect me like this.”

I didn’t have to explain what I meant. Jim had told me what it was like for him when he, his wife Mags and their two school-age children had made the difficult decision to leave Latin America a decade ago to be closer to their families in the United States. He had warned me; I just hadn’t realized how deep the experience could go, and how it could uproot and dissolve so much of what I normally think and feel. My world had swollen like a pregnant woman’s belly over these ten days in Peru; my world was now round and radiant and urgent and I realized that I had not known it had been flat before. I went up to my room to weep before returning for dinner, tears that were nonverbal, of grief, of joy, of bewilderment, and most of all, of a fierce new love for that which pulses like red earth and musical languages and bright black eyes and intelligent hands of the sacred people and land of Perú.

On my final day (my brothers were staying a few days beyond me to work on other things) we went to the Plaza de Armas, where Arturo knew a woman would be selling the best tamales in the world. I love tamales. They were perfect. So perfect and satisfying that one was enough. It was soft, warm, delicate, and succulent.

We shall return in early June of 2014 with a group of knitters and will follow a similar route, with improvements (as if that is possible!). The trip will support Community Links International, which helps traditional artisans in both Latin and North America support themselves, keeping families and cultures and communities intact, and also focuses on environmental work and community-based education. Every day my brothers and I sat down and recorded observations and ideas and places and people and made lists of things to tell our knitters so they will be well-prepared. I’m working on a detailed glossary of knitting terms and useful sentences in Spanish and English, which will help everyone communicate with local knitters. If you are interested in the trip, email Jim at peckos(at)me(dot)com. It will be an active trip, so you will need to be able to easily carry a day pack (of say around 20 pounds) as you walk on hilly streets at high elevations. It’s a great motivation to get in shape!

Strangely, I feel ten years younger than before going to Perú. We ate delicious, nutritious food, were very active, and I slept deeply. I can’t know what anyone else’s experience will be, but consider yourself warned if you join us. You may dissolve as I have; you may choose to return again and again, or to find your own Latin America closer to home. You may be changed forever. Perhaps like me, your world is flat and you have not known that; the trip may make your world round as a woman’s nine-month belly, ready to burst open with newborn possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

December 11-17, 2014, in Cholula, Mexico, Knitting and Navidad with Cat, Peckos, and Arturo

This is our inaugural Knitting and Navidad adventure, based in Cholula, Mexico, where mis hermanos Jim (Pecos) and Arturo have deep relationships within the community. Imagine a knitting retreat in colorful, music-filled Mexico during the middle of December, with all the wonderful Mexican traditional celebrations and foods. We design our trips for travelers who are lively, curious, and independent, and who value having time to explore on their own. Our careful daily organization is meant to stay in the background as much as possible so that you can steer your own experience. Every day we use our local personal relationships and knowledge to create a fresh menu of options for you to choose from, much like passionate chefs who seek the best and freshest ingredients in the mercados. Most mornings we will join together for a knitting session with Cat and to share the day’s “menu,” answering your questions and offering insights and suggestions, and then set you free to explore on your own or with your new friends, and to have genuine experiences so you can really breathe and feel the essence of the culture and land and people…this is the very best part of the trip and what we value most. You do need to be physically fit and in good health, and happy to walk for a mile or two, sometimes over uneven surfaces, including stairs. If this makes your heart beat faster with joyful anticipation, we can offer you the possibility of a transformative experience filled with a kaleidoscope of moments that will resonate for the rest of your life. For more information, download our Knitting & Navidad 2014 with our itinerary and all the details. We’d love to have you join us!

Shangri-La

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by trees to climb and creeks to explore and holes to dig. We had literally thousands of books in the house, no TV, and my father called radios “noise boxes,” so you might think the house was quiet. Well, you’d be wrong. There were six kids, with at least the normal amount of drama.

I thrive on solitude (although I am also the friendliest hermit you will ever meet) so every morning I would rise an hour before anyone else, have a quiet breakfast, and then, before the hubbub began, retire to my bedroom until it was time for school. On weekends and in the summer, I could often be found high in a tree, dreaming. We also spent most of each summer camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains less than an hour from home.  My father would commute down to Stanford where he taught, and return at suppertime with a fresh chunk of ice for our old-fashioned ice box. We hiked, tried to damn the creek to make it into a swimming hole (and never succeeded), caught blue-bellied lizards (or just their tails), swam in a pond with a muddy bottom (which we scooped up to throw at each other), picked fresh watercress for salads, and after doing the breakfast dishes, used the heat in the oven of our wood cook stove to bake a Jiffy Mix Cake, which always burned on one side. At our campsite we even had an outhouse in the woods that was actually a without-house, since it lacked the house part.

