Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Yarn Whisperer Goes to Knitlandia. . .

I have all three of Clara Parkes' reference books in my library -  The Knitter's Book of Yarn,  The Knitter's Book of Wool and The Knitter's Book of Socks - and I refer to them regularly, particularly the first two.  I've also been a subscriber to her popular The Knitter's Review newsletter for years (definitely sign up if you haven't already).  Her knowledge and passion for knitting and all things fibre related is impressive.  So with her new book Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World out last month, I thought it was high time to read both of her essay collections focusing on different aspects of the knitting world.

I've come across several recent books that have writers reminiscing about favourite garments and the memories associated with them but in The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knittting, Parkes takes a slightly different approach, by looking at how the actual process of knitting different stitches, using various techniques and simply being a knitter can also provide plenty of "madeleine" moments of memory and retrospection.

There are twenty-two autobiographical essays, each just a few pages long and easy enough to dip into when you have a spare minute.  Great for bus or train commutes to work.  And in small doses is perhaps the best way to tackle this book because the metaphors can at times feel a little forced. I enjoyed her essay comparing a yarn stash with a garden - the planning, the potential, the mistakes and the need for what she calls "prudent weeding"  - and one on the meditative and practical similarities between playing music and swatching.  The art of baking and knitting, both involving your hands and the following of recipes is ideal raw material for a comparative essay,  although I'm not sure I'd agree that making a croissant from scratch which she terms the "perfect knitted pastry . . . a product of slow, steady patience",  can really be equated with the rather fast and easy stockinette stitch .  And the essay on mystery novels and with good and bad fictional characters finding their counterparts in knitting patterns just didn't really work for me.  Some of the writing felt like filler as did the design of the book in which the entire first page of each chapter is several font sizes larger than the following text. So I did find this book a little disappointing.

However, I absolutely LOVED Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World.

Here Parkes is in her element, a keen observer and appreciator of the many global adventures that her knitting has taken her on.  I've gone to enough yarn festivals in the UK to know that each has its own character and vibe, partly from the venue and location, but also because different organisers have different visions and the mixture of vendors and events is never the same.  I've never been to one of the huge U.S. shows such as Rhinebeck or the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, but I do feel now as if I've travelled vicariously through Clara's essays.  One of the largest industry shows she describes is TNNA, where if a knitter accidentally stumbles into one of the "stark, canvas-lined needlepoint aisles . . . a distinct chill comes on, a sense of having left one's village and entered a strange forest." I'm unlikely to ever attend TNNA, but many years ago when I was a bookseller, I went several times to BookExpo America which seems to have many of the same traits.  Only in my day, veering into the self-publishing aisles was the scary experience, especially if the subject was new-age or cosmetic surgery.  Self-publishing - certainly in the craft world - has come a long way since.

Aside from shows, there are also recountings of retreats and knitting holidays.  One of the best essays in the book is titled "Naked Lopi" where Parkes travels to Iceland along with a coach of mostly American knitters for a series of workshops and tours around the country. She gets a lot more (beyond the yarn and there's plenty of that around), than she bargained for and learns to abandon quite a few personal inhibitions.  Similarly at the Squam Art Workshops held at a lake resort in New Hampshire, she overcomes her skepticism about having to do meditation and the "woo-woo" qualities of some of the themes, to embrace instead the "magic" that the woods and nature can bring to the creative spirit.

These essays were great armchair travel reading around a theme that all crafty people can relate to, even if we're on the perpetual student side of the experience rather than the all-knowing teaching side. And for those readers in the UK, her essay on her first visit to Scotland and the 2015 Edinburgh Yarn Festival is essential reading - for the recognition and celebration of how far the local wool industry has come in the last few years, for the encounters with familiar designers, vendors and bloggers and for the astute observations as to why a festival such as this differs from American ones. I felt quite proud reading it, proud that she, "felt no elbows, and saw no greedy grabbing of skeins, no hoarder hustle to beat me to the next booth." The whole experience reminds her that no matter where in the world you are, knitting, "has a profound connective power. The culture and people and rituals around it, the values, they all contribute to an immediate and profound trust in one another. It's home. You belong and are accepted, which rings true no matter where you are."

This last observation is something I will remember next week when I'm in Edinburgh and if you are travelling up to the festival,  Knitlandia would be the perfect companion.  Just in case you accidentally forget the knitting at home.

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