Monday, November 3, 2014

To the new world

This has been a long-delayed post. It's now more than a month - indeed, nearer two months - since I returned from my transatlantic knitting cruise, but I feel I need to finish the account of the places I visited.

Canada St Anthony's harbour

I now have quite a different mental image of the north Atlantic after my cruise from Copenhagen to New York. Before this trip I think I imagined this area as a vast space of nothingness, but I now see it as a series of stepping stones that link Europe and North America. There was no more than a day at sea between any of our destinations, so that when we finally reached St Anthony in Newfoundland it seemed just another of the icy northern lands where stoic people had made accommodations to live in challenging environments. I hope the locals aren't insulted by my saying that the town itself is rather charmless, though from my brief visit it's clear that the hills and forests that surround the town offer wonderful opportunities for walking.

This is what really struck me about St Anthony -

Canada St Anthony's Grenfell Centre

I grew up in a small town in rural Australia called Grenfell, which coincidentally has almost the same small population, around 2500, as St Anthony Newfoundland and Labrador. However, Dr Wilfrid Grenfell, who features so largely in the history and current well-being of Newfoundland, is an altogether more admirable figure than the nineteenth century Gold Commissioner after whom my home town is named. Located in the Grenfell Centre in St Anthony is a small but very well-curated museum that focuses upon Wilfrid Grenfell who brought medical services to much of poverty-stricken Newfoundland and Labrador in the early twentieth century. As well as recounting Grenfell's achievements, the museum graphically depicts the deprivation and hardship undergone by the residents of the maritime provinces at that time. The Centre also has an excellent tourist shop that includes a range of handcrafted items, including examples of hooked rugs for which the area is well-known. I don't need another hobby, but if I did I think rug-hooking might be near the top of my list.

Canada St Anthony's hooked rug

I fell in love with St John's, which was the second of our stops in Canada. St John's, the capital of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, climbs the hill behind its harbour so that you have a wonderful panoramic view of the city as you arrive by sea:

Canada St John's view from Harbour

Even from a distance you can see the colourful houses that line the streets. This is yet another town - like Reykjavik, like Thorshavn, like the tiny towns of Greenland, where people seem to compensate for the drabness of their long winter landscapes by the riotous colours of their houses. I spent ages wandering up and down the steep streets, marveling at the ways people had individualised their houses with colour:

Canada St John's coloured housesCanada terraces St John'sCanada St John's coloured terraces

St John's had a number of shops selling locally made handcrafts of wonderful quality. There were more examples of the hooked rugs that combine fine craft with charmingly naive designs, and lots and lots of handknitting - jumpers, hats, scarves, mittens in a riot of cables and colourwork designs. Despite all the temptations I bought only some patchworked coasters. I think I was spoilt for choice and too distracted by the architecture of the hilly streets. I even happened upon a film crew packing up for lunch after filming an episode of Republic of Doyle, a Canadian tv series set in St John's that I'd enjoyed watching half a world away.

Our visit to Halifax in Nova Scotia was much more focused upon yarn and knitting. Much to my surprise, I found I have no photographs of the city itself, though I have many of our yarny activities. We had the great privilege of visiting Lucy Neatby of Tradewind Knitwear Designs in her home, which also serves as her studio. With her brightly multi-coloured hair and clothes, Lucy is all-of-a-piece with the riotously coloured knitting she designs. She's a designer who follows her passions, and at present her passion is for double knitting. She's exploring the possibilities of this technique in all kinds of ways, but the most interesting (for me) are the floral mandala-like pieces that can serve as pot-holders, table mats, even blankets if the knitter is sufficiently enthusiastic and skilled.

Canada Lucy Neatby double knitting handsCanada Lucy Neatby double knitting 1Canada Lucy Neatby double knitting 2Canada Lucy Neatly double knitting 3

We also visited the dyeing studios for Fleece Artist and Handmaiden yarns. Watching the dyers was mesmerising. It requires a combination of skill, experience and intuition to get the colours 'just so'. While there are colours that are repeated again and again because of their popularity, we were told that each of the dyers inevitably has favourite combinations and that this capacity to experiment brings continued freshness and innovation to the range of yarns that are produced.