My parents eventually built a house on acreage a mile up the hill from our old campground, and still live there, at about 1,500 feet above sea level. At night the coyotes and owls sing, bobcats slink about, and the deer and raccoons raid my mother’s garden. The ocean, ten miles away as the crow flies, fills the horizon so high that it appears certain that it is about to overflow and fill the valleys. In the evening the fog often does just that, so that by morning the mountain tops have become islands in a soft white sea. Slowly the sun burns away the fog, revealing not the sea floor, but forested ridges with almost no sign of civilization all the way to the ocean, which still appears as if it will spill over.

The amazing thing is that it is possible to drive down the hill from my parents’ home to Silicon Valley in about 35 minutes. It is a miracle of a place. I am so grateful to have grown up there. Most likely I would have clung to nature no matter where I grew up, but my parents made it easy. My father’s grandparents had a ranch in Sonoma, California, when he was a boy and he always remembered it as Shangri-La. That is what he calls their home now. I would not disagree. I could call my island home Shangri-La as well (that’s South Beach on my island, below).

Last month I discovered another Shangri-La on this earth for me: the Grand Canyon. My friend Michele Roberts, owner of a true community yarn shop, Purls in the Pines, in Flagstaff, took me there. I shall be forever grateful to her.  The colors are amazing and the enormous empty space is is like a huge mountain range turned upside down, pressed into the earth, and then erased. The grandeur of the emptiness is beyond words. If I were in my early twenties, I would stop everything else I might be doing and go find any job at all there just to spend one full year through all the seasons. But I am long past that age, and so will have to content myself with an occasional visit, hopefully with a few overnights  so I can experience it at dawn and sunrise too.

I had always assumed that the canyon must have guard rails all around the edge to keep people from falling in but there are rails only at certain lookout points, and there is a trail for miles along the south rim where we were. I was flabbergasted to see how carefree people were, small children included, standing inches from the edge (with a mile fall below), scampering along trails. I have never seen so many people merrily flaunting safety, and I kept wanting to pull strangers away from the edge. And although there were cell phones everywhere, no one was using them to text or talk or browse or all the usual things that make modern humanity seem like addicted robots. The only thing they were being used for was to take photos. Everyone seemed to be speaking in relatively quiet, reverential tones. It was Shangri-La.

I am currently in the thrall of a Shangri-La-like knitted form which is a combination of 3 basic elements and can be worn in at least a dozen ways. I’d love to tell you all about it, but can’t until it is fully developed and ready to release as a new collection. I expect it will be out in the first half of 2013, hopefully a little sooner. Right now I am drawn to my needles like a child to a candy jar, wanting to knit one more, to see what happens if I change this element, and then another, and another. I am so looking forward to sharing it with all of you when it is ready. I don’t even know how to categorize it, because it is so versatile.

I will be releasing a new design this month, however, called Dardanelles, shown below as a line drawing. I knit it with Frog Tree Ewetopia, which is one of the most meditative, soothing, cooperative yarns I have ever had the pleasure of running through my fingers. The result is a piece so springy and bouncy that if you stretch it and let go, you will be reminded of a Slinky, or a frog. Or a slinky frog. When the pattern is ready for release, I’ll announce it here as well as on Facebook and on Ravelry.

At the end of this month I head to Taos, New Mexico, to teach at the legendary Taos Wool Festival.  I think there may still be a few openings in classes for the festival. I have never been there and feel so incredibly lucky that my life takes me to such beautiful places.

Our island summer usually lasts into October. The blackberries are only beginning to get ripe (Washington is covered in blackberries) and the fawns have not totally lost their spots yet, although they are blurring into the background rapidly. And bumblebees are drinking dandelion nectar, landing on a new flower every thirty seconds or so, and so from my window I can watch dandelion heads bobbing in the grass. Shangri-La.

Stranded Knitting on a Desserted Island

Some islands are deserted, meaning nothing much is there; I had the great good fortune of being stranded knitting with Lucy Neatby on the desserted (plenty of chocolate in the cupboard) Tancook Island, off the Nova Scotian coast near Halifax, where Lucy has a cottage on a hill above the sea. My heart has now put down roots on Tancook and nothing, not even the gale force winds that stranded us there overnight, can ever extract my heart from that mesmerizing three-mile-by-one mile forested rock.

