Sunday 17 October 2021

Rhinebeck Revisited: Fewer Sheep, Less Wool

It's been four years since I last posted about the annual New York Sheep and Wool Festival, known succinctly as "Rhinebeck" in the knitting world for its venue, the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY. If you haven't yet read my first post about it, start there.

Rhinebeck has been my favourite event for the dozen or so years I have been privileged to know it. The first year I attended, I took the bus from WEBS. This had its advantages, from the cider donuts, raffles, and festive atmosphere on the bus, to the fiber-y camaraderie. The what-are-you-knitting conversations on the way down shifting to a show-and-tell of what everyone purchased on the journey home. I even made a new friend on that bus ride (hi Rena!). The not having to drive part was also appealing but I have opted to drive myself every year since. I need the control of getting there early and staying until the bitter end, as well as the opportunity to enjoy the fall foliage along the Taconic State Parkway, a route the bus cannot take. Not to mention the extreme level of motion sickness I suffer every time I ride a bus puts somewhat of a damper on the day.

In the years since my first Rhinebeck pilgrimage, I have taken one knitting friend to yarn mecca (hi SJ!), as well as my father, who for several years planned his annual visits around Rhinebeck weekend. He is not a knitter, but he appreciates fine craftsmanship and he enjoyed browsing the booths of the many woodworking vendors, who sell beautiful wooden tools for all the fibre arts, from spinning wheels and looms to handmade crochet hooks, as well as spoons and other kitchen tools, and carved animals (I was tempted by the hedgehogs and had to remind myself that I am not a dust-catching-tchotchke person).

The four-hour round trip drive gives me enough time to listen to my favourite recording of my favourite opera, so that has become something of a Rhinebeck tradition as well. Others include ordering a pizza when I am about 20 minutes from home on the return journey. Pizza is a treat that fits the celebratory atmosphere of the day, but also serves the practical purpose of providing dinner when I am too exhausted to cook. A shower, a glass of wine, and pawing my Rhinebeck purchases without getting pizza grease on them is the limit of my energy level at that point.

I would like to indoctrinate introduce my partner and his daughter to Rhinebeck, but the stars have not yet aligned to make that feasible with his work schedule. It is also possible that I have scared them a bit by describing the methodical way I approach the day, which comes across as more akin to a secular praying of the rosary through the stations of the cross than a fun day out at the fair, munching on cider donuts as the colourful leaves drift down around you and the sheepdogs bark joyfully as they run to catch frisbees.

Yes, I am severely OCD, but I am not alone in my devotional approach to Rhinebeck. Sagacious knitting wit Franklin Habit, who recently moved to Paris, marked the occasion this year by posting "Happy Rhinebeck to all who observe."

Speaking of those cider donuts, I have marvelled that the consistently longest of the ridiculously long food queues at Rhinebeck, rivalled only by the lamb sandwich line, is the cider donut queue. Living in the heart of New England, you can't swing a skein around my town from Labor Day through Thanksgiving without hitting a place that sells cider donuts (and, even better, pumpkin donuts). I have the obligatory sacramental cider donut each fall—this year during an apple picking outing, fittingly—but I confess to taking them for granted now that I live in New England. The online buzz about Rhinebeck this year, after its pandemic-related cancellation in 2020, included much anticipation of cider donut consumption, often tucked in posts and comments advising first-time Rhinebeckers on what not to miss. All the donut talk reminded me that many knitters come to Rhinebeck from the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, and other places outside the Cider Donut Belt. The women behind me in line to get in the gate were from Georgia. They were talking, as I could not help hearing, about the difficulty of finding a bra that fits properly and is comfortable, without underwires digging into underarms, underboobs, and underribs. I did not join the conversation as they were not wearing masks but I silently echoed their awed exclamations when one of the women mentioned that she works in a lingerie store that carries bras from a 28A to a 48O and they paused to attempt to imagine the formidable rack on the customer needing a size O bra. (Yeah, I know you just Googled. Take as long as you need. I did too.)

