Arctic Lace by Donna Druchunas

Today I do something new! As tech-savvy as I like to think I am, I’m basically an out-of-the-loop gal. Blog Tours are something that I had missed (and something I probably should do for one of my new books…) but they’re a wonderful way to share an interview or information about a book or technique with a whole new blog reading audience. Here is my interview with Donna Druchunas about her new, wonderful book, Arctic Lace

AM: Donna, I know that Quivit is the luxury yarn of choice of many knitters. I’ve never knit with it myself, but I’ve felt it and have seen lovely scarves knit from it. When did you first begin knitting with Quivit?

DD: I ordered some qiviut in 2004, before I made my first trip to Alaska. I had purchased a small sample skein before that, to see what the fiber is like, but I never knitted anything with it. When I was getting ready to design the projects for Arctic Lace, I ordered as much yarn as I could afford from a company in Canada that gave me a discount for yarn on cones. While I was in Alaska, I found that I could not resist buying more qiviut at full retail price. Everywhere I went, it seemed like qiviut was just sitting there with my name on it. I found more colors, yarn weights, and textures than I’d been able to find on the internet, simply because I was able to see and touch each skein. The yarn on cones hardly conveys the softness and luxury that qiviut is famous for. Because the skeins have been scoured, or washed, they exhibit some of the bloom that becomes more pronounced with each washing. The coned yarn was dead in comparison. It was not as much fun to knit with as the soft, cuddly, skeined yarn, but the finished items were fine after washing and blocking.

AM:Was that the impetus for your interest in traditional Alaskan knitting? Do you have any family ties or personal relationships with folks from Alaska, or was this your first experience with the region?

DD: I had never been to Alaska before. My brother-in-law had been stationed in Anchorage when he was in the Air Force in the 1990s. My husband and I had wanted to visit several times but never managed to get our act together (or maybe we were broke, I don’t remember). So when I started working on Arctic Lace, I decided I would have to visit Alaska or I would not be able to understand or explain what it is like there. I am not the type of writer who can do all of my research at the library or on the internet. I need to go to a place to be able to absorb the feeling of what it is like. I am always amazed by writers who can convey the spirit of a place without visiting. So I knew I would have to go to the Oomingmak shop in Anchorage, to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, and to at least one Eskimo village. I would have liked to have visited more villages and to see musk oxen in the wild, but I ran out of money.

While I was in Alaska, someone suggested that I read Ada Blackjack, the story of an Eskimo woman who accompanied a team of explorers to a remote arctic island. After a long and tragic journey, Ada was the only survivor of the team. She had not known how to hunt or live off the land before her trip, but she taught herself in order to survive after her last companion was incapacitated with scurvy. The author of this book never visited the arctic before the book was published, and I found the book to be amazing in its accuracy and in the authors ability to envision and portray the arctic environment simply by doing armchair research.

AM: Was it a difficult decision to travel to Alaska to investigate this fiber and the traditional knitting styles of the Eskimo people?

DD: Not at all. The only hard part was coming up with enough money to do so. I chose to publish Arctic Lace with a very small publisher, because I knew they would allow me to create a book that was true to my own vision. The downside of this decision was that I did not receive a large advance, so I had to come up with the money to go to Alaska on my own. My trip costs were doubled, as well, because my husband came with me to take photos. He shot of the photos from my trip and the pictures of the knitting projects. When we went to Alaska we brought a 1 megapixel digital camera and a film camera to take the black and white shots for the book. The higher end digital cameras were still too expensive for us at that time. In the end, we might have saved money by paying the high price for the digital camera, because we spent so much money on getting film developed!

I must admit that I was nervous about visiting Unalakleet. There are very few white people there and although I’m a minority in America being both half-Jewish and an atheist, my minority status is not immediately apparent because I am white. Unalakleet is also a small town with just 600 people, most of whom are Yup’ik or Inupiat, and I knew that I would stand out as an Outsider wherever I went. The people were very welcoming and friendly, however, and I did not feel out of place at all after I arrived.