Canada Halifax Fleece Artist drying yarn

As with other places we visited on the cruise I was left wanting to see more of the maritime regions of Canada with their distinctive history and traditions, and their focus on crafts and fibre.

Canada Halifax lighthouse

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Celebrating seventy

I spent considerable time and energy some months ago devising ways of running away from marking my seventieth birthday this year. It's not that I mind getting older - except for the physical aspects of aging, which I resent, I rather like the awareness of history and the diversity of life experiences that come with age. I just didn't want a big fuss about my birthday. The unexpected outcome has been a number of small fusses over some months - a very prolonged birthday celebration that's been very enjoyable. I've had my (birthday) cake, and eaten it too.

Last week I had lunch with some knitting friends after our knitting guild meeting and they absolutely surprised me with the gift of a blanket to which twelve friends had each contributed a knitted strip. Knowing from past experience their need for communication on such projects I can't believe I didn't have an inkling that this project was under way. It was a wonderful surprise.

Chevron blanket

It's made up of chevron stripes in shades of grey with mustard accents. It's a perfect match for my sofa and cushions:

Chevron Blanket with cushions

Grey! stripes! garter stitch! Loft yarn! These are a few of my favourite things...

Chevron blanket folded

My knitting friends clearly know my tastes.

Thanks Ailsa, Alison, Donna, Fee, Jane, Jody, Kris, Kylie, Margaret, Margarita, Sue and Zena. The gift, and the thoughts and work that created it, are greatly appreciated.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Days of miracles and wonders (to quote Paul Simon)

I hadn’t expected Greenland to be so wonderful. I think I had very few expectations of Greenland; it’s a part of the world I’d rarely thought about. We spent a day cruising through Prince Christian Sound and some of its tributaries.

Greenland Prince Christian Sound

The miracle was the weather – clear, cold, and even some sun. We were told this happens rarely, even during the few summer months in which the Sound is navigable. The wonders just kept coming, as the large ship maneuvered through the Sound with cliffs rising steeply on either side. There were waterfalls around every corner,

Greenland Prince Christian Sound waterfall

several glaciers that tumbled down to the water’s edge

Greenland Prince Christian Sound glacier

and glimmering, bright icebergs.

Greenland Prince Christian Sound iceberg

Greenland has a small population, Fewer than 60,000 live in small towns and villages around the coastline and on islands as the interior isn't habitable. While cruising through the Sound our enormous cruise ship anchored off the tiny settlement of Aappilattoq (population around 130) so that the ship's tender could deliver some supplies of fresh food and pizza to its residents. For much of the year the town is reachable only by helicopter. You can just see the colourful houses of Aappilattoq at the bottom of the picture below:

Greenland Prince Christian Sound Aappilattoq

On each of the two days following our voyage through the Sound we anchored at towns on the southern tip of Greenland. In Nanortalik our cruise passengers more than doubled the local population of around 1500. There was time to stroll and linger on the seats scattered along the local streets and admire the landscape dotted with colourful small houses, and to wonder about people's lives in such a small and isolated community.

Greenland - Nanortallik
Greenland Nanortalik blue house
Greenland - Nanortallik houses

For a small fee (we scrambled to find our leftover Danish kroner) we were admitted to the community hall where the Nanortalik locals had organised coffee and cake as well as a performance by the local choir. The small choir ranged in age from members in their thirties to those in their eighties and the songs and their harmonies were disconcertingly like those of the Tongan church near me in Sydney. I suspect this similarity has more to do with the Nanortalik choir being from the local church than it does with any traditional relationship between Greenland and Tongan music! I particularly liked the two organising women in the choir who had gone to the effort of dressing in local costumes:

Greenland - Nanortallik choir

I imagine someone, somewhere, must have written a thesis, or at least an essay, on the very eclectic elements of this national costume. Some bits seem modern; others quite traditional. Maybe these combinations are just what the Greenlanders like to wear. I didn't notice what the turtleneck collars were made from (I was too overwhelmed by all the other components) but they sit above an elaborate beadwork yoke-like cape that's worn on top of a brightly coloured satin shirt with beadwork cuffs. Below the top is a patterned fabric cummerbund and then seal fur shorts with contrasting leather, fur and leather applique stripes at the front. The shorts are worn over trousers that seem to have several components including bright floral inserts and crocheted panels. The trousers are tucked into sealskin boots that also have intricate leather applique patterns. I found these costumes of many elements fascinating.


