Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stopping By Snowy Woods To Knit

Guess where I've been!

Yes, it was cold. Extremely cold. And I couldn't make head or tail of the language, despite months of keeping a list of useful phrases posted on a cupboard door. Not good enough, Celtic Memory.

Ma ei raeaegite ehsti kehlt, I'm afraid.

Yes, Estonia. And it was wonderful. Fell in love with that delightful little country on arrival, and didn't want to leave at all, three days later. Estonia has all the nice things of Austria without any of the over-development and crowds. Cafes. Cakes. Amazing medieval architecture. Plus lovely friendly people, wonderful restaurants and - and -

I'm sure there was something else...

Oh of course. Yarn! Estonian yarn. Yearned for ever since that trip to Norway in June when Marianne introduced me to this genuine folk product.

Wasn't that easy to find though. Oh no, there were wanderings and searchings and panics and shrieks aloud to the grey snowy skies and the uncaring streets. But all was well in the end.

If you've been to Tallinn, you'll know already how spectacular it is. If you haven't, then get there before it becomes too Westernised.

It sitll has its city walls, for heaven's sake. Tough medieval stuff, built to keep out invaders, and a nice big door to clang shut and bolt at night. 13th century gated community you might say.

The view over those steeples and spires and towers at sunset is heartstopping. Across the water there to the north is the coast of Finland. Very strategically located is Estonia, an unfortunate fact which has made its history more than somewhat exhausting, not to say tragic. When you're ideally set between East and West, suddenly lots of big people are demanding a forced marriage. Plus ca change...

Fortunately, most of its original walled town has survived down the centuries to be enjoyed by today's visitors.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, for example.

And beautiful towers everywhere, guarding the city walls. The sunset is imparting a rosy glow to these old stones which could tell a few tales, one imagines.

Of course they're geared up somewhat for tourists in the old town now. Why wouldn't they be - it's a chance to get ahead a bit, catch up on the rest of Europe. And I have to say they do it exceptionally well. Nothing plasticky, nothing tacky, nothing mass-produced or bulk-imported. Just lots of hand-made local knitwear, clothing, shoes, carvings, pottery, glassware - it was a delight to wander around the cobbled lanes and peer into brightly-lit windows.

Just look at this medieval shop, housed in an original medieval house! The staff are all dressed absolutely correctly in the garments of the period, even to their head-dresses, and they aren't just playing the part of 13th century men and women, they are 13th century men and women. Celtic Memory once spent several years hidden in the depths of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, studying the minutiae of medieval life, and believe me, these good folk of Tallinn have it right, down to the last laced bodice. I wanted to take the whole shop home with me.

And this amazing restaurant where the staff again were clad in medieval garments and served rough pottery jugs of beer with herbs or honey (very strong both of them, don't say I didn't warn you). That map painted on the wall behind is a 13th century rendering of this part of Europe, complete with sea serpents and mermaids.

The Christmas Market was in full swing in Tallinn Old Town, with little wooden booths set up in the market place, a huge fir tree in the centre, and lots of glogg on sale (grog, gluhwein, spiced wine, different names but the same lovely warming drink on an icy evening).

Doesn't she look great? You know, swashbuckling warriors heading for the Crusades must have stopped to buy a warming drink from just such a one as this stallholder.

The range of knitwear was staggering. Local people must knit nonstop all year round to produce these wonderful socks and scarves and caps and jackets. There were really sensible baby outfits too, thick wool from head to toe, little tights and long jackets and mittens and ear-flapped hats. I looked for those Estonian lace shawls, and saw one or two at the back of stalls, but the stallholders were disinclined to hold them up for photographs. They were a little protective, perhaps.

Did I mention cakes? As something of an expert in this field, Celtic Memory can report that Estonia certainly has the right idea when it comes to patisserie. Delectable, every one of them. And the cafes are wonderful too. Found a couple of really old-world ones, like Demel's in Vienna used to be before it turned into an automatic bus-tour stop. Here you still find elegant old ladies gossiping over glasses of tea or gentlemen reaching for the racks of newspapers displayed on reading batons.

I rather liked the glimpse I got of this lady's wool jacket and got DH to take a discreet shot of it across the room. Nice blend of cables and lace.

By heaven, it was cold when we were there! Fortunately I'd managed to finish the latest pair of warm socks on the plane, and they were put into use immediately we got to the hotel.

These were worked in the Oblique Openwork rib from Sensational Knitted Socks, using Fleece Artist's Somoko. Extremely cosy.

