November 30, 2001

I first heard of Arietty in July of 1986. My daughter was ten months old then, and I’d taken her with me on a sunny Friday morning to the annual Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen’s Fair at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, about thirty-five miles from where I live. I’d spent many happy hours on that campus when I was in college at nearby Millersville University. Going back there after more than fifteen years, parking again in front of 606 West James and wheeling my Aprica stroller with baby on board past the Phi Tau fraternity house gave me much to think about concerning changes in attitude, changes in latitude.

The booths were set up in long canvas pavilions on the football field. Although I’d become adept at taking Lynn along to almost any activity I wanted to do, there were features of this that I hadn’t anticipated. A grass football field can make for a bumpy ride. The paths between the rows of display tables were narrow and anything worth looking at was far above Lynn’s head, so her view was mainly of people’s knees. It was also humid in the tents, so it wasn’t long before she became restless and fussy.

There was little there that interested me anyway. A three hundred dollar basket was beautiful, but out of my price range. Same with the hand-woven rugs and the wall art. There was a woman who practiced the Pennsylvania German art of scherenschnitte, intricately cut paper pictures. She also did silhouettes from life. Lynn was able to sit long enough in front of a lamp that cast her shadow onto a movie screen for the woman to produce a credible likeness of Lynn’s turned-up nose and curl of hair at the nape of her neck. I still have that picture in a silver frame in my living room.

Just before we left I stopped at Arietty’s booth. She’s a weaver, and her real name is Margaret Linn. I liked that. I bought a simple silk and linen blend skirt in an ivory flecked with bits of autumn golds and browns. It had six gores and an elastic waist and it actually flattered my form, or so I thought as I watched the hem flare out and dance around my calves. I think I paid $35 for it, and I wore it many many times for about six or seven years until it had a few stubborn noticeable stains and a little rip too low to be covered by a tunic.

Every year since then I’ve gotten Arietty’s announcement of her annual inventory sale held on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. She lives in Waynesboro, a town about seventy miles west of here. That’s certainly not too far to go to shop — the legendary King of Prussia Mall is a hundred miles. But for one reason or another, no Thanksgiving since I retired that skirt has been the right time to go.

This year it was, and so on the day after Thanksgiving I set out alone in search of a skirt like the one that used to make me feel like a natural woman. I rarely go west of Carlisle. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with the way Democratic campaigner James Carville described Pennsylvania : “There’s Philly in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama down the middle.” He was referring to our population’s deep conservatism, but it also calls to mind the fact that west of Carlisle there are only small towns and farming villages and mountains with tunnels cut through them before the glass towers of Pittsburgh gleam in the distance.

So my trip to Waynesboro, a town I’d never visited before, was through unfamiliar but not particularly picturesque territory. I got off the interstate at a busy intersection that is obviously a hub for truckers and other travelers. The place was almost a town in itself, with special pull-offs for RVs and diesel trucks, a 24-hour laundry, two low-price hotels, and three family-style restaurants.

Arietty’s place was about seven miles south of that intersection. I got to drive through the little town of Greencastle, a place name I’ve always regarded as especially romantic and musical. Then I turned east again and drove up a steep hill, and there I was at a stereotypical artsy-craftsy weaver’s cabin, all wood and glass and post and beam, arrived at by means of a winding wooden walkway that carried me up and up past three carefully designed herb and flower gardens.

I was there about an hour. In addition to the skirts and jumpers and vests she fashions from silk and linen and cotton, Arietty sells ceramic pins and earrings, handmade soaps, massage oils, and herbal vinegars. I looked through the wares, enjoyed a variety of southwest flavored dips and wrapped sandwiches (prepared by a friend who is a caterer) and had my attention engaged most by browsing the owner’s vast collection of books on Celtic lore and shamanic wisdom. On almost every wall there were framed messages in flowing calligraphy reminding me to engage the goddess within me and be the change I seek.

But I couldn’t find a single thing I wanted to buy. There were no skirts even a little like the one I’d once had. Some of the denim jackets and tunics were nice, but there wasn’t one with the right combination of decorative appliqué and embroidery that made me say “Ahh!!” Something said I had to buy something, since I’d driven seventy miles, but in the end I decided not to spend my money on anything I didn’t truly adore.

And so I left without buying anything. On the way back I stopped at a place that offered crafty collectibles. The first thing I saw was a table full of little snowmen holding signs that said “Jesus loves snow!” Contemporary Christian music, the treacly kind I really hate, was blaring from the radio, so I left there quickly. I passed a sign for the Fayetteville Mall, but I was determined to stay out of that sort of place. Near Shippensburg I saw a sign for Quarry Hill Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Quilts. You can see the place from the highway, but you have to drive five more miles and then double back to get to it.

Authentic was certainly the right word! It’s a Mennonite farm, complete with windmill and black buggy in front of the plain clapboard house that oozed the nineteenth century Pennsylvania German character I’m after in my novel. The workshop is in a new building. There’s a sign warning that the place is protected by a guard dog, but the only dogs I saw were a playful basset hound puppy and an adult dog drowsing in the sun that streamed onto the back porch.

A sign at the entrance said “Open by chance or appointment.” As I got out of my car (which I’d parked beside the buggy) a young woman wearing the plain Mennonite clothes and bonnet stuck her head out the front door of the house. 

“Can I see some quilts?” I asked her.

“Oh ja,” she said. “Just go back. Someone will be with you once.”

I let myself into the unlocked workroom and soon a younger girl came in and sat in the rocker. The quilts were machine made but quite lovely and reasonably priced. There were also wall hangings and bench covers and placemats. I selected a table runner of dark blue gingham, the ends decorated with pieced birdhouses and a basket with embroidered flowers spilling out of it. As I left I saw another girl on a bicycle turn in at the entrance, her bonnet strings and skirts flying out behind her.

This place is half as far from my house as Arietty’s. I’m glad I made the whole trip, but I know which place I’ll be going back to.