Clara Parkes, the Yarn Seer
If you’ve knitted or crocheted for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Clara Parkes. If you haven’t discovered her yet, this profile explains why you should get to know her! Look for her 2 most recent books, Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World (STC Craft, 2016) and A Stash of One’s Own: Knitters on Loving, Living with, and Letting Go of Yarn (Abrams Press, 2017).
Do you wonder what it takes to chuck a tech writing career in San Francisco, head to a dilapidated old family farmhouse in Maine, and launch a writing career in knitting? Well, just ask Clara Parkes, the founder of the online Knitter’s Review, an independent in-depth website for the review of yarn, books, tools, and more. For the past thirteen years, Clara has been home-growing a community of knitters and offering them tasty treats from reviews of yarn to—in her latest undertaking, The Great White Bale—yarn making. But at the core of it all is an independent woman with a wicked sense of humor, who uses metaphors about baking and gardening in her role as a “universal explainer.” After all, just like stirring quality ingredients together ensures the best batter or dough and deep roots ensure the best growth, spinning and knitting have their basics, too. The finest fiber and the right construction yield the perfect yarn.
In the late 1990s, Clara was living a life that many would consider ideal— living in trendy Noe Valley in San Francisco, producing analytical product reviews for a tech company, making a decent salary with benefits. But during her lunchtime, under the radar of her coworkers, she would steal away to the local knitting shop, buy yarn, and bring it back to her cubicle, snatching bits of knitting time. Little did they know that Operation Freedom was under way.
Hers was no half-baked scheme. While on vacation in 1995, looking over Penobscot Bay in Blue Hill, Maine, the vision came: she needed to return to this place and construct a life. This was the land where she had spent many summers and holidays, where her grandparents and great-aunt had lived. It’s where her grandmother taught her to knit and where she vividly remembers buying her first yarn from a store in an old farmhouse; there, she was “intoxicated” by the smell.
By 1998, Clara was packed up and heading east. It was time to pursue her knitting passion and figure out how to grow a knitting life from her Maine roots. Meanwhile, she kept her hand in the tech-writing world as a freelancer. She had bills to pay.
Ingredients for the Knitter’s Review
During this time, the “knitting dough” was rising; people everywhere were learning to knit or returning to knitting at a furious rate. Online shopping was also coming into being. Clara herself had started to buy yarn online. However, she soon discovered a disconnect between how a yarn was described and the actual yarn. In popped another vision. Realizing that other knitters were purchasing or curious about buying yarn online, Clara knew it was time to offer accessible and clear information about available yarns. And not just yarn information, but also profiles of knitters and of sheep—nobody could tell her that sheep weren’t interesting. She had the basic ingredients it would take to launch something online: writing experience, tech-savvy skills, and knowledge of how to build community through email. She had the knitting part, too.
Clara had been writing for the online Tech Shopper. A co-worker and friend designed a platform for the Quilter’s Review, a site his wife founded. He offered Clara the underlying technology, and Knitter’s Review (KR) was conceived in May of 2000 and its first issue published that September. Slowly and steadily, KR grew, among people who were interested in yarn—an audience that included but went beyond the pattern-focused knitters. It took Clara five years to make a clean break from tech writing and, by then, KR had become an all-encompassing job. Meanwhile, she had kept her writer’s voice honed on her personal blog, Clara’s Window, Beyond the Skein.
If you’ve spent any time with Knitter’s Review, you know that it encapsulates more than Clara’s yarn reviews. KR offers a world of forum topics, listings of all types of fiber-based events around the United States and beyond, a weekly poll that lets knitters weigh in on questions that range from corny to thorny, and Clara’s well-crafted and insightful writings about whatever she finds interesting in this yarny world.
In the years since KR was founded, the online world has continued to evolve, and it now offers a plethora of knitting resources. And, although KR is still growing, the challenge has become how to tackle the same subject from fresh angles. Fortunately, after all these years of growing “Clara followers,” KR readers trust her to take them on new adventures.
The Knitter’s Review Grows from Its Roots
During the early years of KR, much changed in the knitting world. So much information became available that digging through magazines, e-mags, websites, books, videos, and more to find just the right nuggets became an increasingly time-consuming process. At the same time, people who had met online yearned to meet their yarn friends face-to-face. Clara absorbed all of this and thought, why not bring these elements together, add some fun and frivolity, and create a KR Retreat? She did exactly that. In the fall of 2002, in the hills of Virginia, about fifty people hung out with other knitters in a relaxed setting, learned from each other and a few instructors, added more yarn to their stashes, and swore they’d come again.
