Saturday, January 31, 2009

Of Fibre Hunts And Knitting Discoveries in the Rhodope Mountains

It might seem a little daft to head for the snow when you're trying to recover from the flu, but the big advantage of Bulgaria was that there was a direct charter flight from Cork. And there were two seats left. And it left the next day. And it was unbelievably cheap. To get all four factors together is not a common occurrence here so we organised boot camp for the dogs and packed the woolly sweaters.

Pamporovo, high up in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, exists for skiing and there isn't a lot more going on - it's not Davos nor yet St. Anton. However, it is considerably less demanding on your pocket than either of those august places, and the snow is beautiful - dry and powdery.

Travelling on the ski lift is always lovely: you're alone in this white silent world with all that blare and noise and loud jolly music and kerfuffle magically removed, drifting peacefully, high above the ground, on eye level with squirrels and crossbills. Unimaginably cold of course, but it's worth it for the peace.

Ceci n'est pas un snowman. It's a snowwoman. The genius loci if you like, the spirit of this silent space in the pine forest. The urge to create her, like a Greenwitch or other powerful symbol, was too strong to resist. Dry powdery snow is surprisingly difficult to shape into a snowwoman, but it was managed at last, and the current sock put into her hands to link West Cork and the Rhodopes. She was still standing there as we left, a small figure in the drifting snow but strangely powerful. She might still be there. I'm glad I played a part in her making. It felt like I was carrying on some unknown but instinctive tradition.

After that long time outdoors, restoratives were called for, and fortunately The Eagle's Nest wasn't far away.

The cheery landlord was quite pleased to hold the sock, and even checked out the circular cable with interest - clearly he'd seen his granny, if not his mother, knitting socks before. I suggested I should make a pair for him and he said carefully, 'Yes, but I am size 48 European', whereupon I dropped the idea.

If you can't discern all of the legend on that T-shirt by the way, it says, 'If U Can Read This, You Clearly Need Another Beer.' Me, I was drinking hot spiced wine. Good for the throat, y'know.

The view from the window at dawn each morning was heartstopping. But apart from that, and the skiing, there was very little going on in Pamporovo so we hired a car and headed off into the snowy side roads, deep into the mountains which border Greece and Turkey, to see what we could find.

Life doesn't look to have changed much in these mountain villages over the past century. Firewood is stacked everywhere, underneath houses, alongside, in neat piles on the streets. At the time we were there, Bulgaria was suffering the effects of a cut-off in gas supplies from Russia, but up here wood still clearly rules.

Hay for the animals is cherished too. There is a cat ensconced comfortably in this pile - if you look closely, you might be able to see a little white face on the left of the heap.

- and here is a haystack, carefully gathered on a steep hillside, and not yet brought into the village to feed the cattle.

Every back road we travelled (sometimes having to take it fairly carefully in the heavy snow and ice), we discovered more remote villages, looking beautiful under their white covering.

When we found this frail footbridge spanning an almost-frozen river, it had to be crossed, however dodgy the exercise. This was by way of a tribute to my father who died at this time last year. He would have leapt across delightedly, and probably stood on his head in the middle, to show how easy it was (yes, I did spend a lot of my childhood picking myself out of rivers or caves, mountainsides or forests and vowing disgruntedly to spend my entire adult life safe in a warm luxurious hotel). Thanks for everything, Papa, this one's for you!

Now what do you think of this? We had stopped by the roadside to listen for birdsong, and saw these scraps hanging from bushes in a little grove. Clambered up and found that they were woven bracelets or strands, some with beads, some crocheted, some twisted, carefully positioned on the bushes around this little glade. Of course you can see the same thing in Ireland at the so-called 'holy wells' which are everywhere and which were centres of worship for the old goddesses long before Christianity reached our island, but I hadn't expected to find them here. I don't know why not - these ancient beliefs are universal, I suspect.

Now you will have noticed something missing from this travel post so far, and by then I was beginning to miss it too. Shopping. Of any kind. Not necessarily the Champs Elysees or Kartnerstrasse, but some shops. Of any kind. And perhaps, just perhaps, some yarn?

It didn't seem very hopeful. Places selling anything were few and far between in these mountain regions, and when you did see one, it tended to stock plastic basins, coils of rope, buckets, and not much more. Of handcrafts, handwork, there was very little evidence (well, no evidence really, let's be truthful). But finally, at Chepelare, I saw for the very first time someone actually knitting!