AM: I love the mythic folk stories in your book about the birth of the native peoples of Alaska, were there any tales that you just didn’t have room to include so you could provide so many patterns?

DD: I tried to focus the stories on the parts of the Yup’ik and Inupiat culture that I wanted to describe to readers. There are so many wonderful stories — both traditional and contemporary — that there is no way they can be contained in one book. For those who would like to read more stories, I recommend the book Authentic Alaska: Voices of Its Native Writers edited by Susan B Andrews for contemporary writings and Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo by William W. Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan for stories and information about traditional culture. Many more resources are listed in the bibliography of Arctic Lace.

AM: I was fascinated by the geometric patterns in the lace motifs in your book – they’re much more linear than lace from other cultures that I’ve seen. Do you think this is a direct reflection of the Native motifs found in other Alaskan crafts, or is this due in large part to the lace teaching method used by Dorot
hy Reade, Helen Howard and Lillian Schell?

DD: I think the geometric forms of the lace are directly influenced by the traditional Yup’ik and Inupiat styles of art. Ann Schell and Helen Howard did use Dorothy Reade’s techniques to design lace and to teach the Oomingmak knitters. However, when I look at Dorothy Reade’s other designs, I see that most of them are more curving, organic shapes. She does have a few diamond designs in her collection, but other than that the only geometric designs are lace cat patterns that were adapted from a Peruvian weaving.

Most of my designs are also inspired by Yup’ik and Inupiat artifacts. I was able to visit the archives at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and take photos of many different pieces including ivory carvings, skin sewings, and grass baskets. I am still working on new designs based on the photos of items that didn’t make it into the book. I’m teaching workshops on designing your own lace patterns using Dorothy Reade’s techniques, and it is amazing to see the many different types of patterns and designs that the students come up with, depending on the sources of their inspiration. The most sinuous designs often seem to come from nature, while more geometric designs often come from different types of woven items.

AM: In your travels to Alaska with your husband, were there any great travel stories, things that you experienced on your trip, that are entirely non-knitting related that didn’t make it into the book?

DD: Not really. Everything we did was knitting related! The poor guy didn’t even have a chance to go fishing or anything. We did discover some things that did not make it into the book, however.

Near the end of our trip, for example, we took a side track to visit Charilyn Cardwell’s studio Woofer Wearables. Charilyn knits custom garments from dog hair. You can save the fur when you brush your dog, and send it to her. She will handspin it and knit it into a beautiful garment, accessory, or home decor item for you. Charilyn was also working on another fascinating project when we visited her. The Alaska Zoo gives her the down that their two Bactrian Camels shed every spring. She cleans it, spins it, and knits up beautiful purses and other items that the zoo sells in their gift shop.

Also, when we stopped for gas between Anchorage and Fairbanks, I found a handknit headband made from a blend of Husky fur and wool from the Subarctic Spinners Cooperative, An Alaskan Cabin Industry (PO Box 194, Cantwell, Alaska 99729).

AM:I’m in the process of revamping some of my lace teaching materials and – with your permission – I’d love to include the stitch motif from swatch #3 (with full source credit to your book, of course), if it would be alright with you.

DD: You may certainly use the motif from Arctic Lace in your teaching. Please list the information about my book on your handout so those who are interested can find out more! If you use it to teach lace knitted in the Combination style, I’d love to see your handout. In a class I taught last week, there was one combination knitter. I showed her how she could knit the lace decreases using the Combination method, and I also showed her how to do what I call “dippy” purl (because you have to dip your index finger behind the needle to wrap the yarn). She was going to try both methods during the week and will let me know which she prefers for lace knitting. I know you use Combination knitting for all of your own knitting. I use that technique for most of my knitting, and I especially love it for cable knitting, but I prefer to use the “dippy” purl for lace.

I also learned the Norwegian purl from Beth Brown-Reinsel. It is a very unusual and fun technique that produces stitches that sit on the needle in the more conventional fashion. I made a whole ribbed hat right after I learned that purl so I would not forget how to do it, but I have not use the Norwegian purl for any projects since then. Still, I love learning different techniques and different ways of knitting so I have more choices.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!