BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // A Verb for Keeping Warm is one of the loveliest fabric and yarn shops I’ve ever visited and yet it’s so much more than a supply store for San Francisco Bay Area fiber enthusiasts. This space also hosts community events, book launches, classes, fiber clubs, an outdoor dye studio, a full range of materials for knitting, sewing, weaving, and regular appearances by the knitting world’s luminaries. Yet it’s also just a friendly place to buy fabric. To browse craft books. To trail your fingers gently across naturally dyed yarns and find some respite from the bustling pace of urban life.
Kristine Vejar (@avfkw) is the owner of “Verb” and she’s also an avid researcher, dyer, maker, author and teacher. Her passion for creating connections in the natural dye world, inspiration for a homemade wardrobe, and dedication to supporting the handmade community all spill over into the aesthetics, energy and attitude of her beautiful shop. When you enter Verb it’s like you’ve entered Kristine’s auxiliary living room. It’s difficult to summarize Kristine’s contributions to the Slow Fashion community because they are so wide, wonderful and heartfelt. She’s a savvy businesswoman, an artist and author, and she’s just so good at making folks feel welcome in her space.
Her book The Modern Natural Dyer is iconic in the natural dye world. It’s exquisitely designed, highly informative, and chock-full of gorgeously styled photos. Yet I get the sense that all of this is just the beginning of Kristine’s offerings.
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A Verb for Keeping Warm is so much more than a shop. Was it always your intention to create a community gathering space when you opened?
Yes! Absolutely! The times in my life when I have felt most connected to others, and most understood, was through the act of stitching and making textiles.
I grew up within my grandmother’s knitting and sewing circles in rural Illinois. My grandma’s best friend, Doris, owned a yarn and gift shop named The Black Sheep. It was in a little house on the town square, across from the amphitheater where the local orchestra played Sunday evenings in the summer. Women were always gathered knitting and stitching. I adored going there as a child and still, in my memory, it is the epitome of a knitting store.
Years later, I went to school in India to study art and architecture. I found myself gravitating to a specific collection of bright, colorful textiles created by nomadic herders named Rabari. I traveled to the desert and found myself feeling at home amongst large groups of women stitching. Upon returning to the US, I learned to spin yarn and joined a spinning group. Again, in the circle of spinners, I felt at home. Oakland and the Bay Area have a lot going on. It can be overwhelming and exciting. I found that having a group to spin and knit with have helped me turn this big town into a small town. I felt I had a sense of place.
When I opened my first natural dyeing studio in Berkeley, I had studio sales and began to meet lots of people. By the end of the year, I rented another space, turned it into a little store, and more people began to gather for events and classes. Finally, I was at the crux of needing to decide the next direction for Verb. Would we move into a warehouse and cultivate a wholesale business, or would we go the community route and open a shop and school?
Due to my memories of stitch circles, I decided to go the community route and opened in our current location on San Pablo Avenue in 2011. I wanted to teach people how to use fiber, yarn, fabric and natural dyes. I wanted people to meet one another who share this same interest. And I hoped others would experience a sense of belonging brought on by textiles and community.
I think of others who make products similar in ethics to Verb as my community. So I felt that by creating a shop, I could support this community and carry their products — like Brooklyn Tweed, Quince and Co, Stone Wool, Spincycle, Manos, and Twirl yarn, as well as Merchant & Mills fabric, Fringe Supply Co. goods, etc. This year, we have traveled a lot to study natural dyeing and have brought a lot of materials and dyes home to Verb. It has been great to be able to support these independent artisans and farmers.
Verb focuses on sustainable, handmade, independently designed, small batch, or otherwise ethically produced fibers. Was sustainability always at the forefront in your work?
When I went to school in India, we traveled way out into the country. I stayed with a family and farmed. To be honest, it was hell. They had one cow, a plow and a mud hut. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with having only three things in life, if it is a choice and if there is a safety net – security that if your crop fails, you will not starve.) I spent my time there on my haunches in over 100-degree weather, weeding. I had already been pondering the differences in socio-economic conditions between people: why and how such disparity existed, and why it is acceptable. And in that experience on the farm, my world and perspective broke open. In the following days, everything I saw – t-shirts, pants, rice, flour, vegetables – I saw those farmers bent over, for endless hours and days. I thought if I am paying only 5 cents for a bag of rice (or even in the case of the $10 t-shirt in the US), given how many hands all of these products must have travelled through, what must the farmer earn?
