Musing

At the turning

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

— Susan Cooper

On the shortest day I loaded a backpack with four tin cups, a thermos of hot cider, a parcel of cookies dusted in sugar, and a picnic blanket. It was a surprise outing for the children, an inkling of a new tradition I’d thought of. We drove a little way north along the rim of the valley, where there’s an open field I like. I used to ride an Arab mare around the perimeter, trotting her uphill for conditioning and resting at the top to puff and look out over the quilted landscape. Our family of four—and the dog—walked along the fence that surrounds the cemetery of the little church of St. Francis and picked a spot in the high corner to spread our blanket and watch the sun sink.

During our first full season at the farm I’ve watch the sun’s arc intersect the hills beyond our valley, working steadily south along the blue knuckles of Mt. Dallas to Little Mountain and then the low hills above Kanaka Bay. This deep in the year it doesn’t even reach the island, vanishing instead behind the Olympic mountains across the straits.

We called up the most luminous points of memory from the year that’s been: adventures in Paris, singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, bringing home the kittens, making “fifty” friends at school, our first lambs. The great magic of life on this farm—a magic well grounded in work that isn’t always fun or instantly gratifying, mind you, but rewarding all the same.

Now we’re closing the year in a slog through boxing up all our remaining clutter in Portland. I am not quick to find cathartic joy in this chore; part of me would like to light a huge bonfire in the driveway and have done, but alas, city codes and sentiment over the possessions of my ancestors prevent me.

Wishing you a clean sheet, a new leaf, a freshening wind as we welcome 2018!

Adventuring

Friday, 10am: The journey begins on a clear June day. Some clouds pretending innocence are loitering in the west, no threat to a beautiful summer’s day in this mild, maritime climate. The ferry poots a warning to the lesser boats, leaves Friday Harbor and rumbles northwest. Sea lions have rafted up to bask on a rock off Yellow Island, warm and tawny in the sunlight and still as driftwood. It has been an unusually dry spring and the islands are showing their golden flanks and shoulders—their August plumage. The sea is sparkling and the kelp beds wink and glisten. A flock of gulls is squabbling over a little run of fish.

Down on the car deck, my blue station wagon holds a tent, a sleeping bag, an LED lantern, a rain jacket, and three clear drum liners stuffed with North Country Cheviot wool. We’re nearing the international border now, crossing from the San Juans into the Gulf Islands, one archipelago with two names parted by an imaginary line drawn by a German Kaiser at the end of the 19th century to resolve some armed bickering over a dead pig. To the north is Salt Spring Island. It’s only about 14 miles from my island to this one as the orca swims, but today I’ll set foot on Salt Spring for the first time. My three bags full are bound for the Gulf Islands Cooperative Spinning Mill.

11:30am: It turns out Americans don’t try to breeze through Sidney Customs with carloads of agricultural product very often. Or ever. Three agents consult on what’s to be done with me and my wool, asking questions about the state of my tires and shoes in the friendliest of manners. They are relieved to hear I don’t drive the family car about the sheep pasture or into the barn. They are ever so pleased to hear about the hours I spent picking seeds and manure out of the fleeces and charitably decide it must be mostly clean. They wish I had a firmer figure for the value of three bags of fleece, but in the end they nicely send me on my way.

SaltSpring

This post is photo heavy so I scaled them smaller than usual. Click for better!

1:30pm: Salt Spring’s topography is more amplified than I had realized. My island works up to its heights, so I wasn’t prepared for big hills rearing right out of the sea. Roadwise, it’s completely different from home. Beaver Point Road swoops and veers; every corner is blind. It seems possible that this route was engineered by barn swallows. Noted: If you don’t have a farm stand at the end of your driveway, you’re certainly not keeping up with the Salt Spring Joneses.

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2:00pm: I’ve parked at Ruckle Provincial Park and trotted down a woodsy path toward the sea with my tent under my arm to claim a campsite. This tent dates to my childhood and is looking a bit sun crisped. The rain fly is sporting some duct tape, but it’s better than the one to my tent, which disintegrated last time I pulled it from the sack. I’m grateful to my parents for the loan. And the dead earwigs are mostly on the outside, anyway.

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3:17pm: I didn’t know what to expect of the Gulf Islands Spinning Mill, but it’s a surprise to find it nestled within a kind of living agricultural history exhibit. Antique tractors rust nobly on the green. No one is around except a blacksmith, who is sure enough beating a piece of glowing metal into submission with a soundtrack of punk bagpipes. The mill is locked up, with a sign posted that recommends calling John in such a scenario. I can’t call from my American mobile here, though. The blacksmith directs me to find Barry, who oversees this place and is working on a bobcat over yonder. From Barry I learn that Bob, who gave me the green light to deliver the wool today, has gone to Ontario because his mother-in-law died. Barry calls John’s wife and learns that luckily John is on his way to the mill right now about another matter.