It all started last week when I flew to Toronto to join Stephanie Pearl-McPhee for the flight to St. John, New Brunswick. She and I became jolly and perhaps a bit too insouciant, unaware that we were both botching the knitting projects—Fiona Ellis’ Gwendolyn (Steph) and Sivia Harding’s Confluence Shawlette (me) —that we were attempting to follow using the tried-and-untrue method of glancing at only some of the directions and charts, assuming we “got it.” It got us.

Somewhere at 40,000 feet we each discovered we had overlooked key elements and thus had to unravel hours of work. One knitter gone wrong is sad, but two gone wrong is merry, so when the nice Air Canada flight attendant came along with customs cards, Stephanie happily tucked her passport, pen, and card in her seat pocket and promptly forgot it. You can read all about the result of our merriment here. When I flew out of Halifax early this morning I took the time to tell the Air Canada agent that her company had done something so magnificent for my friend that I probably ought to kiss her feet (Stephanie, on the other hand, you will learn when you read her post, was so monumentally relieved that she nearly kissed her saviour on the other end).

In the tiny St John, NB airport, Veronik Avery and our driver awaited us and we zipped off through beautiful countryside to the charming Algonquin Hotel which spreads like a twisted stitch design atop a promontory in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea for the Knit East Fibrefest, where Jane Thornley and Lucy were also teaching. In the market, Stephanie, still unaware of her lost passport and thus full of mischief, cast a spell on me which caused me to buy hundreds of dollars of Fleece Artist yarn (and an Ilga Leja pattern, which will turn out best if I actually read all the directions) while she spent considerably less. I tried my best to get her to compete with me, but she refused.

Veronik, Stephanie and I traipsed down to the sea to see the unusually high tide (which had been so high an hour earlier—around 26 feet­—that the whale-watch office, on stilts, had been ready to evacuate because of waves lapping at the floor), and discovered Cottage Crafts, which enthralled us all and which I shall let Stephanie tell you about here.

My classes, Personal Footprints for Insouciant Sock Knitters, and Magical Moebius Knitting, were full of hardy, capable, adventurous, good-hearted knitters with whom I would be glad to spend my life if I could only be two of me, one a US citizen and the other Canadian. If Cricket Cove ever hosts a second Knit East, I recommend you try to attend.

Meals were great fun because they gave rise to the Drama of the Elusive Cheese Sandwich (DECH). One evening the tall, dark, and handsome server said to Stephanie, when she hypothetically asked if he would bring her a cheese sandwich (with cheese) if she asked for one, “I will bring you anything you ask for,” and she replied, “You will? Why?” and he answered, “Because I’m afraid of you (in a good way).” Alas, the DECH still had a day to go at that point or the denouement might have been different. Spies write with invisible ink, and some chefs ply their trade with invisible cheese.

After the Sunday’s class, Lucy and I made a fast getaway in her Mini in an attempt to outrun the storm that was headed our way. With Lucy masterfully piloting her now amphibious Mini, six hours and two cups of chicken noodle soup later, we made it to Dartmouth, NS. Monday morning we awoke and drove to idyllic Chester, the Tancook equivalent of Anacortes (the ferry terminal I use to reach my home in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, just south of British Columbia).

The Tancook Island Ferry can take one car (in Friday Harbor our ferries mostly take over a hundred), and only if the tide is cooperating so that the ferry, dock, and ramp can meet at the necessary levels and angles. There is a huge metal box which is hoisted by crane on and off the boat at each stop, where riders can store anything from a new bed to a bag of groceries for no extra charge.

Here you see the single vehicle, several metal storage boxes, and the red crane as we sail away from Chester. A rider pays $2.05 per round trip (from Anacortes to Friday Harbor it’s nearly $10.00). Inside, there are about 50 comfy blue seats, and you have to stand up to see out the windows because you are low and they are high.

Lucy often teaches a bit of knitting to ferry passengers. The technique du jour was double-knitting. Nearby, four  islanders retrieved an old real estate sign from somewhere, propped it on 4 sets of knees, and began a lively game of cards.

When the weather permits (as it did on our trip out) you can go above, and stand at the prow watching the flag flying as you manuever through miscellaneous islands (anything above the high tide mark counts) to Tancook.

