Knitting in South Africa: An Epic Adventure
I just got back from a long vacation. It was glorious. Cape Town, South Africa, is a pain to get to, but once you’re there… oh, the joy. With gorgeous double ocean AND mountain vistas, tasty and cheap food, and interesting cultural and outdoorsy things to do, Cape Town is a delight, no matter what you’re used to. But when you’re coming from a country with potholes, the smooth roads and easy navigation are just icing on the cake.
But now the knitting. When I was planning this trip, I thought I would go to exactly one yarn store and buy one skein of sock yarn, and that would be it. Really, I did. Instead, it turned into a vacation of yarny discovery. An epic trip deserves an epic blog post, so I hope you’ll bear with me.
Wool Boutique, Fish Hoek
Near the beginning of the trip, we drove through Fish Hoek, down the Cape peninsula on the east side of it, where (I believed) Natural Yarns was located. While cruising up the main drag, my husband spotted a shop called the Wool Boutique. When I couldn’t find Natural Yarns easily, I popped into the Wool Boutique instead. The shop was a bit of a disappointment for someone used to the American-style LYS, with lots of wool and some luxury yarns. Here, most things were cotton or acrylic, and just about EVERYTHING was taped up tight in plastic bags. While this made keeping dye lots together and the yarn clean easy, it was somewhat torturous for those of us who like to pet the yarn. I will say that the shopkeepers were extremely willing to open any bag I wanted, but I hated to bother them.
I liked that almost everything in the shop was unfamiliar to me. The exception was a few skeins of Manos of Uruguay, which is common enough to U.S. knitters but a very rare find in South Africa. I focused on finding South African yarns and ended up buying two skeins of African Expressions Soul, a sock-weight blend of 15% kid mohair, 15% mulberry silk, 50% merino wool, and 20% polyamide. For once, the lack of gorgeously distracting colors worked in my favor; I intended to knit the Agatha Socks by Claire MacAvoy, who is hosting a KAL through her NH Knits podcast. If I had had lots of color options, I doubt I would have ended up with the camel color I did, which is turning out to be a great choice for the Agatha Socks, a pattern that shines on its own. The yarn is a bit splitty, and if you snag any, it’s hard to fix, but it isn’t hairy at all, as I would expect something with mohair content to be.
The other yarn i purchased was Elle Classic Wool Aran in a gray color. While this is mostly acrylic with only a little wool, I plan to use it to knit a cardigan, probably in a 5-6 year size, so this blend will be a good choice. I said I wanted 7 balls, and they grabbed a package already wrapped up, all the same dye lot.
Then, once I was paying, I asked, “Where else can I find yarn?” It turns out that there aren’t really a lot of shops that are purely yarn. Most yarn is stocked in haberdasheries – shops with some yarn and some sewing and some school uniforms and some ballet costumes, etc. My husband spotted one in Hout Bay called Fiddlesticks (side note: best yarn shop name EVER. I’m totally stealing it if I ever open an LYS, which I never plan to do.) I peeked in, but it turned out to be all the same cotton and acrylic I had seen at the Wool Boutique – and all wrapped up tightly in plastic the same way.
Watershed, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Most tourists to Cape Town end up at the waterfront at some point. It’s the site of the aquarium, malls, restaurants, shops, boats, etc. One seemingly newer set of shops is in a giant shed, much like you might imagine large boats being built in. Inside are stalls with artisan crafts – sculptures, paintings, prints, clothing, and everything oozing with Design with a capital D. Many booths evoke a very desirable lifestyle. While racing through, which was all my children had patience for, I found a booth with lovely sock yarn – basically what I had been looking for before but hadn’t found. The booth owner said, “Oh, that’s Carle’s yarn.” I stared at her a bit, expecting more of an explanation, but when she found out I wasn’t local, she stopped talking. And that was that. I rushed to catch up with my family and calculated how to make it back.
Knitting Group, The Book Lounge, Cape Town
I studied the Natural Yarns website again and noticed something I hadn’t before – it said “online” shop. So I wrote the owner via Ravelry and asked if she had a store. Gina immediately wrote me back and said that, while she mostly fulfilled online orders, I was welcome to come to her house and buy in person. She also thoughtfully mentioned that there was a monthly knitting group meeting that afternoon, if I wanted to come. So the baby and I showed up at the bookstore, plopped down in a likely armchair, and started knitting. And then someone noticed I was knitting, a lovely woman named Beth. And then more knitters started showing up. One woman was wearing an absolutely stunning sweater that she had made out of recycled yarn, as in, by unraveling an old sweater. I demanded to know the pattern name so I could add it to my queue and started typing into my phone – only to realize I already had it in my queue. 🙂 It was Beatnik by Norah Gaughan, a free pattern on Knitty. Then a woman with a spinning wheel appeared, who turned out to be THE Carle, the dyer behind Nurturing Fibres. I was also delighted to meet Gina in person.
