COUPEVILLE, Whidbey Island, Wash. -- While financial planner Beth Oliver spent a week here in a weaving workshop learning the difference between warp and weft, her husband, former Los Angeles Times photo director Larry Armstrong, spent sunny October days doing plein-air painting at scenic Ebey's Landing and Deception Pass.
For Oliver, it was an "education vacation." For her husband, it was the perfect place to practice a favorite hobby. The California couple found a just-right holiday for partners with divergent interests.
"All day long we do exactly what we want, with no conflicts whatever," Oliver said. "And in the evenings, we have a little drinkie, a little dinner. We've really been making a dent in the mussel population."
For that, mouthwatering thanks go to Penn Cove's famous shellfish farm and local eateries that feature the island specialty.
Oliver was one of 10 students from around the Northwest and across the nation to take part in a recent beginner workshop at the Weavers' School on Whidbey Island, led by Madelyn van der Hoogt, a Coupeville resident who for the past 25 years edited two national magazines dedicated to weaving.
Van der Hoogt started her weaving school in Missouri in the 1980s and moved it in 1993 to Coupeville, where classes occupy the basement level of her home on a quiet back street. Some 30 looms crowd the work space.
In one of Washington's oldest towns, with a pleasant abundance of well-preserved Victorian homes that are part of a national historical reserve, the click-clack of old-fashioned wooden looms fits right in.
"There are bed-and-breakfasts here within walking distance. It's an easy place to come, and if your family comes along, there's lots for them to do," van der Hoogt said. "Students come from all over the world."
Her school is one of the few places, she says, that you can come and weave on a loom that's all prepared for you, so you can move from loom to loom to learn different types of weave. In the recent class, Janell Neulinger, an Intel worker from Portland who has a doctorate in solid-state chemistry, worked on a color gamp, a bright rainbow of hues in a systematic sequence of sections of equal size. Nearby, Patricia Hatfield, a retired health care manager from Texas, labored over a pattern called Summer and Winter.
"It's very tactile, whereas before, everything in my life was numbers and spreadsheets," Hatfield said, happily stomping with stockinged feet on numbered treadles that helped guide the yarn. Clack! Clack! Clack! went the beater bars, used to tightly pack woven threads. It wasn't a quiet room.
Barbara Kerschner from Centralia worked on a Swedish Snowflake pattern in magenta yarn.
"I've been to Coupeville before, but never for a workshop," she said. "This has been a really fun experience."
In a series of lectures, van der Hoogt regaled the group with how-to tips and suggestions on what yarns are suited to what uses. "Superfine merino is the most shrinking, fulling wool," she told them during my visit. For a newcomer to the craft, listening in is akin to eavesdropping on a coffee shop conversation in a foreign language.
By way of translation: Warp is the set of lengthwise yarns held in tension on the loom. Weft is the yarn that is inserted crosswise over-and-under the warp threads. "Fulling" is, well, you just have to take the class.
When class is over the good news for workshop-goers is that they get to explore Coupeville and Whidbey Island.
The town was named for homesteaders Thomas and Maria Coupe, who arrived in 1852. Their home, built of redwood brought from San Francisco, still stands near the bluff at the edge of Penn Cove.
Some ideas for after class:
Take the self-guided walking tour of historic homes and structures, ranging from the Coupe home to the circa-1889 Methodist Parsonage. Print a guide from the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve Web site: www.nps.gov/ebla/upload/WalkingTourPanels.pdf.
Stroll through shops and eat your way along historic Front Street, edging Penn Cove. Dip a walnut caramel roll in a cup of hot coffee for breakfast at the Knead and Feed bakery and cafe (4 N.W. Front St.), a town favorite since the 1970s, and later slurp a cone of Rocky Road at Kapaw's Iskreme, in the building that was the Island County Abstract Office (21 N.W. Front St.) when it was built in 1890. (Insider information: A "single" cone is three scoops, and you get to choose three flavors.) In the old post office, the Touch of Dutch shop (11 N.W. Front St.) offers 35 types of licorice, and the Front Street Grill (20 N.W. Front St.) offers a dozen styles of fresh-from-the-cove mussels (Coconut Green Curry is the star, and goes nicely with a glass of sauvignon blanc).
Explore the historic, gull-crowded town wharf, jutting 500 feet into Penn Cove and offering front-row views of Mount Baker. Kim's Cafe here gets raves for its chowder and Vietnamese pho.
If a cool breeze blows in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just a few miles to the west, wrap a cozy muffler around your neck. Don't have one? Better sign up for the next weaving workshop.