North to Alaska: Report from Yarn Expo III
September 29-October 1, 2006
by Deborah Robson
Lots of Anchorage arrivals and departures occur when I'd normally be in my pajamas. About an hour before my Denver-based flight's landing at Ted Stevens International Airport—after midnight Rocky Mountain time—the cabin crew came down the aisles with warm oatmeal raisin cookies. Most of the adults, as well as the kids, chose milk to go with them. Sometimes a very small thing makes a huge difference in a day.
The airport in Anchorage feels as modern inside as Denver's hub. The floors gleam with polished inlaid stone and the shops—which were open at an hour when Denver's terminals are nearly deserted—feature moose-adorned mugs and Raven's Brew coffee T-shirts.
Donna Druchunas, another Yarn Expo guest instructor, and I were on the same flight and had offered to room together for the week. We'd been told that someone from the Alaska State Yarn Council would escort us to the Hotel Captain Cook. As we reached the bottom of the escalator on the way to baggage claim, two cheerfully awake people stepped toward us: crochet marvels Delma Myers, from Alaska, and Jean Blaine, another guest instructor.
A video monitor mounted over the luggage carousel showed a film about the knitters of Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative, one of the main subjects of Donna's new book, Arctic Lace: Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska's Native Knitters. The members of the co-operative, who live in villages throughout the state, knit qiviut (the blissfully soft underdown of musk oxen) into luxurious scarves, hats, and other accessories. Oomingmak headquarters is in downtown Anchorage.
The dark streets outside the car windows shimmered with a patina of rain and chill crisped the air. The warmth was all inside, with good companions and a hearty welcome. Among other things, Delma told us that the rooms where the workshops would be held are graced with natural light. Hooray!
Because of frequent midnight arrivals, the folks at the hotelís front desk often deal with sleepy people. We were soon settled in our room, which had a view of the Aleutian Mountains. Fortunately, we had about 30 hours to get our internal clocks re-set and explore our surroundings before we needed to be coherent. So we crashed.
Poking Around Anchorage
The next morning, holding a guide book, we ventured out of the hotel in search of breakfast. In Anchorage's walking-friendly downtown, we quickly found the Snow City Cafe. The cafe's walls are painted clear orange and lime green and a goldy yellow, with clear, even lighting, and the owners plan a full year's schedule of rotating art exhibits every October.
We spent the rest of the day walking around the downtown, and we discovered more interesting knitting than I've ever seen while casually getting to know a place.
There's Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative, of course, at the corner of 6th and H, housed in a small, older building surrounded by tall, modern ones.
A long table in the front room welcomes visitors who want to chat for a while, although it's primarily used as a work space for tasks that range from blocking knitwear to bookkeeping.
Right in the hotel we found more cool stuff. As we walked by the line of small shops on the Fifth Street corridor, a big basket of vivid intarsia socks caught my eye. In a corner of the shop (Siobhanís In the European Style on 939 West 5th Avenue, Suite L; tel. 907-276-6000 x3251), I caught sight of a familiar book: Norwegian knit designer Solveig Hisdal's Poetry in Stitches.
And then, with a shock, I realized that we were surrounded by literally hundreds of neatly folded and displayed items from Hisdal's Oleana line of clothing, accessories, and blankets. The stuff was so gorgeous it was hard to leave.
A shop called One People * One World (425 D Street, tel. 907-274-4063) has something different: a sign on its front door advertising "qiveut." (The term "qiviut" is copyrighted by the co-op.) We went in to check out Colleen White's work in dyed and knitted musk-ox down, which you can see best on the Web.
In addition we happened across colorful Peruvian knits and, on the bottom of a set of shelves where we could easily have missed them, a small pile of Russian shawls. Donna bought a shawl for an off-season price that was only a bit more than we'd paid for our reasonable breakfast.
That evening, we met the organizers of Yarn Expo and several of the other instructors for dinner at Organic Oasis. As soon as a conference starts, there aren't many chances to talk to the other resource people. It was great to have time to visit.
The Yarn Expo
The first Yarn Expo occurred in 2004 when local people pulled together an impromptu knit-in to greet a group passing through on a cruise sponsored by Vogue Knitting. Some 200 people turned out. In 2005, Yarn Expo moved to fall as a Knit-Out and Crochet event. This year's Expo was sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Alaska State Yarn Council, officially established last May. Fast tracking!
Yarn Expo encompasses all the fiber arts. Instructors were asked to teach three- and six-hour workshops on Friday and Saturday, and then to provide one-hour seminars on similar topics that were open to everyone who came to the vendor-centered event on Sunday.
