Yarn Adventures – Upstate NY Style

Peeps.  I can’t decide which makes me more excited – the incredible adventure and resulting photos that was Watkins Glen, a gem of a state park in upstate NY, or the local yarn store in town that was switching owners and ergo all stock was FORTY PERCENT OFF.

You decide.

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Yarn Adventures in Beijing (Part II… and III)

Several weeks ago, my birthday arrived, as it always does around this time of year.  I didn’t have any huge plans, and I wanted to spend the day doing something that *I* wanted, and not feel obligated to anything else.  I’d recently been re-inspired by this post to find yarn in Beijing, and was determined to buy some (even though I have, on my estimation, approximately 100,000 yards of yarn in my spare room).  Whatever, it was my birthday, my party, I could buy pointless yarn if I wanted to, etc.

I’ve now learned my lesson when exploring unknown territory in China – I pack a large purse filled with water bottle, lots of small change, subway card, hand sanitizer, sometimes camera, and most importantly, snacks.  It’s pretty much like traveling with a small toddler, except said small toddler is me.

Anyway, snacks in hand, directions printed out both in Chinese and on a map, I hailed a taxi and was on my way.  The entire process was much easier than I had anticipated… I hadn’t realized that they had recently jacked up prices on taxis, which is a very minor con (at the end of the day it’s like $1 USD more per ride), but it has resulted in LOTS MORE empty taxis, because let’s face it, Chinese people are super cheap,  and in this regard I am a spendy American, so I’m thrilled.

I got to Wansha (no camera, I was trying to travel light), and it was exactly as pictured.  A woman latched onto me the minute I walked in, which was simultaneously super helpful and super annoying, but I reminded myself that this is service in China (it’s either completely nonexistent, or really, really, really, really overbearing).  She kept asking me what I wanted the yarn for, and I kept telling her I just wanted to buy yarn for the sake of buying yarn.  This concept is very foreign to the extremely pragmatic Chinese, but I persevered.  I made sure to examine every. single. skein. of yarn in the store, and have to say, didn’t really see anything I loved (most of it was simply too expensive for my China expectations), so I walked out with several skeins of DK wool of “Australian origin”, in some gorgeous fuschia/lime green that, sadly, my camera simply could not capture. (it turned the colors olive green and reddish purple, so I won’t torture you with that.)  The nice part was, I got 8 skeins of 100g merino wool for a total of about 125 RMB, or $20 USD, and I can’t complain about that price.

Turns out, yarn in China is mostly used for making actual clothing (What? USEFUL yarn?!  Surely not!) which translates to, most ‘yarn’ is actually ‘nice thread that you hold double’; the heaviest weight plied yarn you’re ever going to find is DK or sport.  Occasionally you’ll find bulkier yarn, but it’s usually novelty and has, in my opinion, unnecessary lumpy things worked into it.

Next stop: Wool City.  Now, I have heard many varying opinions of said ‘city’.  The first person told me they wouldn’t want to sell me yarn, they only would want to sell me clothing.  The second person had sweaters made and said she found yarn for sale just fine.  The third person said it wasn’t worth the trip and the yarn was extremely shoddy, filled with poisonous dyes that stained her knitting needles.  (She being an epidemiologist for the CDC, I was inclined to believe her and be very, very careful.)  And so on.  But, a friend offered me her driver for the day, and I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to head out there. *tip: if you ever live overseas, try your best to get a job with a soul sucking oil or aviation company, and they will hook you up with the nicest expat benefits packages ever.  Including a driver with a ginormous  minivan, who is at your beck and call to navigate these insane streets, find parking, and magically show up when you’re ready to go, massive life-size terra cotta warrior purchase in hand.* For the sake of adventure, and because I had a free, hassle/headache free ride out there, I was going to go.

I tempered my expectations accordingly (i.e., I was expecting even less than Wansha), and since I didn’t have to walk miles, packed my camera.  I tried to research Wool City online, and was the most intrigued by this article written for The Beijinger, a great magazine geared towards the multitudes of expats living in this marvelous city.  It is through the Beijinger that I discovered Jason Mraz was coming to concert here last summer, which was one of the saving graces that helped me through my move here.

