Archive for the ‘Wool’ Category

Wovember round up and rats

December 6, 2011

I had meant to post a lot more wool related posts in November, and even did the research for some, but life intervened, and suffice it to say that I am glad to see the back of November. It was a mess of applying to schools, illness, holidays, injury, and general overwhelmedness. Welcome, December!

So what did I do for Wovember? It wasn’t cold enough to dress primarily in wool for much of our November, but I did work on my happy fun times spare time project, which is a Jewel Lake Pullover for me in yummy Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Worsted. I made two wool hats for my offspring, and we wore our hats and scarves when the temperatures dropped at all. I read up on the history of sheep farming and wool production. I looked at the Wovember blog a lot. It’s good to have the occasional reminder of what we’re doing and why, and why material matters. I’m sure some of what I learned will be informing my work as I go forward, and I’ll try to share more as it becomes cohesive and coherent.

Incidentally, isn’t this color, Poppy, gorgeous? It is such a lovely opaque red with just the right amount of orange. I love the color and I love how Shepherd Worsted feels while I’m knitting it. This is a seriously relaxing project when I get time to work on it.

This isn’t scientific or sensible or anything, but this does sort of circle around to what Wovember made me think about wool. The comfort inherent in sheep hair is astonishing. I think there’s something about touching this material that is good for the senses. It’s not just that it feels soft – many wools are not exactly soft – but the lanolin in the wool often leaves my fingers feeling better than they did before I touched wool. I know too much vegetable matter in yarn is bothersome, but a little is a reminder of where it came from – a living breathing animal that spends its time outdoors and is intimate with vegetable matter. Wool has a scent that may not be perfumed, but is a real animal smell, not unpleasant, and deeply connected to a larger world. And of course, wool keeps us warm when we wear it. No wonder so many stores wish to capitalize on these unspoken qualities of wool that the word can call to mind. It is a large comfort in a world that often demands comfort.

Hey, I promised you all pictures of our new pet rats and failed to follow through. So for your viewing pleasure, let me introduce Clio

and Amelia, who doesn’t really hold still for pictures.

Aren’t they cute? They are extraordinarily naughty, but we’re glad to have them. Rose is, too, though at times they are too rambunctious for her taste. She’s getting to be a very staid lady rat, and she doesn’t have the energy of the little ones.

I have some thoughts on the knitting world and the male gaze that I’d like to get in order, so if you have anything you think would be pertinent to such a discussion, let me know. Twitter seems like the best way to snag me lately, sadly enough.

Wovember 2nd – Merino

November 2, 2011

What’s Wovember? Look here.

By far the most common knitting wool in use today, merino was not always so accessible. Sheep originate from Asia Minor and parts of Europe, but the ancient Phoenicians, in their role as importers and exporters, introduced them to the North African region, and from there they were imported to Spain, Wikipedia suggests as late as the 12th century. Compare this to England, where sheep were introduced by Neolithic settlers around 4000 B.C.E.

Superwash merino dyed by Sundara Yarns

Spain made up for lost time, though, by breeding a fine wool sheep. The Spanish imported English sheep to improve the quality of their stock and between the 12th and 16th centuries they became major wool exporters. The new breed, Merino, had a small body and soft, fine wool with a short staple. The flocks were owned primarily by powerful land owners in Castile who formed a guild known as Honrado Concejo de la Mesta. They formed agreements to allow the nomadic sheep right of way along Cañadas Reales (drover’s roads) still legally protected for sheep to this day, though the laws are no longer strictly followed. Some of the older cañadas may be neolithic in origin, following the paths laid out by migratory herd animals. Sheep can graze in areas too unstable for arable farming, so the sheep moved freely through the no man’s land between Islamic and Christian Spain, moving with the seasons, and making the members of the Mesta, who included many Spanish nobles and Church officials, rich. Members of the Mesta were exempted from military service. Exportation of their precious Merino sheep was punishable by death. Their power and wealth grew and wool money financed much of the Castilian economy. With only Spain and England as the only European wool exporters, it seemed like the wealth was only going to continue growing.

Single ply merino, dyed by Malabrigo Yarns.

