When you see a cute handmade sweater, you know it took a long time to make.
Knitting or crocheting is only part of it. (A fun online calculator at www.lovecrafts.com estimates how long it would take from a basic scarf to a blanket, baby booties or patterned garment; figure between 20 and 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 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 sheared this fall. She sells her yarns online and at local markets, and gives her quirky dyes quirky names, like Sea Glass, a dreamy water-hued blend; Fireflies, in the starry colors of the night sky; and Autumn Drive, evoking a ride through an autumn forest.
“Dyeing is chemistry,” she says. “Although the process we use is a simple heat and acid-vinegar process to fix colors, the underlying chemistry involves the bonding of a color molecule to a wool molecule. More or less molecules , color more or less intense.
She found that using water from the local municipal system created unpredictable colors, so she turned to well water instead. Yet there is an element of luck: more rain means more minerals in the water. “More minerals mean my reds can be more orange, my blacks break up and go gold. It’s crazy,” she says.
Myrrh has a good group of reliable and “stable” colors, but also what the indie dye world calls OOAK: One of a Kinds.
“The magic of what the dye gods gave me that day,” she says.
Different fibers take dye in different ways. Alpaca hues tend towards pastels because they don’t absorb as much color. Nylon and silk absorb 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 has a strong, silky character good for many woven projects.
The 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 yarn and other textile products using techniques with low environmental impact, including recycling water and using little or no additives.
Britt-Marie Alm, who runs Love Fest Fibers in San Francisco, offers small-batch yarns from sustainably operated mills on the West Coast, Nepal and Tibet. Alm has had a decades-long love of Tibetan culture ever since he joined a community service project at a local high school. She learned spinning and weaving techniques from Tibetan artisans and now supports several women-led collectives there and in the United States.
Her soft, chunky yarns include Color Core, in which she weaves ethically sourced merino wool around colorful organic cotton fiber; the result looks like a woolly Twizzler. Alm came up with the idea during the pandemic.
“I was spending more time indoors, as we all were, and became captivated by the amazing weaves made by customers exploring inside our yarn,” she says. “Their techniques centered around cutting the threads to show the inner cross section, and it was mesmerizing – the textures and color gradients were just stunning.”
Along with her partners at the Washington State factory — a mother-daughter team that also breeds a few alpacas — she developed seven Color Core colorways.
Love Fest also offers a naturally fluffy yak yarn called kullu, which looks like cashmere, without the sheep shearing.
“The last few years have seen a reinvention of what yarn can do,” Alm says. She cites a range of knitted and crocheted homewares, from baskets and rugs to pillows and poufs. The chunky yarn and huge stitches that make these projects possible, she says, are more than just visually striking.
“It’s also very gratifying to be able to complete a project so quickly. It has captured the imagination of a new generation of fiber artists who learn to knit a big basket and then go on to explore macrame and weaving,” she says.
Sustainable options for yarn now also include recycled linen and plastic fiber.
“I grew up crocheting and knitting so many polyester and acrylic yarns; it seemed such a shame that more recycled materials were not being used,” says Alm.
She worked with her mill to create ReLove, a fiber that blends plastic water bottles with merino to create a soft, chunky yarn available in colors like denim, curry, fog and leche. The sets contain 40 meters of yarn, which saves about 10 plastic bottles from landfills, she says.
Other notable independent operations include farm/mill combos like Red Hill Fiber Mill in Taswell, Indiana, which raises alpacas, runs educational tours, and spins and sells yarn and wool products gleaned from their herd. Lydia Christiansen’s Abundant Earth Fiber, on Whidbey Island north of Seattle, features wool spun from East Frisian sheep that graze just down the road from her mill.
Myrhe and Alm say that independently made dyes and yarns tell stories that make a knitted piece more valuable to the wearer.
Myrhe loves the journey that the dyes take her on. Often her best finds, she says, are “happy accidents,” and she tries to jot everything down quickly. “I lost a lot of treasures thinking I would remember and save later. I couldn’t remember, and the most beautiful coppery red eluded me for years, only to be found by chance a few months later.