We really felt the cold when we took a tram out into the countryside to visit Tallinn Zoo. The wind was whistling down from the north, you had to keep your face shrouded for fear of frostbite (well, this tender Irish skin did anyway) and when you saw gentle spirals of blue smoke rising from a bonfire in the woods nearby, you went looking for it pretty darn quickly.

This was one of those wonderful happy moments that you are fortunate to get now and again in life. The warmth of a bonfire of brushwood, the scent of woodsmoke, the closeness of an old forest all around - it seemed the right place to knit on a warm shawl. Could have stayed there for hours, but there weren't in fact many hours of daylight left, and DH had spotted some wild boar he wanted to photograph...

All very well, I hear you cry, but less of this woodsmoke and wild boar. What about the yarn?

Celtic Memory had done her research before the trip. The Travelling Knitters group on Ravelry, and also the Estonian Knitters had been checked out. A list of the most likely places had been compiled. Karnaluks, everybody seemed agreed, was the best shop of all. So after the woodland idyll, we caught the tram back to town and started looking for Karnaluks.

We walked miles (well, probably a kilometre). We got into the rather greyer suburbs, well beyond the old town walls. We found the right street. But no yarn store beckoning with its bright window.

It's got to be somewhere here!

Dusk was falling rapidly. Blood pressure was rising, also rapidly. Asked passers-by. Showed knitting in pocket. Mystified shakings of heads. Very willing to help they were, but yarn? Vill? No, they regretted it exceedingly, but they could not recall ever having seen such a shop.

Now Estonian knitters are doubtless laughing their heads off at this point, knowing what I didn't know, and what they don't tell you on the helpful threads about best yarn shops.

This unpromising entrance leads to a Fitness & Beauty Centre. It has a notice on the door saying so. You have to believe. You have to push open those doors, walk right through the entrance to the Beauty Centre. Then (and only then) you find a stairway leading upwards. You ascend one flight. You ascend a second. (You may possibly ascend a third, but being considerably stressed at this point, Celtic Memory doesn't actually remember.) You find a blank double door. You push it open.


Of course it is on the top floor of a grey building in a grey street, with no visible advertisement anywhere on the outside or, for that matter, on the way up. Doesn't everybody know that?

Listen, Estonian knitters, have pity on those of us who come from clearly idiot-helpful countries that need signs and posters and window displays. Just give us the occasional clue, will you? We're not all as experienced as you are at finding sought-after items in unpromising surroundings.

So how did I know to go in that door and up those stairs, even while expecting at every moment to be challenged by a terrifying lady in charge of Beauty or indeed Fitness? I used the oldest instinct in the book. I wet my finger and held it up, and then followed the vibes. (Used to use this for finding pubs in older, more wild days, but now it works pretty well for yarn and fibre, I've found).

They have an amazing range of yarns here. And fibre too, although that was only in small nests, for felting, rather than great big bags for would-be sweater spinners. Yarns from virtually every country in the world.

Except - Estonia.

Having hunted high and low, having discovered some very interesting facts (like where some major household names in yarn actually source their products, you'd be surprised, I'd known about Turkey but not that Romania contributed so much, must go there again soon), I challenged a delightful young assistant who was wearing big soft felted slippers.

Alas, no Estonian yarn.

But why not for heaven's sake?

'I know, I have said it to them, and visitors always ask, but no, we do not. Perhaps the Christmas Market...?'

Bought just four balls of Austermann Inverno in a nice blend of blues and greys, to make a vest, but no more yarn than that. Had a lot of fun looking around though - it's not just yarn, they have an incredible range of findings and bits and needles and zips and trimmings and fabrics too.

If you think you can detect a smile on Celtic Memory's face here, you're right. This was the moment I discovered that they stocked my absolute favourite circulars of all time, no contest, no question - Colonial Rosewood. The few pairs I possess of these came from America, whither they were imported from India, and I paid a small king's ransom for each pair.

They were a lot less here. A lot less. And being wood, I could get them home in my rucksack (can't do that with steel Addi Turbos, alas). The reason Colonial Rosewoods are favoured chez CM so much is not only because of their gorgeous wood and silky polish, but because just before the join 'twixt cable and needle, there is a little bump, which slides the stitch up and over and completely does away with that irritating drag you get with lesser circulars. Colonial are the only ones who provide this little extra and it makes all the difference.