One woman was knitting the Hermione’s Everyday Socks, which I had just finished the day before. It ended up being a fantastic 3 hours, sitting with about 20 complete strangers/new knitting friends, passing the baby around, and learning about the Cape Town knitting scene. And this is what I love about knitting – pre-made tribes. I promised Gina I would make plans to stop by her house, since she stocked her own fiber and yarns (Stellar Fibreworks) and Carle’s Nuturing Fibres yarn, as well as other goodies. Turns out Gina was the original source of that Manos.
Watershed, Again: Cowgirlblues
Wandering through the Watershed a few days later, a little more slowly this time, I intended to head over to the same booth as before, but my husband, that yarn spotter extraordinaire, said, “Mary! Yarn!” and I got sidetracked into the Cowgirlblues booth.
Named after a Tom Robbins book I read in college, this yarn line was EXTREMELY tempting. The color range was amazing, to the point of being overwhelming. Lighter-weight yarns are commercially produced, then dyed, while heavier weights are handspun. I spent a few minutes picking up one color, then another a slightly different shade, sighing and putting both back, gravitating to another color family, repeating… and my first purchase was natural sock yarn. As in, undyed. It was almost as if my brain had shut down. In the end, I had a pair of 50g teal sock-weight cakes and a dark blue (blueberry) and orangey-red (fire lily) in lace weight. Once I got home, I saw that they had tucked in a postcard with information on how to find the dyeing studio, so…
Cowgirlblues Dyeing Studio, Woodstock
The next day, I showed up! It was just before closing time, but owner Bridget welcomed me in. I was too embarrassed to tell her about the blog, but she answered all my crazy questions and gave me a tour, anyway.
She started the company because she was unable to find the yarn she wanted. Now she and her employees dye up the wide range of colors using acid dyes and vinegar, a fact that was immediately obvious from the pickle smell when you walk in the door.
However, she has also been experimenting with some natural dyes. She’s the only distributor in South Africa, but some stores in Europe and Japan carry the yarn, as do two stores in Maryland. I bought one more lace weight to go with what I had before in the sable color and a cake each of DK wool and a luscious lace mohair/silk blend in Guinea Fowl (a peacock blue) that I will hold double to make a Honey Cowl. And then I saw the minis.
Bridget had minis of the lace weight on her desk that she intended to send to the Watershed shop. When I, very nearly with a pouting face, said I was more interested in the sock weight, she offered to let me paw through unlabeled ends and purchase by weight. Yay! I started picking through the drawers, thinking this would be a great way to play with all the shiny colors – in the form of a sock yarn scrap blanket, which I’ve been meaning to start. Bridget commented that she was always interested to see the color combos people came up with, but I wasn’t really going for anything coherent in this case.
And, finally, many skeins of yarn and stops later, I went to the place I had intended to go to all along: Natural Yarns. I just hadn’t known it would be in Gina’s house. While my son played on her front porch, Gina showed me the full range of what she carries. I got to see Eden Cottage yarns from England for the first time in person, though I’ve long followed it on Instagram. However, as had consistently been the case, I was looking for South African, and I wanted some of Carle’s and some of Gina’s outputs, specifically. This was the day I had been down to the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Apparently it affected me, because by the time I was done, I had a pile of shades of blue and green yarns and fibers. First was four skeins of Adele’s Mohair Pure Wool in Lichen, another peacock blue (which REALLY smelled like pickles!) to make a new sweater for the baby. Next were three skeins of Carle’s Nurturing Fibres Eco Bamboo, which is 100% bamboo, in the Anvil, Emerald, and Charcoal colors. Finally, I picked up some of Gina’s Stellar Fiberworks – a cake of variegated Vital Sock yarn in shades of turquoise (basically the same color as some Colinette Jitterbug I’d knit into a Hitchhiker before) and fiber: some 100% Inspire Merino roving and rolags (a first for me!) made of merino, alpaca, silk, and angelina (sparkly bits).
Believe it or not, there were a few leads I didn’t follow. I never went to Carle’s studio. I never went to a place called Orion’s in Cape Town that, I’d heard, stocked yarn. But I ended up with a somewhat embarrassing haul.
The good news, for me, is that I have specific plans for pretty much all of it, including maybe a couple new designs. And through it all, I worked on my Agatha Socks, managing to complete the first and start on the second. Yarn tourism is something I like to do, as I’m sure many of you do – go to an LYS on vacation, buy a skein of yarn. This, however, felt like more of an exploratory journey, in that everything – the stores, the yarns, the people – were new to me. I can’t wait to get knitting.