Greenland Nanortalik beaded yokeGreenland Nanortalik bootsGreenland Nanortalik leather shortsGreenland Nanortalik leather applique

In comparison with Nanortalik, Qaqortoq, which was our final stop in Greenland, seemed bustling. Its population is around 3,000 and there's a harbour with fishing boats and a fish processing plant (and an iceberg)

Greenland Qaqortoq Harbour

and a supermarket and a modern high school. There are even blocks of apartments where the distinctive compact architectural style and colourful siding of small houses has been carried over to the larger buildings:

Greenland Qaqortoq apartments

Qaqortoq was still charming: it's small enough to walk from place to place and admire some of the older buildings, such as the early twentieth century church, that have been preserved:

Greenland Qaqortoq church

But the greatest pleasure in our visit to Qaqortoq was to see the icebergs that lingered so close to the town:

Greenland - Qaqortoq iceberg

There were no yarn stores in the towns we visited in Greenland, so one would imagine there were no yarn temptations. However, there was a large tourist store at the harbour that was selling moskus garn - otherwise known as quiviut or yarn from musk oxen. This was another of those yarn transactions where if you think too much about the yarn air miles you hesitate to buy; the yarn was harvested from musk oxen in Greenland, processed in Denmark, then flown back to Greenland for the tourists to purchase. I did hesitate, but I did buy a skein.

Greenland quiviut

I was particularly grateful for this glimpse of a country I imagine I will never have the opportunity to visit again. Days of miracles and wonders, indeed.

Greenland Nanortalik children


Friday, October 10, 2014

Iceland

I'm not being very efficient at blogging retrospectively about my North Atlantic trip, but I'll plod on. As I get older I'm becoming more and more aware of how fragile memories are, and of how valuable the act of recording is in anchoring my recollections. So, Iceland.

I want to go back to Iceland. We had three days in there and it wasn't nearly enough for a slow tourist such as I am. What was so interesting?

1 The landscape. When we anchored in Reykjavik, this was the view from our cabin verandah. Over our three day stay there were varying degrees of mist and clarity, but it was always lovely.

Iceland Rejkjavik Harbour

On one of the days in Iceland we made the well-known Golden Circle tour outside Reykjavik that takes in some of the accessible natural wonders of Iceland. Everything we saw was wonderful (we did have fine and sometimes sunny weather) but it left me longing to see even more, and to see the variations that must occur with the seasons.

Iceland landscape

Even in the brief time we had we glimpsed Iceland's spectacular natural environment. We saw the Gullfoss waterfall where the river plunges into a crevice and seems to disappear in a cloud of mist (this was one of the many occasions on this trip when I realised that my smartphone was an inadequate camera. My prior satisfaction with photos taken with my smart phone was very delusional when it came to photographing something as wonderful as these falls):

Gullfoss 3

We walked through the Hankadalur geothermally active area and laughed with delight at the sudden explosions of the Strokkur geyser that spurts 15 to 20 metres into the air:

Iceland - Geysir

Then there was the breathtaking Thingvellir National Park where the Althingi, Iceland's ancient parliament, met from around 930 to 1798, and where the major tectonic plates of the northern hemisphere meet and are gradually separating:

Iceland Thingvellir National Park
Iceland - Thingvallavatn

We saw all this wonder in a day's short trip. I'm so grateful to have seen this stunning land, but I've been left with a great desire to travel further and see more.

2 Secondly, Reykjavik is charming. It's a small enough city to walk around the centre and admire its modern structures such as the Harpa Concert Hall

Iceland Harpa Concert Hall

and the mid-twentieth century Halgrimmur Lutheran church that dominates the city's skyline (and serves as a useful orientation point for the wandering tourist).

Iceland Hallsgrimur Cathedral

There's great charm in the Tjornin Pond that's a feature of central Reykjavik,

Iceland Reykjavik Tjornin Pond 2

and in the colourful residential areas that surround it.