Anyway, the article was well written, it had great pictures, and best of all, it stated that the particular store the author visited had enthusiastic employees who were willing to go out on a limb for those thinking outside the box.  I appreciated all of these things, since I, too, am tired of people who only try to push on you their most expensive item and sneer upon you if you don’t buy it, or outright scold you for going cheaper.

Upon arrival, I was greeted with this ‘city’:

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Yes my friends, no building in China is complete without a McDonalds at the bottom.  I figured at least it would be a good place to get a snack after my proposed morning of exploring.  Filled with determination, I ventured in, fully prepared for a warren of open stalls and screaming vendors and overwhelming, copious amounts of THINGS.

Instead, I was greeted with dimly lit, cold, would-be-sterile-except-it’s-China-so-they’re-nasty-dirty hallways, with small signs labeling each storefront and a practically hushed atmosphere.  It looked like a former hospital had been converted to a warehouse.  In fact, at one point I reached the end of a corridor, and through glass doors and the rest of the hallway, the signs turned from “yarn shop 133” to “microscopic lab” and “testing engineering room”, so I don’t think I was too far off.  Leave it to China to house both a yarn city and a laboratory in the same building.

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I peeked in a few doors as I tiptoed by.  Many were closed, several had yarn, and many were also filled with fabric and other such sundry items.

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I figured I would just start at Store 321, as per Beijinger’s recommendation.  Shockingly, it looked just like the pictures in the article!  Not to mention, the women were just as nice as the author had stated.  It was clear that they had gotten quite a bit of foreign business from the article, as the woman immediately offered me the option of a custom made Totoro hat.

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I refused, but was thrilled that I could ask her questions about yarn and quality and she actually did NOT try to push products on me.  When she asked what project I needed the yarn for and I said I was just there to look and buy, she laughed and stood aside.  This was a good thing.

The selection itself wasn’t too terribly different from Wansha (technically, Wansha had more ‘variety’), but I was pleased with their less expensive options.  And, true to the Beijinger, they had a million zillion buttons, which I also perused.

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After I made a few purchases (I had tried to discipline myself by only bringing 200 RMB or $31 USD), I went and poked through as many other stores as I could handle.

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Doesn’t the sight of this just make you want to squeeeeeeeee?

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One of them drew me in with several women knitting, and one of them was a beginner learning to make this hat.  I was intrigued by the fit – it looks like a super baggy toque/beret in front, but the design has puckered up the back so it doesn’t slouch, which is fabulous! I also loved the yarn, and ended up buying it in two colors, a gorgeous purple/green gradient and a blue striped one.

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Sadly, I don’t remember the store number but I’m sure you could find this yarn in other shops.  If anyone can figure out this hat pattern, please share!

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The mannequin head had that weird faux-hawk thing going on, hence the odd lump on the top

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At the end of my adventure, I wound up with the following:

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The yellow and red were to make this apple dress from Ravelry, but I was thrilled with the orange/yellow, because I have been looking FOREVER to find the perfect yarn to make THIS, which has been on my queue for months.

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FIRE HAT!! *insert maniacal giggle*

I immediately got home and cast on, and am pretty pleased with the results (the yarn is nice and springy and blocked well).  Total damage? 97 RMB ($16 USD) for 750 g of DK merino yarn, and 40 RMB ($6.50) for 200g of the gradient yarn.  WIN!

Final verdict: Wool City can be hard to get to (it’s a few blocks away from the nearest subway, most expats live on the east side of town and it’s on the west side), but for sheer variety and options, I would highly recommend it to any yarn-lover willing to embark on a small adventure to find some pretty cool yarn.

Yarn Adventures in Bogota

Last August I had a fantastic opportunity to visit Bogota for a few weeks while my husband was there for work.  I’d never been to South America proper, and it promised to be an entertaining contrast to our current life in the capital of the Middle Kingdom.  So, we happily packed our bags and went.  My husband had to, y’know, work all day, which left me plenty of time to explore the city.

For the record, Bogota is beautiful.  The city is at the very top of the South American continent, and at a very high altitude, which gives it this magical weather of 65-75 degrees (Farenheit) year round.  The only drawback was that you have to bring an umbrella, coat and sunglasses every time you go out, because chances are it’ll rain and be cold or be sunny and roasting in the next hour.  Be prepared, is all I’m saying.  It was such a great contrast from August in Beijing, which was approximately 98 degrees, humid, and on top of that, smoggy and gross.  (I know, I’m really selling you on ‘come visit China it’s awesome!’ right???)

