Do Knitters Dream of Electric Sheep?

Images of yarns and fiber from Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival last week in Jefferson.  This fiber fest has everything a spinner or knitter could want: a fleece show and sale, two barns of vendors, three days of classes, and plenty of sheep.  Oh, and inspiration!

Braided Roving for Spinning
Braided Roving
hanging yarns
Long Skeins for Big Projects
dyed locks
Dyed Locks
Colorful Batts
Hot Off the Drum Carder

Urban Girl Looks Longingly at the Horizon

Sheep Herd

Ever visit a place for the first time and find you’ve already been there?

I don’t mean literally, like you remembered you’d been there once before.  I mean something more visceral: you find your true self has been waiting for you there, waiting for you to discover that you belong there.  In fact, you have belonged there all your life–if only you had known enough to look.

This happened to a friend of mine when she visited California.  She got off the plane, took one look and said, whoa: this is where I’m supposed to be.  It hit her that hard, and she’s never really come back.

This is what happens to me every time I attend the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival (it’s this weekend: Sept 7, 8, and 9).  As soon as I get there,  I feel so me, it hurts.  It’s the land.  It’s the sheep.  It’s the spinning.  I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.  There’s only one problem: the Sheep and Wool Fest isn’t a place, it’s an event.  It’s over in a flash.  Then it’s back to work.  Back to urban life.  Back.  Back.  Back.

Blackface SheepDon’t’ get me wrong: I enjoy my life.  It’s just impossible to live it outside a major urban area.  My husband and I could give up a lot to live in a rural small town.  We could say good bye to shopping malls and the Art Institute.  We could do without 4G and Lake Michigan water.  We could happily trade the Cubs for a lawn tractor.  What we can’t give up is our jobs.  Our jobs keep us tied to the city.  By living one dream, you say good bye to another.  Sometimes, you don’t even realize you’ve made a trade.

Nobody told us when we were young that pursuing our careers would tether us to city life.  Frankly, this was the last thing on our minds anyway.  The young think everything is possible.  It would never have occurred to me that my choice of profession meant I couldn’t live in the country.  If I wanted to live in a small town, why, I’d just move there.  Simple as that.  But it’s never that simple.

long view of a barnFor decades the movement has been out of small towns into the cities.  Who would have thought people would want to go back?  Whenever my husband and I drive in the country, we are sure to pass by the remnants of old towns.  My mother-in-law can pick out the crossroads of Wisconsin towns she once knew as a girl, now marked with just a few collapsed houses and a vine-wrapped chimney or two.  It always makes me sad.  Who lived there?  What dream fell apart?  I’d love to live out in the country, but where are the jobs?  Even in thriving small towns, it’s hard to find a doctor or a clinic.  What if you need a good lawyer?  What if you need a gasket to stop your faucet from leaking?

With small town life out of reach, we thought of moving farther out. We scoured the map of Chicagoland: if you want to get out of town, I mean really out of town, you’re looking at an hour commute–at least!   And we’re not big fans of long commutes.  What a waste of time, resources, and spirit.  So, we’re stuck, at least for now.  I’m grateful to the city for the life it gives us; but, in a few days, I’ll be walking through the dusty barns, searching for the perfect fleece, feeling very much myself and as close to the horizon as I can get.

Corn Dogs: A Celebration

Corn Dogs
Creamy Cornishy Hot Doggie Goodness

With the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival coming up this September, there’s more than enough to fantasize about: yarn, fleece,  sheep, tractors, farm equipment, and plenty of 4H events.  I’ve been a regular since 2004.  In Chicago, quality yarns are easy to find.  Try finding a fleece.  A good one.  At this festival, I always go home with a beaut. You’d think that as an avid hand spinner, I’d be fairly near to heaven, dreaming about the great fleece in my future.  Nope.  This year, I got just one thing on my mind: corn dogs.

Not just any corn dogs.  I’m talking about hand-dipped corn dogs, made while you wait.

Oh, my stars.  Have you ever had one of these?

My first was at last year’s festival.  When the line at the lunch counter was just too long, I decided to take my chances at the food cart outside.  That’s where I found these golden delicacies.  Creamy cornishy hot doggie goodness.  Like night and day from the stuff I’d had before–what I thought were corn dogs, now clearly understood as impostors.  There ought to be a law.

