Kage Baker was a devoted people-watcher. She was shy and easily frightened by aggressive people, and so part of her habit was a deliberate distancing to keep herself safe.
But she was also an avid observer of human nature – something I think contributed to the humanism and insightfulness of her writing. She never really thought of herself as belonging to the species she lived among; but she watched them, understood them, and thought that people were the most fascinating show around. It was one of the things that made conventions tolerable for her. She said that John Donne was wrong, you could be an island if you worked at it: but sometimes you had to jump back into the Sea of People and get your batteries re-charged.
I am also a people-watcher; so is Kimberly, and so is Neassa, who joined us at Stitches this Saturday. And conventions are great venues for this. They are fun in their own right, but I really think they are also a healthy form of tribalism – the attendee is with her own people, it’s a group pre-selected to prove agreeable company. Kimberly and I were struck with that as soon as we walked into the lobby of our hotel Friday night: the Bar was almost 100% women; every one of them had at least one bag full of yarn, and most of them were knitting or crocheting with a cocktail glass in front of them. Beautiful and clearly hand-wrought knitted garments were on most bodies; dropped row markers glittered on the rug like confetti. It was hilarious and wonderful to see.
The crowd at Stitches tends to be mostly female. Knitting, in particular, is far from a gender-specific art – a half-dozen of my male friends knit. It’s true I have unusual friends, but most guys don’t seem to take to it in these modern times. This quirk of population makes a pronounced difference in the sound level at a Stitches event: the crowd is just as noisy as any other, and can get as rowdy as a football game – but the lower registers of sound are missing. It’s all mezzo, contralto, soprano; laughter leaps up out of the sound of voices like lightning, scaling up and going supersonic.
Acoustic science has shown that female voices are easier to hear in a crowd. In a crowd where there are only female voices, what happens is that the words get more distinct. You hear more detail of what you hear at all. So stay polite and don’t make rude comments about the goods at any vendor’s booth: a sotto voce derogatory remark like “My child could do better” (Why do they always say that?) or “That’s not worth $15.00!” (500 yards of hand-spun Merino wool? Oh, yes, it is!) will cause heads to swivel toward you for 8 feet around. Women can hear everything.
Of course, most of the remarks boil down to: Oh my God, I must have that! Accompanied with gasps and kissy noises … A convention like Stitches shows you really dedicated people turned loose in the palace of their dreams. Yarn! Yarn hangs from every surface, long glowing braids of it spun and dyed in colours like jewels. Spinning straw into mere gold – and I saw yarn spun from both – pales in comparison to the enormous spectrum of colour displayed. Yarn spun from the downy undercoats of buffalo and yaks. Novelty yarns made from milk, bamboo, thistles, wood pulp. Silk yarns specify whether or not the silk worm died to contribute its cocoon toward textile production – and yarns made from naturally harvetsed silk tend to cost a little more, because no worms were sacrificed. I think that maybe matters more in California, but it’s clearly an important selling point.
Kimberly and I both bought some gorgeous alpaca yarn – not just because it was a well-made and priced alpaca (though it was), but because every skein was packed with a picture of the alpaca from which it was shorn. Name, age, gender, and whether it was their first shearing or fifth … it certainly won us over, knowing the face of the animal that produced our wonderful lace-weight yarn. It’ll work up like knitting moonlight, and we’ll know which totem alpaca to thank as the cobweb fabric takes shapes in our hands.
I tell you, textiles crafts are very close to religion. They are order out of chaos; they are individual art; they are rhythm and pattern turned into cloth. The image in the mind takes a body to itself as you watch.
Kage liked that about my knitting. It was like telling the beads of the rosary, she observed once, except that the result was a pair of socks or a shawl. She loved wandering through Stitches, watching all those happily obsessed women turn their OCD into a pattern of skill and love. And the colours delighted her. And the toys!
More about people-watching and yarn and obsession and toys tomorrow. Now, I must set up my Swift and go wind a skein of alpaca yarn as light as thistledown into a ball, so I can convert it into a spider web …