Arctic Lace – Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska’s Native Knitters by Donna Druchunas
Book Site – Link.
The new book, “Arctic Lace” by Donna Druchunas is an inspiring history + knitting book documenting the lives of Alaska’s Native Knitters. I never knew about the the rich history of knitting that Alaskan women had, until I read this book. As a reader, you are immediately introduced into the world of the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative in Anchorage, Alaska where kntting traditions and the fibers of the musk ox inspire their lace work. The patterns created by Donna in this book are amazing and were inspired by the the detailed handiwork of the women knitters she met while researching this book in Alaska. Donna’s writing style pulls you in and you realize you can’t put this book down. No other craft book I’ve read can touch your heart so deeply as the stories that are in “Arctic Lace”.
I got a chance to talk to Donna on her book blog tour to learn more about her experience writing this book and more on her knitting.
Nat: Please tell me a bit about your background.
Donna: I learned to knit from my grandmother when I was four or five years old. Actually, I have no memory of not knowing how to knit and crochet, but I don’t remember making any actual projects when I was a child. The only thing I recall knitting is a yellow honeycomb cable swatch. I’m sure I must have practiced knitting quite a bit before I learned cables!
I didn’t knit at all in my teens and twenties. After my grandmother died, when I was about 35, a local yarn shop had a going out of business sale and I bought a half-price kit for a mohair cardigan. My mother had to remind me how to cast on, but once I got the stitches on the needles, my hands remembered the rest. I haven’t stopped knitting since.
I quit high school in 1980, my senior year, because I was a stupid teenager and my parents were having too many problems of their own to get me to stay in school. I did end up getting a diploma and I started college several times in my twenties and thirties. Each time I got bored and quit again. I have always read a lot on many subjects, however, and I read voraciously about topics that interest me. That’s one reason I write: it gives me a good excuse for buying and reading 100 books on a single topic. “It’s for research,” I can tell my husband, when he gives me that funny look after opening a package and discovering yet another book about my current obsession.
Nat: Please tell me about your new book “Arctic Lace” and the inspiration behind writing this amazing book.
Donna: Arctic lace is the story of the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative in Anchorage, Alaska. Oomingmak is a crafts co-op owned and operated by around 200 Yup’ik and Inupiat Eskimo women who knit lace using qiviut (kiv’-ee-yoot), the soft undercoat of the musk ox. Most of the knitters in the co-op live in rural villages around the state, and a few live in Anchorage or other cities. I read an article about these amazing women in an issue of Piecework magazine several years ago and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I started buying books about Alaska and searching for information about musk oxen on the internet. I became totally consumed with a desire to discover every detail about the co-op and learning about every aspect of its history. The stories that I discovered in my research form the heart of my book.
Arctic Lace also includes original knitting designs that I created, lessons for new lace knitters, over a dozen projects, and a chapter on designing and charting your own lace patterns.
Nat: Your knitting book is unlike any kind of craft book I’ve read. It’s like reading a documentary. How did it feel to go to Alaska and meet the members of the Oomingmak Co-op and the various small villages to hear their stories in person?
Donna: I felt that I had to tell the story of the women in the co-op to honor them for their unique contributions to the knitting universe. I don’t think the book would have been complete if I only including the knitting lessons and patterns. I had read quite a bit about the co-op knitters and about the Yup’ik and Inupiat cultures and history before my trip, but there’s nothing like visiting a place in person to truly understand what it is like.
I only got to visit one larger Eskimo village, Unalakleet (yoon’-uh-luh-kleet). Most of the smaller villages have no place for visitors to stay, unless you want to sleep on the school floor. At the time of my visit, Unalakleet had a lodge. The Native Alaskan cultures permeate the air all over Alaska, however. The large cities and small villages are both places where Native Alaskans and newer immigrants live and work together. Because the Europeans went to Alaska so much later than they did the lower 48, the Native cultures survived and are thriving in many places around the state to this day. That’s not to say that there was no trouble when explorers and missionaries went to Alaska. But the Eskimo villages were so remote and hard to get to, that the Native people were not forced to leave their homes the way the Native Americans in the lower 48 were moved onto reservations. Although missionaries prohibited some Native traditions, such as dancing and ceremonial celebrations, these traditions are experiencing a revival today. We are so fortunate that people who remember these beautiful dances and ceremonies are still alive.
It’s a completely different history and a completely different atmosphere in Alaska than in the lower 48. I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand it without visiting. I plan to go back as often as I can to learn more and to enjoy the people and the environment.
Nat: The patterns you’ve created for the book match the detailed way the Oomingmak knitters create their special pieces. Which ones are your favorite?
Donna: My favorite designs from the Oomingmak Co-op are the Harpoon Pattern because it was the very first design created by the co-op, and the Wolverine Mask design from Unalakleet, because I was able to visit that village. I bought a scarf knitted by Fran Degnan, one of the knitters I met on my trip. The qivut is soft and luxurious, but the scarf is even more special to me because of the memories it brings back when I wear it.
Of my own designs, the Skeleton Scarf and Nachaq (hood) design is my favorite. This is the first pattern I designed, and it was inspired by a painted wooden spoon that I saw in a book on Eskimo art in the public library. When I went to Fairbanks to visit the Museum of the North, I stumbled upon this very spoon in their archives. The author of the book had recently donated her entire collection to the museum.
Nat: Sometimes when knitting lace or intricate patterns it’s easy to lose your place. Do you have any tips or special techniques for keeping yourself on track as you knit?
Donna: I use a few different techniques to keep my place in my knitting. If I am working on a project where I have trouble remembering which is the right side (front) of my work, I put a safety pin in the knitting on the right side. That way, whenever I see the safety pin, I know I am on the next pattern row. (In Arctic Lace, all of the wrong side rows are plain, making this an easy type of lace for new knitters to learn.)
I use sticky notes to keep my place on charts. I try to find a note that is large enough to cover most of the chart. I put it on the chart above the row I am working on. That way the part of the chart I can see matches what I have already knitted. And the top line that is visible tells me what to knit next. I hide the part that comes later, because I don’t have to worry about it yet.
With both of these techniques combined, I find that I don’t have to use a row counter.
Nat: What other projects are next for you this fall and winter?
Donna: Right now I am finishing up a book called Kitty Knits that will be published by Lark Books next fall. It is a collection of patterns for and about cats including cat beds, cat toys, sweaters and accessories with cat designs, and home dec items picturing cats. That’s due on November 15th, and I hope to get some time to relax and enjoy the holidays after that deadline is past. Every year in November and December, I also try to take some time to rejuvenate and to decide what creative projects I want to focus on in the coming year.