I met Ashley Yousling in person for the first time when she came to a Sit Knit Shop Sip gathering I had in the original Fringe studio back in Berkeley in late 2013, after we’d been online acquaintances for awhile. Since then she’s gone from @ashleyyousling to @woolful, launched her beloved Woolful podcast, and moved from San Francisco to a ranch in Idaho, where she and her husband are raising a son and a whole bunch of fiber animals, and aiming to one day build a mill. She’s been featured here multiple times in the past (don’t miss her guest post about her first sweater) but, especially given the major changes in her life/style — going from Silicon Valley graphic designer to yurt-dwelling Idaho rancher — I’ve been eager to get a closer look at her increasingly fiber-rich life. I’m so glad she agreed to answer my Our Tools questions, and know you’ll all enjoy this — thank you, Ashley!
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Do you knit, crochet, weave, spin, dye, sew … ?
Knitting is my first and forever love. It made several appearances throughout my childhood and teenage years, but never gripped my attention for good until the birth of my son. The needles haven’t left my hands since.
There are so many gifts that come from knitting — calming my mind, keeping my hands busy (fulfilling my desire to always be productive), exploring ingenuity in existing designs or your own, and the gift of the finished product whether for yourself or someone else. In my opinion, it’s one of the ultimate physical expressions of love, knitting for someone. The amount of thought, care and time put into the piece, every stitch, every row. Everything I’ve knit could tell a story of its own, its role in my own personal and fiber journey. The Mysig cardigan I co-designed and knit for the Tolt Farm to Needle book last year … knitting that design saw me through a very painful time in my life. Gosh, if stitches could talk.
I am very new to spinning and it’s coming in as a close second to knitting. I didn’t expect this at all — in fact, I was nervous to give up any of my sacred knitting time — but it’s actually filled a gap that knitting hasn’t. There’s a cadence to spinning that’s highly entrancing in a very giving way. I get a lot of calming energy out of spinning with lightweight focus and little energy put into it. A wonderful way to wake up in the morning. I’m getting to explore the fibers in a completely new way as well, learning their unique personalities and qualities. At the start of the year I began chronicling my spinning journey in a project called 52 Weeks of Wool. Each week I spin a different breed of wool or fiber from a fiber farm somewhere in the world, and I then share about my lessons in spinning, the specific wool and the farm it came from. It’s a lot of fun.
A couple years ago I began naturally dyeing, and it quickly became a fun hobby and way to explore the plants around me. I host a quarterly natural dye club through my little online shop, where I pick a small farm yarn base and then dye it with plants foraged from our property here in North Idaho. While I do love naturally dyeing, it’s a tremendous amount of work, and I’m learning I prefer to incorporate this as a Spring/Summer activity rather than a Fall/Winter one. My husband David and I are taking a mushroom workshop this Summer, and I’m really looking forward to being able to better identify mushrooms in and around our land, and eventually dye with them. It’s incredible how many colors you can get from mushrooms.
I do also sew, although not as much as I’d like to. I learned to sew when I was 6, when my mom had me attend a Summer sewing camp. We were taught how to sew three garments from patterns, and then at the end of the camp we had a fashion show for all of our families. My maternal grandmother is an amazing quilter, as was my great grandmother. My paternal grandmother was a maker and sewer that I can only hope to be one day, and together they’ve all instilled in me this strong passion for textiles and fiber. I have a strong desire to replace and add pieces to my wardrobe with garments I’ve made, but I haven’t yet been successful at carving out time to do so. Now that we’ve moved away from the city and have more space, I’m looking forward to upgrading my sewing machine and making use of the fabric cupboard, which is full of amazing colors and textures I’ve collected, just waiting to be used.
Tell us about your tool preferences and peccadilloes.
My go-to needles are Knitters Pride Karbonz circulars and Brittany DPNs. I love the pointy tips of the Karbonz and smooth grip of the carbon. Brittany needles are so smooth and are a joy to knit with, I hope they’ll carry circulars one day.
Once I find I really like something, I stick with it. I knit continental, and I often find my gauge is on the larger side and have to go down a needle or two. I’ve been considering trying wood circulars again to see if I can remedy this, as I tend to knit tighter with wood needles. But in all honesty, I’ve tried very few brands of needles. Maybe I should get adventurous and try others, and see if there’s something else I love more.
How do you store or organize your tools? Or do you?
My tools are organized in two bags: one I bought at your studio in Berkeley and one David got me from a little shop in the Dogpatch. I keep my DPNs in a prototype roll-up case I made. But if I’m being honest, these three are often haphazardly organized. I let Coltrane play with all of my needles and notions — it’s a way to keep him busy and feeling involved when I knit. David lets him explore his cycling toolbox, and I let him explore my knitting “toolbox.”
