FAIRBANKS - When I moved back to Fairbanks in 2006 after nearly seven years in Anchorage, I learned to knit. Wool feels good on your lap at 30 below, after all, and I’ve always enjoyed crafts that result in something useful. Not that a painted goldpan can’t be useful — but in my life, goldpans and scrapbooks and beaded baskets serve as dust repositories.
My grandmother was a knitter, or more accurately a crocheter and a knitter. For reasons I’ll never know, she preferred the hook to the needles. When she died, she left so many afghans, my grandfather joked they could cover every sidewalk in the city.
Grandma so wanted me to learn her crafts. I tried in high school, but the closest I got was “crocheting” a single strand that could have possibly served as a bookmark. Grandma encouraged me but I just didn’t get it. Duran Duran and whatever boy I fancied took precedence over the intricacies of scarves, hats and throws.
But Fairbanks! Fairbanks is filled with craftspeople. They craft burled lamps and blueberry jam and quilts that delight the eyes. I so wanted to be a part of that. I enlisted my friend Maria, who’d made me a simple scarf that garnered compliments nearly every time I wore it. She patiently lessoned me in knit and purl, at one point telling me “I think knitting is supposed to be relaxing. I don’t think you’re supposed to swear so much.”
I started to get it. Sort of. I couldn’t troubleshoot. When I made a mistake, I unraveled the entire project. I couldn’t bring myself to try and fix the dropped stitch. Asking for help made me seem weak, I thought. A scarf could take me weeks. That meant I couldn’t buy more yarn for my next project. Buying yarn is at least as fun as the knitting itself.
And Fairbanks is chock full of yarn. Knitting may have originated in Egypt, where archaeologists found bits of knitted socks from the first centuries of modern times, but today’s Egypt has nothing on Fairbanks. Sure, there are big box standards like Michael’s and JoAnn’s. You can even buy needles and yarn at Fred Meyer. But we also have Northern Threads, Inua and A Weaver’s Yarn. Per capita, yarn shops in this town are about on par with Thai restaurants.
“I definitely think it helps people in the winter,” said Liz Pederson, who works at Inua Wool Shoppe. “You go inside for a couple of months and you want to be productive. People come in just to look at the colors in the winter. It’s a lot different from the black and white outside.”
On a recent Saturday at Inua, two women lounged on a leather sectional working on projects while another three knitted at table in the back of the store. It was the same at Northern Threads — also a quilter’s paradise — where a pair of knitters sat in a living room-like setup receiving instruction from a woman who could obviously purl circles around someone like me. Maybe it’s OK to ask for help, I thought.
I could always go to A Weaver’s Yarn, where owners Susan and Martin Miller operate a shop out of the front of their house. The main weaving room used to be their bedroom, so they’ve clearly sacrificed for their crafts. They’ll also give lessons in a variety of knitting, felting and weaving techniques for $15 per hour.
Susan says they gave up their bedroom to bring more of the yarns and notions of fiber arts to Fairbanks. “It’s frustrating to not be able to find these things,” Susan said.
Miller has a point. Buying yarn online isn’t the same. You have to see the color, stroke the yarn, caress it against your face and imagine the possibilities. To that end, Fairbanks is lucky. We have a community of knitters eager to share knowledge and the commerce to back it up.
I’ve sacrificed a fair portion of my garage to knitting. But I’m not sure I’d give up my bedroom. Still, my Saturday yarn shop tour stiffened my resolve to learn crochet. When else will I have the will and where else will I have this kind of support?
When I hook together my first scarf or trim or hat, I don’t doubt that somewhere, my grandma will be watching, smiling.
Lynne Lott teaches journalism at University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.