Dolphins cavorted starboard for several minutes, and Scott, the ferry guy, when we asked him to take a picture of us, spontaneously laid down on his back on the damp deck to get an interesting angle. What a guy. (Note the shoes I am wearing: 1 blue and 1 green; this will become significant soon).

 

We stayed above knitting until Little Tancook hove into sight; fifteen minutes or so later we pulled around a windbreak into Big Tancook’s dock where Scott hefted a long pole with a big hook on the end, reached for the dock rope and secured it to the deck.

The gangplank was lowered, the crane (once again operated by Scott) began to lower the huge metal box onto the dock, we descended, retrieved our supplies from the box, and there I was, on Tancook Island at last.

Lucy asked one of the other passengers if we could hitch a ride in the back of their truck. “Of course,” they replied, and as I was climbing in, the wife saw my shoes (Lucy and I have shared a pair of Keens since the first Sock Summit in 2010; we each have 1 green and 1 blue shoe) and she reached out for me like I was long-lost family: “Oh! You’re the one with the shoes!” she cried. And just like that I was part of Tancook Island. We bounced and bumped along the road, me sitting on Lucy’s new zebra carpets and Lucy perched on her duffle, all the way to her cottage, a most refreshing and scenic ride past happy chickens and vegetable gardens.

After a cup of tea, we set off for a hike and I found myself in the midst of a photographic epiphany. The “rule of thirds” activated in my brain and body so that composition became not a thought so much as a rightness, and I now have hundreds of photos that are so much better than anything else I have ever shot. That a latent ability would burst forth like a newborn filly, already walking and running in this feral bit of land in the sea, makes complete sense to me.

 

 

That evening we knit on the deck in the misty light that came and went through the fog that kept wanting to drift in and out of Lucy’s yard.

My chair held me up just fine at first.

And then it didn’t. But I kept knitting.

Tuesday morning we boarded the ferry back to meet about 50 Craft Cruise knitters due to arrive at Lucy’s house in two shifts, where they would stream into her basement “shop” (open by appointment only) and scoop up armfuls of beautiful yarns, DVDs (Lucy’s DVDs contain enough crystal-clear instruction, all presented with Lucy’s wit and charm, to keep you deliriously happy for at least a week; I cannot recommend them highly enough, try one and you will see what I mean), books and patterns. I saw some old friends from previous workshops (Hello Vivian and Gretchen!) and met many lovely knitters, all of whom spoke in glowing terms of the cruise. Then we dashed back to the Tancook ferry. We knew a serious storm was brewing but figured if we could make it to Tancook we could make it home the next afternoon after the storm blew itself out. Two of Lucy’s friends were planning to join us, and one backed out because of the storm. When Scott the ferry man came down below to punch our tickets after we were underway, he mentioned that the first ferry of the morning might not run the next day if the wind didn’t let up. How quaint, we thought, and how lucky that we are planning on an afternoon boat (I had a workshop on Thursday, and Lucy had a new sink arriving).

Little did we know that by morning, the combination of fierce wind and very high tides would flood some island roads and all Wednesday ferry runs would be cancelled, something that had not happened in over 27 years.

The most blurry part of the photo is salt spray on my lens, and the whole photo is a bit blurred because the wind was so fierce that I could not hold the camera or myself steady. That’s the ferry tied up there, precariously high alongside the dock because of the high tide and wind surge. The weather report predicted gale force winds continuing through Thursday midnight, which meant I’d miss my workshop scheduled for that day. Lucy decided I could teach via Skype (high speed internet had just been installed in part of the island and we would be able to borrow it). Fortunately, I am still trying to imagine that.

She made some inquiries and the ferry captain phoned us back to say we ought to show up for the 6 am ferry in case it would run. I scavenged enough wild island apples to make a pot of applesauce for dessert and we intarsia’ed together what was left in the refrigerator for supper. Stephanie had been given more fine bottles of beer in St. Andrew than she could take home on the plane and had donated the remainder to us, so we were able to toast our strandedness with a beer called “Dark and Stormy Night.”

Friday morning, 3 hours before I was due to start my workshop an hour and a half across Nova Scotia from Chester, the ferry did indeed set sail with us aboard.