Here in Chicago, food truck owners are struggling with the city council, which just passed an ordinance allowing them to operate, but they must remain beyond a 200-foot radius of any brick and mortar restaurant.  The food truck owners complained that this made it nearly impossible for them to operate, especially downtown.  At first I thought, hey, restaurant owners pick their sites with care.  They have a right to operate without a food truck parked in front of their door, taking all their business.  The food truck has the luxury of mobility.  The brick and mortar restaurant does not.

I guess you could say that no lease owner is protected from competition.  What prevents a competitor from moving in right next door?  I rent an apartment.  I have no control over who lives next to me or over me or across the hall.  If I don’t like it, I can move.

But really, something about this perspective doesn’t seem quite right.  Why is the burden on me to move?  I’ve been here a long time.  I’ve established a life here.  Is it really fair to the restaurant owner who has worked hard to establish a clientele and a place in the neighborhood when a food truck parks outside its door?

My guess is that food truck owners don’t want to cause problems.  They want to establish a tradition, as the Chicago Food Carts blog puts it, “that other great cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have had for decades.”  My jones’n for a hand-dipped corn dog has made me think maybe it wouldn’t be half bad to ease the restriction.

From what I’ve read, corn dogs are rather pedestrian fare for food trucks these days.  They probably wouldn’t even sell corn dogs.  They’d probably sell corn duck sausage or corn fritters with chicken, spinach, and asiago.  Well, if you can put it on a stick, I guess I’ll try it.

Here’s hoping Chicago can work this out.  Don’t make me wait once a year for something so good.

Why I Will Never Own Sheep

three lambs

If you really get into hand spinning–if it becomes more than a means to an end (cheap yarn!), if you find yourself at summer parties wishing you had brought your wheel instead of potato salad–if this is you, then at some point you’ve probably fantasized about owning sheep.  I sure did.

The desire to own sheep is something I’ve heard a lot lately, even among people who admire spinning but don’t actually spin themselves.  Some of them don’t even knit or crochet or weave.  They just want sheep.

I understand. Once I spun my first fleece, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a small spinning flock of one or two breeds, maybe even rare breeds.  Sure, we lived in a condo, but I saw this as a surmountable problem.  We wouldn’t always be living in the city.  Someday, we would move to the country.  We would buy land, maybe a small hobby farm where I could live out my dream of raising sheep, spinning, and knitting and–apparently–living off my husband’s job, whatever that was going to be in this new rural landscape.

Yes, I would raise sheep.  I knew it was a big job, that you couldn’t just leave for days on the spur of the moment, that you needed to give yourself over to hard, physical work.  Inside, I knew I was tough; I could do it.  In anticipation of this future move, I decided to study up.  I devoured Sheep! magazine.   I learned what I could from books, the basics of feeding, fencing, sheering, even birthing and predator control.  I learned about breed characteristics and talked to breeders about the breeds that grew wool I liked to spin.  I knew I’d need a lot of  hands-on training before I could handle a flock of my own.  And then I learned the biggie: sheep die.

It’s true.  They die from all sorts of things and once they die what you have is a big dead sheep.  I was ready to run out in the middle of a cold spring morning to help a ewe give birth.  I knew about parasites and scrapie and bluetongue and foot rot.  Actually, there’s a host of horrible sheep diseases that I won’t mention here, but I figured I could deal with them with the help of a good vet and vigilance.

What I’m saying is this: of course I knew all along that sheep die.  What I realized was that I really wanted a flock of pet sheep that lived in my barn.  Flockmasters who are close to their sheep talk about how hard it is to lose them.  No one wants to lose an animal.  You can tell how much it matters when you get a fleece from the bloodline of one they really loved.  They want you to make something wonderful from the wool because it contains the legacy of a special animal.  If you ask, they offer you fond memories, and I treasure these fleeces because I’ve been made a steward of the legacy they carry.Pheefers the Cat

As great as it would be to have a spinning flock, I know I just couldn’t do it.  Listen, I’m still haunted by the death of my cat Pheefers and she died three years ago.  She got the best possible veterinary care and she still died too young.  She endured like a little saint.  Every night, my husband and I light a candle in her memory and for all the pets our friends have lost.  Can you image what I’d be like at the death of my first sheep?  Better to leave the shepherding to others.  I don’t know how they do it.  But they can do it, and I know I can’t.

