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Interview with Clara Parkes

Thanks for letting me interview you, Clara!

I’m very excited about your new book, The Knitter’s Book of Wool, which I gather is about, um, wool? Your first book was an exhaustative look at different types of yarn, the fibers, the spinning methods … how did you find enough to talk about for another book solely about wool?

Wool is a whole universe in itself – it deserves several more books than just this one. The story of wool is the story of human evolution, of political and cultural and socioeconomic upheavals, of conquests and isolated islands and human migration and the rise and fall of entire empires. Each sheep breed has its own unique story, and its fleece has subtle differences (and similarities) that make the world of wool very much like the world of wine. There is a lot of nuance. From a knitting perspective, this means endless intrigue and variety. I wanted to help folks identify and appreciate the intrigue and have fun with it.

What’s your favorite part of the new book? A specific chapter? The idea behind it? The illustrations? The writing of it?

Quite honestly? I’m fond of the whole process, from start to finish. I loved assembling this amazing group of designers and getting to conceive the projects with them, and then watching these gorgeous knitted objects emerge from their needles. I absolutely adored researching about the breeds and wool characteristics and the history behind wool. And of course I loved sitting down on my porch, books and notes and swatches and skeins and fiber snippets all around me, and pulling it together into a manuscript I hoped would be useful to others.

Will you be doing a book tour for this new book? A blog tour?

I’ll be at the NY State Sheep & Wool Festival at Rhinebeck signing books on Saturday from 1-3pm at the Spirit Trail Fiberworks booth, and Sunday all day at the authors tent; I’ll also be at the Yarn Barn of Kansas booth at Stitches East on Friday October 23 from 2-3pm. I’ll also be on Kathy and Steve Elkins’ Ready, Set, Knit podcast, and Knitting Daily TV did a segment that will air at the beginning of January. And of course I’ll be representing my glorious state of Maine at String Theory Yarn on November 14th and Purl Diva on December 5th. Anyone else want a visit?

Your reviews of different yarns are a marvel of thoroughness. Yours were the first yarn reviews I ever read that went beyond basics like “soft,” “pretty,” and superficial comments like “a little splitty.” You’re like the Consumer Reports of yarn, testing everything. Not only how they feel to start, or how they knit, but what happens when they’re washed, how well they stand up to abuse, whether the dye leaches out … is this because you really love yarn? Or you secretly hate it and want to abuse it?

I really and truly love yarn. This becomes evident at knitting gatherings. While everybody else is grabbing one another’s sleeves and asking for the name of the design, I always, always want to know what yarn they used. I once approached a total stranger at a Maryland restaurant and asked if her sweater was O-Wool Balance. At first, the look on her face suggested she was trying to determine how quickly she could grab her cell phone and call 911. Then she relaxed and asked, with a puzzled smile, “Yes, I think it is. How on earth did you know?” I felt like I should tip my hat and say, “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

Do you love playing with yarn more than the actual knitting?

For me, playing with yarn is knitting.

When you are making something other than making swatches, what DO you like to knit? Sweaters? Hats? Socks?

I love to knit small useful things that have sculptural elements to them – particularly socks and hand-coverings.

The sock pattern you have available on KR is the one I used for my very first pair of socks. Do you think of yourself as a designer? Do you want to be?

I’m honored that you used that pattern! I consider myself more of a Facilitator of Yarn Play than a capital-d Designer. I really like creating useful, functional, attractive patterns that step aside and let the yarn do all the talking.

I understand that you were a writer before embracing this passion for yarn–what kinds of things did you write? What kinds of things do you most WANT to write?

I wrote about food and travel for several years, and then I changed courses completely and began writing about technology. I did that for many years until the lure of the tactile drew me back. I enjoy any kind of writing that involves turning away from the huge noisy world and focusing very intensely on one thing – whether it’s a restaurant, a particular ingredient, or yes, a yarn. If you look closely enough, everything has a captivating story. I like finding that story.

