California dreaming

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Last weekend, I traveled to Amy Herzog’s make.wear.love retreat (PDF), held at the lovely Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. How to describe it??

This was my first knitting retreat – and, actually, my first experience of formal knitting classes ever. I took a beginner’s spinning class once (at Fancy Tiger Crafts, my favorite yarn store ever – Denver, I still miss you). But otherwise, my mom taught me the knit stitch sometime when I was a kid, and I’ve managed to teach myself everything else via the glories of the internet. It was also my first time in northern California, so between these two things, it was a bit like entering a parallel universe.

The classes were great (though I have to share that I totally embarrassed myself, chatting with Norah Gaughan at check in, when we talked about being on the same flight into Monterey, because I totally did not realize who she was at all. At the end of the conversation I introduced myself, she rEllie’s, “And I’m Norah,” I said, “Nice to meet you,” and took two steps out of the registration building and went, “OH!!! THAT NORAH!!!!” So that was why she’d looked kinda familiar in the airport. Gulp. To be fair, it was kind of interesting then to think about how some designers are instantly visible because they model all their own stuff, and how some designers are much more behind the scenes – I find those kinds of marketing choices fascinating. I still couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been completely gauche though).

But anyway, the classes: my first was Norah Gaughan’s “Creative Geometric Design,” which was an engaging glimpse into how one designer approaches her projects, and a really fun way to think about coming up with design ideas. I don’t know if I will ever actually design sweaters (I fantasize that I will, but also suspect that fantasy is better off staying a fantasy), but it was also helpful for looking at schematics and thinking about what I might want in a sweater. The amazing part was how she could take a rectangle or circle of fleece, cut armholes in it, toss it on a model, and after about 30 seconds of tweaking, transform it into the roots of a beautiful garment.

Also she had a dark green alpaca sweater that looked good on everyone in the class and was the most amazingly comfortable, snuggly thing to wear, and everyone at the retreat is waiting with bated breath for the pattern to come out.

My second class was Julie Weisenberger (aka Cocoknits)’s “European Finishing Techniques,” which was a compilation of many tips and tricks. I was familiar with some of what she showed us, but many of the techniques were great and I will definitely use them (especially her middle-of-a-row bind off and shadow short wraps). The atmosphere was at once energetic and relaxed, with a lot of answers to individual questions. I’m still not convinced that her method of picking up stitches (to pick up and knit) will work for me, but I need to get the proper tools to try it properly on one of my own projects. My only regret is that by the end of her class I was fading fast, as the day had been full of learning and interaction with strangers, and my introvert brain was exhausted.

Also her sense of style was amazing.

My third class was Clara Parkes‘ “Know What Your Yarn Wants to Be,” about how different fibers and yarn construction result in yarns that work better for some projects than others, and some of the general things to keep in mind. She was as charming in person as she has always seemed online, and the depth of her knowledge is crazy. I’ve read her The Knitter’s Book of Wool, as well as a lot of other general discussions online about yarn and how to match it to a project, and while I’d never claim to be an expert, I wondered a little bit how much of the information would be new. And the answer was: plenty! For instance, sure, I knew that alpaca was a very slippery, smooth fiber, and that therefore it tends to “grow” because the stitches don’t cohere very well in finished fabric. But that was just a useful background for her discussion – a starting point, not the sum total.

Also now I want a pair of wool sneakers.

My final class was with Amy Herzog, “Sweater Design Intensive,” looking at different shoulder constructions for sweaters (drop shoulder, raglan and modified raglan, yoke, and set-in sleeves) and how to modify the different kinds to fit your shape. There was math, and I can’t claim I absorbed it all, but it made sense at the time and Amy Herzog explained it beautifully. What was really helpful – in a way that books can’t be helpful (though I have and value her books) – was seeing the actual real sweaters, which she wore, and used to demonstrate common modifications and fit issues, and passed around so we could see the construction and fabric.

Also she has the most beautiful speaking voice.

One of the things that thrilled me most about the weekend was how, well, ecumenical all the instructors were about methods and approaches and designs. No one was dogmatic or restrictive or scolding about what knitters should or shouldn’t do, instead emphasizing that while they had strong beliefs about the best way to do things, the important thing was that as knitters, we have accurate expectations for what a given yarn/pattern/design could achieve, and achieving that in a way that made us happy.

I also appreciated that there was quite a lot of diversity in style on offer. To date, Amy Herzog has emphasized fitted, set-in sleeve sweaters with waist shaping, and honestly, I felt a bit of an imposter when I showed up, as I never knit sweaters like that (I hate fitted tops and waist shaping). But she has started to offer Custom Fit designs without waist shaping (if you’re unfamiliar with Custom Fit, go take a look at the link), and is about to introduce an A-line option (previewed at the retreat). She explained that she was moving into more variation on sweater shapes, and in her class, she showed a number of examples of these new-for-her constructions from her next forthcoming book, which all thrilled me.

Norah Gaughan’s explorations of geometric shapes were further along that spectrum, nearly as far from the traditional Herzog sweater as you can get. But while the result was garments that were loose/non-fitted, even frankly voluminous, they remained flattering and not sloppy (and much more to my taste).

Even opinions about gauge and sweater fabric were varied. Amy Herzog was pretty decided that all yarn has a gauge that is right for that yarn, and I think Clara Parkes would tend to agree. (I found particularly interesting the argument that drape shouldn’t be about knitting a yarn at a loose gauge, but about the inherent qualities of the fiber.) But in contrast, Julie Weisenberger talked about how a lot of her designs used a very open gauge.

So all in all, it was a successful weekend. It was a little daunting attending by myself, but everyone was very very nice and it was pretty easy to fall into conversation with people. I find it a bit exhausting to talk to strangers for four days, and I had tiny flashbacks to high school social anxiety at meals, as there’s a dining hall that serves you cafeteria style, and then you have to scan the room and decide which table to plop yourself down at that day (did you sit with people who know each other already? are you interrupting their chance to get together and catch up? are they amateurs like you or semi-pros? are they perhaps esteemed local designers/dyers which you don’t realize until the end of the meal? ACK).

Conversely, though, something I found incredibly welcoming was how, if you were tired out from making conversation, or didn’t see someone you had already met, you could sit by yourself (at events more than meals, I should say), and as long as you were knitting, you were part of things. The way that knitting made you a part of the social fabric, even without being sociable, was kind of amazing.

I also loved that in every class, at least half of the students were knitting away the whole time. I know people who knit at conferences or work meetings, but I’ve never been in a position to do so, and have always had a sneaking feeling that to do so was rude. But here it wasn’t! How could it be rude to knit at a retreat centered on knitting? It was just lovely – both to have more knitting time, and to see what so many others were knitting, and start up a conversation about their yarn, or pattern, or needles, or so on (this happened with all the completed handknits people were wearing, too. Sadly, I didn’t actually bring any of my handknits, because they take up a ton of room and my suitcase is small).

So. That is an incomplete (though not short) description of my weekend away. It was truly very very far away from my daily life, and a lovely immersion in Knitlandia.

IMG_3495It was gray and cloudy-to-rainy the whole weekend, except late afternoon on Saturday, when the photographers with their tripods descended on the beach like seagulls. I was surprised to realize that although I didn’t grow up on the coast itself, growing up in a northeastern coastal state was enough to instill in me the belief that the sun should rise, not set, over the ocean – and when I saw the sun sinking into the Pacific it just looked wrong!

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