Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More Travel to Research

Someone told me Amboy, Minnesota, is where a woman named Lisa Durkee lives and that I ought to drive down and meet her. Lisa not only runs a restaurant she made out of a 1920s gas station, she spins wool and angora fibers, dyes them, and knits them into hats, mittens, etc.

Amboy is a long drive from the Twin Cities, as I found out on Monday. The weather was breezy but sunny and not too hot. It’s a very pretty drive down 169, which pretty much runs alongside the Minnesota River. The river, I thought to myself, used to be much bigger than it is now, because it has high hills on either side that are some distance from the river itself, and the land runs down to the water from them. Then, by chance, I paused at a rest stop and read a sign that said the Minnesota River occupies the bed of what was once an enormous river made from the melt-off of mile-thick glaciers that covered the state. A glacier a mile thick! I caught myself measuring off a mile on the highway and trying to imagine an ice-pack that tall. What an astonishing sight it must have been!

Amboy is a very small town of about five hundred, south of St. Peter, south of Mankato. The business district is one block long. It has four churches, no grocery store at present (one is planned), and an antique shop packed full of antique clothes (Victorian underwear!), toys, furniture, and hundreds of hats. The restaurant I was looking for is in a darling little building set back from the main street in a little lawn with iron (really!) and real flowers. And the food is fabulous! I was a little surprised that there was such wonderful food – and not the basic stuff like mashed potatoes and pot roast you often find in small towns, but basil-flavored tomato soup with mushrooms and corn, and pita bread stuffed with cooked onions, herbed vegetables and grilled chicken. And the best pies in the state.

Lisa is a tall, slender, beautiful woman who must never sleep, because she runs
the restaurant and a craft shop for her wool and angora items, plus she is buying the nineteenth-century building her shop is in and renovating it, hammering off years of paint and plaster to expose the brick walls, and putting up a tin ceiling by herelf. Her mother, Maria, is an artist and spinster (meaning one who spins!), too. And quietly charming. She’s the one currently raising the angora rabbits. She brought one from her home in Blue Earth to show me.

I have never in my life seen a rabbit that big. He filled a wire cage big enough for six chickens, and at first glance I thought he was two very big white rabbits. He had huge red eyes and the usual winking nose and big ears he lay back on his shoulders or held erect. He didn’t move when I reached into the open top of the cage to stroke him. He was, of course, very fluffy, and I thought it must be all hair, but when I touched him my fingers didn’t sink to my knuckles like I thought they would. This was a very solid rabbit!

Lisa sat down at her spinning wheel, spread a towel on her lap, and hauled the rabbit up onto her lap by the scruff of his neck. She showed me how the fur is pulled out rather than combed out – the rabbit did not so much as blink as she pulled out fingerfuls of white fur. She invited me to try it, and, while it doesn’t just fall out, it doesn’t take much of a tug to get a sample of it. Then she started her spinning wheel turning using a foot pedal, the kind that goes up and down, and began feeding the fur into the yarn already coming out of the mechanism. Soon she had a rhythm going, pulling out fur with one hand and twisting it into the yarn with the aid of the other. It was fascinating to watch how smooth and even the yarn was as it came out of her hands. We talked while she worked, and the rabbit – whose name is, I think, Fernando, sat perfectly still. Lisa said the rabbit actually likes being plucked because his fur is so thick and hot. In my opinion (which is worth exactly nothing) Fernando is too stupid to know if he does or does not like something unless it involves drawing blood or eating clover. Since this involved neither, he was content to sit still. He did look as if he were thinking long thoughts – or merely listening to the cricket sounds in his otherwise empty mind. Certainly he has a very small and narrow head, so there’s not room in there for much of a brain.

Wool fibers have microscopic "hooks" that make it hold together when twisted. Angora doesn’t have that, so adding wool fibers makes it stronger. But pure angora yarn is incredibly soft, and it isn’t smooth like wool but has a long, thin nap, as if it were enveloped in a cloud. Lisa told me that the younger the animal (goat, rabbit or sheep), the softer the fibers, but I can’t imagine anything softer than the angora yarn she was spinning. Lisa will spin a length of yarn, then take another single-ply yarn and twist it onto the first, going in the opposite direction to make a two-ply yarn that hangs straight and won’t twist back on itself. Most yarns she spins have at least two plies.

She had a couple of felted wool hats in shades of pale cream and brown for sale (to make a felted hat or purse, you knit it in a very large size, then wash it in hot water to make it thicken and shrink). I looked at them, but bought a pure angora beret that is a natural color somewhere between gray and blue and so soft I will have to restrain myself from rubbing it between my fingers instead of wearing it. Oddly, rabbit angora will not shrink so it cannot be felted – if it is blended with wool and the wool is felted, the angora will make something like picots (tiny loops) all over the wool.

Lisa’s mother has worked with rabbits all her life. And she is an artist in not only fibers. Lisa gave me a card that has a pen and ink drawing on the outside of an angora rabbit, done with a minimum of lines, very beautiful. Her mother drew it and drew a mohair goat and woolly sheep for other cards. But I love the rabbit.

Later, Lisa took me into the back yard of her shop and dug up a sample of madder, a plant from which a red dye can be made. She showed me a machine which cards wool, a dangerous-looking thing with lots of rollers covered with sharp wire brushes. And a felting machine which was made of two very large flat pieces that squashed and rubbed wetted combed wool between its panels until it became a solid mass. And she showed me some of her dyed yarns. One skein was a beautiful shade of green she’d colored using copper wire – and suddenly I realized that it is the exact color of the oxidized copper roof of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. She said Kool Aid is a great dye – she uses vinegar to set the colors, making it a safe process for children to try. But a lot of her wool and all of her angora is left its natural colors.

It was a wonderful visit, I loved meeting Lisa and Maria, and I think my runaway character Doris Valentine is going to have an interesting time in Amboy.

8 comments:

Camille Minichino said...

What a surprise ... Monica bought a hat! But who wears them better? Can't wait to see it on you.

Camille/Margaret

Monica Ferris said...

I spent an hour last evening, my web mistress spent even longer and I tried again this morning, but I can't get a photo of Lisa with that huge rabbit on her lap spinning its fur into yarn. I'm so frustrated! I think it's my new computer. It says the image has been transferred, but it doesn't show up on the entry!

Camille, the hat is beautiful. If we weren't moving next month to a smaller place I'd've bought a couple of hats from that antique store, too.

Camille Minichino said...

Well that's strange, since I can't get this little photo of me OFF the posting template though I've tried!

Anyone out there going to Mayhem this weekend?
I've heard it's a great conference and I'm looking forward to it, though I'm barely unpacked from Malice.

Camille/Margaret

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica,

This is fascinating. I love reading about your research--you do the coolest stuff.

joanna

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica,

This is fascinating. I love reading about your research--you do the coolest stuff.

joanna

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

And ladies, this is so weird. Everytime I post a comment, it shows up twice! GEEZ.

j

Deb Baker said...

Monica really does do cool things! And what a character. Magna has quite a selection of great, great hats. Let's all show up and help her pick her next one. Ellen are you going? Can't wait to catch up.

Ellen said...

Deb- Gave up on Malice Domestic due to the size of the trip. So I go to Magna cum Murder instead. My current routine is three cons a year: one each mystery, SF, and anime.
I've been collating Monica's traveling posts on her web site under "Adventures". But there, they have pictures. You really need to see Lisa spinning directly from the rabbit. It's not straw into gold, but it'll do.