After missing a year of Rhinebeck, my anticipation was verging on desperation. This was little-kid-on-Xmas-Eve level excitement. I could hardly sleep or focus on any task for at least a week prior. Ironically, between my day job, freelancing, and taking care of family, I had no time to actually knit, but I was thinking of little else, even as I endeavoured to be present in other areas of my life. I started listening to a new-to-me knitting podcast on my morning jog, and perused knitting patterns on Ravelry instead of politics on Twitter in the loo.

But I had a nagging worry that the lingering pandemic, due to the anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers, was going to negatively affect this year's longed-for Rhinebeck experience. The omens of an abridged Rhinebeck multipled as the holy third weekend of October approached. First, neither the organisers nor the fairgrounds required masks or proof of vaccination to attend. Masks were requested, but not required, in buildings, for anyone vaccinated. But we know that the Venn diagram of people who refuse the vaccination and people who refuse to wear masks is nearly a circle, so such milque toast requests are worse than useless, they are a capitulation to the selfish, homicidal Covidiots who wish to prolong the pandemic at all costs, even their own preventable deaths and Darwin Awards (which cannot come fast enough to please me, but that's another blog post). None of my knitting friends was going, fearing that it just was not safe yet.

The organisers were implementing some changes to limit transmission of the coronavirus and forestall a super-spreader event, but they sounded more likely to abridge the experience without much increasing safety. Vendors were to be limited to every other booth space, no double booths, and some vendors were moved outside. All workshops and speakers and indoor demos were cancelled or moved online. All children's events were cancelled, although that seemed like a good precaution, to be fair. (And, to be blunt, Rhinebeck is not very kid friendly anyway. Few knitters bring their children to Rhinebeck, if they can avoid it, because kids' limited patience precludes the parent from perusing the yarn. It is not that they don't love their kids, they just can't shop with them in tow. Of course, if dad is there, he can take the kids to watch the sheep herding and pet the llamas whilst mom herds skeins and pets yarn, but two-parent families are rare these days.)

I was simultaneously worried that vendors would stay away but crowds would be worse due to pent-up demand. Attendance turned out to be much lighter than usual, great for me albeit not for the sellers, but my fears about the dearth of vendors were more than realised. The every other booth arrangement did not lead to the rest of the vendors simply being moved outside. There was a smattering of tents but most of the vendors I look forward to browsing and buying from simply weren't there. All vendors noted that they had brought much less stock than usual, and the larger vendors, who normally use two adjacent booth spaces, were unrecognisable in single booths with limited stock. The vendor who makes the felted cat toys that I replenish each year was there, but no cat toys. The same sad scene was repeated, with the notable exception of soap. For some reason, soap vendors have been multiplying like rabbits at Rhinebeck in recent years, and, in lieu of yarn, I somehow came home with about 15 bars of soap. I'm strict about soap scents being seasonal, so one bright spot in a disappointing Rhinebeck year was stocking up on autumn and winter soap. I am definitely covered until Rhinebeck next year, and possibly for several years beyond that.

Cider donuts excepted, the food was different this year too, or perhaps I'm different: I look forward each year to a certain chocolate chip cookie vendor who sells cookies in the shape of a bar. They're egregiously expensive, but worth it as an annual treat, along with a hot cup of coffee to ward off the autumn chill. I was afraid the cookies might be a casualty of the pandemic, but they were sold by a vendor attached to the fairgrounds, i.e., in a permanent location, that vends at every event held there, not just Sheep & Wool, so I lived in hope.  Maybe the cliche of nothing living up to our inflated expectations applies, or perhaps it's my habit of making my own cookies with greatly reduced sugar content, but I found the cookie to be both bland and sickly sweet. And the hot coffee? It was 76F, nearly a Rhinebeck record. As someone who freezes when it gets below 75F/25C, I have been enjoying the unusually warm autumn, as have my peppers and tomatoes, which are still producing fruit in mid-October, but even I admit this warm weather is somewhat inappropriate for a knitting festival.