Not long ago, I was at a llama 4H event with my cousin.   Llamas are stately, elegant, beautiful and the spinning is fine.  Unlike me, my cousin lives in a rural area and could probably have farm animals.  She had never seen a llama up close.  “Wow,” she said, “wouldn’t it be great. . . ?”  She trailed off.   I knew what she was thinking.  “Yep,” I agreed.  “It sure would.”  Except for one thing.

Fiber Artists at the Fair: A Sampler

Hooked Rug
Hooked Rug from the Foxy Lady Rug Hooking Guild

As soon as you walk in the door of Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair, you see the colors just beyond the gate and hear the noise.  You realize that this is a big show and that it’s probably going to overwhelm you and that you don’t care.  It’s exuberating when you set out into the vendor booths because you know it’s all ahead of you: hours of joy.  The more you lose yourself in this world, the better.  This is why you work hard all week.

I had the pleasure of attending the MFFAF this past weekend with my cousin and her daughter, a beginning knitter (and as of Saturday, a spindler, too).  Not having children myself, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing a young person take an interest in a craft I love.  I had little to do with her taking up knitting, but it was a singular treat to be present as she discovered firsthand what the world of fiber arts has to offer.

The MFFAF is a good show to make your first because it showcases fiber artists along with musicians and knitters, crocheters, quilters, spinners, and rug hookers.  As I’ve said before on this blog, we can’t lose sight of the artists.  They inspire us and–I firmly believe–we inspire them.  Just like my cousin’s daughter who has newly taken up her needles, I, a knitter of some twenty-two years’ experience, draw inspiration from her excitement over the new world she’s entered. As she discovered that she already knows all the stitches it takes to make a sweater, I was reminded that there are still many ways to push my own skills.  No doubt the fiber artists who entered their work at the exhibits felt the same way when they saw so many hundreds of fair goers crowding the booths, enjoying their work, thinking up new projects.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau
Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau

Cynthia Boudreau fashioned this Felted Tunic from Nuno silk and merino wool.  She used the wet felting technique to mesh the wool to the silk and then added beads.  Besides the design, which reminds me a little of Monet’s waterlily paintings, I love the shape and presentation, which reminds me of Japanese kimonos.  I wish you could see firsthand how light and refreshing this piece is–like a breeze.  Here’s more about Cynthia:

Principal plans return to her roots as an artist – The Doings La Grange.

Two entries in the handbag exhibit caught my eye.  To gain entry, artists had to construct a handbag by riffing off an older pattern–this year’s pattern was from 1945.  Click the link for a picture of the pattern and exhibit details.   You’ll be astonished at how different these entries are from the original.  But believe me: all the entries were wildly different.  In fact, in all the years I’ve been attending, no two bags are ever alike, like–not even close.

The beaded purse (below), entitled Dancing Abundance, by Marianne Biagi, was made using an altered peyote stitch.  Biagi describes, “I don’t have a plan.  I design as I go, letting the colors and shapes of beads guild me.”  And this I love: “I finish when the art tells me to stop.”

Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi
Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi

The reverse of this bag is in a different color scheme, which is equally beautiful.

Beyond color, texture plays an important part in Biagi’s work.  Her beaded art deserves a more careful look.  Here’s an article I found that provides more pictures and background information on this artist from thecity1.com.

Another piece that needs mention is Boa Bag by Judith Reilly.  It’s a knitted and crocheted piece that uses Reilly’s own handspun wool along with commercial novelty yarn.  I love the colors as well as the creative use of mitered squares.  (Modular knitting is great for free-form knitters and satisfying for anyone who only has a small amount of time to knit each day.)  Equally inspiring is Reilly’s description of how she created it: she started with the beads.  In her words, “I thought they’d be a nice echo of the diamonds on the top of the bag.  Then I found the perfect colors in the roving. . . and the rest is history.”

Boa Bag by Judith Reilly
Boa Bag by Judith Reilly

Just like Biagi, Reilly’s approach reminds us that we don’t always need a pattern or plan.  What we need is to be open to inspiration.  Fairs like the Midwest Fiber & Folk Arts Fair help us all–hobbyist and artist alike–find ways of pushing our craft and our skills.  As important as it was for my cousin’s daughter to attend as a new knitter, so it is equally important for longtime practitioners to refresh ourselves, see the latest trends, and connect with the vibrant community that makes up the fiber arts.

Artisanal Flowchart Postscript:

Incidentally, all four of these pieces featured above are artisanal (did you expect anything else coming from me?).  They all express the artistic vision of the fiber artists who made them and they all possess utility: they can be used.  Will they be used is another question.  Sometimes the potential for use is enough.

Food Fails Flowchart

photo by Alex Anlicker

Not without hesitation do I send food through its inevitable course along the Artisanal Flowchart.  We love to eat–especially if it’s good.  And it so often is.  I do not except myself.  I mean, what would life be like without my mother’s rouladen, each rolled-up beefy morsel drenched in flour, not to mention the delectable gravy it makes. . . gravy that must be poured liberally over both the meat and the homemade spaetzle.  Oh, sweet heaven!  Her recent foray into Moroccan food has left us all wishing she’d give up gardening and reading and all other earthly pursuits to do nothing but cook.

And it’s not just my mother’s cooking that sends me.  There’s a little Indian grocery store near my workplace that makes the best samosas I’ve ever had.  Just last week they served up dish that looked like rolled up cigars made of golden pasta–I didn’t catch the name–that I fear I’ll never taste again, so delicious was its every bite.  I could eat Indian food every day of my life, but then when would I fit in all the other wonders of world cuisine?  Don’t even get me started on Ethiopian or Hmong or Cuban or countless, countless others.

And so, dear readers, what I’m about to say may come as a shock: no food is artisanal unless it exists solely as art, never to be eaten. . . need I even mention the travesty that would be?

I will leave it to you to follow food’s course along the Artisanal Flowchart for yourself.  You will, no doubt, get stuck where I got stuck.  For food to be called artisanal it must possess both utility and artistic expression.  I can’t think of a single food that does this.  Certainly bagels don’t.  Nor lettuce.  Maybe fancy cupcakes made by a small-scale bakery?  Maybe?  Let’s not forget that an artisanal cupcake–an artisanal anything for that matter–must express the inner artistic vision of its creator.  The fancy cupcakes I’ve seen are just that: fancy.  And if you can’t eat them because they’re so beautiful, then they’re art, which is another matter entirely.

Then there’s cheese.  I’m a cheesemaker myself, so I know that the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée has its categories and that artisanal is among them.  To them, I say touché.  You have defined your system and stuck to it.  More’s the better for you.  In my system, a cheese must express artistic vision and I’ve never seen a single cheese that does this.  One can admire a cheese for its form, its aroma, its bloom, its texture, its taste.  You can sample this year’s Brillat-Savarin or Forme d’Ambert and pronounce it ambrosia.  But it must also speak as art, and this it does not.  

I harp on this, my friends, because art makes a difference.  We cannot put a cheese or a bagel next to a handmade textile on display at a gallery and call it the same thing.  And why should they be?  Let them each have their glory as the things they are.  Why must we search for success anywhere else but where we are?

Ah, but this is an age-old problem for people, too, n’est pas?

A Fiber Fair that Values Artists

Modular Shells

If you work with fiber, you may very well enjoy the fiber show circuit that starts in Spring and lives on strong into late Fall.  We all have our favorite festivals.  I like to start the season every April with the Moonspinner’s fiber fest in Stephenson County, Illinois.  Its down-to-earth approach reminds me of the practical side of my craft.  Beautiful things can also be useful things.  By the same turn, a practical life can also be a beautiful life.

On the other end of the season, my grand finale is always the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival the second week in September.  I book a hotel and stay all three days.  By the third day, I’ve blown all my money and am contriving ways to make one last purchase.  I always promise that I will not, under any circumstances, buy another fleece.  Oh, sorrowful weakness.  I usually have a fleece in hand by noon on Day 1.

Both of these shows favor spinners.  You can certainly get yarn and felting supplies, among other things, but they offer a great variety of fleeces, roving, and equipment.  For an urban spinner, these essentials are hard to come by.  Between these two shows in mid June is a different sort of gathering, unique–at least in this area–because along with all things fibery, it showcases fiber artists.

The Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair is this June 22-24 in Grayslake, Illinois.  Now in its sixth year, this fair is a knitter/crocheter/quilter/spinner/rug hooker/felter/folk craft fair.  It has always made welcome the work of local fiber artists alongside all the vendors and classes. Because you need both, of course. The one feeds the other and back again.  Artists need ways to connect with the community because good art cannot exist in a vacuum.    It needs to be in dialogue with the community so that art and the viewer can exchange meaning. The fiber artist and the fiber enthusiast need to support one another in a synergistic relationship; both sides are equally important.  The organizers of the Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair understand this, which is why I love to attend year after year.

And did I mention the live music?