If knitting is often a solitary pursuit and the fiber community hangs out mostly online, thousands of yarn enthusiasts bucked that image and swarmed Portland “IRL” during the ninth annual Rose City Yarn Crawl from March 1-4. This year’s theme was Unravel Portland, striking a slightly provocative and adventurous note.
“I come to touch and feel yarn,” said fourth-timer Janet Deupree of Happy Valley, Oregon. She was emerging from the cashier’s line at Close Knit, one of 11 Portland-metro shops explored by an estimated 3,000-plus participants. Her husband, Robert, was settled in an upholstered chair, tapping solitaire and browsing the New Yorker on his iPad.
Owner Sally Palin said this is Close Knit’s eighth year in what she calls “the Comic-Con of knitting.”
“Those in the community know each other but you never see them because they’re in their homes knitting. It’s about meeting people face-to-face,” she said. And everyone says it: Fiber folk bond and form abiding friendships.
Aficionados come from Western and Southwestern states and beyond to navigate stores; snap photos with friends and favorite indie dyers; greet shop proprietors and staff; and to pet and buy yarn, of course. Lots of yarn. Some are custom-created and available only in select spots and during the event, exclusivity being key.
How to describe the crawl to the uninitiated? From the outside, it’s a framework of rituals layered with insider protocols and dotted with shorthand references. (What is a Mystery Along, anyway?) The crawl might be the organizing principle of the year for all manner of small Portland-metro fiber businesses and enthusiasts. For shops, “It’s better than Christmas, our four busiest days,” Palin said.
From its homepage you can strategize your attack. View each shop’s exclusive patterns (this year’s theme was Waterways) and schedule of trunk shows and demos; order commemorative swag; and plan your routes. Those Mystery Along patterns are released in four weekly clues; choose your yarn, knit or crochet as pattern sections arrive and wear your project to the crawl.
The homepage is cross-referenced with a group page at Ravelry.com, a user-driven online fiber community with 7.75 million registered users. In its RCYC discussion groups, people “converse” about their Mystery Along projects, connect for carpooling and share recommendations for accommodations during the crawl.
This year more than 1,000 attendees who printed out their passports from the site had them stamped at all 11 shops, an increase over last year when the shops numbered 13. Seventy-two prizes were randomly selected from completed passports and “unique, legible sign-ins.”
Second-timer Laura Walthinsen of Portland “finished” at the Knitting Bee, wearing her version of the Ramona Falls Mystery Knit Along, created by Cory Ellen Boberg. Colorfully arrayed, Boberg and sister Seattleite Noriko Ho, designer of the Lost Lake Mystery Crochet Along, stood inside the front door, where they and Mystery Alongers eyeballed one another’s shawls and chatted about the wide range of yarn choices.
“I love getting to see everyone’s Mystery Knit Along,” Walthinsen said. “We’ve been working at the same time, though not physically together. Then we get together as community.” She said she also enjoyed trunk shows, “seeing demo patterns and the actual fiber artists, like Lorajean, and discussing what she’s doing.” Lorajean Kelley, owner of Portland indie dyer Knitted Wit, casually spun her wheel o’socks at the other end of the Bee.
Walthinsen, who brought her 3-year-old son, Aidan, on two of her three days out, also appreciated the event’s smaller footprint: Portland on both sides of the Willamette River, West Linn and Beaverton. “It felt so much more doable,” she said. Friends carpool and some even cross the distances on public transit.
What makes Portland such a fiber-mania nexus? “It’s a vibe, a feeling, a creative spirit that lives in the area,” said Tyche Nettingham, a Los Angeles knitting enthusiast who works in online marketing and video content for high-tech and entertainment companies.
“I can’t pin down the statistics but it seems that Portland may have the most yarn shops per capita [in the country], so creativity becomes really dense.”
Alerted by a friend who had moved to Portland and just done the crawl, Nettingham investigated, discovering yarn companies, indie dyers, festivals and artists. “Why are all these people going to Portland?” she wondered.
In November 2015, she started commuting through PDX, shooting her documentary “CommuKnity,” which she expects will be released later this year after determining distribution. The tag is “One City’s Tale About Women, Rebels and a Whole Lot of Yarn.”
Nettingham’s friend ran the camera and she interviewed and directed. To cover the 2016 Rose City Yarn Crawl, they “shot at yarn shops in advance — gift bags assembled, inventory ordered. During — the crowds, people who’d traveled from as far away as France. And afterward — shutting down, counting money.”
They also gathered footage at the headquarters of Knit Picks, an affordable online yarn shop, and the Woolfolk and Brooklyn Tweed labels, distributors of their own custom luxury yarns. Nettingham compares all these Portland-area entrepreneurs to “sports fanatics. They wear their pride. They become their work.”
Nettingham said her doc is “about people, women, relationships — an inspiring, supportive community. And Portland is a microcosm of the nation, the world. People are not siloed — they knit everywhere. You’ve got a recipe [pattern]. Some follow it so precisely. Others go off script.”
And don’t discount the weather. “Portland is rainy and chilly a lot of the year so you’re more likely to pick up wool and needles,” Nettingham said.
Participating RCYC shop owners collaborate to produce the event, switching around roles each year. They’ll start meeting in April — that’s next month. The 2019 patterns will be created, test-knitted and photographed. Gift-bag donations will be solicited and social media fed.
Quietly — nearby but worlds away — spinners will spin, dyers will dye. Yarn devotees will rummage through their stashes nervously.
But yarn hunger must be fed and on the fourth weekend of September, enthusiasts within striking distance will converge on the Clackamas County fairgrounds in Canby for the 22nd annual Oregon Flock & Fiber Festival.
Its mission: “To exhibit and demonstrate the full spectrum of natural fibers … from beginning to end, from the animal or raw fiber to the finished product.” Yarn, roving, fleece and all the rest — wade in and revel, definitely.
But the stars are always the angora rabbits with overbites, the cashmere goats, the sheep in sheep’s clothing and the llamas, alpacas and yaks, some whose gazes are unnervingly at human eye level. With permission of those who raise and care for these animals, touch their coats and dream of yarn.
Travel note: The parking lot is huge. And if you seek out the right back roads, you can cross the Willamette River on the Canby car ferry both ways — or as many times as you like.