Habsburg Spain, however, had become overdependent on the wool money of Castile. The Mesta’s power was too great, the sheep too cossetted. The powerful Mesta began to ignore the cañadas, allowing their sheep to trample farmland without fear of repercussion. The land of Castile became barren. Crops failed, and grain had to be brought in from outside the region at great expense. The price of food staples skyrocketed. The economy was in trouble for other reasons as well. Near constant wars fought largely on credit had brought Spain into difficult straits at a time when it was still recovering from plagues and famines of the previous centuries.

In the 18th century, Spain relaxed its hold on the merino and began exporting small numbers of live sheep to other countries. The first major exportation, though, would come in 1765, when a large number of sheep from the Royal Escurial flock were sent to Saxony. In 1786, King Louis XVI purchased more than three hundred Spanish Merinos, the foundation of what would become the Rambouillet breed, which would in turn be the basis for the Australian Merino. Merinos have served as the basis and backbone for many sheep breeds around the world since they became available as breeding stock. The world at large gained access to the Merino sheep after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, during which time many flocks were killed or destroyed by the invading army.

Undyed Rambouillet yarn, from The Sincere Sheep.

Today, the sheep that once was a protected state valuable is now the most common in the world. Almost all finewool breeds today are at least in part Merino. There are worries that a preference for merino wool may be endangering some of the more rough coated sheep, as the fall prices of wool in favor of synthetic fabrics have made the wool industry a costly and losing business proposition for many sheep producers.

Extreme close up of superwash merino yarn, dyed by Little Red Bicycle.

(Note: Most information in the above post was obtained through specific web searches for information. I did try to find more than one source for much of the above, but there may be inaccuracies. Please let me know if I’m wrong in any specifics.)

On wool and Wovember

November 1, 2011

I grew up in Southern California, where average winter temperatures rarely drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so I didn’t really have much need for warm winter woolens.  I’d heard tales, though. Tales of itchy, scratchy, terrible winter garments that were warm, yes, but that made you wince when you wore them, embarrassing things that your mother knit for you with love and no sense of your personal style. Wool was a bogeyman.

I know now that the wool of my nightmares was damaged wool, apparently common in the sixties and seventies in the U.S. when the price of wool dropped steeply due to demand for synthetic, washable fabrics and made wool production less desirable to sheep growers. The first superwash yarns were developed in a hope that washable wool would be more desirable to the public. Unfortunately, the early treatments burned the scales off the wool though carbonizing, leaving something washable, yes, but uncomfortable and ugly. Poorly treated wool behaves as any hair will when mistreated. It splits and burns and frizzes and if you then decide to wear it on your body, you are braving all those pokey little ends sticking into you. Of course it was itchy. It was abused wool.

Picture from Medical Sheepskins. You can see the natural scales on the wool at the left.

My first challenge to the notion that wool was a terrible itchy material used to punish children came rather late in the game, when I had started knitting and was getting ready to branch out into more sophisticated yarns than the synthetic blends I’d been using as starter materials. The very first knitting books I purchased for myself were from Rowan, and without knowing anything about brands or materials, I started looking for Rowan yarns online. My first pure wools were glorious Rowan tweeds, specifically Yorkshire Tweed. It felt quite unlike the terrible itchy menace I’d been imagining all those years, soft enough that I knit a next to the skin sweater for my toddler daughter. Knitted up and blocked, the wool was soft and strong and lovely. The more she wore it, the softer it got.

Today, it’s easy for knitters to get quality wool yarns (though most are now merino, which is a rather limiting palette in a world of unique wools) but wool labeling has gotten shamefully lax for the average consumer. I can find many items labeled as wool on J. Crew’s website, for instance, but no details on what percentage of wool these items actually contain. Nordstrom has a similarly opaque system; they list the materials used in the manufacture of their items, but not the percentages. Is the wool item you’re paying for 60% wool or 12%?

This wool blanket from Nordstrom contains wool, but how much?

There’s no way of knowing without a clear labeling system that includes standards for using the term wool. The Wool Product Labeling Act of 1939 does introduce some rules, so you can’t call something wool in the U.S. unless it contains wool. But what percentage of wool is up for grabs. Anything over 5% is fair game, and frankly, I don’t consider a 6% wool product to be accurately labeled as wool. (There’s a more comprehensive explanation of wool labeling here.) The product is labeled in percentages by law, but apparently it’s OK to leave the percentages out when you’re creating an online listing.

