This week a few friends and I played hooky and took a tour of Brown Sheep Company in Mitchell, Nebraska. None of us had toured a big operation before. It was impressive. The wool (all from sheep in neighboring states) is washed, cleaned, and carded in a mill in South Carolina, then sent to Nebraska to be blended, spun, dyed, and wound into perfect balls or skeins.
Our tour guide, Donna, took us through the mill where we got to see each step of the process. For privacy reasons, cameras are not allowed in the mill so you’ll have to believe me when I say that the machines are big and noisy, but impressive in their speed and efficiency. I can’t remember how much yarn is produced in a day, but it looked like about twenty 5-pound skeins were processed at a time at each station. Something like 500 pounds of yarn can be vat-dyed at a time — they were dyeing a nice dark red the day we were there. The all-around best selling color is black (go figure), followed by white, cream, and gray. We didn’t think to ask what was the most popular dyed color.
You probably know that dyeing takes a lot of water. After a couple of years of research, the company has installed a state-of-the-art water filtration system. They are able to remove the dye particulates from a dyebath, then store the hot water to use again for the next bath, even if it’s a different color.
The final stage of production is attaching the ball bands. This is probably what impressed me the most about the operation. After all those perfectly calibrated machines and processes, a person examines each ball or skein is individually examined before putting on the ball band. Except for the Lamb’s Pride bands (which are secured with a machine), each band is manually taped around the ball. When we questioned this labor-intensive process, Donna told us that it was the best way to ensure quality. If there is a knot or if the ball looks less than perfect in any way, it goes into the “seconds” pile.
And where do those “seconds” go? The mill has it’s own yarn shop where they are sold by the pound at a significantly reduced price. You or I wouldn’t be able to tell what’s “wrong” with these skeins, but Donna says that’s because they work so hard to maintain the highest quality possible. In addition to balls that have visible knots, you can also buy yarns where the dye is a little off. So, we loaded up. That’s Donna at the counter and packing our yarn in bags.
I immediately understood that I was creating something special—I was touching Martie’s spirit at the same time as I was surrounded by women who mean so much to me. It was a powerful sense of time shared with people who bless my life and, I realized, I was knitting this very experience! No doubt, this shawl is destined to be one of my favorite projects…ever. I’m glad it’s still on the needles and, like a favorite book, I’ll be sad to see it come to a close. However, I rest easy in the knowledge that I can touch a beautiful spinner and deeply treasured friends and can wrap myself in this kind of warmth and goodness whenever needed. Yes, I am touching the sun. –Carmen S. Hall
KnittingDaily.com is sponsoring a 10-Day Blog Tour of Knitting Green, which will include stops with many of the book essayists and contributors. The timing couldn’t be better.
A couple of days ago, my sister called to rave about Knitting Green. The idea for Knitting Green came about when she visited and we mused about what my next book might be. Initially, we focused on the projects–things like shopping bags to replace paper or plastic bags; kitchen cloths to replace paper towels; and of course, sweaters, shawls, socks, and scarves to replace turning up the heat. But as the book took shape, I wanted to include something about the ecological dilemmas surrounding the yarn itself, similar to the issues brought up in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan investigates the carbon footprint of four very different meals.
Although she leaned to knit before I did, my sister didn’t take to it in the same way and I’ll wager she hasn’t picked up needles for a couple of decades. But I was interested to hear that even as a non-knitter, she found the book interesting and informative. Besides pointing out her favorite projects (ones that I suspect she hopes I’ll knit for her), she was most enthusiastic about the articles. Like a lot of people, she hadn’t given much thought to the “greenness” of knitting other than the idea that it was more ecologically sound to make something yourself than buy it a big box store. Before reading Clara Parkes’ essay The Gray of Green, she hadn’t considered that yarn itself has a carbon footprint, which can vary greatly depending on how the fiber was raised, processed, and distributed. I don’t think she’ll ever look at bamboo fiber the same, and she’ll certainly expect me to know the origin of the yarn in anything I knit her from now on. She found Pam Allen’s essay The Meaning of Organic equally enlightening. With so many regulatory hoops to jump through, it’s no wonder organic yarns cost a bit more. And she felt that Kristen Nicholas’s article Ode to Sheep is essential reading for anyone who gets lamb (or any other meat) wrapped in plastic and styrofoam at the grocery store.
I encourage you to digest the other educational articles in Knitting Green as well. In Darlene Hayes’s article It’s All About the Color, you’ll learn about the joys and pitfalls of natural dyes. A Shop Owner’s Dilemma by Lisa R. Myers offers insight to the practical limitations of running an environmentally conscious shop and explains how you can help your local yarn shop grow in a green direction.
For lighter reading, Sandi Wiseheart considers the difficulties inherent in eco-friendly knitting in It’s Not Easy Knitting Green; Carmen S. Hall offers a meditative look at how natural fibers connect her to past generations of knitters and bring her closer to inner peace in Touching the Sun Through Fiber; former earth-mother Kristeen Griffin-Grimes muses about the days before electricity and there was no time to knit for fun in Knitting Stone-Age Style; and Amy R. Singer suggests ways to use leftover yarn in earth-friendly ways in Too Much of a Good Thing?
