The Knitter's City: Portland, Maine with Bristol Ivy
We are so excited to introduce to you a new feature on the PPQ blog! We love a bit of travel here at Pom Pom and have been known to pick up a skein or two of a special something as a souvenir when we're on the road. We thought it would be wonderful to compile a resource of some of our dream knitting destinations from the point of view of someone who lives there. We're not just interested in their local wool-related spots, but their favourite cafes, parks, museums and any other places they think their fellow knitters will love. We're very lucky to have Bristol Ivy (who's just released two gorgeous patterns for Swan's Island) to introduce us to her hometown of Portland, Maine. It sounds absolutely dreamy... field trip anyone?!
There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, from Portland’s heyday as one of the major shipping ports on the East Coast. Legend has it that a family of four brothers from the southern Maine coast worked their way up the ranks to captain in four of the most powerful and noteworthy ships in the fleet. People from away would meet these four brothers on these four legendary ships and come away thinking of Portland as a sprawling metropolis, capable of producing a single ruling family who, in turn, had spawned a monopoly of power on the stormy waves of the Atlantic. It became a city renowned for its sons’ prowess on the seas, well beyond its tiny size and small population.
The Portland of today holds a similar magic for fiber artists and knitters; our creative passion and determination far outweighs our small size. Many influential players in the knitting industry have roots in our little spit of granite-y land, and multitudes of fiber artists of all stripes call Portland and its near environs home. The knitting community is incredibly robust, as well as necessary--it gets cold here in the winter! We have yarn stores and fiber farms galore both on the peninsula and in the surrounding areas, and a wealth of creative resources and natural beauty at our fingertips. Though I’m aware I’m a bit biased, Portland truly is a perfect place to be a knitter.
Though Portland has expanded since the days of those four captain brothers to nearly 70 square miles, most visitors fall in love with the peninsula. This promontory is surrounded on three sides by Casco Bay and Portland’s still-working waterfront, where fishing boats, lobster boats, ferries, and mailboats come and go all day. Only around two miles long from the East End neighborhood to the Fore River in the West, the peninsula is home to Portland’s Arts District and the Old Port, as well as several residential neighborhoods (including my own wonderful neighborhood, the West End). Portland proper, both on and off-peninsula, only has a population of around 65,000, with surrounding suburbs totaling around 500,000. As far as “big cities” go, it’s pretty tiny! But what it lacks in size and population, it makes up for in creativity, old school charm, fantastic shops and restaurants, and pure New England cussedness.
What are some of the places that make Portland special? Let’s start with the necessities: the yarn, fiber, and fabric shops. Though we’re down from the heyday of having five yarn shops on the peninsula (thanks, economic recession), those that remain are near perfection. KnitWit (pictured top), at the base of Munjoy Hill, specializes in a broad selection of both locally produced or dyed yarn, such as Quince & Co., Swans Island, Knit One, Crochet Too, Dirty Water Dyeworks, and String Theory, and affordable options like Cascade, Berroco, and Classic Elite. These guys have been my LYS since nearly the beginning of my knitting renaissance, and their long table with stools in the back is one of my favorite places to hang out and knit.
PortFiber, just a few blocks downhill from KnitWit in East Bayside, specializes in supplies and classes for spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting, and more. They offer spinning fiber dyed in-house, with some seriously amazing breeds and blends like yak/silk, kid mohair, and a locally-produced domestic Rambouillet top that’s to die for. The owner (and one of my best friends), Casey, is one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and perpetually curious creators out there. I always love seeing what she’s up to!
Just around the corner from PortFiber (literally--they’re in the same building) is A Gathering of Stitches, a maker’s space that hosts classes in all textile arts. The community they’ve built in a very short time and the teachers they bring in are incredible, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for them (hopefully including a repeat of their fabric printing class so I can take it).
Back on Congress Street, Portland’s main thoroughfare, in the heart of the Arts District, is Z Fabrics. Mary, the owner, has a thoughtfully curated collection of both quilting and garment fabric that I drool over continually, and offers classes in sewing for all levels. Also always worth checking out: the tacklebox FULL of vintage buttons.
