TBT: British Isles and Cloth Making

There’s a theory in the fashion world that a period of austerity or recession heralds a return to the comfort and familiarity of tried-and-tested classics.  In this way, we seek solace in what we think of as our heritage. Certainly, many of the collections in the shops for this winter feature designs that have their roots in the craft-based industries of the rugged islands in the north Atlantic that gave their names to some of the styles most closely associated with traditional British clothing – Harris, Shetland, Fair Isle. Today these iconic styles are widely copied by mass market producers  while the craft industries which developed them struggle to remain viable, the weaving of tweed on the islands of Lewis and Harris being a notable exception. However, they continue to define the way the places and people of the isles are thought of. For the practitioners too, making plays an important social role in how they see themselves.

Read the whole article from 2012 (really, a summary of research), Making the cloth that binds us: spinning, weaving and island identity, here; it’s not that long and is pretty fascinating.

TBT: Chiengora

The first time I heard of anyone spinning dog hair into yarn and then using it to knit with was when I was in elementary school in the 80s. We had new neighbors build a house on the hill above ours; they brought 3 fluffy Samoyeds that terrorized our indoor/outdoor cats. Mr. S wore hats and mittens that Mrs. S knit using yarn made from the dog’s fur. I was fascinated and a little disgusted (and probably more than a little angry that the dogs treed our kitties regularly.)

When I learned to spin in 2009, I was so obsessed with the process that I quickly used up the wool friends had given me to practice with and looked for other things to spin, like cotton balls. Once I ran out of those, I started eyeing Moose, our black retriever mix; parts of his coat are 3-4″ long. I dutifully from brushed him out a few times, washed the loose fur, and spun a little bit. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the results and I didn’t like them enough to keep them or use them.

Since then, I’ve heard lots and lots of tales of people spinning their pet’s fur. I supposed angora bunnies count, but that was a known quantity to me and not so unusual. Anyway, all of my disgust for this is gone. It seems like a pretty poignant way to remember a treasured pet and you can’t beat the wow factor of explaining where a particular fiber came from.

This brings me to the TBT part of this post. Chiengora isn’t a new or unusual thing. In fact, there was a dog bred to produce textiles. The Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest spun dog hair blended with other fiber and made blankets (and, I’m guessing, other textiles as well).

“A Woman Weaving a Blanket,” Songhees/Saanich (Central Coast Salish), Paul Kane (1810 Mallow, Ireland–1871 Toronto, Canada), Oil on canvas, 45.3 x 73.8 cm, Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum description of the painting:

“The men wear no clothing in summer, and nothing but a blanket in winter, made either of dog’s hair alone, or dog’s hair and goosedown mixed, frayed cedar bark, or wildgoose skin, like the Chinooks. They have a peculiar breed of small dogs with long hair of a brownish black and a clear white. These dogs are bred for clothing purposes. The hair is cut off with a knife and mixed with goosedown and a little white earth, with a view of curing the feathers. This is then beaten together with sticks, and twisted into threads by rubbing it down the thigh with the palm of the hand, in the same way that a shoemaker forms his waxend, after which it undergoes a second twisting on a distaff to increase its firmness. The cedar bark is frayed and twisted into threads in a similar manner. These threads are then woven into blankets by a very simple loom of their own contrivance. A single thread is wound over rollers at the top and bottom of a square frame, so as to form a continuous woof through which an alternate thread is carried by the hand, and pressed closely together by a sort of wooden comb; by turning the rollers every part of the woof is brought within reach of the weaver; by this means a bag is formed, open at each end, which being cut down makes a square blanket. The women wear only an apron of twisted cedar bark shreds, tied round the waist and hanging down in front only, almost to the knees. They however, use the blankets more than the men do.” (Paul Kane, “Wanderings of an Artist,” 1859:210–211)

The Yarn Office, The Post Office, and Fleece Washing

Over the last week or so, I’ve been super-busy. My knitting friends have been encouraging me for a long time (trust me: for at least a year) to start a shop, if not a brick-and-mortar yarn shop, then a shop on etsy, or really, someplace online. A brick-and-mortar yarn shop seems like a pretty high risk endeavor right now; several local-ish yarn shops have disappeared over the last few years: Capital Yarns and With Yarn in Front both in Chantilly I think, Eleganza in Frederick, MD, and at least 2 others (I’m too lazy to go dig up the thread on Ravelry). I can’t tell you how many people, not just in Loudoun Needleworkers, have longed for a local-er yarn shop. If FibreSpace in old town Alexandria ever decides to open a satellite store, my knitting group dearly hopes it will be all the way out here in Loudoun.

