I’m happy to welcome designer and Author Donna Druchunas as our guest blogger today. Donna is the author of the new beautiful new book, Arctic Lace, and today she’s giving us a photo tour of her trip to Alaska and she’ll talk about writing her book.
Thanks, Amy, for inviting me to write this guest blog post and to talk about about my experiences writing Arctic Lace.
I started working on this project in 2004. So it took me almost 3 years from the start of my research unitl the book came out at the beginning of October. Three years of my life were basically consumed with writing this book. But that’s not very long when you consider that many nonfiction authors spend 5 to 10 years, and sometimes even more, doing research for historical books. Fortunately for me, a lot of the people involved in the story of Arctic Lace and the history of the Oomingmak knitter’s co-operative in Anchorage are still alive and were willing to talk to me about their work in the early days.
I still did a lot of reading: I now own almost 100 books about Alaska, I took many more out of the library on interlibrary loan, and I got copies of many, many articles from the library and the internet. Besides my books, I have two file boxes full of papers from my research. That sounds like a lot, but if you compare to, say, what David McCullough does when researching a book on American history, you’ll see that I had a relatively easy job.
I did a little reading in the beginning of 2004, buy my research really took off that April when I set off for Alaska with my husband/photographer in tow. When we first got to Anchorage, we were pretty disappointed, to be honest. On our first day driving around, we saw Blockbuster Video, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and almost every other national chain you can imagine. Of course, we were in the outskirts of Anchorage, and people who live in any city need things like pizza delivery and DVD rentals, but it just didn’t get us in the Alaska mood, regardless of the snow.
Fortunately, after that first day we were able to explore all kinds of interesting and unique places, and meet a lot of fascinating people. It seems like everyone in Alaska is just plain nice. I don’t know why. Maybe because they’re not crammed into sardine cans like those of us who live in large suburbs and cities are, or maybe it was becasue I went at the end of winter and the spring weather acted like a happy pill. Perhaps I shall never know.
On Monday, the second day of our trip, we went into the Oomingmak Co-op shop at the intersection 4th and H streets in downtown Anchorage. What looks like a tiny house is actually a museum and store inside. This place is a knitter’s dream. Although you can’t buy qiviut yarn here, except for small kits to make sport-weight caps, the place is a virtual encyclopedia of qiviut information. The walls are plastered with pictures and text, the bathroom doubles as a library, and the shop itself is house to more qiviut than most knitters will probably ever see in a lifetime. We spent most of the day talking to the co-op director Sigrun Roberstons and several of the Eskimo knitters who work in the shop, looking through the historical archives in the “library”, and taking photos.
The next day we headed 50 miles out of Anchorage to visit the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. It was off season, cold, muddy, and melting snow was everywhere. But that didn’t stop us from learning all we ever wanted to know about musk oxen but were afraid to ask. Rick Moses gave us a fabulous tour of the facilities, both inside and out, and let us get up close and personal with the animals. I even got to put my hand inside the qiviut coat on one animal. Although it was cold and damp outside, underneath the protective guard hairs, the musk ox was toasty and dry. It’s said that their fur is such good insulation, that if they ever get stuck in a wet, icy storm while they are sleeping, that they will be frozen to the ground because no heat escapes through their fur to melt the ice.
Days 3 through 5 took place in Unalakleet, a large Eskimo village on the West coast of Alaska. (Although the term Inuit is preferred in Canada, Eskimo is an acceptable term in Alaska when talking about the Yup’ik and/or Inupiat people). Unalakleet has about 600 residents and is one of the larger villages in the region. Most have about 100 residents and no accomodations for guests, so you have to stay with someone or sleep on the school floor if you visit. Unalakleet had two lodges and several co-op knitters live there, so we decided it was the best place to go. (The lodge we stayed at has since closed, and the other lodge is a more expensive fishing retreat that is probably only open during the summer.)
I only got to meet with Fran Degnan while in Unalakleet, because our meeting was pre-arranged by Sigrun Robertson, the co-op director. The phones in the lodge were not working for most of our trip, and Fran was not comfortable arranging meetings with other knitters for us. The Eskimo culture is quite different than what I was used to, and what I consider basic business acitivites are often considered rude intrusions into village life. I didn’t want to seem forward or overly aggressive, so I had to be satisfied with my meeting with Fran. I had a great time visiting Unalakleet anyway, and went to the local store, to the public library, and to the school to watch a video about reindeer hearding in Alaska. I certainly learned a lot about how different cultures interact, as well.
After Unalakleet, the rest of the trip was less exciting, if not less informative. I spent most of my remaining days in Alaska at museums and book shops. The opening chapters of Arctic Lace include more information about my travels in Alaska, as well as a ton of info about what I learned on my trip and through my reading when I returned home to Colorado. The back portion of the book is all about knitting. Whether you are an expert lace kntiter or you are a beginner and have never even made a yarn-over, you’ll find what you need to know to knit and design lace projects of your own. As Myrna Stahman, author of Stahman’s Shawls and Scarves, recently told me at the Boise Lace Knitters retreat, “If you can knit, you can knit lace!”