This post was written in 2013 on my former blog. It is one of several pieces I have moved to Holy Sparkle so that all of my writing can be found in one place.
I learned to knit in college but I didn’t learn to love it until several years later. In Fall of 2012, there was a week in which I saw spinning wheels everywhere that I went. The rhythmic treadling and slow turning of the wheel completely entranced me. My birthday was fast-approaching and thus I decided that I should buy one immediately, in spite of the fact that I had never sat down at a wheel in my life. Since then, I have learned a lot about fleece and have come to love wool immensely. Dyeing and spinning my own yarn has heightened my awareness of animal fibers and how valuable they are. Many domestic sheep breeds are recognized as endangered by groups such as the FAO and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. We tend to associate the word ‘endangered’ with animals that are multicolored and exotic, not with the four-leggeds that one might find on a farm. In reality, these ancient sheep breeds can be likened to heirloom vegetables: genetic diversity is important across the board and fiber animals are no exception. The DNA of the rarest sheep breeds contain invaluable genetic traits which are often overlooked in favor of sheep that have been bred to acclimate well to standardized systems of meat and wool production.
As fiber artists become more aware of these issues, they find themselves seeking out breed-specific yarn in an effort to support the heritage breeds that are currently at risk. At your local super craft store, it is not unusual for the label on a skein of yarn to read 50% ‘wool’ (although honestly you would be lucky to find a skein in a superstore that isn’t %100 synthetic!). Yarn Whisperer Clara Parkes compares this to buying a bottle of wine made with ‘grapes.’ The wool characteristics of one breed is entirely different from the next and they all have qualities worth studying, differentiating and saving. Today, synthetic fibers account for over 65% of global production, a percentage which is steadily increasing every year. As the authors explain in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, “the industrialized world prefers synthetic fibers because they are more standardized, relatively cheap, and easier to manage on a large scale than are natural fibers.” However manageable synthetic fiber production may be, the fact remains that synthetic fibers require a high input of energy to make, a process which releases harmful compounds into the air. This alone is a wonderful reason to choose wool whenever possible! And yet the list goes on: wool is highly absorbent, has antibacterial properties and is %100 biodegradable. Choosing the right wool will benefit the given breed, the fiber farmer, and in many cases, the economies of developing countries. Wool is beautiful, smells wonderful and will keep you much warmer than any lab-made material, trust and believe me.
Now, I will climb down from my soap box and say a word or two about my love affair with fiber art.
I love the fact that, maybe someday, I could raise a sheep, shear it, wash the fleece, comb it, dye it, spin it, knit it and finally, wear it. While other people might wonder if its worth the time and trouble, I get great satisfaction from watching things grow, transform, change shape.
I love to know the origins of things, to know that a particular garment or item has a history, especially if I have been some small part of that history. I love the barnyard scent that just barely lingers on the wool, proof that the fleece was indeed worn by a living, breathing animal. I like washing wool that still has plenty of vegetable matter to pick out. I love watching the colors change on the bobbin when I spin the fiber that I have hand-painted myself. I love my silver dye pot and my warm, wooden knitting needles. I love my spinning wheel, previously owned by a librarian in upstate New York who never had the time for her. Ship her to Florida, I said, and I will put her to work. I call her Susannah and she spins smoothly, nearly silently.
I love the way the stitches in a project hug one another and how meditative the repetitiveness of a pattern can be. I love that I can put my handwork down or tuck it away without having to clean up a large, sticky mess. As someone who is often wiping wet noses or cleaning spills or wondering what sort of slime is on my arm, I love how marvelously dry my fiber art is. I love it that I can put it in my basket and bring it with me to a tea house and knit as I chat with friends, something I could have never done with the large canvases that I painted in high school. I love my basket of yarn, how it fills up with the mill-spun commercial yarn that I practically pilfer from thrift shops along with the delightfully uneven handspun yarn that I have made myself. I love looking in that basket and thinking about what I will make next.
I love that the art that I make these days is utilitarian, even if it only is used a few weeks out of the year, through a handful of Florida cold fronts. No one has to wonder what it means or what it is for: its a hat and it will warm you on a cold night. I love a day like today -one that is chilly and sunny- in which every member of my small family is wearing a single piece of the knitwear that I made just for them. I love it so much that I can’t wait to start working on the next thing, lusting after patterns, choosing the particular sheep breed specifically for the project, combing or washing the wool, dyeing and spinning it and finally, knitting and wearing it. Yep, I love it enough to do all that for one simple hat.