Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World

I remember visiting Luisa Gelenter's La Lana Wools booth at Stitches West sometime in the mid-2000s. Though the novelty yarn scarf craze had run its course, there were still many booths showcasing frilly scarf yarns—some selling intensely colored jumbo sized plastic-wrapped packages at bargain prices that beckoned knitters to please take them home.

Peak time at the Stitches West marketplace often meant—and still means—crowded aisles and popular booths that were difficult to navigate. Stepping into the La Lana booth was like a breath of fresh air. Not only was there room to move about, but one felt inexplicably drawn to the baskets filled with tempting skeins in soft naturals, muted jewel tones, and pastels. Curly locks hung in hanks, while spinning fibers exploded from their packaging begging to be seen, felt, and spun. There were no bargain bags here, no quick-to-knit kits. The garments on display were masterpieces of color and fiber. Walking into the booth felt like walking into a cool hushed church, having pushed your way through the hoards of tourists outside in the plaza.

That feeling vanished though, once Luisa started telling me about the dyes, the fibers, the differences between the hand-spun and the mill-spun yarns. She spoke loudly and confidently, conveying the message that if I didn’t see the beauty and importance of her unique skeins, then I was free to move along. It wasn’t that she was unfriendly. But on the massive show floor that was Stitches West, I think she was out of her element, perhaps not quite sure how her one-of-a-kind wares fit.

In her latest book of travel memoirs Knitlandia: A Knitter See the World, Clara Parkes too mentions Luisa's “booming voice” that I remember, and the attitude that makes “everyone seem to step aside.” In the opening chapter entitled “Chasing a Legend in Taos,” Clara tells us of her visit to La Lana Wools. Feeling as if she is on shaky ground, Clara asks her tentative questions, hoping to hear Luisa’s stories, and to learn about the wool. Always the wool. Clara says one of Luisa’s favorite stories to tell involved a celebrity sighting with a twist—it’s the wool, not the celebrity that gets recognized.

ONCE UPON A TIME in a Taos, New Mexico, grocery store, a woman named Luisa Gelenter was going about her business buying food. Somewhere in the produce section, she felt a person standing too close. Inching away, she kept shopping, only to feel this person creep up on her again. Annoyed, she stomped off to another aisle. When the lurker soon reappeared, Luisa turned and snapped, “What do you want?” The words were barely out of her mouth when she recognized it was Julia Roberts. The movie star and avid knitter happened to be a big fan of Luisa’s work and was too shy to introduce herself.
Who knows how it really played out, but that’s the story Luisa loved to tell.
In the world of yarn, Luisa Gelenter was a legend. Using nothing more than water and select minerals, bugs, skins, branches, roots, leaves, petals, and powders, from knowledge she picked up in Bolivia in the early 1970s, she could transform natural fibers, such as humdrum wool and mohair, into vibrant, magical yarns for knitting, weaving, and other creative pursuits.

My friend Nancy still owns a little piece of La Lana. Or more specifically, several little pieces. She recently showed me an old work-in-progress that has many different yarns knit into it, several of them yarns from La Lana. The tags were long gone, so we couldn’t identify all the yarns, but it felt nice to touch and to hold a little piece of that history. Nancy used the La Lana yarns mixed with many others to make bags that I imagine softly color the lives of their users the way the skeins once colored the walls of the store from which they were purchased. Now that Luisa has passed on and La Lana Wools is no more, those remaining little bits and skeins are a bit of wool history to have and to hold in one’s hand, their colors remaining bright in memory.

- Sharlene

You can preview other chapters from Clara Parkes' Knitlandia on the blog tour here:

Wendy Bernard at Knit & Tonic
My Sister's Knitter
Mary Jane Mucklestone
Knit Circus

Coming soon:
March 4: Leethal
March 7: Tin can knits
March 17: Yarn Thing

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