Iceland Reyjavik colourful houses
Iceland Reykjavik window
Iceland Reykjavik blue house

3 Third, Iceland's history is intriguing - especially for an Australian. Very superficially, there are a number of things that Iceland and Australia have in common. We're both island nations, quite isolated geographically. We're both countries of magnificently fierce and mainly uninhabitable landscapes where small populations cling to the coastal edges. In both Iceland and Australia you have the sense that people inhabit the land uneasily - aware that extremes of climate and the vagaries of the natural world will make human habitation challenging. But there are ways in which we're very different. Iceland has had European settlement, initially from Norway, since at least the ninth century. There were no indigenous settlers in Iceland so that consequently there's an unquestioned sense of ownership of Iceland's history and traditions. Until very recently Iceland's history of settlement and immigration has been almost entirely Northern European and even today it seems to the casual visitor to be culturally homogeneous.

Icelanders document their history with pride. I found the National Museum of Iceland, which recounts Iceland's history since the ninth century through the display of iconic objects and artifacts so engaging that I visited twice. The displays were all interesting, but of course I lingered longest with those that documented Iceland's rich textile history, such as this embroidered altar-frontal whose design could have been made yesterday, but in fact dated from 1694,

Iceland altar frontal 1694

and these nineteenth century sealskin shoes with their knitted inner-soles.

Iceland sealskin shoes knitted insoles

I also managed to visit the Arbaerjarsafn open-air museum, after much grappling with rain squalls, the inscrutable route of the number 12 Reykjavik bus and an opening schedule that had moved to its winter hours on the very day of my visit. Arbaerjarsafn is located in a field on the outskirts of Reykjavik and combines an original farm with 'typical' buildings from past times that have been relocated to this site. As readers of my blog know, this is my favourite kind of museum - one where a combination of architecture, furniture, decor and everyday objects gives you an insight into the lives of people in the past.

Iceland, farmhouse 2, ArbaerjarsafnIceland, Arbaerjarsafn open-air museum

4 Finally, Iceland is a splendid destination for anybody interested in textiles; particularly yarn and knitting. We visited the Istex yarn factory, which is another inspirational business model that supports local wool growers and processors. Istex buys wool directly from farmers across Iceland and then scours, spins and processes the wool locally. Among other woollen products, Istex makes the Lopi yarns in various weights that are knitted into the famous Lopapeysa yoked sweaters.

Iceland, dyed fleece, Istex, MosfellsbaerIceland, Istex factory, Mosfellsbaer

Almost everywhere we turned there was yarn and knitted woollen garments and blankets. At the Alafoss outlet in in an old factory by the Alafoss waterfall in Mosfellsbaer there was a huge range of the Lopi yarns for sale in all weights and colours, as well as handknitted jumpers, cardigans, jackets, hats - everything you can imagine, including the most exquisite small dolls decked out in handknitted traditional Icelandic dress:

Iceland, Lopi sweaters, Alafoss factory shopIcelandic doll

The Handknitting Association of Iceland store in central Reykjavik, that enables customers to buy directly from the knitters, was literally stacked from floor to ceiling with handknitted goods, as well as the Lopi yarns. Lots of lopapeysas:

Iceland, lots of Lopapeysas, Reykjavik

And finally, there was the beautiful Storkurinn yarn store where the owner Gudrun Hannele Henttineu, who is currently writing a book on the tradition and practice of mitten knitting in Iceland, gave us a talk and showed us a dazzling variety of old and new mittens illustrating the patterns and their development. Such a treat.

Iceland - Storkurinn mittens

So what did I buy? Remarkably little considering how much was on offer. I was overwhelmed. I bought only one skein of Lettlopi, the yarn from which the lopapeysa sweaters are usually knitted. I decided I wanted to see how it knitted up and used it in my Lopi class where we knitted a miniature lopapeysa. I also bought four skeins of bright red Lopi Einband (a sturdy laceweight yarn) at Alafoss, and at Storkurinn I bought some Gryla yarn that's a recent project from French-Icelandic knitter Helene Magnusson.

Iceland lopi yarnsIceland gryla yarns