Not being such an entrepreneur type and being rather skittish about things like accounting, I have been procrastinating since June, when I vowed to make this yarn/fiber/artsy thing work. At Shenandoah Fiber Festival, Lisa, one of my LNW friends who’s been encouraging me for a while now, was as excited as I was about the fleeces I bought and told me she couldn’t wait to see what I did with them. Of course, a month passed before I even blogged about SVFF or did more with the fleece than move them out of my way. Last Wednesday, at our regular mid-week meet-up, Lisa told me about the project she had in mind for a batt from me. She had a project. She needed wool. She wanted to buy wool from me! What more could she do except come to my house, force money on me, and make off with wool? So, I started an etsy shop called The Yarn Office, what Ethan, my middle son, called the living room after I took it over with my spinning wheel, knitting books, etc.

So far, I don’t have much in the shop, just some batts that I made last spring, when another knitting friend, Jenni, let me borrow her drum carder to make a few batts. A week or two later, I made a few batts using my own carder, which Mr. Q surprised me with on Mother’s Day or my birthday (both in early May). I did finish the batts for Lisa, she’s purchased them, and I have those two initial sales to someone that I know & like and who will be able to give me feedback (or leeway) if something is wrong with the batts! And if something *is* wrong, I’ll be able to fix it super-quick without having to deal with the dreaded Post Office (of doom). I hate the PO, though of course I’ll be doing some desensitizing therapy in the form of shipping any orders I get by going to the actual building. (Yes, it’s silly that I have a Post Office thing, but there it is.)

I am cleaning fleece like a crazy lady. Well, really, just a lady with a purpose. I’ve used two methods so far on the cormo fleece, which is pretty greasy (but cormo! so worth it!). The first, the lock-by-lock method that Beth Smith of the Spinning Loft showed Jenni and I at the 2010 Spinning Loft Spring Retreat. It involves washing each lock individually using a bar of Fels Naptha (no, it doesn’t contain naptha – they should possibly consider renaming the product). This method was excellent for getting some of the super dirty locks clean, except the water I was using wasn’t hot enough to remove the lanolin and the batt I made from that wool was a little greasier than what I’d like.

The second method is the tulle roll technique also mentioned/shown/described during the Spinning Loft Retreat and detailed by Beth in Knitty’s Winter 2008 issue. Yesterday afternoon (Halloween!) I made rolls just like Beth’s but instead of using tulle, I used some more flexible white netting from some curtains I got a while ago (the curtain story is a post all by itself). Today, I washed the rolls. I filled up two buckets with really hot water, one with some non-enzyme-containing detergent (Ecos Liquid Laundry Detergent, which I bought at Costco while feeling guilty about my carbon footprint but not guilty enough to apply the elbow grease required to get it to work as well as Tide), the other with clean water. And away I washed. It went reasonably well, except that a few of the rectangles used to make the rolls were more like uneven parallelograms and some of the locks escaped. It could have been worse – most of them were still attached by a few fibers to their neighbors and I was able to keep everything together until it was time to dry them. I think for my next washing session, I’m going to use hot water, rubber gloves (with lotion on, killing 2 birds with one stone), and the Fels Naptha.

More soon (Thursday, if I’m with-it) on dying with mushrooms, pokeberries, bittersweet, and indigo. (I used indigo on the freshly-washed locks today, but indigo requires a post of its’ own.)

