Tongass Historical Museum showcases fair winners

Choc Schafer sits next to two of her hand-knitted shawls on Wednesday at Tongass Historical Museum. Schafer brought home awards from the Southeast Alaska State Fair for both shawls and a hand-knitted sweater. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

After traveling to the 51st annual Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines, an array of handcrafted items including shawls, quilts, blankets, wooden vessels, sweaters and even a jar of habanero pepper jelly are on display through Sept. 3 at the Tongass Historical Museum.

There were 41 handcrafted items submitted to the fair by 18 Ketchikan artists, according to museum information. This is the second year the fair items have been displayed at the museum after the fair’s end.

At the museum, Choc Schafer, a five-year fair participant, talked about her experiences with the fair.

One of Schafer’s knitted shawls was draped with a first-place ribbon, a best-of-adult ribbon, a division champion ribbon and a huge purple department champion ribbon. It was displayed next to another of her knitted shawls sporting a blue first-place ribbon.

A sweater that she knitted of silk, yak fiber and merino wool was hung on a manikin form with her first-place ribbon and division champion ribbon hanging from the shoulder.

Among the many ribbons accompanying items in the exhibit were several first-place ribbons on the many items in the display area, and Schafer said when she first attended the fair years ago, she was briefly confused how so many could earn that award.

“When I first went to a fair and paid attention, I thought, ‘So everyone’s a winner here,’” she said, chuckling. “But,” she added, “it’s like school grading. More than one kid can get an A.

“There are standards you need to meet,” she said. “If you meet X, Y and Z standards, then you are an A. It’s an A project.”

The other prizes, such as her division champion award, or some “judges choice” awards are for those projects that the judges assessed went above and beyond, in addition to the people’s choice awards, which give attendees a say in what deserves recognition.

In addition to the prize ribbons, exhibitors are given a critique sheet with comments by the judges. The critiques vary in usefulness, according to Schafer.

“It really is not scary,” she said. “You get interesting comments back and you have to decide whether you care.”

It is useful to have those objective opinions of one’s work, however, Schafer said. Outside of the fair, a crafter can often get only positive reinforcement.

“You can just learn what somebody else’s opinion is of your things,” she said.

Schafer said that she was taught to knit when she was 7 years old, by her grandmother.

“I wanted to knit,” she said. “I’m left handed. My mother didn’t want to teach me, but she knew that her mother had taught a left-handed girl how to knit.”

Schafer said they’d visit her grandmother every month or so, and they’d work on knitting.

“My grandmother was very wise. She taught me to knit the same as a right-handed person,” she said, adding that her logic was that “it’s a two-handed sport.”

She said she’s been grateful for that over the years, because patterns are written for right-handed knitters, and right-handed knitters also can more easily coach her.

Schafer’s shawl that received the biggest ribbon was for winning a top spot across the entire category — or department — of knitting. It also won the category under that department, of “scarf, stole or shawl,” as well as the first-place rating.

It is a purple shawl with midnight blue accent work crafted in the “mosaic” method of color work. Schafer said her sister chose the pattern and the yarn, and then Schafer knitted it for her sister — an arrangement they’ve enjoyed many times.

Her sweater, also a division and first-place winner, features intricate lacework designs in the top half, knitted in a natural ecru color. The lower half was knitted with a subtle combination of natural hues.

As Schafer described knitting the sweater, a tourist stopped to admire it.

“How long did it take you to make that?” asked Bruce Price of Richmond, Virginia.

Schafer answered that she had started it in August 2018, and finished it somewhere between January and March of 2019.

Like any complex project, it had its glitches.

Once, as she was knitting it on a flight to Seattle, she realized when she got to the airport, that she didn’t have enough markers to keep track of her stitches.

“So, I went around the airport in Seattle and asked for paperclips from people,” she said,

Laughing at the memory.

On another flight, she said she realized she’d made a mistake 10 to 15 rows down, and she had to pick each stitch out one by one until she could fix the one that had gone wrong.

Once it was finished, however, she thoroughly enjoyed wearing it, and has missed it during its exhibition stint.

Wood worker Dale Clark also won division champion and first place ribbons for his segmented vase that he said, in a phone interview, was made of maple, black walnut and possibly oak. Another wooden vessel he created earned a first-place ribbon.

“It’s a retirement hobby I started in 2013,” Clark said.

Clark said he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts, with the plan to work as a shop teacher, but he ended up working as a float plane pilot for 43 years.

This was Clark’s first time entering works in the Southeast Alaska State Fair, but he said he did visit the fair two years ago. His wife, Ailsa Clark, also was a first-time entrant with her scroll saw wood art.

Dale Clark’s division champion vase took about 40 hours of work, which, “start to finish probably took me several weeks,” he said. Much of that time is spent waiting for glue to dry.

He explained that, “basically, you’re building a vessel or whatever you call it out of a board.”

He said he first cuts each board to the thickness and width he needs; then cuts those pieces into pie-shaped pieces.

That vase has about 15 or 16 of those pieces per ring that comprise the whole, Clark said. Each vessel also usually includes a “feature ring,” which is very detailed and required even more cutting and re-gluing.

“It can get very, very involved; it can get very detailed,” Clark said, requiring “a lot of time and a lot of super, super accurate cuts” to perfectly fit the pieces together.

His favorite part of creating his works, Clark said, is discovering the different colors and patterns of the grain, and how they are affected by the finishes he uses, but he also enjoys turning the pieces on his lathe.

Clark also has pieces on display through August for the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Blueberry Arts Festival art exhibition at the Main Street Gallery, as well as at the Starboard Frames and Gifts store downtown.

Clark said the process for entering the fair wasn’t difficult, as Ketchikan representative Jean Bartos streamlined the process.

Bartos has several woven and knitted pieces on display at the museum, many with high honors — such as division champion, best of professional and several first-place ribbons. She has been the local fair contact for the past three or four years, she said in an email.

She explained that her love of fairs started when she was a child, growing up in Montana.

“One of my happiest times growing up was going first to our local 4-H fair, and then to the Midland Empire Fair in Billings, MT,” she wrote. “My dad would take those days off from harvesting — a most unusual thing for him to do!”

She recalled that she and her family would tour the exhibits, visit the vendor booths — where she bought a slicer one year, which she still uses — and share a big picnic lunch on the lawn outside the exhibit buildings.

She wrote also of her memories of being free to run all over the fairgrounds with her brother, and to enjoy the carnival rides and games of chance before heading home to feed chickens and milk cows.

“My enjoyment of fairs as a child, and my desire for them to continue,” is her motivation to work as a fair representative, Bartos wrote.

She had some words of encouragement for people interested in participating next year.

“Sending artwork and/or craftwork to the fair is a fun way to see how your creations stack up against others in Southeast,” she wrote. “There are no entry fees, and thanks to AML, shipping is free, too.”

Artists who want to send their pieces to the fair take them either to Main Street Gallery for collection by Bartos and other volunteers who take the items to the Alaska Marine Lines barge company, or they bring them straight to AML the next day.

“Those of us locally who volunteer to take in entries and get them on a pallet to go to the barge, the AML employees, and the fair employees are committed to getting everything to and from the fair in perfect condition,” Bartos wrote.

The 2020 Southeast Alaska State Fair will be July 30 to August 2. Information can be found at and also by contacting Bartos at