One of the many initially-informal-but-now-codified traditions that has arisen around Rhinebeck is the making and wearing of the Rhinebeck sweater. This is a garment knit for the express purpose of showing it off at Rhinebeck to an appreciative audience. No Rhinebeck is complete without tapping a few strangers on the shoulder to exclaim, "I love your [jumper, cardigan, hat, shawl, cowl, whatever hand knit item they are wearing to elicit this response]!" It typically takes about two years to knit a sweater but, since the organisers cottoned on to this tradition, an official Rhinebeck sweater pattern has been promulgated, giving knitters a year to complete it for next year's festival. This tradition in turn has given rise to t-shirts, bags, and buttons that say "No rest [sleep, in some versions] til Rhinebeck!" Any knitter who sees this in the wild knows exactly what it means. This year, most fairgoers abandoned the wearing of their hand knits in favour of tank tops and flip-flops, but a few stubbornly wore their (beautiful, it should be noted) Rhinebeck sweaters. She moved through the fair, drenched in sweat.

Another inviolable Rhinebeck tradition is the (increasingly overpriced) lamb sandwich. It is, ironically, the only line this militant vegetarian is willing to stand in—yes, hypocrisy duly acknowledged. I don't normally eat lamb, or any meat, but the juxtaposition of the lamb sandwich, its lamb sliced like pastrami and served on a kaiser roll with onions and mustard, with supporting the use of sheep as fibre animals has struck me as complementary. There is not enough money in raising sheep just to shear them for wool, and some, usually males, as in the dairy and egg industries, are killed for food and skins. I do not approve but I understand the economics of the situation for farmers, many of whom are engaged in preventing heritage breeds from becoming extinct. Finally, the culinary designation 'lamb' refers to meat from sheep under a year old, by which time they are long since fully grown. They are still cute, but not the adorable baby lambkins gambolling around playfully that I, for one, could not imagine anyone being so heartless as to murder, even if starving to death were the only other option. So, hypocritical, perhaps, but this is my rationalisation for my once-a-year-at-a-sheep-and-wool-festival lamb sandwich, which I have not actually had in four years, as I got the soup two years ago, and they were sold out three years ago. The lamb sandwich vendor also sold lamb sausage and lamb and barley soup. The soup, with carrots and spices, is delicious, and warming on a cold autumn day. But this year, the part of the menu sign listing the sandwiches and sausage was covered over, replaced with a handwritten menu offering lamb shank ($22) or lamb riblets ($20). No lamb sandwiches this year, although they still had the soup. It was, though, as I mentioned above, 76 degrees, so for the first time, there was no queue, and with good  reason. I managed to find a vendor selling pumpkin mac & cheese, which indulged my autumn food fetish adequately, but the lack of lamb sandwiches was odd and disappointing. 

Traffic in the buildings was designated to be one way, another pandemic precaution, but there were some flaws in the execution. One doorway (all doors were kept wide open this year for air circulation) had "entrance" signs, the opposite doorway had "exit" signs. There were arrows on the floor backing up this traffic flow instruction, but someone had accidentally (presumably, unless they were having a laugh), put the arrows on the floor in the wrong direction, so they were pointing toward the designated entrance, leading everyone to ignore the whole mess and just browse around in every direction as usual, like squirrels who have eaten some coffee beans.

Much lighter crowds this year

Hearing snippets of conversation is unavoidable, and there is usually one Rhinebeck gem. This year, in the Ewetopia booth, I overheard a man retort to his companion, "You're the earth tones. I'm not. I'm Jew tones."

