Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

It’s interview week here on Fringe! This one is by Jess with Hanahlie of Hinterland, who I had the pleasure of meeting last year — remember this? — along with another exquisite swatch by Jess. But I also want to mention Hinterland’s first pattern collection just came out, with the colorwork cardigan I’ve been waiting for a better look at! So, so good.
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

I’m not sure how I first heard of Hinterland – maybe it was through Instagram, or maybe it was an interview with Hinterland’s founder, Hanahlie Beise, on the Woolful podcast. Regardless, I’d heard only good things about their yarn and was stoked when Hanahlie reached out and offered to send me a couple skeins of their Canadian Rambouillet-alpaca blend, Range. Hinterland is a hyper-local labor of love based in Vancouver Island in Canada, and has only been around for about two years. But once I had the yarn in my hands, I knew it was something unique and quite special.

It sparked an idea to do something a little different for this edition of Swatch of the Month (or “swatchbuckling,” as Karen and I half-jokingly refer to it). I wanted to learn more about this yarn and how it came to life. I pitched the idea of doing an interview with Hanahlie, and she graciously accepted! So with this post, we’re getting a behind-the-scenes look at Hanahlie’s life on an alpaca farm and her vision for Hinterland and their line of yarns.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

JS: Hey Hanahlie! As the owner of Hinterland Yarns, you now run an alpaca farm and produce an entire line of yarns. But that wasn’t always the case. Can you tell us about what you were doing before Hinterland, and what led you to wanting to build your work more around fiber?

HB: Before I started Hinterland I was working as a photographer and a graphic designer at Caste Projects, a design studio owned by my husband and me. It felt like I was in front of a computer every day, and that was the case most of the time. My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and I needed a change. I longed to be outside, working with animals, doing things with my hands.

I have always loved material, texture, pattern … textiles in general, so was trying to come up with ways on how I could incorporate those things into my new business. I was big into needle felting, and made this massive bear mostly for an experiment, but also for a design show that was happening in Vancouver at the time. I learned how to knit, and discovered this amazing fibre community. We moved from Vancouver to Victoria (on Vancouver Island), and my search for wooly beasts began.

Originally I was hand-spinning yarn and experimenting with blending alpaca with other fibres. But as my herd grew, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the hand spinning. I started buying more fibre from neighbouring farms who have animals but don’t use the fibre. I’d blend it with mine so I was able to meet the minimum requirements of the mill and away I went! I first experimented with blending with Corriedale wool, and other wools, but once I found Rambouillet merino, I knew I had it! I finally settled on 50/50% ratio, and I think it’s just perfect for garments now.

It sounds like your alpaca flock came together almost by accident or chance. How did you decide that you wanted to focus on alpacas, rather than sheep?

Alpacas were sort of a surprise. I was on the hunt for sheep — I still love sheep and hope to have some one day. There was an ad online for a farm retirement sale, and with that were about 20 yearling alpaca boys. So I thought, why not go out and look at them? I hadn’t really been around alpacas or llamas before, and when the owner took me into the field, all these yearlings came running, jumping, pronging toward me – it was the cutest thing ever. They were beautiful and somehow mystical … and totally stole my heart. After that day I went home and started doing as much research on alpacas as I could, and basically about four days later I bought my original six.

As a farmer and business owner, what does a day-in-the-life of Hanahlie look like?

Typically I get up and take my dogs for a hike or a run. I love that part of the day, being outside first thing with those two. Once they’re tuckered out, I usually head to the barn to do my regular alpaca clean up and feed. I try to get all of my chores done by around 11 or 12 so I can have the rest of the day for computer work. If I don’t have a lot of online orders or emails to respond to I get down to packaging finished yarn, or sorting raw fibre into my next yarn order. It seems like I always have plenty of packaging or sorting to do. Those jobs are never done.

Tell us more about your alpacas.

Over the years my husband and I have been taking on rescue alpacas, shearing for the animal shelters here. When we can, we’ll take them home — and for the ones we don’t have room for, we try to find them homes. I wish I could take them all. We are still pretty small, just 16 alpacas and one llama.

Alpacas and llamas are really interesting. They are very intelligent and have excellent memories. I have gotten to know all of their unique personalities over the years. We have one boy, Bronson, who’s a bit of a bully, but also just a goof. Nutmeg is always looking for treats, so will trot up close and give kisses. Then one of the new rescues, Arthur, who is a very sweet boy, likes to just follow me around wondering what I’m going to do next. They’re all different, so it’s just nice to be around them watching them interact and listen to them make their little hums and grunts.

Their fibre is really amazing too. It’s lightweight because the fibres themselves are hollow (similar to the structure of human hair), so they also retain heat very well. Because the fibres are fairly straight, it creates amazing drape in garments. I love that aspect of it too.

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Hinterland yarns are blended with Canadian born and raised Rambouillet and Corriedale sheep, and you even carry a Washington-grown Navajo Churro lopi. Why did you choose to incorporate these specific breeds into your family of yarns?