Was so thrilled I burst into the shop and assailed her with questions - none of which she understood of course, until I hauled out my own knitting bag and revealed myself as a fellow fibre fiend (Celtic Memory's Bulgarian is rudimentary in the extreme and she has enough trouble coping with the shaking of the head for 'yes' and the nodding for 'no' without going into detailed discussions of LYSs).

What was clear was that she didn't sell this jolly fun-fur yarn (never was I so glad to see a novelty yarn in my life!) Crochet thread yes, severe underwear, certainly, basic toiletries, perhaps, but not yarn. Nor could she tell me where it came from - she gestured vaguely in the direction of Sofia, about a hundred miles to the north. But it was a start. Knitting and therefore yarn of some kind did exist.

You wouldn't believe where I finally found some. Talk about unlikely locations!

This is Pavelsko, somewhat off the beaten track. DH wanted to drive through to get some shots. As we skidded down that icy street, something bright pink caught my eye in that green window to the left of the picture. Was it? Could it be? Surely not...


This general purpose store, which sold all the aforementioned buckets and basins and coils of rope, as well as farm implements, plastic flowers, and colouring books for children, had a stack of yarn on the windowsill!

There were novelty yarns (hi to you, orange Chepelare fun fur!) but also some genuine Bulgarian wool, all of it in good hefty skeins (well lookit, a piffling little 50g ball wouldn't cut much ice, literally or metaphorically up in these mountains, would it?) And he had aluminium circular needles for an incredibly low price - about 50c each. Bought several.

Here, with triumph, I present: two skeins of thick dark grey/brown homespun-style, enough for a woolly shepherd's vest, I would think; and above those, two skeins of fingering weight, one black, one red, each with enough for a good shawl or even a vest. ALL GENUINE BULGARIAN YARN!


Of course with hindsight, I smack myself on the head and ask exasperatedly why oh why Ravelry had not been checked out before the trip? Well, there hadn't been time - it was a last-minute, split-second decision, grab the passports and run - and in Pamporovo the Internet access had been vague and unreliable. Plus, I hadn't thought there would be any Ravelers in that remote corner of Bulgaria.

Wrong! I could have met up with gorgeous Ana from Smolyan just down the road and she would have been pleased to show me her local yarn shop and tell me all kinds of things about Bulgarian knitting and knitters. Idiot! I'll know better next time, surely I will. And in the meantime, Ana and I have set up conversation and are going to exchange goodies, so that's a pleasure to come, isn't it? If you're on Ravelry, you'll find her there as Shenevski, so go and check out her gorgeous projects - what a girl.

Things definitely got better after the discovery of Pavelsko, though. In the village of Narechenski Bani we found what could be described as 'the strip' in a similar American town: one side of the street had a traditional restaurant, while the other side was entirely taken up with a long roofed stall on which were displayed all kinds of old objects - the kind you'd kill for back home. Butter churns, old carts, boxes, hand-cranked sewing machines (Russian ones too, oh my, no I could NOT, can you imagine security at the airport, not to mention weight restrictions?)

Now this was a find indeed! I worked my way carefully along, knowing by the things I was seeing and the twitching of my fingers, that I was getting closer to some really good discoveries...

Here were old weaving tools, shuttles, spindles, as well as those fascinating little finger tools for thatching roofs.

Here is a whole bundle of well-used, hand-carved drop spindles. Minus whorls, but I suspect from their shape, some of them were spun in a bowl or on the knee.

And here is the flyer from a long-gone spinning wheel. Did I buy this? Of course I did. What do you take me for? (Actually DH unearthed this specific one and pointed out the spun yarn still on it - he was as thrilled as I was.)

Spinners will know what this is. A simple traditional distaff for holding fleece. Have a closer look.

See the old wood, polished by years of use? And where it has split at the crook,, and been carefully bound with string? That was very touching. It's got a good home now.