We met Diane, my lovely chauffeur, at Lucy’s friend Jennifer’s Hawthorne B&B in Chester, where the lovely Jennifer and her husband greeted us with freshly ground milk-frothed coffee, coddled eggs, and cinnamon buns. Lucy went home to direct the installation of her kitchen sink (she has been renovating, and her kitchen was in the condition of “everything but the kitchen sink”) while Diane drove me through glorious countryside to Gaspereau Valley Fibres where I alternately taught another fine group of Maritime knitters and wandered through the spacious shop feasting my eyes and hands on everything, petting the cat, cooing at the Cotswold sheep in the adjacent pasture, and enjoying the company of my students.

For lunch yarn shop owner Brenda had arranged for a Sweet Tomato Soup made with fresh tomatoes from the valley farms, in honor of the class I was teaching (Cat’s Sweet Tomato Heel Socks). The day went way too fast; I would have loved to keep my students for many more hours.

Then Diane whisked me back to Lucy’s just in time to join a birthday celebration for Lucy’s just-arrived-from-England sister and brother-in-law.  I felt unspeakably glad to be for that night part of her family of exceptionally bright and spirited individuals, so different than one another yet so kindred and living in lively harmony.

How did I ever get to be so lucky as to live this life I am living? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

Padded Sweet Tomato Heel and lovely round hay bales

Summer in the San Juan islands, tucked under the wing of the Canadian Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea north of Seattle, is idyllic. Here’s the ferry terminal in Anacortes (on the mainland) as the sun melts into the water.

In fact, no matter the time of year, anytime I return home I feel so, so lucky to live here. This time I’d been in Portland for ten days, visiting my brother, teaching at Sock Summit, and seeing dear friends.

This is the scene that greeted me when I returned home. Fields of round hay bales and sheep… the island is dotted with these enormous spirals, which dwarf the sheep and resemble yarn-winder-wound balls of yarn, making it appear as if a giant’s knitting basket has tipped over onto the field.

And my fawns are growing tall and strong. The grass needs mowing, except I can’t. Could you mow your dandelions if creatures this beautiful like to nibble at them?

News alert! A fawn just appeared and while it nibbled, I filmed through the window, so you can see that I am telling the truth. Here you are.  Believe it or not, I see this sort of enchantment all the time and turn away to get my work done.

Sock Summit in Portland, Oregon, was another wonderful experience just like the first one two years ago. I spent the day before things began with Clara Parkes, researching artisan ice creams, a daunting task to which we devoted ourselves. Until the teacher’s dinner that evening, I had nothing all day but ice cream.  Our favorite was Salt and Straw. Their ice cream is so good that I cannot describe it and shall not even try. They have left me in a Pavlovian state; all I have to do is think of them and I salivate. Anyway, after filling ourselves with frozen wonderment, and lingering in one of the sweetest little fabric stores anywhere, Bolt, which happens to be in the same neighborhood as Salt and Straw (okay, I admit it; I dined there twice in one day), we went to join the other 60 amazing teachers for a normal dinner. We skipped dessert.

This pigeon right outside the convention center wore a different cowl every day, clothed by anonymous sock summiteers.

Like the first Sock Summit, there were thousands of intensely brilliant and adventurous knitters all concentrated in one place, sharing ideas, fondling one another’s clothing and projects, buying delicious yarn and tools and bags, and filling classrooms with so much devotion and brightness that we scarcely needed electric lights. I taught three single days of a class called “The Knitting Sleuth” for knitters with a forensic (investigative) bent, where we examined my library of thrift store sweaters cut up and framed into forensic samples. I even had a real live topologist in one class, and also a textile engineer – be still my heart! Here are photos of my students dissecting samples, seeking insights that might let their yarn and needles dance and create textures that have never before existed.

Yes, I know it looks like brain surgery.  It is.

Those double-pointed needles are good for something (just kidding, really I am). Here they are being used to identify yarn pathways. It helps to identify things that are nearly surely so from the much larger category of things that are mysteries. You wouldn’t believe what this sample looks like on the other side, by the way. Not what you would expect. Everyone left these classes with a significant increase in brain synapse dendrite growth, by which I mean, we probably delay the onset of dementia by examining our knitting with intense curiosity and mental concentration and joy. At least I like to think so.

Here is our pigeon friend on the final day.

And finally, I arrived home, where I have been assiduously working on the second installment of my eBook, Cat’s Sweet Tomato Heel Socks (if you want to buy it, that is a clickable link). I have spent many days filming, illustrating, and editing a video tutorial for the Padded Sweet Tomato Heel, which is featured in the newest sock, Feather and Foliage (shown below).

