Stellar stitches

Barnesville knitters string together top Farm Show awards

If there was one lesson that came out of the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show, it’s that two nifty knitters from Barnesville can bring home the gold.

The Schuylkill County team of Cathy Riotto and Joan Demko combined for three blue ribbons and the best of show award at the annual event, held Jan. 9 to 16 in Harrisburg.

Demko, retired math teacher at North Schuylkill High School, knows a thing or two about counting stitches.

“My mom knitted,” Demko said. “She taught me the two basic stitches, knit and purl.”

As for the Farm Show success, Demko credits her award winning-technique to Riotto, her friend of five years.

The two became acquainted at a pierogie-making event and their creative chemistry gelled.

“I met Cathy at St. Richard’s Church,” said Demko. As the friendship developed, Riotto reintroduced Demko to the wonders of knitting.

“She taught me how to make socks.”

Truth is, Riotto can teach anybody to do just about anything. She’s the Martha Stewart of Rush Township.

She and husband Frank own the Holly Road Fiber Farm, where they tend to their own herd of goats.

Through the years, they’ve learned how to shear, spin and knit.

They also produce all-natural wool yarn generated from the livestock on their 13 acres.

Homegrown

Riotto makes scarves, hats, accessories, you name it. Her technique is flawless and judges have noticed.

In 2010, she won a blue ribbon at the Pennsylvania Farm Show for a 6-foot round, lace-inspired tablecloth.

She produced the delicate masterpiece using a pattern from Germany’s acclaimed design expert Herbert Niebling.

In 2011, she won two additional red ribbons, including one for the quality of her hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn.

That led to a run of blue ribbons every year.

In fact, Riotto has strung together an impressive list of awards from both the Bloomsburg Fair and Pennsylvania Farm Show, and is well-known at East Coast fiber shows.

She’s not only a perennial winner, but she’s good at showing folks how she does it, Demko said.

“She’s a good teacher.”

And so with Riotto’s encouragement, Demko decided to tackle a handmade sweater.

“It’s only the second one I’ve ever done,” said Demko, who followed a very detailed, 14-page pattern book of instructions.

Truth be told, Demko learned by trial and error, which is probably the best way. Something bad happened midway through the project.

Demko somehow flipped a stitch that badly interrupted the cable pattern, a situation that only would’ve gotten worse if she’d continued.

Fortunately, Riotto came to the rescue. After a bit of careful unraveling and restitching, Demko was back on track.

After months of evenings, Demko completed her masterpiece — a hickory, two-ply, wool, fitted cable-knit sweater with glittery gold buttons.

The judges were so impressed they awarded it not only a blue ribbon, but best of show among all entries in the wide-open category of crocheted and knitted garments.

Riotto, too, came up big in the competition, as usual.

She grabbed blue ribbons for a tablecloth and for an elegant beaded mohair stole.

Riotto, a 1983 graduate of Tamaqua Area High School, has been knitting for more than 15 years, a hobby she acquired while recovering from major back surgery.

She started by knitting a traditional fisherman’s sweater, a thick, bulky garment with prominent cable patterns on the chest. The sweaters are noted for their complex, textured stitch patterns, several of which are combined in the creation of a single garment.

From the start, Riotto wanted to use natural wool.

“I was trying to find wool, and it was impossible,” she said. “Of course, now it’s possible. But back in 2000 it wasn’t. I finally found it online in Canada.”

Riotto traveled to Ontario to purchase the product, and proceeded to create the sweater.

As months and years went by, she honed her skills.

Goat raising

In 2006, she decided to buy two goats to generate homegrown fibers, the start of her wool farm.

She is adept at knitting and, of course, producing colorful, natural yarn.

“First you wash it, then pick it, card it and then spin it,” she said.

Each step has a purpose. For example, picking is a technique to eliminate knots. Carding is a process to straighten fiber threads, and so forth. For spinning, she uses a few different spinning wheels. One is from New Zealand, another from Colorado. They can cost from $400 to $4,000.

After spinning and plying, she dyes wool by hand if special colors are desired.

Riotto is largely self-taught, having taken only one class.

She just happens to be a fast learner and has a knack for grasping concepts right from the start.

Demko said she admires Riotto’s attitude.

“She says ‘you can always do something you put your mind to.’ ”

For Demko, that positive outlook resulted in a sweater declared best of show.

But even more, it brought a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and relaxation.

Demko discovered that knitting brings many rewards.

It’s imparts a feeling of peace and contentment.

“It’s relaxing,” she said. “It takes your mind to a different place.”

Knitting might be a sedate hobby enjoyed by sitting on the living room sofa or in the easy chair.

But for those who adore it, knitting provides posture for the mind and relaxation for the soul.

Demko and Riotto are producing some stellar stitches.

They’ve discovered a world of opportunity out there, ready to be explored.

And, for them, knitting is the perfect place to start.