I spent most of my days being a typical tourist – Lonely Planet in one hand, camera in the other.  I visited museums, local parks, landmarks, ate a lot of food, and mostly just enjoyed being able to take really long walks in clean, clean air.

As a yarn-ist, Bogota is simultaneously awesome and depressing, because they have vast and gorgeous quantities of yarn, but at the same time a raging sidewalk hat/scarf business that pretty much negates any niche you might have selling anything handmade.  Still fun to look at though.

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Lunch time went like this: I’d point to a random item on the menu for about $5, and get something delicious like a huge bowl of pinto beans, chicharron (I think, which I think means crackling fried pork bits), rice, plantains, a tortilla, and a quarter of an avocado the size of my head.  Suffice to say I gained about eight pounds those three weeks.

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Plaza de Bolivar, the most iconic plaza in Bogota.

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But who are we kidding?  This is a yarn blog.  Where’s the yarn?  Well, after two weeks of traveling, exploring, and picture taking, I was whining about getting bored and tired of eating and walking all day long.  My husband mildly pointed out “y’know, we’re in South America.”  “right…?” “And y’know, South America has, like, a lot of llamas.  And sheep.  And other woolly animals…”  “OMG DO THEY SELL YARN HERE???”

Anyway, long story short, I found a few local hobby shops that sold yarn, and they were crappy, but finally I found a shop called “Casa Rosada”.  With map in hand, I ventured three miles south of our hotel.  After extensive walking through very blah, 70’s institutional type brick buildings, imagine my amused surprise when I discovered the “pink house” really meant, THE PINK HOUSE:

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Inside was a yarn lover’s dream.  Not even so much the quantity of yarn, just the vast variety, textures, and obvious “local and homemade” quality of it.

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 After much debate, and really really bad Spanish, I came away with this:

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Four skeins undyed wool, two kelly green, one huge scratchy turquoise, and two alpaca.  Total cost?  Somewhere around $75 USD.  This stuff ain’t cheap, that’s for sure. I haven’t used any of it yet because I can’t find a pattern that’s worthy of the alpaca, and the turquoise wool is too scratchy for a scarf.  Oh well, it was a fun experience.  The shop alone was worth the trip, and I’ve already looked up yarn stores in our next post of Santiago, Chile.  Bring it on!!!

Yarn Adventures in Beijing

Ever since I moved to Beijing in April 2012, I’ve been looking to buy yarn.  I mean, we are in China.  Everything is MADE in China.  It would therefore seem obvious that everything is available for purchase here, and at a fraction of the cost you’d get it in the U.S., right?

As you may imagine from my not-so-subtle foreshadowing, the answer to this supposedly rhetorical question is, sadly, nope.  Ironically, most of the things you ubiquitously see “Made in China” in every other country in the world, cannot be found in China itself.  The products are mysteriously produced in mysterious factories and are mysteriously shipped to their international locations.  Of course, then you get the knockoffs, but that’s another story for another day.  One of the first things I learned upon moving here was, “lower your expectations substantially.  Then lower them some more.  This way you’ll only be pleasantly surprised when something actually goes as you had imagined.”

Finding yarn was one such expectation.  I first asked the Community Liason Officer in our Beijing Embassy weeks upon my arrival.  She’s supposed to know where to get everything local, since she is a Beijing local.  So, I asked.  She scratched her head and said “weeellll… I suppose you COULD go to Wool City.  They have yarn there.  But mostly they’ll want to sell you something custom made from the yarn, not the yarn itself.”  I looked it up on a map.  It was clear on the other side of town, and a substantial enough distance from the subway that I knew I’d get lost.  (I have the worst sense of direction a human being could possibly have.  This, coupled with less-than stellar language skills, makes for awesome exploration in an unknown city.)  Wool City never happened.  Then I asked some local friends.  They excitedly told me about a few different places, but always concluded with “it’s kind of hard to find, I’ll have to take you sometime”, which also never happened.