This sock is knit with Mountain Colors Crazyfoot, a particularly bouncy, well-spun sock yarn that makes your hands and feet happy both in the knitting and in the wearing. The Padded Sweet Tomato Heel is worked much like the original heel, with the inclusion of slipped stitch columns. There are a few other modifications to make this heel just right, and you will find some of them in the video and all of them in the eBook.

I am thankful and encouraged by the enthusiastic response the eBook has so far received from knitters. Every time someone says it’s the easiest sock they’ve ever knit, and that it fits like a dream, my heart sings.

Well, there are no deer in the yard at this very moment, so I can get some work done. Next on my agenda is a sock for the Blue Moon Rocking Sock Club (nearly done, and I am charmed by the way Tina’s colorway  and my design collaborated), getting the third installment of the eBook ready (it will include a new sock as well as instructions on working 2-at-a-time, which is easy as pie), and hopefully, finishing the patterns for the Anemone Hat and Winter Sanctuary Cowl, which have been pictured on my home page for weeks and weeks now.

Oh, and also the Zebra Hat, which is camel-approved. That’s Mona, our local camel.

Thank you, knitters and readers, for caring; I am honored and grateful to be supported by you in the work I love to do.

Getting ready for Sock Summit in Portland, Oregon

I’ve been having a lovely time preparing for my Sock Summit classes in Portland next week. If you have any hankering whatsoever to experience the most concentrated gathering of knitting innovation, intelligence, creativity, generosity, kindness, sharing, and sheer joy you may ever find on the planet, and that doesn’t scare you, I hope you will come be among us on July 28-31 at the Portland Convention Center. Get some rest before you arrive.

I’ll be teaching three full-day sessions of “The Knitting Sleuth,” and one full day of “Personal Footprints for Insouciant Sock Knitters,” based on my book. “The Knitting Sleuth” is something else, in fact every time I teach it, it is something else. Here is a glimpse:

This pretty thing is not a quilt. It is a sampling of the thrift store sweaters I have been spending years collecting, cutting up, and sewing into frames (made of interfacing). In order to qualify for a frame, a sweater has to have a stitch texture I have never encountered anywhere, and be of enough interest to warrant my students devoting their time to reverse engineering it and hopefully getting lost along the way again and again, thus discovering related yet unique textures that also have never been seen before. Then we extract algorithms and list variables and play and swatch and lo and behold, new knitting textures appear faster than baby rabbits in a well-fed warren. And if this sounds like math, the thing that you think you don’t like about math isn’t here at all; this is math, yet requires none at all. Be not afraid, at all.

I call this Forensic Knitting, and the framed swatches are but one of several dozen pathways I have developed to carry knitters toward fruitful, expanded consciousness. It is more fun than, as one of my students said, “anything else you can do with your clothes on.”

Here is one of the three fawns that spend so much time nibbling dandelions in my yard that I have to recharge my camera battery daily to keep up with their cuteness. And here is the same fawn moments later – she seems to have heard something and she …

took off as fast as her little legs would carry her! I apologize for the blurry photo, but it’s a miracle I caught the little dear (ha ha) at all. As I write, she is back, munching on more dandelions, flicking her tail, and occasionally winning a stare-down with me through the window.

I’ve finished  preparing single pattern versions of the first three designs in my eBook, Cat’s Sweet Tomato Heel Socks, and have posted them on Ravelry along with the eBook, which if I were you I would buy instead, since for $20 you will end up with the equivalent of $54 worth of patterns as well as lots of in-depth tips and tricks and lessons that will not appear in any one pattern. If you click on “Patterns” in the left menu, then “socks,” you will be taken to the three that I have posted.

I get most of my Forensic sweaters at our local thrift store, and yesterday I also found a half-dozen antique steel-cable circular knitting needles. I’ve owned one for years and thought I might never find any more; these are likely from the 1920′s or earlier.

Curiously, there was a pair of  2.25 mm and a pair of 3 mm needles, both about 30 inches long, as if somewhere on this island a knitter may have been working in the round on 2 circs decades before I was ever born. Except that the steel cables are so unyielding that this could not have worked out well at intersections.