Did you ever imagine yourself as a computer/internet visionary? I love your Knitter’s Review site–what made you think of it?

Not at all. For me, the internet was simply a quick and extraordinarily effective medium for expression.

As much as I look forward to your KR weekly newsletter, I’ve always loved the KR forums–one of the first knitting “social networking” sites I discovered that really taught me a lot. What’s your take on this technological spread of knitting information? New techiques and patterns being so easily shared?

I think it’s wonderful. The more easily our knitting questions can be answered, the more easily we can get back to our knitting. For me, though, the actual act of knitting remains a very quiet, healing, solitary activity. Yes, the social networking elements are fantastic, but I’m also aware of the countless knitters around the world for whom the act is primarily a deeply fulfilling solitary one.

Do you think the online socializing at Knitters Review, Ravelry, and Knitty, not to mention all the blogs, has changed knitting?

I don’t think it has introduced any fundamental changes to the way we do things. I do think it has made the retrieval of information much, much easier. Questions can get answered in minutes. Curious what others have done with a yarn? Make a few clicks and boom, you have your answers. Traveling to Ohio and want to know if there’s a yarn store nearby? Click click click, presto, you have your answer. But social networking hasn’t changed the actual act of knitting one bit.

Of course, there’s no substitute for real life knitting … what are your favorite real-world interactions with other knitters?

I love being in a room with other people who are happily knitting away on projects. I love how the conversation ebbs and flows in a very steady, safe, comfortable way.

Tell us a little about the KR Retreat–what made you think of it in the first place? What’s the one thing you would say to someone thinking of going?

The KR Retreat really began as a post in the KR Forums. Folks in the Virginia area wanted to get together, someone suggested perhaps renting a condo by the beach, and the “me too!” replies started coming in like crazy. I realized this a big and important need among readers and that I should step in and organize it as an official Knitter’s Review gathering. Since then it has grown dramatically in size, changed locations a few times, but I work very hard to maintain an accessible, affordable, unintimidating, totally safe and welcoming spirit. You’d be amazed at how many long-lasting friendships have been forged over the course of that weekend. To anyone thinking of going, I’d say yes, please do! And also be aware that registration fills up within minutes, so folks need to act quickly.

The KR shop sells, among other things, your notecards. Do you take all the pictures yourself? Any tips or tricks for taking great photos of yarn?

Yes, I took all the pictures myself. The only tip I have for taking great photos of yarn is to use natural light. The flash is the enemy of all yarn photographs.

How about other hobbies? What NON-yarn-related things do you like to do? Any pets?

I love to bake, and I garden a lot in the summer (fruits, vegetables, and flowers). I also like to sail. And travel, and read. I have one adorably sweet little cat named Casey who keeps me company and does not get into my yarn.

Name one yarn you’ve never tried but would love to knit with.

I honestly can’t answer this question because as soon as I identify a yarn as something I’d love to knit, I procure a skein and start swatching. I don’t wait. Life is too short.

What is the one thing you would want to say to a new knitter?

Enjoy the adventure. Relax, have fun. Things may look or feel weird at the beginning, but just keep going. Don’t be afraid to try new yarns, new needles, new techniques, everything. And there is no such thing as failure – you learn from absolutely everything you do.

If you could have a superpower (knitting or otherwise), what would it be?

I’d love the ability to know—definitively—what fiber, and how much of it, is in every yarn I see. Call it Fiber-Ray Vision.

Since this IS a site for book reviews–two questions: What do you look for in a book review?

When I read book reviews, I most enjoy the ones that are well written and that teach me something, or that take me on some kind of journey related to the book’s subject—always artfully weaving the book in relevant and insightful ways. I also appreciate book reviews that keep the book—and not the author’s own personality—in the forefront. And I tend to avoid reviews that just rehash the cover flap or table of contents. That doesn’t respect the reader or the review genre one bit.

Thanks so much,

Books (so far):

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