If you have the slightest doubt that knitting can produce art, allow me to introduce you to septuagenarian Christa Newhouse. You will have to accompany me to Northern Michigan’s Isle Bois Blanc, where for over 30 years, she and her husband Shelby, now 86, have owned Insel Haus, a chalet-like bed and breakfast and Northern Michigan Yarn Shop. Prior to living on the Northern Michigan island they were a formidable, independent film making and editing team. Shelby gives much of the credit for his Emmy award winning films to the editor he fell in love with and married.
My friend Beverly and I reached the Northern Michigan island via Plaunt Transportation Ferry from Cheboygan.
It runs several times daily according to time of year and weather conditions. Once loaded with cars, trucks, small boats, island folk and vacationers it left Cheboygan and aimed towards the 30 by 50 foot American flag, flapping over the tiny harbor on Isle Bois Blanc.
Instead of sheltering, we remained on deck with a group of excited children and parents, who have relatives or summer cabins on the island. We laughed and screamed as splashes from the choppy water soaked us while the ferry plowed through the waves. A small boat ahead of us tossed violently up and down and I was happy to be on the stable deck of the ferry. We watched the flag draw closer. The setting sun blinded us intermittently as it reflected off the water and dodged a large black cloud which had delivered a downpour just before we boarded. We saw the faint cobweb of the bridge to our left, spun across the Mackinac Straits, and glimpses of the smaller but better known and more developed Mackinac Island. It felt more of an adventure to be on the waters less travelled, and an unusual prelude to a knitting weekend.
Other than the small population of fellow islanders, knitting workshop participants, and bed and breakfast guests, many of whom return annually, Christa and Shelby enjoy the relative seclusion of Insel Haus all summer. They winter in Farmington Hills where Christa’s return is eagerly awaited by mainland knitting-workshop participants.
Insel Haus, with its Northern Michigan yarn shop, was designed by Christa from a small dwelling which she said had good bones.
The island has no paved roads other than a landing strip for small planes. It has miles of dirt roads that tunnel through dark pine forest and more open stretches of beech trees. It boasts a one room school house, a town hall, a fire department and cozy country restaurant that serves, among other things, great pizzas and ice-cream
As we strolled round the west side of the island, Shelby pointed out that the house numbers depict the year in which they were built. Stretched out across the road from the beach, they range from ornate Victorian villas with gingerbread decoration and spacious lawns, to modest cabins. Inhabitants on the east and west sides of the island rarely interacted until Christa began Wednesday knitting circles at Insel Haus, which is midway along the beach. The knitting evenings, very different from her more formal and instructive workshops for serious knitters, became so popular that they developed into crafts-of-all-kinds- evenings. Non-crafty individuals now also tag along for drinks and conversation! These are now anticipated social occasions to which island visitors are also welcome.
She finds designing instinctive,?“Yes I’m creative but I’m also rooted firmly in math,” she claimed.
Childhood was difficult for her in war-time Germany. Separated from her parents she was in her words, “farmed out,” between orphanage and convent.
Eventually she was returned to her family, but, a rebellious teen, she ran away from home at 16 to work in the orphanage in which she had spent much of her early childhood. Exhausted from caring for babies and hand washing diapers from 5:00 am to midnight she contracted meningitis, was sent home and not expected to live.
“I fought to pull through and when I recovered I apprenticed in a film studio,” she said.?The position provided Christa, then 17, tall, beautiful and a natural model with opportunities in front of and behind the camera.?“I was like a sponge and loved it. I did everything from model gorgeous fur coats to dubbing, and editing. I learned it all and fortunately for me I worked for a lazy editor and had to learn all the skills.”After moving to America her editing skills eventually helped her to form her own film editing business through which she met Shelby.
“When I was growing up,” Christa explained, “If you needed something you had to make it, so, I learned from an early age to knit and sew.”
Things moved to a different level when she and Shelby fell in love with and purchased Alpacas. She learned how to care for and show the animals, and, produce her own yarn. She still has the first skein of yarn she entered in the Michigan Fiber Fest and won a perfect score. Knitting then became her main outlet. She started to accept commissions and enjoyed designing and knitting one-of-a-kind garments for others who owned their own animals and wanted to use their fleece. The work entailed in producing such a garment results in an exquisite but expensive item. She was relieved when one of her first customers, when presented with a bill for $1,500, insisted on paying $2,000 because she so loved the garment and appreciated the time and skill involved.
Sometimes garments were to be a surprise, a birthday gift, so she was unable to measure the intended recipient without giving away the secret.?“That would present a challenge but they always turned out to be a perfect fit,” Christa insisted “All I had to do was give them a hug to estimate their size and we are always hugging in the bed and breakfast business anyway,” she laughed.
She said she also knows instinctively how much yarn is needed.?“I never have to cut yarn. Many times I finish a project and have just this much yarn left!” She gestured with her hands just inches apart.
On the rare occasions she needs to unravel something she does so happily, not dreading what most knitters consider a failure and waste of time.?I quite enjoy ripping out and starting over,” she quipped, “where else in life do you get to unravel and start again?”
Christa gleans inspiration for her designs from life around her. She is intimately tuned in to her surroundings. As we sat knitting together on the long deck around the back of Insel Haus she said,?“When I sit down to knit my heart beat changes, it calms down. When I’m stressed I feel my brain is cut in little parts and pieces like worms but as soon as I start to knit it all settles down and is absolutely wonderful. I am calm. I can think. Everything feels completely clear. I can feel and hear everything. Now I hear the wind chimes. I feel the breeze. I see the birds and butterflies. I don’t think about this piece of knitting, it just comes. I always think about the next design while the current one happens. Mentally I’m someplace else. I can travel. I can go. No passport needed!”
