“I jokingly say that I’m like Madame Defarge, always knitting,” says Pamela Dakin Harwood, referencing the character in “A Tale of Two Cities” whose perpetual knitting comprises an ongoing plot point in Dickens’ novel of the French Revolution.
However, rather than plotting revenge, Harwood says that she is generally planning her next project as she plies her knitting needles. The Maine transplant previously owned and operated an alpaca farm near Portland. There she sold yarn, and hand-knitted and handwoven products made with the fiber from her flock. In 2017, after 12 years of running the business, she and her husband sold the farm to begin the next chapter of their lives. They purchased a boat, which they now live on during the summer months, while spending the off-season on Martha’s Vineyard, where her husband works as a family physician at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
“In 2013, Hugh came home from a boat show, and said he wanted to give up his full-time job and live on a boat,” recalls Harwood. “His idea of retirement did not include alpacas.” It seems that her idea of retirement had never included running a small farm either. During her recovery from breast cancer in 2003, the former investment professional was introduced to knitting, which she took to immediately. She also met her first alpaca. On the website for her business Longwoods Alpacas, Harwood writes, “I buried my hands and face in a basket of fleece, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Although she no longer has her own flock, Harwood is still hooked on alpacas. She works part-time at Island Alpaca, and continues to make sweaters, hats, scarves, socks, and rugs, using her own blends of wool and alpaca yarn. Her hand-knit and handwoven products are all available through her website, longwoodsalpacas.com, named after the former farm.
For her handmade items, Harwood favors a blend of alpaca and wool. She explains that wool (which is a term reserved for fiber from sheep) has elasticity, while the alpaca fiber, especially in the finer grades that she uses, gives the blend ultimate softness. Harwood says that while many people are sensitive to wool, in most cases it’s not an allergy, just a reaction to the roughness of some lower grades of wool. She finds that most people love the blends that she uses, although she does make some products in 100 percent alpaca for those who are truly allergic.
“I wanted a nice yarn that worked really well for knitting,” says Harwood, who explains that she gained her expertise in yarn through her membership in a national cooperative. “I learned how to grade and sort fiber. I wanted to learn to make oooh! yarns as opposed to ewww! yarns,” she says, employing her own decidedly nonscientific terminology. “I was really fixated on the smoothness and softness of alpaca.”
As well as experimenting with blends, Harwood also likes trying out different color combinations. She does all her own dying, using nontoxic dye powders from a company called Greener Shades. Her newest creation is a variegated yarn in shades of purple and cream that she calls M.V. Quahog. Her inspiration came from the vibrantly colored clamshells she discovered while sampling Menemsha Market’s stuffed quahogs, and the clamshell jewelry made by her friend Sherri Church of Clammer Creations. Harwood has created a line of scarves and cowls using the varicolored yarn. She also sells the yarn in both pure alpaca and blends.
Another unique offering from the Longwoods Alpacas’ website is Harwood’s line of baby and infant pants. She got the idea for these knitted, expandable pantaloons from a blogger in Sweden, where they know quite a bit about cold weather wear. “The problem with most baby clothes is that they grow out of them in a matter of weeks,” says Harwood. “The cuffs and waistbands on the baby pants can unroll as they grow.”
Other items include many styles of hats, scarves, cowls, and wraps, as well as handwoven rugs, runners, blankets, and something she calls an “energy mat,” which provides a soft cushion for long car and plane rides, sporting events, and more.
Since relocating to the Vineyard in 2018, Harwood has connected with new friends through her attendance at the knitting circles at Vineyard Knitworks (where you can also find some of her hand-knit items) and through her participation with the Holiday Pop-Up Shop in Vineyard Haven. She and her husband are clearly enjoying the latest chapter in their lives, splitting their time between living on their boat and a more conventional living arrangement. “We weren’t ready to live aboard the boat year-round,” she says. “This is just a really good fit. We both get to be ‘on the hard’ for eight or nine months a year.”
Harwood and her husband now both get to follow their individual passions. She notes that he really loves being a family doctor, and she has found more time to devote to her fiber work. “I love to dye,” she says. “I love to knit. I love being creative, and we love Martha’s Vineyard.”