A Song of Wool and Fire

By now, you’ve probably seen this firebreathing photo, either on one of the inner pages of my original printing, or on the cover of the new revision of Extreme Double-knitting. Taken by Shannon Okey of Cooperative Press, it’s a great eyecatcher — and certainly illustrative of the “Extreme” concept. But many have wondered about the photo, and I decided it was past time to tell the story.

First of all, let me quash some concerns. Yes, this is a real photo — not doctored (OK, it’s subtly cleaned up to remove some falling “sparks” — but the fire is real and the model is really breathing fire). Yes, the model has done this before, frequently; it’s not something we made a novice do as a gimmick. No, you should not try this at home (without ample training from an experienced fire performer with an emphasis on safety). Also, no, this is not my wife, although my wife is also a fire performer (but does not breathe fire, as part of an agreement we have).

So what do fire performing and knitting have in common? Well, mostly, they have me and my wife in common. My wife and I met at a knitting group, but I had been taught a number of juggling/object manipulation skills by my father long before that. I prefer the “stick” variety — flower sticks, contact staff, dragon staff — but have also done a fair amount of diabolo (think “giant yo-yo balancing on a moving string”) and some unicycling. As a young raver in the 90s, I developed a rave toy involving free-moving glowsticks at the end of a pair of sticks. You can see me using it at a party I helped throw, in the background of the 60 Minutes segment “Stop the Raves.” Eventually, I was exposed to the fire performing community while attending some party or other, and I thought about making a fire version of that toy. The final product was not great — the sticks were heavy, clunky, and didn’t move as freely as the original. I did, however, return to that party the following year with the fire toy and a girlfriend. It was seeing me spin my weird little fire prop that got her thinking about fire spinning herself — and some years later, she spun fire down the aisle at our wedding (and got in Offbeat Bride for it).

So during our journey together, we knitted together for quite a long time — but fire-spinning has been more of an enduring commonality. She no longer knits much, but she went to Burning Man last year (and I will probably join her there next year). We became part of a fire-spinning community in Boston and attended Wildfire (a fire training/performing camp) regularly for several years. We made friends in the community; some of those we connected with most strongly over the years were (at the time) another husband and wife duo of fire performers named Laa and Dio.

I chose Laa because she appears just effortlessly beautiful; I knew she’d make a good model and I was right. I chose Dio because he’s sort of a more photogenic version of me, and I knew he’d wear the pieces well. And since they came together as a package, so much the better.

The photo shoot was done in early December of 2010 at Halibut Point in Rockport, MA. It’s a good thing you can only see the photos, not feel them — because it was bitterly cold there. It’s on the ocean, of course, so when it’s cold inland, it’s colder there. By the end of the shoot, my models were just itching to light some fire and warm up. The cameras were freezing up, but Shannon did a fantastic job — even though this was her first fire photography shoot. I have been doing fire photography for some time, and have rarely been able to capture a fire breath as well as Shannon did on her first try. Mostly I focused on long-exposure work to capture fire trails.

Laa and Dio had moved to Atlanta since the 2010 photo shoot, and when I had the opportunity to do a new photo shoot for the new Extreme Double-knitting revision, I thought it would be fun to take photos of them nearly 10 years later too. They were up for it, but fire photography was not in the cards. We had “gotten away with it” in 2010 because we were in an isolated area well outside of tourist season. By contrast, the new shoot was over Easter weekend of 2018 in downtown Atlanta. Still, it’s good that you can only see the photos and not feel them — because it was sweltering hot there. Here’s Laa wearing the new revision of the same hat she was wearing in the cover photo above:

If this post has gotten you interested in fire spinning, a few tips:

  • Learn to manipulate your chosen prop(s) really well without fire first. Even firebreathing is practiced with water, not fuel.
  • Find a local spinjam (gathering of jugglers/object manipulators/circus performers) and begin learning there. Find out if there’s a local fire performing training event and go to that.
  • Learn to burn with an emphasis on safety! For you, and for the people you’re performing for.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice!

Stay tuned! I’ve got more news coming. Also, if you’re still reading this, check out the Buildingblox Workshop Week, and maybe come take class or two with me in Cambridge this April/May?

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