Catching Up: Shenandoah Valley Fiber Fest

For once I have too much to write about: SVFF, natural dye projects, the sweater I’m knitting out of my own handspun yarn, roller derby, and probably some other things I’m forgetting about. I’m planning on posting more about all of this stuff, particularly the natural dying (madder, mushrooms, pokeberry & bittersweet), but I’ve been remiss in blogging (or blah-ging, as the case may be) and feel like I have to catch up first.

Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival (SVFF) happens the last weekend in September just over The Mountains (the Blue Ridge Mountains, that is) at the Clarke County Fairgrounds in Berryville, VA. This was my second year helping out with the juried fleece sale and the Loudoun Needleworkers (LNW) booth, which were happily in the same building this year thanks to Alana, who did so much organizing I’m surprised she didn’t keel over in exhaustion before SVFF even started. I love driving out to Berryville for this festival; I would love to live farther out, in the country proper instead of suburban Leesburg. The 3 days I spent at SVFF were worth it for the drive alone, but it is a bonus that I carpooled with Steph and Alana.

Friday we got to the fairgrounds around 10 in the morning to set up the LNW booth, which we use to let the community know we exist and welcome new members, and to get ready to skirt and comment on sheep & alpaca fleece brought in for the juried fleece sale. We were a little bit too early; booth set-up went by in a flash so we sat knitting and chatting for most of the morning. From 1pm, when the fleece sale started, until about 4:30 we were in constant motion dealing with over 100 fleece. Although this year we were supposed to be on our own, we had help from some of the jurists from last year and without it, we would’ve been sunk. This is what the fleece sale table looked like when we left Friday evening:

Fleece Sale Table, SVFF, Friday PM

Saturday morning we got there by 9, if I remember correctly, and were off and running with fleece sales. We did the bulk of the selling on Saturday, with several on Sunday. Many people stopped to watch us spin, ask us about spindles and Alana’s Ladybug. An older gentleman from Texas stopped by looking for the woman who’d brought in cashmere from her goats; he had judged the goat competition earlier in the day and explained that there’s more cashmere out there than sheep fleece, but it’s expensive because it has to be de-haired by hand.

As she did last year, Alana got delicious wine from Fabbioli to share with all of the volunteers and we stayed after SVFF closed Saturday & took our time cleaning up on Sunday. Sunday we also made our annual group trip to Sonic in Winchester. Cherry Limeade! Cheese fries! Cherry Limeade! Thankfully, the weekend of SVFF Alise moved to Winchester and though we missed her at SVFF, we’re all very glad that she lives so close to Sonic; we’re half-joking that she needs to take our orders before coming to Sunday meet-ups. I’m sure we’d all chip in for some insulated bags to keep hot Sonic hot and Cherry Limeades cold.

I came away from SVFF with 4 fleeces and some other stuff:

SVFF stuff. Clockwise from top left: rambouillet x, alpaca, merino, cormo. Packets of alkanet, safflower, red sandalwood, sumac. 
Clockwise from top left: 
  • 4.5 lbs coated Romney X (3/8 Romney, 1/4 Tunis, 1/16 Leicester, 1/4 mixed, 1/16 Corriedale) from Hickory Hill Farm in Gore, VA 
  • 2.5lbs of multicolored alpaca (white with dark brown) from a farm that didn’t include a business card or info sheet with the fleece
  • 10.5lbs coated Merino from Black Sheep Farm in Leesburg, VA (you can see the crimp in that fiber even in this picture taken with my phone!)
  •  7.5lbs of coated Cormo from Lavender Hills Farm in Lineboro, MD 
  • Packets of alkanet, safflower, red sandalwood, sumac from … ah … uhm, a vendor who’s receipt I should’ve saved. 

I also got Rock Creek Yarn‘s knitting poetry magnets, which now live on a magnetic white board in The Yarn Office (formerly known as the formal living room).

The whole weekend made me miss Vermont and wonder why I left, why I never got interested in farming/horticulture (I’m guessing that like religion, it was forced on my parents & they wanted to give my brother and I the choice), and how old one has to be to do 4-H. Maybe I just need a farm and a mentor.