And the traditional cafe across the road was a find too! They valued their old crafts and showed me that they knew how to use the drop spindle. Here the girl is fixing a wodge of fleece on to her own distaff, made of new wood quite recently, but in exactly the same way as the older one I'd just got. She even gifted me the bundle of rough brown fleece to take home, and wouldn't hear of being paid for it (we paid about 50c each for special local herbal tea with pine honey and she gave me a bundle of that herb too). They had so many wonderful things hanging up around the cosy woodstove-heated room that I can't show you them all. Rough wool shepherds' cloaks. Traditional dresses. Felted jackets. A treasure store.

Here is a sock made by her grand mother. Stunning colourwork, isn't it? She wouldn't sell me that -

- but I persuaded her to sell me these. Old, well used, many times washed, mended, utterly traditional Bulgarian design.

Eyelets are worked into the ribbing at the top, and there is a nice little twisted stitch panel running down the length of the sock. Don't you love those Bulgarian roses? (I remember buying a tiny phial of attar of roses down on the Bulgarian plains many many decades ago, when hitchiking through Eastern Europe in student days, and carrying it carefully all the way home in my rucksack to give to my mother.)

Clearly it was a good day so we kept going as long as the light lasted. Way up in the hills, on the way to the Trigrad Gorge, we met a lovely old lady with bright green socks keeping her feet warm.

She was puzzled at first (well wouldn't you be if a weird foreigner leapt out of a car and started waving her hands and pointing at your feet?), but when I produced the cure-all knitting bag, she was delighted. Kept patting me on the shoulder and saying 'Good, good'. I like to think she was pleased that someone from far away was keeping up with the old ways.

The best was yet to come. We were trundling through yet another mountain village, DH with his camera at the ready to shoot informal pictures of people, animals, anything. We saw this group of women sitting outside a shop and automatically slowed to capture them on camera while still moving (avoids problems that way).

We were ten yards up the street when it hit me.

Richard! She's knitting!

Screech of brakes, roar of car reversing rapidly.

Again, the knitting bag worked wonders. They all exclaimed, laughed, patted me on the shoulder, admired the Fleece Artist Carnival colourway (I think that's what it is). But I wanted to see their knitting.

And this excited me tremendously. They were using hooked needles!

Look, can you see them? Isn't that great? As I saw how she worked, it seemed so much more practical than the straight points on our usual needles - easier to grab the yarn by far. Why don't we all have them? It was the very first time I'd ever seen them used and I was entranced.

Incidentally, she was working a sock in exactly the same way as the old pair I had bought - eyelets at the top of the ribbing, for elastic or ribbon, and, as far as I could see, in virtually the same woollen yarn. Which I hadn't managed to find.

Making a discovery like that adds such a lustre to a trip. Hope you enjoyed it too.

Since then, my good Sock Madness comrade Leslie has obligingly messaged me to say that these are in fact known as Portuguese needles, and you can buy replicas at the Lacis museum in Berkeley, CA. Isn't this fun? How many more discoveries are there waiting out there? If I can't get a set from Bulgaria, I will certainly get some from Lacis. Yes, Celtic Memory may have to open a handicraft museum. Sort of seems to be progressing that way, doesn't it?

Heavens above, do you realise I've spent almost three hours on this post? Uploading all those pictures, removing the huge sections of blank space which Blogger always insists on inserting between each paragraph, uploading more pictures... Still, I know DH spent a lot longer sorting and filing all his images when he got home, so I shouldn't complain. Hope I gave you a taste of being there.

Postscript. Was a bit worried about getting that old distaff home. Simple length of forked wood I know, but security can be a bit funny about what it considers to be a dangerous weapon. Thought about it, then remembered tips from Angeluna on another occasion (no, neither of us will tell you about it, some things are best kept secret) and looked around for ways to disguise its shape. Found a pair of little woolly dolls that I'd bought in the hotel shop for want of any other fleecy souvenir (this was before we'd hired the car and gone exploring). Hacked a piece of ribbon from a decoration. Took a scrap of wool from that gifted to me by the cafe in Narechenski Bani...

This charming traditional ornament, bedecked and beribboned, got safely on to the plane and home to West Cork where you see it leaning against the spinning chair. There was a moment at the airport when the security guard picked it up and asked puzzledly, 'Where you get this?' After all, he probably knew he hadn't seen anything like it in any of the airport shops. 'It's a wedding ornament,' I said confidently. 'Good for fertility', said DH helpfully, nudging the guard who laughed uproariously and handed it back to me.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jo.
I have to tell that I enjoy reading your posts so much and how you seem to take us right along with you on your journeys. The pictures, stories, and the mention of the ancients and of times long ago--a perfect read before I have to head off to work. I am intrigued about the hooked needles. It looked similar to a small crochet hook. Did you try that method of knitting? The socks you bought were lovely. And the distaff-- what a lovely find-- and what an ingenious way to bring it home safely!
Hope you have wonder-full day and that you are fully recovered from your flu!