Meanwhile, still in India, I wandered into a shop one day. There was a man behind the counter wearing clothing which in my mind looked traditional – or what I had seen in photos – a kind of cloth pill-box hat, and a shirt which had a short collar and 4 buttons along the chest. Behind him in glass cases were stacks of cloth and clothing. I asked to see these pieces. There was a rustic quality to them – although sometimes the fabric was very fine – there was an irregularity to the threads. I looked above him and there was a photo of Gandhi. I felt confused. He gave me a book to read. I had known that Gandhi led India’s fight for independence from Britain in 1947, but what I learned is that Gandhi encouraged people to spin their own cotton and weave it into cloth, in their homes, as a way to boycott their British colonizers. The action of making cloth undermined Britain’s financial hold on India. The cloth in that shop was handspun and handwoven. It is called khadi cloth. And to this day, the government subsidizes these shops. I found this incredibly inspiring on so many levels. Cloth having the power to either indenture someone or free them. Individuals taking the power back by creating their own cloth. And the fact that each person, in their own small way, can make a difference. Cloth was and can be a medium for social justice.
About a year later, when I was again in India, I was working with dyers. There were chemical dyes in puddles. I began looking into what these dyes were made of. And again, I questioned how the choices I was making through my consumption were altering the lives of others in negative ways. And how does the health of the Earth impact the health of humans? How can we co-exist with the Earth, work with our hands, and be healthy and financially stable? Why do we value and are willing to pay programmers or CEOs millions of dollars but not the people who grow our food and fiber? How can I redistribute this money to those whose work I believe in – those who treat people, the Earth, and their animals kindly. People who are purely profit-driven are behemoths. So how do I focus my attention and energy on all the “little people” whose work resonates with me.
I began to think about equality. No one should work so hard and have to suffer. And I certainly did not want to contribute to this suffering. In that moment, I wanted to make things better. I wanted to help increase the value of these everyday objects that are so easily taken for granted. Life is complex and complicated. I was stunned by what to do. I felt judgmental to insert what I believed should or could be done in a country that was not my own. So I returned home to the United States, where I thought that possibly I could engage in a conversation and/or create a product which could increase value for the work of those around the world. That said, I was really young and lost. I got a 9-5 job. It was a good job but not my passion. This came as another life lesson: There have to be others like me for which corporate culture makes them unhappy. I began thinking about the possibility of being able to create a company that could employ others, like me, interested in textiles and people.
And then the conversation about global warming began to be more widely discussed. I went to school for Art and Art History so I had a lot to learn (still do). I began to learn terms and theories – like thinking about my carbon footprint. Of course, from living in the Bay Area I was aware of Alice Waters’ work and growing food locally in order to reduce one’s carbon footprint and to support local farmers. So as I began my yarn line, I desperately wanted to have yarn made from local farmers’ wool. But it was a puzzle. Every time I could find local wool, it was really scratchy. I liked it but I knew it would not sell well. Natural dyeing is labor intensive and the dyes can be expensive. Every time I found soft wool, it was very expensive and available in small supply. I pushed forward using imported yarn.
Also, something to note is that investing in local fiber typically means investing a lot more money up front. In most cases, there would be a distributor who would make that initial investment and order thousands of pounds of yarn at once, and we would receive the opportunity to order small quantities of yarn on demand. As we have moved towards more local fibers, we oftentimes pay thousands of dollars for wool, which we will not see in yarn form for 6-9 months. Once we receive the yarn, we still need to dye it, so it could be a full year before that yarn hits the shelves. So before we could fulfill my mind’s eye, we had to have enough financial (and emotional!) stability to feel confident enough to take the plunge.
In 2012, I met Sally Fox, the notoriously independent, organic, colored-cotton breeder, and we hit it off. She lives about 90 miles from me. With her guidance, I made my first local yarn from the wool of her sheep and named it after her: Pioneer. We are now on our 4th batch of Pioneer and have made at least a half dozen other yarns composed of California and/or US wool.