For more ecological food for thought, I invite you to join the Knitting Green Blog Tour (sponsored by KnittingDaily.com), where you’ll hear from many of the book’s essayists and contributing designers in the days to come. Click on their names and visit them on the dates below:
June 6: Kristeen Griffin-Grimes (Knitting Stone-Age Style, page 109; Caterina Wrap, page 110)
June 7: Kristen TenDyke (Soap Nut Vessels, page 22)
June 8: Mags Kandis (Paris Recycled, page 142)
June 9: Cecily Glowik MacDonald (Solstice Skirt, page 18)
June 10: Veronik Avery (All-(North) American Hoodie, page 50)
June 11: Kimberly Hansen (Knitting enthusiast and reviewer)
June 12: Sandi Wiseheart (It’s Not Easy Knitting Green, page 67)
June 13: Carmen Hall (Touching the Sun through Fiber, page 89; Carmen doesn’t have her own blog so you’ll visit her via Ann Budd)
June 14: Katie Himmelberg (Eco Vest, page 14; Better Baby Rattle, page 56)
What you’re about to read is a true story, and like a fairy tale, it has a happy ending.
Last September, while on my annual retreat to Taos and Santa Fe with some of my best knitting buddies, I bought some Marianne Isager yarn to make the Sugar jacket from Marianne’s recent book, Classic Knits. In fact, four of us bought the same yarn (but in different colors) to make the same sweater. I bought extra yarn so I could extend the body beyond my thickening mid-section. We called it the Sugar Jacket Challenge. I lovingly placed the yarn in my to-get-to-next basket while I caught up with other work.
As luck would have it, I got busy and still hadn’t started at the end of October. But as in all fairy tales, fate interfered. In November, I attended Clara Parkes’s Knitter’s Review Retreat in western Massachusetts. One of the requirements was that we each bring a new project to start for ourselves on the last day of the retreat. I resisted the urge to take a pair of socks that were under a deadline and instead, I packed the Isager pattern and yarn in my carry-on bag.
Come Sunday morning, Clara gathered us for some concluding words. Because it was Massachusetts—and therefore because she could—Clara surprised us by conducting a group ceremony to join each of us to our new project in blissful matrimony. We repeated words of commitment and vowed to remain true to our projects to their completion, giving them our dutiful attention and forsaking all other projects (within reason) along the way. Then to seal the union, we cast on our stitches and had “witnesses” (read that anyone else in the room) knit a few stitches of recognition and confirmation.
Despite the hilarity of the situation, I found that this gave the Sugar jacket special significance to me. Not only did I buy the yarn with my closest friends, but I started the project in the most wonderful of environments—a weekend retreat with new-found best friends. I can’t remember everyone who knitted a few stitches on the body of my jacket(I wish I had kept notes), but they included Clara herself, Kathryn Alexander, Melanie Falick, and Anne Hanson.
When I returned home, I continued to give the Sugar jacket as much attention as I could. And I finished just in time to wear it while teaching at Midwest Masters in Neenah, Wisconsin in April. Since then, I’ve worn the sweater most every cool day (and there have been a lot of them this spring). I don’t know when I’ve been so pleased with a garment. If fact, I expect we’ll be happy together for a very long time (though now that I see a photo of it on me, I suspect the sweater will start looking for a more flattering partner).
The weather finally warmed up weekend and I decided that my dirty windows were interfering with my view of the sunlight on the flowering trees. So, I spent yesterday washing windows—all 24 of them—inside and out (each with 2 panes, I might add), as well as screens. I have the aching muscles to prove it.
While washing windows may not be notable (unless you’re like my sister who has never washed the windows in her house of 30 years—I’m not making this up, either), I made a startling discovery when I moved various piles and baskets of yarn and projects in order to get to the windows. I unearthed an embarrassing number of knitting bags and baskets.
I counted 17 knitting bags and 5 notions bags. When I sat down to unload the digital photo onto my computer, I realized that there were 3 more bags under my desk! Then I realized that I hadn’t included the handmade bag a friend made that I left in the living room. That’s a lot of bags. I certainly don’t need all these bags, but when I looked at them critically to decide which to donate to charity, I found myself loath to part with any one—each holds memories of a project or an event or a shop that I visited.
And here’s the best surprise—I found a half-knitted sock (along with yarn and needles) in one of the bags. I estimate that the sock has been in this state for two or three years, which brings me to a philosophical question—when does a work-in-progress, otherwise know as a WIP, become an unfinished object (UFO)?
Shortly after I posted a blog about learning to spin (New Tricks, posted April 2, 2010), I got an email from a reader named Anne in Reading, Pennsylvania. Anne complemented me on my spinning and asked how I went about starting my blog—she’s considering starting one of her own. Of course I replied, but I had to be honest and say that it was all mumbo jumbo to me without the help of a couple of very smart (read that computer-savvy) friends. I could never have figured it out by myself and I was not at all clever enough to help someone else. In response, Anne thanked me for my sparse information. Then she sent me a box of fiber treats to encourage me to keep spinning—five different kinds of prepared fleece, a pile of silk hankies, a dyeing kit, some beads, and even a twisted glass pendant that Anne made herself!
What Anne doesn’t know is that last week I had to return the wheel and spindle that I had on loan during the 5-week spinning class. What she also doesn’t know is that my husband said quite clearly that he hoped I would not take up spinning because, from his perspective, I can’t keep up with everything else and something important like the laundry or cooking dinner would slip. And he’s got a point—there have been many times when both have suffered as I was absorbed in my knitting, writing, editing, or reading. We both know that I don’t have time to knit all the yarn that I already have (but that’s beside the point).
But, now that I have unspun fleece in the house—and a gift no less—I feel a moral obligation to spin it. I figure that through Anne, the universe is telling me not to give up on spinning. Thank you Anne! The Estes Park Wool Festival is in a couple of weeks and I’m sure that there will be a spindle with my name on it.
Ever since the box arrived, I’ve been humming a line from a song Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music—“somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”