Angeluna said...

Loved your posting! The old women knitting...fantastic. And those socks! And I loved what you did with the distaff! Richard's fertility joke was perfect, too, the sort of method I kept in my arsenal. I would have simply wigged out at that wonderful "antiques" market you found. And probably found some way to shove a butter churn into my luggage.

Makes me nostalgic for the olden days when I traveled like a camel. Once I counted up 13 heavy pieces of hand luggage, schlepping them through multiple stops in Asia on a 6 month tour. Nearly killed me. I could get large paintings onboard as hand luggage. Once managed a massage table as cabin luggage. And an 8 foot traditional leaf shaped paddle from the depths of the Amazon jungle. Or the bronze Garuda that set some Asian security into hysterics as their Xray machine showed I had a "chicken" in my handbag. Or in Bali the Tampax they thought were some sort of bombs and they opened every last one of them to examine publicly, holding them high by their strings. Sigh, those days are history.

Glad you are feeling better. You can find charm in the most unlikely places.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely post, and for sharing your adventure with us. Bulgaria was both beautiful and sad. They wouldn't even dream of the comfort of our western homes,eh?

How wonderful that you found knitters. Now THAT's why they have to allow knitting on airplanes -- it's a diplomatic necessity!

Charity said...

Jo, what a whirlwind adventure! I so love your travel posts, I save them like a piece of good chocolate, until I can sit down quietly with a hot drink, and no small child on my lap to bang on the keyboard. (It can take a few days, sometimes.)

How goes the vest(s)?

Jody said...

What fun to read about your adventures..I luv it!
Those Bulgarians are still wondering about that funny Irish lady ;)

Unknown said...

I loved this post.Oh to be able to travel.Lacis you say. Will have to track some down and give them a whirl.Thanks for the trip.It was wonderful. I am earthbound, recovering from a root canal and you made my day.

Lynn said...

Will send you an email, later, to tell you how I get around the spacing issues in Blogger.

Thank you for the mini-vacation; I needed it!

Anonymous said...

Your three hours were well spent, Jo, I say selfishly. Thank you for sharing your Bulgarian adventure with us. I so agree with your commenter who counted knitting as a diplomatic necessity. Anything that brings people together -- and crafts play a special role. Your spirit and energy fly over the Pond with ease. I look forward to your next exploit, at home or abroad.

Windybrook Spinner said...

You have the greateast adventures. Thanks for taking all that time uploading photos to share with us.

Anonymous said...

I have wanted to find hooked knitting needles since I read about them in Priscilla Gibson-Roberts's "Ethnic Socks and Stockings" (I believe- too excited to check the reference). As she describes it, one can switch effortlessly from knitting to crochet and back again within the same piece, while purling (for those who used to find it tedious) is a breeze: you just grab the yarn with the hook and pull the stitch through. (According to her, they're also the original knitting needles). Now you've given me a second reason to visit Lacis, the first being to see their lace museum. The things one learns from an Irish blogger's travels in Bulgaria! Thanks again for sharing your doings with us,

Cyndi in BC said...

I love reading about your adventures! Of course, even your posts about your home in Ireland are adventures to me here in British Columbia. My sister says she's going to the Cassidy Family Reunion this summer in Ireland so I hope to get lots of photos from that trip too!

I love that knitting is the language that is spoken almost everywhere! :)

I've read about those hooked needles but never seen them. I'll have to check out Lacis website too. They'll be sold out at this rate, eh?

Nancy Fletcher said...

Delightful! Thank you so much!

Seeing others knitting seems to open doors and break down all sorts of barriers. I found that on trains in Japan. My son had lived there for 2 years, and told us that people almost never speak to others in the trains. But when I pulled out my knitting, it was much admired, and I could tell the passengers were asking "What are you making?" I pointed to my feet and they knew it was socks. Then they started telling me about someone they knew who knit. My son translated, shocked that people were talking to us.

