When you see a cute, handmade sweater, you know it took a while to make.
Knitting or crochet is one of them. (A fun online calculator at www.lovecrafts.com estimates how long it would take you for everything from a basic scarf to a blanket, baby booties, or patterned clothing; count 20 to 80 hours.)
Before that, however, there are those who make the threads. Independent artisans are making new things with wool and other fibers, including recycled plastic, as well as with dyes.
Samantha Myrhe, owner of RavensWood Fiber Co. in Nova Scotia, Canada, started a dozen years ago with a few sheep, and her third generation of lambs were shorn this fall. She sells her yarns online and in local markets, and gives her original dyes original names, like Sea Glass, a mixture of dreamlike water hues; Fireflies, in the starry colors of the night sky; and Autumn Drive, evoking a walk through an autumn forest.
“Dye is a chemistry,” she says. “Although the process we use is a simple, heat and acid vinegar process to define colors, the underlying chemistry involves the binding of a color molecule to a wool molecule. More or less molecules, more or less intense color.
She found that using water from the local municipal system created unpredictable colors, so she turned to well water instead. Still, there is an element of luck: more rain means more minerals in the water. “More minerals means my reds can be more orange, my blacks break and turn gold. It’s crazy, ”she said.
Myrh has a good group of reliable and “stable” colors, but also what the independent dye world calls OOAK: One of a Kinds.
“The magic of what the dye gods gave me that day,” she said.
Different fibers take up the dye in different ways. Alpaca shades tend towards pastel, as they don’t absorb as much color. Nylon and silk absorb the dye and, when mixed with merino wool, provide a beautiful depth of color.
Some dyers are exploring other types of wool including yak, cashmere, and Australian Polwarth sheep, which have a strong, silky character ideal for many weaving projects.
Wool gets high marks for durability; as the International Wool Textile Organization notes, it is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable. Around the world, many farms, studios and workshops produce yarns and other textile products using techniques with low environmental impact, including water recycling and the use of little or no additives.
Britt-Marie Alm, who runs Love Fest Fibers in San Francisco, offers yarns in small batches from sustainably operated workshops on the West Coast, Nepal and Tibet. Alm has a long-standing love of Tibetan culture since joining a community service project at a high school in the area. She learned spinning and weaving techniques from Tibetan artisans and now supports several women-led collectives there and in the United States.
Her soft, thick yarns include Color Core, in which she weaves ethically sourced merino wool around a colorful organic cotton fiber; the result looks like a woolly Twizzler. Alm came up with the idea during the pandemic.
“I spent more time indoors, like all of us, and was captivated by the incredible weaves made by clients exploring the inside of our yarn,” she says. “Their techniques centered around cutting the threads to show the interior cross section, and it was fascinating – the textures and color gradients were just stunning.”
Along with her factory partners in Washington state – a mother-daughter team that also raises a few alpacas – she developed seven Color Core colourways.
Love Fest also has a naturally shed fluffy yak yarn called kullu, which looks like cashmere without the sheep shearing.
“In recent years, we’ve been rethinking what yarn can make,” says Alm. She cites a range of knitted and crocheted household items, from baskets and rugs to pillows and ottomans. The thick thread and huge stitches that make these projects possible, she says, are more than visually striking.
“It’s also very rewarding to be able to do a project so quickly. It has captured the imaginations of a new generation of fiber artists who are learning the skills to knit a large basket and then continue to explore macrame and weaving, ”she says.
Sustainable options for yarn now also include recycled flax and plastic fiber.
“I grew up crocheting and knitting so many polyester and acrylic yarns; it seemed such a shame that more recycled material was not used, ”says Alm.
She worked with her factory to create ReLove, a fiber that mixes plastic water bottles with merino to create a soft, thick yarn available in colors like denim, curry, fog and leche. The sets contain 40 meters of wire, which saves around 10 plastic bottles from landfills, she says.
Other notable independent operations include farm / factory combinations like Red Hill Fiber Mill in Taswell, Indiana, which raises alpacas, conducts educational tours, and spins and sells yarn and wool products gleaned from their herd. Lydia Christiansen’s bountiful earth fiber, on Whidbey Island north of Seattle, includes wool spun from East Frisian sheep that graze just down the road from her mill.
Yarn enthusiast Michelle Thymmons has compiled a list of popular Instagram thread dyers in North America and Europe on her website www.vamicreations.com. They include a multigenerational family at Bumblebee Farm in Davis, Illinois that raises sheep and rabbits, dyes and makes their own knitting fibers, and runs Harry Potter, “The Lord of the Rings” and themed yarn clubs. “Game Of Thrones . “
Knitwear and pattern designer Norman Schwarze in Munich, Germany has a worldwide compilation at www.nimble-needles.com that includes Vivid Wool outside of Reykjavik, Iceland; Wishbone sons in South Africa and The Blue Brick in Ontario, Canada.
The Yarnspirations company has developed a new format for the ball of yarn itself – a lifeline-shaped ring called an O’Go which it says is less prone to tangles. O’Go is available under different brands and in a range of colors.
Myrh and Alm say independently produced dyes and yarns tell stories that make a knitted piece more valuable to its wearer.
Myrh loves the trip the dyes take her. Often times her best finds, she says, are “happy accidents,” and she tries to write everything down quickly. “I lost many treasures thinking I would remember and record them later. I didn’t remember, and the most beautiful coppery red escaped me for years, only to be found by chance a few months later.
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