A lifelong knitter who has never been to a yarn festival? Impossible, some would say! And yet we exist.
While I have been to lots of similar events in other industries (namely fountain pen shows and handmade bicycle shows), I guess - existing outside the virtual knitting community until very recently - fibre events never entered my radar. By the time that I did discover yarn festivals, my life circumstances included living in the northwest of Ireland and a hatred of long journeys, so I did not think I was likely to find myself at one any time soon.
Enter Yarnfolk - the first Festival of Wool to be held in Northern Ireland, 'dedicated to all things fibre.' When I heard about it back in the spring, I could hardly believe it. Held in Whitehead, on the north coast between Larne and Belfast, it wasn’t exactly in my neck of the woods. But at least it didn’t involve flying or a half-day road trip. The months flew by, and before I knew it, I was stuffed into a car with 4 other excited ladies on a Sunday morning, Yarnfolk-bound.
With its tree-shaded lanes, Victorian houses, old-style railway station, lovely cafes, and a yarn shop (Lighthouse Yarns!), Whitehead is a tiny but lively seaside town …although not usually quite as lively, I would venture to guess, as it was on this day. The narrow streets were packed with women, walking in a most peculiar manner that soon began to seem quite normal: It was a kind of mincing, distracted walk - with mouth half-open and neck craned back over the shoulder - that one does when examining the hand-knitted sweaters of passers-by, which (rather heroically, on this uncharacteristically warm August day), so many were wearing. I especially appreciated the colourful Icelandic yokes: Highly visible from a distance, they served as guides for which buildings to head to.
The event was held over four venues: three large community/church type halls, and a yarn shop. I don’t know how typical that is of other fibre festivals, but I thought the layout worked very well in this instance. The venues were all within a 3 minute walk from each other, and moving back and forth between them (as opposed to staying in one building all day) kept things lively and interesting, gave people a chance to be out in the fresh air on a nice sunny day, and overall created a dynamic atmosphere that made the festival feel as if it took over the entire town.
While it wasn’t by any means crowded to the point that I could’t to move around comfortably, there were considerably more people at Yarnfolk than I expected! I did have to stand in a queue to get tickets. For the first couple of hours at least there were queues at most of the vendors' stalls. And many of the crafting workshops on offer (natural dyeing, beading, etc. - all of which you could book in advance) were sold out on arrival. Mind you, I am not saying any of that as a criticism, but to point out there was a tremendous amount of interest, which I think exceeded what anyone had anticipated.
So what sorts of things were exhibited at Yarnfolk? I would say the majority of the vendors were indie yarn dyers. In fact, many if not most of the folks featured in my list of Ireland based dyers were there, and it was wonderful to meet them in person. Fine Fish, Green Elephant, Dye Candy, Dublin Dye, Ewe Momma, Townhouse Yarns, Bear in Sheep's Clothing, Giddy Aunt, Secret Stash, Irish Fairytale Yarn, and more... an amazing group, including a couple who made their way across the pond from England.
There were also spinners, a few machine-knitters, weavers and felters, the natural dyer Colour & Cloth, a maker of crochet vegetables, as well as makers of project bags and various accessories and notions, and a few yarn shops. I am not going to go into what I bought and from whom, as for me that type of thing is private. Suffice it to say, I was spoilt for choice from the many talented craftspersons whose wares were on offer, and while my own aesthetic falls in line with some more than others, I appreciated and enjoyed all the exhibitors at Yarnfolk. It was also good to see them doing quite a brisk trade! Not wanting to interfere with a business transaction, I always waited to ask to take a snap until I wasn't in the way of customers, and most of the time that meant waiting quite a bit (again, a good thing)! I mention this, because there is often discussion as to whether knitters in Ireland are willing to spend money on indie yarns - and from what I saw today, obviously they are.
As far as highlights of the show... For me, the main one would have to be the Ulster Guild of Weavers and Spinners. While I am not a spinner myself, I love knitting with handspun yarn and I enjoy watching spinners at work. Quite a few of the Guild members were in attendance, and they had a lovely long table set up with their homespun yarns and completed garments. Honestly, I would have journeyed to the festival for that alone and could have sat there and watched them and chatted with Emma of Woolly Mammoth Fibres all day.
I was also excited to meet S-Twist wool, which I have heard so much about over the past year. S-Twistis a new yarn company that offers sheep to skein, made-in-Ireland yarn in small batches, much of it hand spun and naturally dyed. They also offer carding and spinning services for anyone who wishes to turn local-to-them fleeces into ready-to-spin fibre or ready-to-knit yarn. Considering that such services were nearly impossible to come by even as recently as a year ago, S-Twist is a fantastic resource.
Finally, it was good to see some of the writers and podcasters who were in circulation at Yarnfolk - and I was pleased to meet Cate of the Hawthorn Cottage Craft podcast, and Nadia of The Cottage Notebook. I was hesitant to approach them, but am glad I did!
It was funny actually, because a few folks have told me after the festival - virtually, that is - that they spotted me (thanks to my sweater, of course) and wanted to talk to me but did not know the etiquette. I was the same way, and in retrospect am kind of kicking myself for not just letting loose and fondling everyone's sweater! Fondle first, ask questions after - sure, sounds like a great way to make friends?
What else... There was a lot going on at Yarnfolk, but you can't write about everything, can you? But perhaps I should say a few words about logistics, amenities, that sort of thing?
Regarding transport: Although there is a train station in Whitehead, the train line it's on is only convenient if you are traveling directly from Belfast, so most people drove. Thankfully, the parking situation was fine. Whitehead is tiny you could park 'on the outskirts' and still be walking distance form the town centre.
There was food and drink available at the festival, with a pop-up cafe set up in the main hall, as well as several cafes in the town a very short walk from the venues. Toilets were plentiful. There were also several rest areas where you could sit and knit quietly and take a break from the crowds.
As far as growing pains - the main and quite funny one is that the town's central cashpoint went out of service half way through the festival (overwhelmed by all the yarn-related withdrawals, no doubt!) so at some point those who came late (or blew their initial budget) were running about with no spending money. In fact, there was another cash point, inside a convenience shop, but not everyone knew that of course. The only other thing I can think of, is that I found the online booking system for the festival confusing and glitchy, and I know others did too - unable to buy tickets and sign up for workshops in advance. Overall though, for a brand new festival which I imagine took a great deal of time and effort to organise, Yarnfolk 2017 went off shockingly smoothly. I have not yet asked the organisers how many attended, but I would bet it is more than they expected. And everyone looked happy.
And on that note, I would like to thank the Yarnfolk organisers, the vendors, all the attendees, and the lovely people of Whitehead, for the wonderful fibre-filled day and the friendly atmosphere. Many thanks also to Lisa of Row by Roe for driving a whole rowdy gaggle of us over and back. Will there be a Yarnfolk 2018? I sincerely hope so, and intend to be there!