And they did come. After a few years, the Retreat’s growth created a new challenge. It had become so popular that Clara no longer knew everyone, and that wasn’t acceptable to her. She now limits attendance to just over a hundred and moves the Retreat around on the east coast every few years so newcomers have an opportunity to attend and experience its wonders.
Writing, Writing, Writing
Over a six-year time period, on top of what was already cooking and growing, Clara managed to write three books. Although she had little advance warning about what it would mean to churn them out, it seemed feasible to her to write a book every couple of years. Plus, having a physical book offered a counterbalance to writing online—and royalty payments would let her continue to pursue her other knitting ventures.
Her first book, The Knitter’s Book of Yarn (Potter Craft, 2007), was enthusiastically received. There wasn’t anything like it at the time—a book that covered yarn, fibers, plies, preparation, behavior, and what could be knitted with yarns to take advantage of their unique characteristics. She drew on years of yarn knowledge stored up from Knitter’s Review. And, although she designed some of the book’s patterns herself, she invited other designers who shared her design sensibilities to contribute; they focused, as she did, on showcasing yarns by creating perfect designs to show them off.
The Knitter’s Book of Wool (Potter Craft, 2009) was a logical next book for her because, in Clara’s words, “wool matters.” The behind-the-scenes stories of fiber farmers and their sheep breeds mattered. From shearing, to spinning the wool, to developing the best yarns, it all mattered enough to Clara to spend two years writing the book, and it clearly mattered to those who bought it. Amazon noted it as one of the best books of 2009.
For the subject of her third book, Clara considered what else truly mattered to knitters. She soon focused on their obsession with knitting socks. After all, socks are the perfect blend of the right yarn and perfect fit—the ultimate small, carry-along, always used, project. When they knitted socks, knitters developed skills not required of nonfitting projects—they discovered resilient cast-ons and bind-offs, learned to shape heels and toe tops, and produced fabric that wore well and breathed comfortably. Clara termed the results of these skills the “sock trinity”: durability, elasticity, and the ability to manage moisture. The Knitter’s Book of Socks (Potter Craft, 2011) hit the market right on schedule.
Then came time for the “dessert” book, the one for which Clara had been sharpening her pencil for years—The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting (Potter Craft, 2013). In Clara’s words, “Writing this book pulled all the pieces together. In a way, it’s my biography. But it goes beyond the ‘I grew up in Tucson and here’s my story.’ I wanted to tell our universal story. I envisioned a collection of short bedtime essays—vignettes to read before sleeping.” The editor of this fourth book is Melanie Falick, the author of Knitting in America (Artisan, 1996), Clara’s first “bible” for what a knitting life could be. Clara would like The Yarn Whisperer to help establish a new genre of books in the knitting world— knitting memoirs that can portray, among other subjects, the people who make a difference in a knitter’s life.
On top of all of this, Clara writes the column “Swatch It” for the Twist Collective; served as book reviewer for Interweave Knits for a spell; teaches at knitting conferences; has been the invited guest on a knitting tour to Iceland; and appears on the public television show Knitting Daily. Whew.
The Icing on the Cake: The Great White Bale
Maybe you’ve guessed by now that after writing endlessly about yarn, whipping up more yarn swatches than most of us do in a lifetime, and following the paths of the yarn makers, it was time for Clara to become a small-batch maker of artisan yarn herself. For six months, beginning this past January and ending in June, she took a limited number of subscribers on a virtual, narrative journey across America, making four different yarns from a single bale of Saxon merino, with every step documented in words, images, and videos. But there’s more: the final yarn was theirs, too.
“This venture has been a huge learning curve for me. Fear is a great motivator, but that makes all of it both exhilarating and refreshing. Every bit of the process will inform us about what might come next. We want to understand what goes into making the yarn and meet the many hands and processes involved.”
What Does the Seer Say?
What will the future of the Great White Bale be? Clara ponders the looming factors. “Is it even possible to revive the yarn industry in America? I think it is. But it can’t be done for $6 per skein. You’re going to have to pay more, though not obscenely more.”
“It would be so cool,” she says, “to start up New England sweater manufacturing— a completely vertical operation with everything in one place. The fiber would be domestically grown and spun. It may seem nostalgic, but I would love it.”
MARILYN MURPHY is a partner in ClothRoads (www.clothroads.com), a collective that works to bring global, indigenously produced textiles to market, while supporting the preservation of those textile traditions. She is also a consulting editor for Interweave.
Our header image shows Clara Parkes (photo by Rebecca West) and her first book.
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