I read a lot of books about knitting, and a lot of books about travel, but I’ve never read a travel book about knitting before. There’s a reason for that, as Amazon tells me that this might be a genre with precisely one title in it: Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World, recently published by “author-traveler-yarn sniffer” Clara Parkes. If others can write books half as thoughtful and lovely as Parkes’, I’d be glad to see this very specific category of memoir grow.
Knitlandia consists of sixteen short essays about Parkes’s knitting- and yarn-related journeys. As founder and publisher of the online magazine Knitter’s Review, and one of the industry’s foremost authorities on yarn, Parkes is in high demand as a speaker and teacher; she also visits mills and yarn shops to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world of wool. To the uninitiated, knitting probably seems like the ultimate in homebody activities, but those who make their careers in the craft actually rack up lots of frequent flyer miles. Parkes isn’t just a knitter who has to travel, though; she’s a traveler and a knitter, and she links the two:
I thought again about Paul Theroux and his immense dislike for air travel, the sense-numbing way it forces us into a metal tube that’s flung at 500 miles per hour until it deposits us into an alien reality. He much prefers the slow train, the old-fashioned crossing. Even then, though, “You never come all the way back,” he’d written. But who has time for that now? Maybe that’s one reason I love knitting so much, because it lets me enjoy the experience of getting there, of watching the landscape change from cuff to sleeve.
Most of the Knitlandia essays are short travel stories with a knitting focus: Parkes writes of her trips to legendary knitting retreats that I dream of attending (Madrona, Squam); wholesome sheep and wool festivals (Maryland, Rhinebeck); and anonymous studios where she filmed episodes of Knitting Daily TV and classes for Craftsy. In her chapter about a family vacation to Paris, Parkes describes trying mightily to keep her promise that she won’t turn it into a wool-gathering business trip (she’s mostly successful). The book’s longest and most memorable essay covers a weeklong knitting tour in Iceland, which sounds like such a knitter’s paradise (entire aisles of yarn in grocery stores!) that I wondered how much a plane ticket to Reykjavik would cost me (answer: too much).
While some of Parkes’ prose describes the hotels she stays in and the bowls of pho she eats to combat jet lag (and maybe I can’t afford a trip to Iceland, but I can damn well get myself the bowl of pho I was craving by the end of the book), Knitlandia is filled with people. Some of them appear more than once, such as knitting rockstars Eunny Jang, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, and Ysolda Teague. Others merely drift by, “civilians” peering at Parkes and her knitting compatriots, bemused and confused to find that thousands of people will pay hundreds of dollars each to attend a conference devoted to knitting, where they will attend incredibly specific classes, spend many more hundreds of dollars in the marketplace, and have the time of their lives.
Knitting seems like such a solitary endeavor, but it really isn’t. As Parkes writes in my favorite passage of Knitlandia, “knitting has a profound connective power”:
The culture and people and rituals around it, the values, they all contribute to an immediate and profound trust in one another. It’s home. You belong and are accepted, which rings true no matter where you are.
I might not have articulated this thought in exactly the same way, but I’ve found it to be true again and again, whether as a member of a semi-cohesive knitting circle in California or a solitary knitter on the Shanghai subway. Knitting transcends language barriers and gives strangers an entry point for striking up a conversation. It can give new acquaintances a shared hobby to discuss until they find other things they have in common, and it can offer an unexpected moment of connection when two people realize that they’re both knitters. Even if you have nothing else in common, even if you never see the other person again, knitting can create a bridge. If you’re ever in a strange city and feeling lonely, sit on a park bench and start knitting—I guarantee someone will come up to inquire about it within ten minutes, and you can easily turn that into a twenty-minute conversation.
Not every knitter is a traveler, and not every traveler is a knitter. It’s little wonder that Clara Parkes is (as far as I can tell) the first person to combine travel stories and knitting tales. I know it might take a lot of work to persuade an editor that this niche market is worth expanding. But if other “author-traveler-yarn sniffers” would like to share their stories, or if Parkes would like to publish Knitlandia Volume II, I promise I’ll be waiting.
Support my writing through the Amazon Associates program! Purchase Knitlandia via this link and you’ll be contributing to my Iceland trip fund (or retirement account … less fun but more responsible). Thank you! ~Maura