Friday, June 24, 2011


The Joy of Knit World
I think I may be addicted to yarn. In keeping with the local vernacular, I should say I’m addicted to wool. Many Kiwis don’t seem to know what I mean when I say “yarn”—made it difficult to locate the proper shops when I first arrived. Wool is synonymous with yarn, just like Kleenex is synonymous with tissue. I suspect this terminology differs because New Zealand fibre stores—and I’ve probably been in enough of them to have a significant sample size—stock yarns that do actually contain significant percentages of wool. Regardless of how they want to spin it, I can’t leave the stuff alone.

I am currently in possession of no less than eleven different project’s-worth of wool, only three of which have the complete projects to show for it. For any truly avid fan of Ravelry this may not seem cause for alarm, but given everything I purchase has to be schlepped back to Ohio, eleven might border on excessive. My first New Zealand wool adventures started innocently enough. I decided rather than pack a scarf and hat I could work through the mammoth plane ride and January summer and whip something together well before I actually needed them. Hat and scarf finished, I was left with empty needles, which I quickly rectified by splurging on a nice pile of 100% NZ wool in a lovely cream colour, and proceeded to cast on a set of cardigan sweaters that I thought would keep me occupied until the trip home in July—at least.

Two sweaters would likely have sufficed, too, had I not attended a Fibre Arts meeting on the uses of alpaca. What harm could a couple of balls of alpaca wool do? Wool is squishy—I was sure I could find space for the soft blue-black skeins (named “Tui” after the indigenous bird). It didn’t really matter that I didn’t know what I was going to make with this wool (that’s what the pattern search on Ravelry is for, after all). I looked forward to several months of thinking of possibilities while I periodically felt the lovely skeins. Wool, after all, is an extremely tactile medium.

In March, my parents arrived for a visit, which meant lots of driving across lots of open spaces, punctuated by many small towns...with wool shops. I found a nice natural tweedy brown New Zealand wool. The price kept my acquisition to three skeins, but I thought I might be able to stretch them into a vest. The nice thing was they fit into the same bag as the alpaca, which was still lurking quietly under my desk in Christchurch. . The tweed’s a little scratchy, but I like the natural dark wools and brown goes with everything I own. Practically.

Southland on a sunny day

Highway acquires
unexpected celebrity
It occurred to me I might have a problem when, on the return drive from one of my tramping adventures, I decided to detour three hours out of the way because I had heard there was a factory outlet just south of Dunedin. I wasn’t overly troubled at the time; the route meant I wouldn’t be travelling past views I’d already seen before, PLUS I stumbled a road that acquired the name “Presidential Highway”—because it connects the towns of Gore (pop. 12,108) and Clinton (pop. 294). And I really have to say as far as bargains go, this shop had ‘em in spades. I waffled forever over various colours of Possum-and-Merino before deciding on an attractive forest green (at $5 per skein instead of $16 in Christchurch!), found myself a nice thick undyed 100% merino (with endless dye possibilities), and then settled on some gifts for a friend who helped me through the February earthquake.

I should note, as an aside, that Possum-and-Merino is a neat example of Kiwi ingenuity. The Australian possum was unwisely imported to New Zealand over a century ago to establish a fur trade. The only mammal indigenous to New Zealand is a small bat; birds and reptiles evolved in pretty mammal-free environments. So the arrival of a possum (and, for that matter, all other alien mammals including humans) had a devastating effect on local ecology. Possum can strip foliage faster than plant communities can recover, and they also eat eggs of the ground-laying bird species. The Department of Conservation is waging a long-standing (and sometimes controversial) battle against the possum, primarily by use of poisoned baits. Possum fur is valuable because the hair shaft is both hollow, making it an excellent insulator, and soft, which is nice for garments. Rather than letting them all rot in the bush, hunters and trappers discovered there was a market for possum fur when blended with merino wool. In the space of a couple decades, possum populations dropped by about half (although at a current estimated population of 30 million they are hardly disappearing) AND souvenir shops have a great stock of ready wares.

Pavement cave-ins as a result of
ground liquefaction

With the new merino and possum wools, I now had enough to warrant shipping home in a separate box. And once you’ve made that decision, there’s really no going back. My favourite Christchurch wool shop just reopened. It flooded pretty badly during the February earthquake and its location was in the restricted zone for a while. The June earthquakes brought back more piles of silt to be shoveled. Backbreaking work, especially for those people who were doing it for the third time around. But they’re open now and quite keen to sell off slightly damaged packages of wool. Hence the five new skeins of thick wool blend perfect for slippers, plus a package of hand-dyed merino that I picked up and then couldn’t put down. I might have also accidently run into another shop on the north side of town where a skein of sock wool (superwash merino) leaped into my basket when I wasn’t looking… and then after I discovered knitting socks is much easier than it looks, well, I just had to find some more wool for practicing.
Clearing the silt

There have been upsides to my addiction. I’ve become part of two different knitting groups who form the core of the friendships I’ve forged here in New Zealand. In addition to the hat and scarf, I’ve finished three pair of socks, a pretty good-sized felted bag, and a pair of convertible mittens. The cardigans are even well-along, although without sleeves one can’t quite call them cardigans yet. There’s also something about knitting that is incredibly soothing when the earth can’t quite make up its mind about when to stop shaking.

The two aftershocks on June 13 (M5.6 and M6.3) set everyone on edge again; there’s been more flooding, loss of power and water, and disruption of regular services. The funny thing is, although these quakes probably appear as discrete events (like the news articles that describe them) to the outside world, they’re so much more of a continuum when you’re stuck in the middle. We spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not what we just felt was a shake or a big truck going by, so it seems like an externally driven city-wide outbreak of ADD. When the big ones go by, I wonder if it’s worth getting up to stand in the doorway...again. There have been 6 aftershocks in the last 24 hours, almost 2 weeks out from those main quakes. I can't imagine what it's like in Japan.

Ultimately, having the wool has been more than just a conduit into a new community. It’s been a small positive amid the uncertainty. Letting wool slide along needles and through my hands...from a ball of possibilities on one side to something concrete and useful on the other...has been a grounding influence for me, all the way back to the first jolt on January 20 (M5.1). As far as addictions go, it’s probably cheaper, and it doesn’t impair my other faculties (much), although I won’t be trying the driving-
while-knitting thing. I just hope I don’t ever have to go through withdrawal.

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