Finally, finally, after having ordered enough yarn online to stock up an entire bedroom, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and go local.  Okay… actually, my husband decided it was time to bite the bullet and freakin find some freakin yarn in freakin China already.  We picked a random Monday and decided to head out to Dong Jiao Market, a local place that ‘sells everything, including yarn’, and figured we could make it both an exploration AND a mission.  It is supposed to be where locals go (instead of us foreign tourists) and therefore more, shall we way, authentic.  Which in China always means more dirty.  Because of that, and I knew how overwhelming such markets could be, I wanted to stay focused and didn’t bring my camera, so here are photos I’ve stolen off the Internet.

Behold, the insanity of Dong Jiao:

You first enter with a what looks to be promising gate of typical Chinese fashion.  Ooh, you think.  A real market!  Yes, according to China standards, this was certainly a ‘real’ market.  You then proceeded to walk down aisles and aisles of outdoor stalls selling STUFF: food, plastic bins, bikes, motorcycles, socks, spices, teas, etc.  No yarn, we noted.  Moving on, there were several warehouse-sized buildings to our left that promised untold treasures inside.  The first one we entered…

…sold meat.  And fruit.  And vegetables, in dizzying quantities.  The day we went was cold and slushy, which meant cold and really, really nasty wet muddy dirty, and the smells were overwhelming.  The husband wanted to walk through all the aisles, but we weren’t planning on buying any meat, and I commented “I don’t think a meat aisle sells yarn.  At least, I don’t want to think that the yarn is sold with the meat.”  So, we exited and entered the first of what would be many doors of the warehouse two bunkers down. (The second warehouse was clearly labeled “Kitchen Schtuff”, two of the forty Chinese characters I know! so we knew not to go in there).

As we were leaving, we passed a woman – one of  many – sitting behind one of these spice stalls.  She was knitting a huMONgous looking creation on twenty or so metal needles, so we knew that yarn was somewhere close!  When we asked her where to buy it, she pointed vaguely in a northerly direction, so a northerly direction we went.

The (third) bunker ended up being filled.with.stuff.  All kinds of stuff imaginable.  Each stall about six feet wide, each aisle about twenty stalls long, each building about ten stalls wide, and each door leading to about eight buildings total.  We walked down almost every single one.

I could go on all day, but suffice to say it took us about an hour of solid walking before we even felt like we’d infiltrated the building.

THEN there was the issue of actually finding the yarn.  Asking directions in China is always an adventure. “Excuse me, where do you find yarn?”  “Oh, go through this building, all the way down to the end, and turn left.  You can’t miss it.”  We dead ended in children’s clothing.  While it was impressive we found textiles, there was no yarn.  So we asked again.  “Oh, go to the OTHER side of the building, fourth row down, all the way on the right.”  Keep in mind, these buildings are like the size of airplane hangars.  Upon arrival, we found mops and brooms.  This was starting to get just a tad irritating.

Finally, FINALLY, someone pointed us in the right direction, and I found myself standing in front of two (2) tiny, 6 foot stalls selling yarn.  I mean… really??  Of the four thousand stalls selling plastic puke bins, you can’t have more than a two stall demand for yarn?  Okay, fine whatever.  After much debate, hemming and hawing with the very nice young man, and elbowing my way past women who kept grabbing the yarn I’d set aside for purchase and rubbing it all over their face to test the softness (yes I replaced it), I settled for some brightly colored, half acrylic/wool skeins at 50 cents for 75 yards.  It was unwound, which meant I’d have a great opportunity to use the electric yarn winder my mother in law got me for Christmas.  I never thought I’d use it as much as I have, but it’s a life saver.  🙂  I told the husband that the colors would be perfect for the sports-related hats I’m always getting commissioned to make, and after a short debate of “do I want orange? yellow? which shade of pink?” I ended up walking away with *all of them* and a camping backpack stuffed to the gills with unwound yarn.  I mean, it ended up being like $50, how could I say no?

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I don’t know if this photo adequately captures just how much yarn this is.  Not only was it piled to my head, but each color came in five small hanks that had to be individually wound into 75 yard skeins… five times twenty different colors = 100 little balls of yarn to wind.  I better be able to do something with it all.  🙂

This is what 100 little wound balls look like.  Keep in mind this shelf was three-four balls deep.  I have so much fun in my spare time.

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Oh, and I also picked up a random skein of music hand knotted flocking yarn.  Because y’know, the fashion vanguard, bring us sunshine mood!