What are the advantages of a true wool? Wool is hygroscopic.  To quote from The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, by Clara Parkes, “Hygroscopic means that the fiber is able to absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture while still feeling warm and dry against your skin. This helps the fabric breathe, readily absorbing and releasing moisture to maintain a steady ecosystem of comfort against your skin, no matter how cold or damp the external weather may be.” The advantages to a hygroscopic fabric in winter weather are obvious and manifold, but wool is more than this. It’s fire-resistant, it doesn’t conduct static electricity, which means it stays clean more easily than most fabrics, it’s long wearing and tough, and it can stretch a third of its length and still return to its original shape. Clara Parkes again, “Despite over a century of effort, not a single manmade fiber yet possesses all these amazing qualities.”

Wool is completely, totally marvelous, which is why I want to support the efforts of Wovember, a joint project from Kate Davies and Felicity Ford. This November is all about wool, glorious wool, and the humble sheep that provide it.

Over the following days and weeks, I’ll be posting about wool and photographing some of the wools in my stash. I hope to see lots of exciting woolly posts from a lot of my knitting friends, too! Wool for life! *chest bumping/secret knitter gang sign here*


May 11, 2009

On April 26th, we went to Sheep Shearing Day at Ardenwood Historic Farm.

We arrived after the shearing itself was over, but still in time to see plenty of formerly woolly ruminants looking svelte and wary after their haircuts.  The sheep in this photo are keeping a close eye on the border collie crouched at the edge of the field.  She herded them all into a trailer for travel to another field shortly after I snapped a few pictures.

The Ardenwood sheep are a mix of breeds, and unfortunately, I didn’t write down which ones, though I think some are Corriedale.  Whatever the case, while there were some fleeces that were not as appealing, many were long staple with a heavy lanolin scent and a beautiful hand.

Ardenwood is run as a Victorian era California farm, with a working horse drawn railroad, a variety of animals, and crops in regular rotation.  It’s a lovely weekend destination for Bay Area families, and it was a real pleasure to go there again.  We hadn’t been in over a year, and it was nice to see so much going on.  The costumed park attendants were hard at work sorting, combing, carding, and spinning the wool, and the kids got right in on the action.

Gabriel found the looms fascinating and spent a little time learning to weave.  The little loom had a very simple cloth pattern on it, but there was a more complex one further down the table.

Liam and Eleanor were more excited by the carding, which was being done on a hand cranked machine.

In the barnyard, we arrived just in time to feed the newly shorn sheep.  While the adult animals looked a little eerie with their short cuts and alien eyes, the lambs were as charming as only lambs can be, and all were only too glad to accept handfuls of timothy and alfalfa from the children.  The Ardenwood staff make it clear that you are to drop the food where they can reach it, but several times an overzealous sheep pulled it from an outstretched hand before it was let drop.  Eleanor was accidentally kissed by a sheep and was made very happy by it.

All in all, it was a delightful day.  The weather was perfect, and the outdoors and the animals and the space and the children all conspired to make a perfect time out.  It was hard to ignore the fact of work, though, in this family outing.  While we missed the vigorous act of sheep shearing, the outspread fleeces and heaps of wool bespoke a long and arduous journey from sheep to cloth.  The woman I spoke to told me it would take the entirety of the coming year to spin all the wool.

Because Ardenwood is a living museum of times past, all this work is and will be done by hand.  And while for most of these days, handiwork is a luxury, for the Ardenwood staff it’s a job.  The woman I spoke to was a spinner.  She told me that she’d done it for pleasure for many years, but that working at Ardenwood had dulled her pleasure and that after she left, she’d actually given it up for a time.  She’d only returned to spinning after a break of several years, and only returned to the farm last year for the shearing.

This, to me, is an interesting part of the history of handiwork.  It’s a very enjoyable activity only when it’s not an intensive daily slog.  As a small child reading Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie, I remember being struck by how much Anne and Laura hated sewing, an activity that sounded interesting, fun, and relaxing to me.  But it wasn’t as though I had to sew a stitch if I didn’t want to.  Any sewing I did was unskilled and done solely for the pleasure of doing it.  Anne and Laura both achieved competence and even mastery in the craft, but neither enjoyed it because it was something they had to do even though they had no real interest in it.  This is much how I feel about vacuuming or cleaning the kitchen.  I might even enjoy the results of my labor, but the labor itself is not something I want to think about.

Ardenwood is beautiful this time of year, and for idle adventurers like me and mine, paying a small fee to go and harvest corn or card wool or feed livestock is a joy.  For others, it’s work.