NancyKnots in Oregon

EGunn said...

Thanks for sharing your adventures! I wonder if the Bulgarians were as excited to have someone interested in their knitting as you were to find knitters? Those little villages really do look like something out of another era, don't they? Great finds on your "treasure hunt!"

Congratulations on getting anything like a snow-knitter out of ski snow! I think you're right; she needed to be there.

I am intrigued by the hooked needles. Will you be posting a tutorial when you get your pair?

Thanks for a great adventure!

SunshineDreams said...

Oh, thank you for the three hours spent! That was just lovely; all of it.

Anonymous said...

That last bit did me in. Good for DH.

beadlizard said...

Truly wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your travels and discoveries. The bit you told customs had me laughing! --syl

Diane said...

What a wonderful post! I so enjoy your descriptions and pictures - it so makes us feel we are there with you.

Knitting it seems is a universal language!

LaurieM said...

Lovely! Thank you so much for sharing all that!

Anonymous said...

It was so interesting to read about your emotions and impressions from my region. These bracelets on the trees are called MARTENITSI, and are always made from red and white. We exchange them on the 1st of March (Mart in Bulgarian, and that's their name came from) and wear them all month. Afterwards we put them on trees.
About the hooked needles - we are used to knit socks with them, rarely with DP needles.
Thanks for the nice words!

Anonymous said...

Dear Jo..... thanks for the lovely post. It is a joy to read about your adventures, and I love to think about the snow woman knitting. Last year, while waiting for a darling new grandaughter to be born, I helped build a VERY pregnant snow lady in New Hampshire, another tribute to the good goddess.

Barbara M.

Anonymous said...

I just love your travel stories. Knitting, the Universal Language! Richard must be an absolute saint!

Bionic Laura said...

What a lovely adventure. It's great that knitting is universal all over the world. I think it's wonderful that you got those photos of those hooked needles in use. It's important to document these different traditions from all over and Jo you do it so well

Sonya said...

What a wonderful post! I love how pulling out the knitting basket is the ticket to all sorts of interesting people and interactions.

Anonymous said...

What a nice trip! hooked needles are in fact very common here, and you can buy them easily in Lisbon. No need to go to California...

tmjackson said...

What a fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing your adventures, your beautiful pictures, and the delightful experience of finding knitters and knitting traditions all over. You're so lucky to always find the knitting bits of culture wherever you go, but then I imagine that it takes quite a bit of perseverance. Can't wait to see what you make out of that Bulgarian yarn!

MmmYarn said...

Wow, it looks like you had a great time! I never knew Bulgaria had such a rich knitting tradition carried on to this decade. And thinking of a fertility distaff gives me the giggles. I'll have to remember that trick the next time I want to bring home something fragile and weird.

pacalaga said...

I see that Luisa has suggested Lisbon as a source for your needles (oh the jealousy that you could zip off to Lisbon...) but I should point out that I have seen Portguese knitting videos on Youtube as well. I dunno if it's the same technique as you'd use with the pointed needles.

KiniaCat Crafts said...

That was Grand!! Thank you so much!
The time you both invested in sharing your trip with us is so greatly appreciated!
Such fun! I love the idea of sharing knitting across boundaries and languages. And to see bits of the world and other cultures.
I can't tell you how much your efforts are appreciated.
My thanks!

Dez Crawford said...

What a marvelous adventure. Did you leave some wool and needles with the snow-woman? I wonder if some knitter, hiking through the woods, will find the remains in the spring, and marvel over who left it there.

Your travels remind me of my college-age trips to Appalachia, to wander about in hill country with a backpack, looking for people plying traditional crafts, and the many small-town weekend "flea markets" selling all sorts of old wonderful things.

Sigh. I would so love to travel all over Europe. Maybe someday. But Ireland first!

I found the kitty in the haystack, too. Looks like my Shamu.

That distaff just vibrates with use. Clever disguise, that.

~ ~ Ahrisha ~ ~ said...

Jo~ ~
Thanks for taking time to share. It is always appreciated. I love traveling with you!

gail said...

Wow!! thanks for sharing your trip, the knitting traditions and your enthusiasm! What a gift! I have taken my knitting to England, Spain, France, Switzerland and Nigeria over the past 40 years. It has always sparked conversations on public conveyances!