The other curious thing is that the tips of the long needles (not the 16-inch needle) also have a very small diameter hole drilled through the tip, suitable for sewing thread – a lifeline perhaps? Keep in mind this is a 3 mm needle, so the hole is very small indeed. Ah, the stories these needles could tell.

The only reason I came up with the 2-circ method and Sarah Hauschka with the 1-circ method (Magic Loop) is because Ingrid Skacel brought Addi Turbo needles, with their pliant cables, smooth joins  and fine tips from Germany to this country in the mid-80s, spending decades investing in the knitting community and trusting that we would appreciate fine tools. It didn’t happen overnight, but she and her husband Hans persisted and in my opinion, changed the knitting world. We wouldn’t be where we are were it not for the fine tools we have to work with. Since then, other needle makers have built upon the pioneering work of Addi Turbo, but I still think they are the best needles made.

I hope to see some of you in Portland! You’ll find me, when I am not teaching, looking blissful at Ruby Jewel Ice Cream. I dare you to have some ice cream, then walk a few doors down and through the door of At the Meadow without spending money on something you never even knew existed or that you wanted. Beware. It happened to me. I won’t even tell you what it is. You will have choices.

Okay, this is in real time. Mama deer just showed up and was instantly attacked by her twins who to my astonishment are still nursing, with VIGOR. Wish you could have seen this: the twins are actually lifting mom up and down with their eagerness. I am grateful every day for living here.

 

 

Today I gathered the courage to release my first eBook…

Up until a few moments ago, all my books have been paper. But now, a new book, Cat’s Sweet Tomato Heel Socks, is born, and will be winging its way via cyber-molecules to electronic devices in knitters’ hands, perhaps even yours. If you’d like to purchase the eBook, click here. You will have the choice of paying by Paypal or by credit card. And thank you so much for venturing on this first eBook journey with me.

If you’re familiar with my other books, you’ll feel right at home with this new baby because I’ve used the same design and layout style and offer the same meticulous attention to detail and clarity to insure your knitting experience is smooth and sweet. I’m excited that for the first time I can include live video links so that my hands and voice are at your service.

The nearly 100 knitters who have tested my Tomato Heel Socks say it’s the simplest and most satisfying method they’ve ever used. This heel emerged last winter after several days of sitting beside the wood stove with my mother while trying to fiddle my way towards a new short-row heel. I’d given up several times when almost unconsciously, I did a small thing—and just like that, the clean heel of my dreams existed. This small thing closes gaps without holes, wraps, or acrobatics. The heel is rhythmic to work and nearly perfectly smooth, like a tomato. Best of all, once the process is understood, a knitter needs no written instructions.

The payment of $20 covers all installments of the eBook. The first installment is 20 pages long and includes the foundation lessons and first 3 patterns, with 5 more patterns to follow (listed in the table of contents in gray). These 8 designs will also be released as single-pattern purchases. A ninth sock, never to be released as a single, will arrive as an exclusive thank you gift to eBook purchasers, and will complete your eBook.

The first sock in the book is one I dearly love, my Zebra Socks, which come in sizes for babies through large men. Above you see my little grandson Charlie wearing his, and below you see me in a tree wearing mine. I am pretending to be a Madagascar Lemur.

The next pair in the first installment is another Charlie-inspired design that delights adults as well: Secret Treasure Pocket Socks. I can even fit my iPhone in a pocket, and you can make 1, 2, 3, or 4 pockets, as you wish. These socks also come in all sizes.

 

If you turn the pockets inside out (notice that I used leftover sock yarn to knit the insides, why not?) they look like puppy dog ears. Of course, when they are pushed to the inside as intended, they are secret.

And third, you will find an elegant sock, Minnesota Moonlight, which will entrance you both in the knitting and the wearing. Alas, I do not offer these for babies or men, but they do come in women’s small, medium and large.

This eBook was conceived and born in the the very same room where I am writing this, at my parents’ home high in the Santa Cruz Mountains 10 miles as the crow flies (and they do) from the Pacific Ocean. At the moment I am working nearby my mother again, as I was during the days when the Sweet Tomato Heel was conceived, surprising me with its sweet, smooth innocence and friendliness. Twas winter then, tis summer now, and the sun is shining, so off I go for a walk, with my patient mother, who just told me it need not be a long, long walk.

If you’d like to purchase my eBook, click here. You will have the choice of paying by Paypal or by credit card. (The $20 payment covers all installments.) And thank you so much for venturing on this first eBook journey with me.