There are more people now who care if my yarn is made of US wool, but for many years, and somewhat still to this day, there are other things of greater importance to customers – like color or price point. So using US wool is something that I care more about, and intend to supply, than the current demand. This is a risky place to be in — most business advisors recommend seeing where demand is and filling it. You know, give people what they want. I guess I am stubborn. For instance, we are in the process of shifting our yarn called Annapurna, which is made of imported superwash merino, cashmere, and nylon (an extremely popular blend industry-wide) to California Rambouillet wool. While it is soft, it is most definitely not going to be as soft as Annapurna and the hand is going to change slightly. We might really upset our long-term customers. So the question becomes: When might people alter the expectations (softness/color/hand), to support wool with a lower carbon footprint that will help the environment and which will support a local farmer? Or who knows – maybe the stars will align, everyone will love the new yarn and I will have spent many nights worrying for nothing.
I’ve come to learn that my days of working in 100-degree-plus weather on a farm are far from over as I’ve helped Sally over the years with her farm: planting cotton, dye plants, skirting fleece and lots of weeding. And still, as I’ve spent hours, and look out and see how much is left to do, or how there’s been too little or too much rain, needing to surrender to what is, I think of those farmers in India – and of the thousands of other farmers around the world growing fiber and food. And once again become committed to leveling the playing field, education and uplifting the value of farming.
There’s such an incredible community of textile artists, knitters, crafters, makers and otherwise insanely talented people in the Bay Area. Are there particular ways that you proactively engage community through the shop or through your work with teaching and dyeing?
We hold a monthly meeting called Seam Allowance that is essentially a support group for people who have pledged to make at least 25% of the clothing they wear on a daily basis. People share what they have been making, perhaps where they are stuck, and what they hope to make in the future. It’s been amazing to watch people’s progress. We have had people who just learned to knit make sweaters, and eventually learn to sew, and make dresses and shirts. And there is a sector of this group that has become really involved in learning about materials and is focusing on farm-raised, local materials.
We also host many teachers from around the world. It is wonderful to have the community come together to take class from these teachers. And then, like you said, we have very talented local artists and makers in this area and they teach at Verb as well. I love being able to support their work and to offer their products to other makers. We also offer a series of free knitting and sewing demos.
This year is different than prior years. Since June 2016, we have traveled to Iceland, Oaxaca, Indonesia and Japan to research natural dyeing. Usually, I am home nearly the whole year and teach natural dyeing about once a month and classes focused upon the work of Natalie Chanin and Alabama Chanin. Then, about three times a year, I host a community indigo dip, where people are invited into the studio to dip a piece of fabric and try their hand at indigo dyeing. Seeing first-hand dyeing of fabric in India was so life-changing for me that I try to expose people to the process of dyeing, spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing so they may be drawn into the process and engage! In 2018, I am planning to travel less, so we will be able to resume more of these community-specific events.
There’s been so much interest in natural dyes lately and it is so exciting to see a wider audience taking interest in plants dyes. Can you talk about the opportunity natural dyeing creates for you to connect with your garments or fibers?
It is so exciting! I don’t think a day goes by when I’m not in awe that color can come from plants and attach to cloth. The more I learn about natural dyeing, the more I realize I have only scratched the surface. For example, although I work with plants on a daily basis, I know .5% (maybe less, there is that much to know) about plants. There is SO much to learn regarding the different plant families and the properties of those families, and how their relationship to soil affects pigment.
Even scientists, such as botanists, are discovering new plants and learning more about plants on a daily basis – especially as it becomes easier to test genetics. In the past five years, a type of indigo grown in Japan shifted in name from Polygonum tinctoria to Persicaria tinctoria. Sometimes I find this overwhelming. I crave an answer. The answer. I want to understand. I don’t want the answer to change. For me, natural dyeing symbolizes the ability to surrender to the unknown, but finding beauty along the way, staying curious, being a student, and feeling uncomfortable because I am stretching my knowledge and understanding of nature.