Sunday was the big day, attended by about 700 people. It featured presentations by Anchorage's mayor and first lady, a fashion show, a keynote presentation, elegant light food for everyone, and fantastic door prizes. One full track of Sunday's seminars was dedicated to kids, in keeping with one of the council's aims: developing the next generation of fiber artists.
Was there enough to draw a knitter's interest throughout the three days, even with the inclusion of other media? Absolutely yes. And one of the appealing aspects of Yarn Expo, and of Anchorage itself, is the way cross-fertilization between fiber approaches and cultures occurred naturally.
Yarn Expo: A Closer Look
Workshops consisted of between four and sixteen people. Excellent meals were included in the workshop pricing, which also gave participants many opportunities to mingle.
Most attendees came from within Alaska, although as word gets out I think the mix will be about half Alaskans and half people who've made a pilgrimage from elsewhere. The members of the workshop groups were fun to teach: they were all ready to try something new.
The Yarn Expo organizers dedicated themselves to being sure that both presenters and participants had the best possible experience. One attendee came up to the desk 20 minutes after a workshop started and said, "I'm way over my head in the workshop I chose. Is there any way I can switch to something else?" Within five minutes, her schedule had been rearranged and she had been integrated into a different class.
The 21 vendor displays that ringed the ballroom on Sunday offered a wide array of items, including yarns, spinning fibers, tools, finished clothing, beads, and handmade soaps. There was plenty of cool stuff to warrant a full day of browsing, with breaks for the free seminars and to sit in the middle of the room and spin, knit, crochet, or needle-felt.
I saw unusual quantities of elegant fibers—including qiviut, of course, but also alpaca, guanaco, and mohair blends—in colors both bright and subtle and in weights from the bulkiest to most ethereal. I saw bone knitting needles and crochet hooks and great buttons and locally spun yarns and handmade spindles. It was an easy place to stock up for winter. The only problem came in making hard choices between great options.
Yarn Expo in Anchorage was not Maryland or Rhinebeck or Taos or Estes Park or Stitches or SOAR. It was smaller, more intimate, more laid-back, and, for me, even more inspiring than I usually find the larger events, which I always love attending.
Yarn Expo: Thinking Ahead
Yarn Expo IV's market is scheduled for September 30, 2007, with workshops either before or after, to be determined based on evaluations of this year's schedule. Lily Chin has already been scheduled as one of the guest instructors.
Anchorage Knitting Shops
Even with several good yarn stores near where I live, I found many carefully selected and new-to-me items at the two knitting shops we visited.
The haven called Far North Yarn Company (2636 Spenard Rd., Suite 6, tel. 907-258-5648) is located in a strip mall near Organic Oasis (where we had dinner the first night) and the Bear's Tooth Theatre Pub, where we enjoyed a lunch. Far North's owner Kay Smith has created the sort of place that people come to take a quick (or long) break during a busy day.
Knitting Grounds is a bit more out-of-the-way. It inhabits a warehouse that owner Zaynab Falconer has transformed into a warm and welcoming space. With a large seating area full of couches, it provides a home-away-from-home for defined groups that gather at scheduled times for fiberwork and socializing.
Each store stocks a wide range of yarns (they have mostly different stuff), offers instruction, and serves as a catalyst and collection point for charity knitting.
Notes on Travel and Weather
Thanks to fare-watching, my plane tickets to Anchorage and back cost less than round-trips to New York and D.C. earlier this year. The best flights (for me, the nonstop ones) do seem to arrive or depart very late in the evening. However, the airline served a light meal on both the outbound and return segments (in addition to cookies).
Late September is off-season. Tourist services change to winter hours on October 1. Pack layers of clothing, including a lightweight jacket that is both wind- and water-resistant. The days were mostly rainy and chilly, although one was gloriously sunny. It was great knitting weather!
If you're traveling with non-knitting companions, there's plenty for them to do. Yarn Expo's market-and-seminar day welcomes kids. For nice days, Anchorage has more than 100 miles of bike trails (and rental bikes), mountains for hiking, and many other outdoor activities. The image at left was taken just 11 miles outside of Anchorage. If the weather's lousy, even in the off-season, there are plenty of museums, restaurants, performances, and shops.
About the author
Deborah Robson edited and laid out Donna Druchunas's Arctic Lace, which was the reason they were both in Alaska. Additional information on the trip is on her newly established and intermittently updated blog. Her essays appear in a number of knitting- and crochet-focused anthologies. She's a former editor of Spin-Off, a number of Interweave Press books, and Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot.