The Stitches West Knitters Convention is only a few miles from my home, but in truth it is worlds away. Held annually in the large Oakland Marriott City Center, it features three days of knitting workshops and seminars covering everything from beginner’s basics to Russian lace, to color theory and designing your own socks.
Hundreds of knitters come to Oakland from all over the western United States and Canada to speak a common language, practice a common art and admire (and covet) the creations of others. For most, knitting is a treasured and relaxing past-time, and a refuge from the frenetic pace of our lives. Not surprisingly, it is hard to find the time to knit. Knitting, I believe, is like breast-feeding, something that should be acceptable to do in public, but unfortunately seems not to be.
A convention in the company of hundreds of like-minded knitters is quite liberating. No longer are we hiding our knitting projects to work on when we are alone. During the Stitches West Convention knitters are knitting all over downtown Oakland, in hotel hallways and public spaces and restaurants of the City Center and, of course, in the classes. Among the 125 classes offered this year, you can learn to knit, or at least how to start knitting, an Aran sweater covered with bobbles and cables and other textured patterns. Or you can learn to knit with multiple colors in the classic Fair Isle style. Simpler project classes cover hats, socks, and mittens and small bags. For the adventurous there are classes in knitting backwards, in charted lace, and mosaic knitting.
While most of these classes will be filled by now (remember the approximate dates for next year) it is certainly worth a trip this weekend to the Stitches West Marketplace, where a whole floor of the City Center is filled with the booths of over 150 vendors of yarns, fibers, patterns, books, buttons and knitting accessories. It is a visual feast of colors and textures. Knitters may buy their yarn based on feel as much as color, and it is not uncommon to find a crowd of women petting and caressing a skein of cashmere or qiviut, the down of the musk ox, the softest fiber in the world.
Knitting yarn is no longer just wool or cotton, and not just in the primary colors. Today’s knitters can find mohair (from goats), chenille, angora (from rabbits), yak down, rayon - a natural fiber derived from wood pulp, linen and even ribbon yarn and yarn with interspaced beads. Hand-painted and hand-dyed yarns are very popular and ensure that even a lowly scarf knit with these yarns will be unique.
Every year I am eager to revisit some of my favorite vendors. Chasing Rainbow Dyeworks from Willits, California, produces some of the loveliest hand-dyed yarns of silk and merino wool in shades with names such as “Magic Carpet” (plum, blue-green and muted orange), “African Savannah” (greens and golds) and “Abalone” (silver, teal and violet). For those who need a pattern and wool, kits to produce head-turning sweaters are available from Cheryl Oberle Designs from Denver, Colorado, Philosopher’s Wool from Ontario, and many others.
For those looking for unique natural fibers, be sure to visit Pacific Meadows Alpacas from Eugene, Oregon, and Royal Cashmere Goats from Fallon, Nevada. Hemp, a remarkably soft and versatile fiber is available from Lanaknits Designs from British Columbia. If you are looking for some very soft fiber, Paradise Fibers from Colfax, Washington has yak down, blended with silk and wool, for spinners. At Royale Hare from Santa Rosa you can find silk dyed in more than a rainbow of colors, silk to knit or crochet, silk to spin, or silk just to fondle and admire.
For the latest in art and technology for yarns, Habu Textiles, a Japanese company, has yarns in hemp, bark, bamboo, pineapple, ramie (a plant fiber), and even stainless steel.
Although designer yarns from Italy and Japan are very popular with the art-knitter, I prefer to patronize family-owned businesses. Janet Heppler will be here from Covelo, California, with the fiber from her 30 angora rabbits. She also raises sheep for their wool, and if you want to see wool in its original state (just off the sheep), take a look her musky, lanolin-laden fleeces in lovely shades of ivory, browns and greys.
A note to the worried: Obtaining the wool from a sheep does not harm the animal, it is more like a haircut. But it is a long, arduous process to clean a fleece and card and comb the wool into a form useful for spinning.
For those who want to create their own yarn, you will see a number of people with their spinning wheels on the Convention floor. In the midst of the happy chaos, the spinners will be meditatively tranquil. It is said that one spins, presses the treadle, at one’s natural heart rate. If you treadle too fast your yarn will end up a useless tangled mess, so the natural pace is what makes spinning so comforting, even to watch.
Visiting the marketplace at Stitches West can be a pricey venture. Hand-spun and hand-dyed yarns are not, and should not be, cheap. But even if you don’t buy anything, come for the sights and the touches. You will be inspired.
More information about Stitches West can be found at www.knittinguniverse.com.