So no Estonian yarn. But remembering what the girl had said, I searched the Christmas Market more carefully that evening. And alleluia, at last, in a dim corner of one candle-lit stall, I saw a little basket of skeins.

Genuine Estonian yarn! And exactly the two colours I needed for those lovely Snowy Woods socks referred to in my last posting.

The luck continued. Wandering back towards a restaurant we'd spotted earlier in a sidestreet, my eye was caught by the window of a shop on the corner.

It's that right-hand window, just next to where I'm standing, staring. Oh you can't possibly see it from where you're sitting, hang on a minute and I'll try to blow up that segment of the picture. It'll probably be a bit blurred, but you won't mind.

Can you make them out? There under that orange felted hat? Several skeins of yarn!

Rushed in of course, and threw myself on the floor in front of a whole display unit of yarn, uttering cries of delight. DH reassured the shop lady with gestures and smiles (he may have tapped his head to indicate my state of mind, but I can't be sure, I was busy at the time).

Oh what a wonderful display. Spent ages sorting and cooing and making little heaps and then changing my mind and occasionally getting panicky and hauling out great armfuls of skeins in case they all disappeared.

Mary Lee, you're the one who told me there was a yarn shop on the corner of the town square. And so there was. It's just there were a lot of corners to this square - dozens of tiny alleys and streets leading off every which way. So I was very very glad to have found the right one at the eleventh hour.

Last minute checking of blogs and emails on the baby notepad at Tallinn Airport. I like this one because the book I was reading on the trip was Medieval Travellers. Nice blend of the old and new.

So what loot came back to West Cork in the end?

How all this got stuffed into one small rucksack I do not know (don't even think of checked baggage on low-fare European airlines, believe me). DH may have helped - lenses and electronics, although appallingly heavy, aren't all that bulky - as did capacious pockets in vests and warm jackets.

I love this almost-unspun soft yarn although I have no idea what one makes with it. The lady in the shop said helpfully, 'Knit very big then much hot water' which sounds sensible.

And when we finally got home, exhausted, there was a package on the doorstep.

The rovings from lovely Warren at Craftspun Yarns had arrived! At the back, two natural shades of BFL, at the front, Wensleydale, and on top, a little sample nest of space-dyed roving. 500g of each, and beautiful all of them. We are lucky to have Craftspun Yarns here in Ireland. Why don't you order something from them? They're nice people.

That's it. Celtic Memory is now definitely going to swing the town gate shut, shoot the bolts, lower the portcullis, and devote herself to preparing for the festive season. Knitting, spinning, felting, dyeing. No more travels.

Until the next time.


ccr in MA said...

What a lovely haul! I just want to dive into it and touch everything.

I wish I had your bump of yarn direction...

KimK said...

Wow, what an amazing trip! I gasped aloud upon seeing the photo of the yarn shop in the upstairs of that grey building -- what a surprise!

Bionic Laura said...

I think you must have a yarn sixth sense. What lovely yarn, I can't wait to see what those lovely skeins become.
I would really like to go to Estonia now after reading this report. The markets sound lovely. I like the sound of the strong spiced beer and wine.

Angeluna said...

What a delightful trip. Thanks for taking us along. I have fond memories of Estonia even during the communist years long ago. And thanks to Richard for the photographs. We get to see CM freezing her cheeks off.

What a haul. Colonial Rosewoods? Amazing. Just leave it to CM with that wet finger in the air.

Did I see correctly? You were knitting in snowy woods with gloves on? Real talent there.

Orghlaith said...

What a lovely story. I feel as if I traveled there with you. And now I so much want to travel there myself. Do you draw maps? (grin) Oooooh what beautiful yarn you brought home. If you hear tapping at the city gate, will you let me in? I'll bring the mulled wine.

Nancy Fletcher said...

Thank you for sharing your travels with us! I love the way you write about the places you visit, especially with DH's photography!

I'm also impressed that you are knitting with gloves on, and it looks like fine gauge yarn -- how do you do that?


jill said...

Of course it is on the top floor of a grey building in a grey street, with no visible advertisement anywhere on the outside or, for that matter, on the way up. Doesn't everybody know that?

A word to the wise, if you ever decide to visit School Products in New York, the same principle applies.

Lovely trip - I want to go to Estonia now. Right now.

tiffibug said...

I'm so jealous! Oh, how I wish I lived in Europe. To just be able to hop on a train and go to another country. ~Sigh~
What an exciting trip and such lovely yarns.

Windybrook Spinner said...