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John arrives and shows me the other matter: the pin drafter is broken, and he’s spent all week sending photographs of various parts to the company in North Carolina that built it 70 years ago and then awaiting their suggestions about what to try next. He’s finally isolated the area where it’s jammed and hopes to have it back in action within the next week, but for the moment all he can spin is a truly Rubenesque singles. John has been running this mill for 20 years. He likes Cheviot.

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My visit is brief; I need to wait until Amy comes in on Monday and takes a look at the wool so I can have a conversation with her about how best to spin it. The options are not many; it is a very little mill, after all. But it suits the modest scale of this particular adventure and I’m delighted to have seen it in person.

4:30pm: Back in downtown Ganges, I putter through the busiest area to see what’s what. Ganges is a little bigger than my town but feels familiar, brimming with summer weekend tourist traffic. I park near the Coast Guard station because I spy a bookshop and imagine this will be a good place to ask for dinner recommendations. Also, it’s called Black Sheep Books, and when you put sheep and books in the same name you’ve got me firmly in your tractor beam. Black Sheep Books is a second-hand trove of antiquarian oddities and greedily thumbed romances and everything in between. If I were feeling less hungry and more decisive I could do real damage here. After about forty happily aimless minutes I settle on In Deep, Maxine Kumin’s essays on country life, and the bookseller points me to the nearby Treehouse Café.

6:30pm: One grilled halloumi sandwich wrapped in naan with a side of kaleslaw later, I am ethnically and calorically replete. There is live music starting, but I am sleepy and also keen to veer and swoop my way back through the forest to Ruckle Park while it is still fully light.

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Fence envy is a real condition, folks.

8:00pm: Back at the campground, I’ve shuttled necessities down to my tent and located the potable water supply. I pass a brace of bucks browsing at the trail’s edge. They regard me peaceably from beneath their velvety antlers. I spread my sleeping bag, gather up my knitting, and settle on a little shelf of igneous rock still warm from the sun with the waves lapping near my toes.

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It’s not exactly a quiet spot; there’s a steady parade of ferries to and fro on the Vancouver run, and some of those vessels make our Washington State ferries look like bathtub toys. But the throaty purr of those big engines melds lullingly with the soundscape of the strait. I watch three families of geese ply the waters. A lustily supping otter rolls and dives and surfaces, subduing something with a lot of unmannerly chewing. He trolls the shoreline for a long while. The liquid arc of his back and the furthermore of his tail hardly leave a ripple. The sky is lit with lilac and apricot; it is also loosing a spatter of rain. I retreat to the tent to write and listen.

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One anniversary mitt down, one to go.

Epilogue: It will rain all night. I will learn I’ve grown old enough to want a cushier sleeping pad, but I will be wryly thankful to have packed the extra-long impermeable ridged variety, which will have protected me perfectly from the impressive lake forming under and inside my tent even while rendering half my limbs numb by turns. In the morning I’ll laze awhile, then drive back to Ganges to hunt up breakfast at the farmer’s market, where I’ll happen upon a glorious rug woven and naturally dyed in Oaxaca. It deserves its own post.

Slow fashion and privilege

Over on Instagram, there’s a movement called #slowfashionoctober happening. It’s about more than just showing off the clothes you’ve sewn or knitted. There’s an important discussion about consumption patterns bundled with it, a lot of thoughtful people taking stock of what they have, considering who made it and how, acknowledging that they have too much and thinking about how their wardrobes could do more with less, committing to vote with their dollars for companies that create fashion sustainably and fairly, strategizing about how to defuse the desire to own more pretty new things. I’m very much in that headspace myself these days and I’m glad to see this unfolding in my online community.

Yesterday Bristol Ivy, whose open eyes and brave smart mouth I’ve long admired, asked us all to take a look at what this stance means in terms of our privilege, to think about who can afford slow fashion and who can’t. About who’s left out when we’re all crooning over our beautiful sweaters knit with small-batch yarns from sheep with names, because those skeins sell for the real cost of production to the farmers and local mills and dyers—none of whom is getting rich in this business—and that cost is just too great. You can read her post on Instagram, where she’s @bristolivy, and the comments from many people reacting with gratitude that she was willing to broach the topic of inequality and adding important points of their own. Ysolda Teague draws attention to economic research that shows we spend about the same portion of our income on clothing as our forebears did… but we have many more items. The trouble isn’t that quality costs too much, it’s that we’ve developed a whole culture that depends on clothing being cheap and disposable. Most people well-off enough to be using computers and smartphones (and thus participating in this conversation) expect to see their friends wearing different clothes from one day to the next. We judge each other’s adherence to trends and use that information to make choices about our social connections, and we do it from the time we’re little children. We all want what looks correct and attractive within our particular milieu. This is pretty basic human psychology, but globalization has made it far easier for people of all income levels to play the game—and at the same old ugly cost to those who manufacture our clothes in unsafe and unjust conditions, but far away where we don’t have to see it or even think about it unless a mill catches fire and kills hundreds of workers trapped inside. Before my generation, making your children’s clothes was the budget-friendly choice. Today I can buy my son a shirt for less money than the yard of fabric required to sew it. The math has gone seriously askew—it can’t be this advantageous to me unless someone’s in an appalling deficit at the making end. No wonder people want to get out of this current and class off in a nice little slow fashion eddy where everything is fairly sourced and so timelessly well crafted it will last for generations. I know I do. I have to think it would be better for everyone if we could find our way to a broader culture that valued quality above quantity (or novelty).