I am most calm when I am in the woods. Natural dyeing is a way to bring the woods with me in the form of my clothing. Natural dyeing is a challenge. How can a rich, beautiful palette, possibly consisting of 100 colorways, be made with 7-10 plants? How have people around the world used materials found within 100 miles of their homes to create clothing, embedded with color and motifs, which upheld their culture and community through the cultivation of their distinct local fashion, where the clothing is worn with pride of place, as a signifier of connection to the land upon which they live and work for survival?
The Slow Fashion movement is so exciting right now for the multiple ways it’s engaging makers — dyeing, mending, sewing, knitting, weaving — but I always try to consider the way folks might engage if they aren’t at a technical place to make their own garments. What do you suggest for folks who are truly beginning or not yet making clothing?
There are so many points of possible engagement. Anything from purchasing clothing secondhand to purchasing clothing from a local designer, possibly one who is manufacturing their clothing locally, and possibly also looking closely at the materials chosen to make the clothing. Learning to thread a needle and take a few stitches. Dropping into a yarn shop and acquiring yarn and needles to make a simple garter stitch scarf. Try dyeing a piece of clothing.
Have a few extra hours? Perhaps a local farmer, small yarn producer, or designer needs an extra set of hands. Maybe you are a writer, and can lend your voice. (If I have to read one more New Yorker article about the dawn of time, and not have textiles mentioned as an incredibly influencing factor over just about everything, I am going to scream.) Or an artist, who could create a piece of art reflecting the images and portraits of things you find inspiring and motivational. A song would be great!
People might laugh at my answer, but I truly think for this movement to take root, we have to explore the natural affinities clothing shares with other pillars of our culture – like food, shelter, art, literature, music and dance. Plus, that crossover can be so interesting, and draw in more people who have not previously thought of clothing as more than something to just cover one’s self. And sometimes, from the inside, it is hard to see. So having someone new come to the table and add to the experience is a wonderful thing.
You have a beautifully handmade wardrobe ranging from knitted garments to sewn garments, dyed garments and so much more. What have you learned to be the best combination for patterns, fibers and colors? We’re all looking for that magical combination in a homemade garment that we can wear over and over again. Do you have a formula like, say, neutral colors in natural fibers that are loose fitting? Or is it more serendipitous?
Aw, thanks Katrina! You know, funny enough, I have a long history of making things that wouldn’t be called basics. I do have a history of following fashion, i.e. making things that go out of style. The first time I sewed my entire wardrobe was when I was going to work in Washington D.C. at the Textile Museum in 2001. It was January. I had been working at Poppy Fabrics (R.I.P.) and I made my pants, blouses, dresses and coat. I loved everything I sewed but it was made solely for that experience. I was there to work as a consultant for about two months. None of that clothing transitioned back into my life in Oakland.
The same thing happened when I returned to D.C. that summer. And again, when I went back to India to live. And now it continues: I find myself most apt to sew when I am about to go somewhere. I make these little collections. The geographic location and climate cultivates the restraint around what design I choose and the materials I use. Otherwise, I find the process can feel too open-ended. Some of these pieces do make it into my daily wardrobe. Currently, this tends to be a collection of linen dresses which I mainly wear to keep cool.
I am what some might call boring. I tend to like all neutrals and indigo blue, and all natural fibers, especially linen, cotton and wool. The focus of my clothing is more where the fiber is grown and what it is dyed with than a high level of technical sewing skill. My knitting tends to be more technically adept. Although because I find myself dialed in so much to my dyeing, which can be quite fussy, I will fully admit to wimping out and forgoing a sweater pattern because it is written to be knit in pieces (rather than seamless). So in other words, I am most satisfied when I enjoy the process of making, the materials I am using, and then feel comfortable wearing once complete.
Lastly, tell us three tools you personally cannot live without.
My Addi Turbos! Specifically the super sharp Rockets and the interchangeable lace needles with long handles. I love that these are made in Germany and are traceable. They are smooth and help me knit very fast!
My camera, as it helps me to record a visual journey of my time traveling, researching and creating.
My dye journal so I can understand how I have achieved specific colors and to learn more about plants.
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer
Photos © Kristine Vejar, used with permission