The kangaroos and lemurs were there as usual

So were the sheep, albeit far fewer than usual

Yet another tradition is to photograph one's Rhinebeck haul and post it on social media. This year, I bought far less than normal, and most of it was gifts for my partner and his daughter rather than additions to my yarn stash. There was (much!) less to buy, but I also felt constrained by my lack of time for knitting, something I am determined to remedy this year. I still have enough yarn in my stash to circle the globe several times over, so I feel guilty buying more until I have used it. I also seem to have acquired a future, and that has altered my perspective. (Yes, that first clause was stolen not-quite-shamelessly from Possession.) Back when I was under- or unemployed, broke, heavily in debt, barely scraping by living on my credit cards, throwing money down the toilet in interest, and feeling little hope of ever improving my financial situation, shopping for yarn once a year seemed to be a small indulgence to make a life on the financial and professional fringes bearable. A lot has been written on the mystery of why poor people waste money on small indulgences, such as coffee drinks, rather than living as ascetically and frugally as monks and saving every penny. The answer, obvious in retrospect, turned out to be that the poor have no hope of socio-economic mobility. Giving up small indulgences like a $5 coffee are not going to lead to enough money to buy a house or invest or otherwise climb out of poverty and the disdain heaped upon them by the rich reflects a breathtakingly myopic selfishness, a lack of understanding that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and trickle-down economics are a myth and a self-serving lie, an excuse for perpetuating a system that rewards rich people for being rich and punishes poor people continuously, in every area of life, from conception until death and beyond, for being poor. Now, I have a full-time job. True, it does not pay enough, but I augment it with freelance work, minimise my living expenses, and have a partner who has just moved in and started sharing rent and utilities. I have paid off two of my three credit cards and I can see what I never believed possible before: A life where I am not flushing money down the toilet in interest every month, and can start, for the first time in my life, building a savings account for emergencies. A house is probably still unrealistic. The Boomers were the last generation to be able to afford to own property, but living debt free, and having a cushion for emergencies, even accounting for the inevitable future bouts of unemployment due to the lack of job security in any field these days, is something I can see on the horizon now. I no longer buy anything I cannot pay off at the end of the month. No more accumulating credit card debt because it is my only option to live a little. Knowing I would have to pay off whatever I purchased by the end of the month effectively stopped me from buying much at Rhinebeck this year.

One vendor from whom I did make a small yarn purchase hailed from Irasburg, Vermont. I love the Northeast Kingdom and have a special affection for Irasburg, thanks to the Kingdom Run, so I was moved to support this seller in particular.

Trumpublicans? I didn't ask, but they show the Covidiot signs

Even before the pandemic, I never wanted to support vendors whose values I deplore, but unless they advertise their politics, I have no way of knowing how they vote. The pandemic made that more obvious. I decided that I was not going to buy from any vendors who were not wearing masks as that clearly identifies them as Trumpublicans, anti-mask, anti-vaccine zealots who are responsible for prolonging the pandemic. One booth had three sour-faced sellers, no masks, one wearing a cowboy hat, with an American flag on the wall behind them. I tried to get a photo of them as a textbook example for this blog post, but they were glaring at me, so I retreated across the aisle and was not able to get a clear photo through the crowd. I was horrified to see one of my favourite soup vendors maskless and quickly asked what their stance was, hoping I would not have to forego buying some of their lilac soap. They explained that they were vaccinated, and had been masked all morning, but their position near the wide open, breezy doorway had led them to feel safe removing their masks. I don't think that was wise, given their exposure to so many people, but at least they weren't virulent anti-mask/-vaxxers.

Another vendor that pissed me off this year was Bumblebee Yarns. They had a Harry Potter line in 2019 and I was looking forward to shopping it again this year but they said they had discontinued it due to the Rowling transphobia controversy. Jesus Fucking Christ, for the millionth time, Rowling is NOT transphobic. That is a wilful misinterpretation of her words and her views.

This year's tiny Rhinebeck haul

As the sun shone and the queue for ice cream eclipsed the donut line, the forecast rainstorm looked to be delayed. But 30 minutes before closing, the wind picked up and a bank of clouds approached and overtook the sunny day with cinematic drama. Fairgoers scattered like cockroaches when you turn on the lights in a city apartment kitchen. Food vendors rolled down their steel shutters, yarn vendors packed up and abandoned their booths, and the festival informally and abruptly closed early. I got to my car just as the wind-driven prickles of rain changed to fat drops. The rain was traveling west to east, and so was I, so I faced a white-knuckled drive home trying to outrun the storm whilst going about 30mph on the Interstate in a blinding downpour.

The clouds roll in, vendors shutter, crowd scatters

When I got home, I discovered that my local organic pizza haven, due to the pandemic, now closes at the absurdly early time of 7pm. My partner found alternative pizza, but the main pizza joint in a college town closing at 7pm on a Saturday night, really?

Still, I showered and had that glass of wine, and petted my (small) yarn haul. Tonight, we knit.

Until next year, baaah.