But here’s another tangle where I’m stuck. By editing down our wardrobes; making only what’s beautiful, serviceable, and lasting; and avoiding the temptations of the new and the now, we have to rein in our purchasing from the very independent designers, farmers, and other artisans we’re so proud to support. You couldn’t go to a yarn store and find local products fifteen years ago. Independent knitting designers existed only by the handful and relied on self-published paper newsletters to distribute their work. A community of crafters created this market out of thin air because they were willing to put up the money to buy the products even though they cost more. If many of us with the means to buy fairly priced patterns, cloth, yarn, and locally made clothing cut back, what happens to our artisans’ livelihood? How do the Bristols and Ysoldas of our community get to go on inspiring us with their brilliant art? Economists would say a contraction of the market with less successful players being weeded out is just the way things work, but I don’t think we’re so sanguine as a community. We value the human connections and the stories of regular folks living their creative dreams, and we buy from them not just because they make beautiful things but because it feels good. (I’m not sure anybody loves things that feel good more than knitters do. I suspect scientists will someday discover that the crafty gene is right next to the do-gooder gene and the one doesn’t get expressed without the other.)

In a curious alignment of threads, I’ve been digesting a historical example that brings the same questions to light. Last week a splendid book was published in Sweden and flew right ’round the world to my doorstep. It’s the first new material on Bohus Stickning to come out in twenty years, and I have been guzzling it. If you’ve never heard of Bohus knitting before, 1) apologies for the deep dive into geekdom that’s about to ensue; 2) go run a quick Google image search. You’re welcome. The gist of this story is that Bohus Stickning began as a relief effort in the late 1930s, employing rural women in one little corner of Sweden to knit garments for sale. But not just socks and hats and bazaar goods. This company shot the moon. They made gobsmackingly gorgeous couture and sold it to princesses and film stars at astronomical prices, which translated into modest but significant paychecks for the knitters. These sweaters were as exclusive and costly as mink coats, but those who could buy them did, and the artistry that flourished at this tiny little non-profit blows the roof off the whole span of handknitting history before and since. I’m not even exaggerating. Bohus Stickning had a thirty-year run, nimbly responding to fashion trends while continuing to produce wildly original designs so improbably difficult to knit that even experts were deceived about their construction. What sank this company in the end was the first wave of the forces we’ve been trying to beat back with our slow fashion movement. And you know what? The global renaissance of craft in the past two decades—and customers’ renewed willingness to pay for quality—is what has brought Bohus Stickning back in the form of painstakingly reconstructed kits to knit some of the garments yourself. They’re very expensive. They still can’t be for everyone. I wish they could, but there’s no way to cut corners with integrity.

I don’t know the right way forward, or that there is any way forward that’s righter than the rest. I have too much stuff in my closet. Some of that stuff is handmade, and I keep it because it’s handmade even though I never wear it. That’s a piece of preciousness I’ll have to get over. I’m making an effort to pare down and to think carefully about what comes in. I also have too much yarn. It’s mostly very good yarn, because I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to support what I think of as the Knit Local movement. I have exciting plans for nearly all of it, but not enough time to execute those plans. Knowing this will not always prevent me from stashing more irresistible yarn, and apparently my idea of being strict with myself about knitting from the stash I’ve got is to cart home a bag of roving so I can spin another sweater’s worth. (Because that’s a time-saving plan for sure.)

This is what I’d like to do today. It is one small thing, because I can’t begin to address the problems of inequality, exploitation, education, social pressure, corporate transparency, and what have you that freight this conversation, but I also can’t think about all of that and then do nothing. One bag of the good yarn waiting patiently for my attention is a sweater quantity of Brooklyn Tweed Shelter in a heathered charcoal shade called Soot. Ten skeins. If you care about the ideas wrapped up in #slowfashionoctober but can’t indulge in yarn like this, I would like to send it to you. (There, I’ve just pressed your “Whoo! Free yarn!” desire trigger, so if you’re also trying to stash less, I apologize.) But if this offer happens to align with your carefully honed crafting plans and wardrobe aims, send me an email—sarah@wgk.com, only spell out the blog name—with your address and I’ll post the Shelter to the first responder. If it feels right, maybe I’ll do this again with some other good yarn.

ShelterSoot

To everyone else, keep making what’s useful and beautiful—by your own lights. Keep sharing it with the rest of us. Keep inviting more people into the conversation and noticing the quiet ones. Be generous to each other. Don’t make anyone feel inferior.

ETA: The Shelter has traveled to its new home, but stay tuned—I think I’ll do this again sometime!