By Randi Bjornstad, Register Guard, January 15, 2012
Maybe it’s a do-it-yourself reaction to the long, cold recession; or maybe it’s an offshoot of the local-is-better movement. Whatever the reason, the ancient practice of knitting seems to be enjoying a widespread resurgence.
Not for Eugene resident Laura Macagno-Shang, though. She’s been an aficionado of knitting and other fiber arts her entire life, starting as a child in Argentina. Now, she dyes her own yarns and sells them in her own shop, Textiles a Mano, in west Eugene.
She hosts evening knitting and spinning sessions that combine conversation with the soothing whir of wooden wheels or the comforting clack of needles.
“Of course, some people have been knitting all along, but I really think the latest boom probably started as a result of 9 /11,” Macagno-Shang says. “After that happened, there grew kind of a thing about crafts, about being with family. All of a sudden, there was a huge interest in knitting and spinning and other close-to-home activities.”
By then, she already had a yarn business in her basement in Louisville, Colo. “I started in 2000, and back then I was open one day a week,” she says. “People would come over for the yarn and to sit and knit.”
Working with dyes and fine yarns and watching the knitting needles fly as beautiful garments grew between her fingertips was the perfect foil to a 40-year career in clinical social work and community mental health counseling. The two careers coexisted until six years ago, when Macagno-Shang decided it was time to change her focus.
“I had a very long career, and I enjoyed it very much,” she says. “But you know when it’s time to stop and do something you love to do.”
Fortunately, she says, she was able to make the switch financially.
“This is a one-person operation, and my business plan is simply, ‘Thank God I don’t need a loan,’ ” she says.
“What I do is all by hand — it’s very labor-intensive, not efficient or money-making.”
As a young girl in Argentina, “I did for fun what all girls did — sew, knit, embroider,” she says.
“I learned to hand sew and then to use an old Singer treadle machine. I always enjoyed working with fiber. In high school and college, I made my own clothes.”
She moved to the United States at age 13, to Iowa, where both of her parents were university professors. Her father taught hydraulic engineering; her mother taught mathematics.
“My brother got the science genes — he’s a biologist at the University of California at San Diego — but I don’t know anything scientifically,” she says.
“However, my parents were also extremely multi-dimensional, avid museum-goers and always reading philosophy, history and art. So what we got as children was a real liberal arts education.”
Her entry into the social services field happened simply because she was flawlessly bilingual.
“I was at a clinic in Iowa to get immunizations for my son, and many of the people there were Spanish-speaking,” Macagno-Shang recalls. “I could tell the doctors and nurses weren’t able to understand what the mothers were saying, so I started telling them, ‘She’s saying this’ or ‘She’s asking that.’ After a while, they said to me, ‘Would you come back and do this for us?’ So I did.”
She worked as a volunteer interpreter for a couple of years, “and then someone said to me, ‘Did you know you could be paid for this work?’ ”
So Macagno-Shang went back to school and augmented her undergraduate degree in comparative literature with advanced degrees and professional licenses, and eventually, like her parents, got a job at the University of Iowa.
By then, her first marriage had ended. She worked in the counseling center, where she met her husband-to-be, Paul Shang, who is now dean of students in the Student Affairs Department at the University of Oregon.
From Iowa, the couple moved to Colorado, where she started her yarn-in-the-basement hobby.
From there, Shang took another university position in Missouri, “but I didn’t want to move at first because of my own career, so we went back and forth for three years,” Macagno-Shang says.
“In 2006, I ended my professional career and moved to Missouri and opened a little yarn shop there.”
In 2009, her husband told her he had gotten a call about a job, “and he asked me what did I think about Oregon? It was a great opportunity for him, and I had been in Oregon once and thought it was a wonderful place. So I came here and started my yarn studio all over again, for the third time.”
This time, it seems permanent. Her industrial space on Tyinn Street off West 11th Avenue has a cozy front room filled with hundreds of skeins of yarn, most of which she has dyed herself.
“The only thing I don’t carry is acrylic,” she says, “because I can’t dye it.” But she has wool, cotton, silk, rayon, bamboo, soy, corn, even milk.
“Yes, milk,” Macagno-Shang says, holding up a length of soft white fluff. “You can make fiber out of almost anything, and then you spin it into yarn, but in the case of something like milk, which is a protein fiber, I wouldn’t spin it by itself; I would blend it with something else.”
Behind the showroom is another room ringed with comfortable chairs, where her weekly knitting and spinning groups gather.
Beyond that is the workroom where she heats huge vats of water on a couple of stoves for dyeing and painting her yarns, and then winding them from a large circular metal spool into loosely knotted skeins.
The walls of her studio are covered with garments she makes in her spare time — delicate shawls, sweaters, dresses, baby clothes in soft, heathery hues — all by hand.
“I try to have something at all times made from every type of yarn I have, so people can have an idea of what it will do,” she says. “I usually wear something very dark and plain, often black, to work each day, and then I can put on something from the wall as an accessory. I always dress for the public.”
For her inventory, rather than perusing fashion magazines or trying to guess coming color trends, Macagno-Shang simply chooses colors she likes.
“Sometimes in the spring, I look outside and see all the rhododendrons and azaleas in bloom, and for a while, my yarns might take on those shades,” she says. “I take a lot of my colors from nature, like the bark of a tree, a nut or a rock that I think is beautiful. People seem to like what I do.”