As she spoke the sound of a small plane flying over Insel Haus interrupted her thoughts. She smiled,?“That will be my cyclists Ellen and Pat arriving,” she volunteered.?“Ellen used to be an oceanographer but teaches law now and Pat used to be a ship’s captain and is now a flight instructor. They spend their vacations flying to islands in the Great Lakes and bring
their bicycles along so they can explore.” About a hour later the puffing, smiling cyclists dismounted in front of the deck having peddled the 7 miles of dirt road from the landing strip. Christa rose to welcome and introduce them and the knitting lesson ended for the day.
Knitters or not, all Insel Haus visitors admire the collection of art knits Christa has designed and produced. Her current piece-de-resistance is an elegant, double knit, reversible, seamless swing- coat in chestnut and black Alpaca, depicting part of the Chicago skyline. It comes with matching tam. Its estimated value is over $15,000. Christa’s twins, Tonia, a hospice nurse from Texas, and Monica, a physical therapist from nearby Cheboygan, both visiting for their mother’s birthday graciously modeled them for us.
Christa thought about the possibilities as she cooked dinner that day. On a scrap of paper on the kitchen counter, she made a brief sketch which became the kernel for the design. She showed me the scrap of paper complete with the circular imprint of her coffee cup! She knew immediately she wanted a cityscape. Later she perused several on the computer and loved a section of the Chicago skyline. Then, using a computer program, treating the stitches as pixels, x’s for one color and o’s for the other, she pulled together her technical abilities, her lifetime knitting knowledge and mathematical savvy to create the pattern for a timeless, fashionable, one- of-a-kind masterpiece of wearable art. She then knitted daily for 5 months, sometimes for 18 hours at a stretch, to make it a reality.
Her outstanding selection of scarves and shawls, some for which she has made patterns available, have also been inspired by incidents in her life and her love of nature. They are also valued at several thousand dollars each, depending on size and complexity. I loved a scarf depicting large cart horses walking under a towering tree, different seasonal color-ways on opposite sides, but when draped over the shoulders the two ends together create a single image.
“The tree is one I say ‘Hello’ to as I pass it on I-75, near exit 244, on my drive from the mainland back toward the ferry. It is so beautiful. If there were no traffic I would love to stop there and really enjoy it!” Christa remarked. “The horses were inspired by the logo of the Campbell Folk School in North Carolina where I have taught workshops, and the Chinese symbol for double-happiness was to recognize a new relationship in the life of a Chinese friend..”
My friend Beverly, a non-knitter but an art lover and sometime docent at the Detroit Institute of Art, fell in love with a double-knit, reversible shawl with geometric designs in various shades of grey. She is trying on the shawl in the photograph and thought it fairly .
priced at over $3000. A more brightly colored scarf in reds and blues, depicts small birds, opposite colors on each side, and was inspired by caged birds Shelby pointed out to Christa when they shopped for bird seed. Her display also includes colorful socks, fingerless gloves, tams, intricate, beaded jewelry and tassels.
Though she broke her right elbow in a fall earlier this year, Christa continues to knit and design and says knitting helps her heal. She has, for a while, settled for smaller items which weigh less, but has sacrificed neither beauty nor complexity. Many of her guests purchase her ornate knitted necklaces with their spirals of gleaming beads, as treasured, non touristy souvenirs of their stay. They carry away with them a little of the energy of an artist who loves to create unique beautiful and wearable art.
Beverly picked out a black necklace with shiny beads to match and Ellen agonized between a pink and a blue one and eventually settled on pink. I on the other hand had attended the workshop and learned how to make them. I am still working on a multi-colored one for my 12- year-old granddaughter and plan to make one for myself.
Christa is a patient, firm and methodical teacher, dedicated to each student individually, though her groups often consist of students at various skill levels. She will repeat directions as often as needed without irritation but plenty of humor. I for one find repetition helps with a new or complicated procedure. Somehow she keeps track of where we all are in different projects.
We smile as she notices someone struggling with a stitch that split while trying to attach a bead. ”Just take it off and do it again. Make that stitch happy. You have to make each stitch happy!” or “Manhandle those stitches, show them who is boss. Knit with vim and vigor!”?These are some of the mantras I often find myself repeating through a complicated stretch of knitting even when there is no Christa in sight! When the going gets tough and energy lags she puts a basket of chocolates on the table and we revive. “Knitting and chocolate go together,” she insists.
As years pass and medical issues arise, Christa and Shelby recognize they will not be able to run Insel Haus indefinitely and are now looking for a buyer. Without the bed and breakfast side of the business Christa will be able to devote herself fully to knitting workshops. She and Shelby would love to remain a part of their beloved Insel Haus and hope to find a purchaser who would allow Christa to continue her workshops.
“I would be such an asset ,” she reasons, “My students would guarantee them clientele. They enjoy returning year after year.”
I for one can’t wait to return. The natural peace and beauty of the island, the comfort and welcoming atmosphere Christa and Shelby have created, the freedom to seek out private corners and couches, swing or hammock, inside or outside, to reflect, read, write, knit or simply be and enjoy the views, the opportunity to learn from a master knitter and meet interesting guests. If you ask nicely Shelby may even treat you to a viewing of his Emmy winning films. Insel Haus has been calling to me since I stepped back off the ferry in Cheboygan.
Learn more about Insel Haus at their website inselhausbandb.com.