Whenever I travel, I always manage to stumble across two things: cats and wool. Wherever I may be, it’s like an instinct; down a side street, nestled in a small corner of a big city, or in the claustrophobic depths of an ancient street market – I sniff them out.
This weekend was no exception. I was in Amsterdam; a fleeting two night stay for a Hen weekend of drinking interspersed with sight seeing, one of a group of eight hens. Needless to say, it was to be a weekend filled more with heavy drinking than heavy knitting so I had no expectations of discovering Amsterdam’s knitting community. As I dragged myself out of bed at 3am on Friday morning to head for the airport, woolly things were far from my mind.
We were in Amsterdam by 9am and, after an obligatory Dutch breakfast of toasties and fries, the group collectively yawned and settled down to have a nap. Never one for napping, I threw on a T-shirt, some leggings and my running shoes and seized my opportunity to explore.
Running along Alexanderkade on the outskirts of Amsterdam Centrum’s canal rings, I revelled in the sunshine and the flat terrain of the Dutch landscape in contrast to Scotland’s rain, wind and hills. I picked up my pace and, with my patchy knowledge of Amsterdam geography, headed in the general direction of the city centre; meandering down narrow streets and getting lost in the repetition of canal after canal.
Somewhere halfway to Centraal Station I turned down a side street, and then I saw it: wool. I was on Nieuwe Hoogstraat, and the shop was Stephen + Penelope: a fine yarn boutique owned and run by Stephen West and Malia Mather. It was obviously meant to be, and I couldn’t resist: sweaty, red in the face, and complete with fluorescent running trainers and baggy running t-shirt, I stepped inside.
The shop was quiet and peaceful, and I was greeted with a friendly ‘hello’, despite my somewhat out of place attire. Still catching my breath, I wandered around the shop, slowly drinking in the colours of the beautiful hanks of yarn lining every surface of the walls. The shop is narrow, but it stretches a long way back (it is Amsterdam, after all); and it has a bright and spacious feel to it.
The yarn stock is what you would expect from a boutique: carefully selected, luxurious and oh so pretty. Amongst the familiar favourites – Madelinetosh, Jamieson’s of Shetland, Istex, and Baa Ram Ewe – a few not so familiar names catch my eye. I am immediately drawn to them.
This is what I look for in yarn shops when I travel: unusual yarns, and local yarns that I can’t get at home; something special, a small piece of the world that I can take home and knit into a memory.
After asking the woman behind the counter for some local recommendations and going through the standard process of reducing my armful of yarn to a more affordable handful, I settled on two hanks of yarn: a natural undyed DK by Texelse Schapenwol, and a hand dyed merino DK by Hedgehog Fibres.
Texelse Schapenwol is a locally produced Dutch yarn from the island of Texel to the north of the Netherlands. Texel is a small island, and I particularly love the fact that the label on my yarn tells me everything about its origin, down to the ‘party’ of sheep the wool came from (2014), and which hamlet the sheep come from (Waal and Burg). Because I knit a lot of accessories DK is what I use most, so I opted for the DK weight in ‘Brandingwit’: a natural white, with a name inspired by the 60km coastline of Texel.
Hedgehog Fibres is an Irish yarn and fibre dyeing studio based in Cork, run by Beata Jezek. So, this yarn may not be Dutch, but I had to have it because the striking colour – aptly named ‘Where’s my Bike?’ – is one of several custom colourways for Stephen + Penelope that can’t be found elsewhere.
I made my purchase and left the shop feeling content; pleasantly surprised at having stumbled upon this woolly retreat tucked away within the towering, narrow buildings of Amsterdam city centre.
Running through the winding streets once again, I thought about the relaxed atmosphere of this city, the friendly people, the beauty of the canal rings and the constant flurry of bikes passing; feeling that it must surely be a place where the knitting culture thrives and you can really feel at home with a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn.
I picked up my pace and started running away from the city centre, back towards Alexanderkade, the apartment and the napping hens; bag of newly purchased yarn clutched under my arm giving me a slightly eccentric edge and attracting glances from the odd passer by. I couldn’t help but smile.
The next day, I found a cat.