What a heavenly trip. Thank you for sharing. It did look VERY cold, though. I am so glad you found Estonian yarn and I love the "lick the finger and follow the vibes" trick. I would be interested to know how the Wensleydale fiber is. Spunky Eclectic has some for sale that I like the look of, but I'm afraid it will be really scratchy. Good for felted clogs maybe?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful trip, Jo!

My eye is drawn to that "nearly unspun" wool. Sounds like the saleslady was suggesting felted-knitting, but there's lots you can do with barely-spun. Unspun Icelandic (which comes in cakes) is one of Meg Swansen's favourites, and she has developed several patterns using it: colorwork hats, lacy shawls, extra warm jackets,. . ..

Anonymous said...

But ....but... what about the orange felted hat (lower lip wobbling)???

Charity said...

Dear Jo thank you ever so much for taking me along with you to Estonia... I've always wanted to travel, and your trips are lovely. Thanks for sharing. :0)

Spinningfishwife said...

Twist Fobre Craft Studio sell these big cakes of almost unspun singles. I think they call it Lopi Roving or similar. It's for knitting then felting in the washing machine. They have patterns for bags and there are plenty on Ravelry. How about a big shallow felted tote a la French Market Bag to keep rolags in?

CraftyGryphon said...

Wow, that was a wonderful trip, thanks for sharing it! I must learn to attune myself to Yarn Vibes before I find myself abroad and yarnless....!

sarahspins said...

Wow, that sounds (and looks) like an amazing trip!

Anonymous said...

Greatly appreciated the vicarious travel to Estonia. It's -13F here (-25C) but no local yarn adventures to distract from the chill . . . thanks for sharing yours.

cindyl said...

Even with the scarf over your face, it's pretty obvious you aren't miserable.
Awesome report. Wishing I was in that forest.

Jean said...

You live such an adventurous life. I love the hear of your travels. Your husband is so patient, all men should take lessons from him. It looks like you put together a wonderful stash to remember Estonia by. I look forward to seeing what you make with them.

Anonymous said...

Trip sounded amazing. Very envious of Christmas markets.

Hope you have a great christmas and your DH also.

Maria Gougane

Dez Crawford said...

Thank you for the lovely tour of Estonia. Growing up during the Cold War, when we Americans learned virtually nothing about Eastern Europe, I am enthralled as an adult by anything I can learn about the formerly "forbidden" nations. Your writing makes it seem as though we went along with you. I could smell the campfire.

"Unspun" wool is a delight for knitting. I have a simple beret I made in unspun from a cake of Icelandic Unspun from Schoolhouse Press (Meg Swansen) back in the 1970s . It still looks nearly new. It works up beautifully in plain garter or stockinette; you can also felt it, and for the intrepid spinner it can work as a fine pencil roving -- if you draft it out just a tiny bit and then 2-ply it, it makes exquisite, fairy-fine cobweb lace yarn.

Anonymous said...

A literary and visual delight as always!

More than that, the closest I can come to a mini vacation while sitting here at home. Thank you for that lovely break in my day that reading your blog has given me.

Of course now I want to visit for real.

MmmYarn said...

What a fun-looking adventure you had! I hope you toted all that yarn and fiber (rather than the electronics) in your pack on the way home; having it stuffed in your pockets would have been a great way to keep warm. The other night I was crouching over my filing cabinet, putting away papers, and my feet ended up under a sack of Jacob fiber I have sitting just in front of the cabinet (no closets in this apartment). Reading your post I am reminded how my feet were suddenly so cozily warm that I am now considering stuffing a bit of Jacob into my winter coat's pockets to keep my hands warm at the bus stop in the morning. Or perhaps I need to spin that stuff already and make myself some Estonian-inspired mittens.

Anonymous said...

The almost unspun woll is used for mittens and slippers and hats and babies diaperpants. You knit it with big (8-10 mm) needles and then felt it in washing machine. I'm sure you can find patterns in Ravelry!

tia o'c said...

Those socks look great!!!!!!!!

kitekatike said...

Hello, great blog and great description of Estonia!

Being Estonian myself, I really laughed at your story! :) And I must confess that your intuition is great, because although a native Tallinn girl, I once truly failed to find the Karnaluks shop! So thanks for the directions and pics, I'll try again on Monday!

Lots of love to you and DH, you make a great team!

BTW, your knittings are just lovely!

And i do know what excitement one feels hunting the handicraft stuff! My hands start trembling when I think that I will be able to explore Karnaluks store in 5 days!

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