On the other side of the peninsula on Commercial Street is Tess’ Designer Yarns. Though only open sporadically, they will open happily by appointment as well. It’s well worth it, with lush yarns, floor to ceiling, in all of Melinda’s vibrant and saturated colors. Tess’ is a fixture on the yarn show circuit, so it’s great to see their own storefront to showcase all their glorious hand-dyed tones.
And of course, none of this mentions all the art supply stores, the galleries, the bead stores, the stationery stores. . . Portland is an utterly fantastic place to be any kind of maker!
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Portland’s food culture. We are a foodie city to the core, with a rumored number of restaurants per capita second only to San Francisco. For a decadent splurge, places like Hugo’s, Piccolo, Vinland, and Fore Street rule the roost; my personal favorites are Infiniti (locavore, with an in-house distillery and brewery), Nosh (nouveau Americana--go for the bacon-dusted French fries), Boda (Thai street food), Pai Men Miyake (ramen bar), and Schulte und Herr (German comfort food). Or there’s a wealth of options if you want to have a picnic on the Eastern Promenade, overlooking the Bay and Mackworth Island; snag a piece of pizza at Otto or Slab, pick up a sandwich at Big Sky and a cup of soup from Kama Souptra in the Public Market or a po’ boy at Po’ Boy & Pickle, or snag some seasonal fruit, veggies, bread, and cheese at the twice-weekly farmer’s markets. Then there’s DuckFat, Ribolita, The EastEnder, The Front Room, Blue Spoon, Silly’s, Flatbread, Standard Bakery. . . basically, set foot in a restaurant in Portland and you can’t really go wrong! And a big bonus? I’ve brought knitting to nearly every single one of those restaurants and they haven’t batted an eye.
The spread at Standard Bakery
The other thing Portlanders love besides their good food is their good coffee. And though I don’t drink coffee myself (I know, the horror), the coffee shops of Portland double as an office for many of those of us who work in the knitting industry here in town. The Speckled Ax is a huge favorite, with wood-fired beans and a killer cold brew (and really good tea for me). Crema and Arabica, sister shops downtown and on the waterfront, make beautiful and classic espressos and a mean pot of Earl Grey tea, and boast some of the best baked goods in town. Tandem Coffee is in East Bayside--right next to PortFiber and AGoS--and on Congress Street in the West End, and they knock it out of the park with their pour over coffees and seasonal espressos. And I’m sitting right now in Omi’s, a brand new shop in the West End with huge windows, brightly painted walls, really comfy chairs, and fantastically good tea. I think I’ve found my new home away from home!
Tea and sketching at Crema
So once you’ve got your yarn and you’ve been properly fed and caffeinated, it’s time to go explore Portland! There’s a series of trails that interconnect across the whole peninsula, taking you down along the Eastern Prom, the East End beach, and across and around Back Cove. If you’re up for a little bit of driving, Two Lights and Fort Williams are two state parks within about fifteen minutes of downtown, both with gorgeous rocky beaches and lighthouses (Fort Williams is home to Portland Head Light, one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the world). Willard Beach, Crescent Beach, and (further in either direction) Popham and Higgins Beaches are great for relaxing in the sand with a good book or a bunch of simple stockinette, and if you’re brave, you can start swimming in the Atlantic around mid-June without immediately going numb from the cold. It’s bracing, and totally worth it!
I hope it’s clear from how much I’ve rambled on that I love this little city of mine. I love the wonky brick sidewalks in my neighborhood, where the roots of trees planted long ago are making their presence known. I love the smell of the ocean as I walk to work in the morning. I love the cobblestone streets still present in the Old Port. I love Portland’s particular brand of Mainer, who’s still tough and no-nonsense, but with an edge of fun, wit, and playfulness. I love the way the foghorn sounds at night, and the whistle of the train down to Boston. I love the way the city explodes with cherry blossoms in the spring and bright red maple leaves in the fall. I love the sense of shared creativity and cameraderie that abounds here, especially within the knitting community. Portland is a maker’s city unlike any other, and I couldn’t be more proud to call it home! Now, how about some DuckFat for dinner. . .
We can't wait to bring you more city guides over the coming months from some of our favourite knitters! Is there a city you'd love to know more about from a knitter's perspective? Or a designer or yarnie whose hometown you'd like to get to know?