We converted an old milk parlor on our ranch to a charming little studio for my dyeing and other making. I love to work out there during the Spring and Summer, but it’s not equipped for the colder months. Soon we’ll be installing a little pot belly stove and electricity. Right now it houses a workbench with shelves for tools, a double burner propane camp stove, a table we made from a slab of Madrona, some crates we made into shelves and some wooden toolboxes and trays we’ve collected at antique shops over the years. One of the walls has a growing collection of fiber-related finds. It’s a welcoming and rustic space.
All my spinning takes place in front of the wood stove in our yurt. I store my fiber along with my yarn in a large cedar chest David bought me a couple years ago. My wheel lives next to the couch.
How do you store or organize your works-in-progress?
I used to be a monogamous knitter, but I have since graduated to multiple WIPs. I have a handful of Ambatalia Bento Bags, a Field Bag and, my absolute favorite, the large black canvas tote from your shop. Every project has a bag — usually my most active project gets the Field Bag, and the large canvas tote goes with me everywhere, whether I’m working from a cafe in town or traveling back and forth to SF for work.
We have yet to unpack all of our wonderful antique wooden bowls and baskets since our move to the ranch, but I’m looking forward to having my “catch-alls” back. I like to keep my largest wooden bowl by the door for whatever pleases me. I treat it like you would a key catch-all, but for yarn and WIPs.
Are there any particularly prized possessions amongst your tools?
The first thing that comes to mind is the large black canvas tote — it’s the thing I never knew I needed, but now can’t live without.
I’m really blessed to receive some wonderful things from listeners of the podcast, and each touches me so much. Someone sent me a beautiful collection of vintage natural dye books along with natural dye sample cards from the ’70s, I love those.
All the wool and fiber that folks are sending me from their flocks and fiber animals for my 52 Weeks of Wool project has been some of the most beloved gifts so far. From their farm and loving care to mine … it’s pretty special.
It’s such a shame that tote is history — I love it as much as you do. Do you lend your tools?
I love teaching or encouraging people to knit, and helping ignite a passion in fiber arts, so I will oftentimes give them a pair of needles or yarn to get started with and grab a replacement pair of needles online or when I’m in the city. A good friend of mine and I often talk about one of our primary goals in life is to be experiential philanthropists. I see fiber arts and Woolful as this, so anything I can do to encourage the gift that keeps on giving, that’s where my heart is at.
What is your favorite place to knit/sew/spin/dye?
Currently I do my most productive knitting while traveling — whether in the car, in an airport, in a hotel or on a plane. However, my favorite place to knit is at home in our quiet off-the-grid yurt, on my couch or bed, as cozy as I can get, with a cup of tea, some dark chocolate, and watching what’s going on out in the pastures.
I haven’t done a lot of knitting in groups, but I’m starting a local fiber night in our small town so I soon will!
What effect do the seasons have on you?
I love all seasons, but Fall and early Winter have a special place in my heart. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, so I’m used to the rainy (read: cozy) days and making the best of them with my knitting. Since moving to Idaho, I’ve been enjoying the more defined seasons and all they have to offer. Amazing dye plants during the Spring/Summer and woolly inspiration in the Fall and snowy Winter.
I knit year round, and nothing stops me from knitting with wool, even in the couple hot months we get during the Summer. There’s a renewed fervor with each season, to start new projects and finish others. This will be our first Summer where we’re caring for livestock and a large greenhouse, so it will be interesting to see how that affects my making.
Do you have a dark secret, guilty pleasure or odd quirk, where your fiber pursuits are concerned?
I have a habit of bringing 4-6 WIPs with me when I travel, for fear that somehow I’ll run out of things to do, or because I think I’ll actually make it through all of them.
My guilty pleasure is collecting antique and vintage fiber-related items. Primitive yarn winders, spools, bobbins, shears, hand carders, drying racks … and anything with a sheep on it or made to look like a sheep. The local shops know me as the sheep lady.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few designs for a collection coming out this Fall by one of my favorite brands, along with wrapping up a couple of self-published designs for Little Woolens.
I just counted how many WIPs I have, and I think I’m at 6:
1. Just about to finish the Morning Glory cardigan by Pam Allen in Swans Island Natural yarn, for David’s grandmother’s birthday in a couple weeks
2. Portland Pullover by Carrie Hoge from Taproot Magazine in Brooklyn Tweed’s Shelter, for the Woolful Knitalong
3. Lucinda sweater by Carrie Hoge in Moeke Heritage yarn
4. Rikochan shawl by Melanie Berg in Quince Owl
5. A sample of a hat design for Little Woolens
6. A sample of a mitten design for Little Woolens
PREVIOUSLY in Our Tools, Ourselves: Julie Hoover
Photos © Ashley Yousling