The Navajo Churro came originally as a felting fibre, but because I had bought so much from that farm in Washington I ended up making some rug yarn and lopi with it. Navajo wool is somewhat similar to Icelandic wool in that it has a soft downy undercoat as well as a coarse guard layer so it is suitable for lopi. I’ve been learning how to weave, so have high hopes of making some hand-woven rugs with my Navajo yarn one day.

I was originally trying to blend my alpaca with Corriedale wool, before I got into the Rambouillet. I thought the alpaca could balance out a more rustic wool like Corriedale. It is a beautiful yarn on its own, still very soft, but didn’t quite have the loft I was looking for. The ladies at the mill convinced me to try out Rambouillet, so I did! The Rambouillet is a merino sheep, so it’s got a lot of lanolin (which I love), the wool is incredibly soft, with lots of bounce and loft. It ended up being the perfect blend with my alpaca.

Hinterland yarns are woollen spun and minimally processed. Can you tell us more about your vision for Hinterland and how that informed the development of your family of yarns?

I wanted a more rustic feeling yarn that was suitable for our climate up here on the coast. It’s generally pretty wet up here, so woollen-spun fabric is warmer and fluffier, so softer feeling against the skin. Canadian merino-type sheep (like the Rambouillet merino) have had to adjust to living in a harsher climate so the wool ends up being more dense and wild. It’s still amazing and soft wool, but not as consistent to something like New Zealand merino for instance. I also wanted to make a garment yarn, so needed something that would balance the alpaca out and create a yarn with memory and bounce.

The wool and fibre is washed just with organic and biodegradable soaps by hand, then picked, carded and spun with old machinery. It’s not perfect, but I kind of love that aspect of it. It’s a very old, mom- and daughter-owned mill, so I am happy to support them too.

Sounds like supporting Canadian wool farms and mills is very important to you. What are the biggest benefits and challenges of staying committed to a locally-sourced and produced yarn?

I am constantly learning about the wool industry here — what it was, and what it has become. Canada was once a big wool producing country with many mills and wool-producing farms. A lot of the machinery that is still here is very old, very few people know how to do repairs, so a lot of the time they are working with equipment that has been on its last leg for a while. Many wool-producing farms have also bred meat stock into their herd to create a more dual-purpose farm, but which often lowers the quality of the wool. That’s not always the case, for sure, but it is something I have come across.

Plus, it has been challenging to find consistent farms to work with, but I think that’s because so many farmers here are getting to a retirement age and are not as interested anymore. I am getting there, but I definitely have to work with many farms in order to make a viable production. I am sure that is the case for most yarn producers, but it is a learning curve for me!

Regardless of the ‘what it was’ though, I am very excited about the future of farming in Canada. I feel like I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the yarn I am making, and it has allowed me to reach out to other wool- and fibre-producing farms to help support them by purchasing wool they have otherwise been unable to sell. That part feels really great too.

Another benefit to this for me is that as my yarn business grows, it will allow for us to take more rescue alpacas and llamas into our herd and grow in that way too. That part makes me feel really good, because there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get an email about some animals needing to be re-homed.

What’s next for Hinterland?

Along with continuing to make my yarn — eventually coming out with few new weights — I do have a few other plans for Hinterland and how to grow the business in another way. I’ve been conceptualizing a new project that is called Colour in the Cauldron, which is a natural dye research and residency programme that takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Oaxaca we will be visiting the five main valleys around the centre of Oaxaca to visit and learn from various master weavers and dyers. Alongside these tours will be an intensive natural dye course where we learn about the natural plants and insects in the area traditionally used to create vibrant colours.

My long-term plan for Colour in the Cauldron is to open up the residency to various parts of the world that have an ingrained textile history. Places like Peru, Guatemala and Iceland are currently top of mind for various reasons, but there are just so many amazing places in the world where textiles are an enormous part of cultural identity and storytelling. This could be a lifelong journey of exploration and learning.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

THE SWATCH

Once the yarn arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait to swatch with it. The last time I knit with alpaca was years ago for an ill-fated hat with a 100% alpaca yarn that felt very dense and heavy. So I loved that Hinterland’s yarn was blended 50/50 with Rambouillet to give it some lightness and loft from the wool, while still retaining the softness from the alpaca.

Range has a rustic, nubby look and the strands oscillate between thick and thin. With the Maple colorway, you can even discern fine red fibers twisted around the center core of the yarn, with flecks of cream and tan. It’s incredibly soft, and I can easily see this yarn become a slouchy, simple ribbed hat or a stockinette cardigan that would allow the yarn to speak for itself.

However, I was itching to see how this yarn worked up in cables, and I couldn’t get the cables from Michele Wang’s newest design for Brooklyn Tweed, Auster, out of my mind. I’m happy to report that the cables look simply stunning in this yarn, and I’m already plotting to make a wide, cabled scarf in this stuff.
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

Yarn: Hinterland Range in Maple colorway (gift from Hinterland)
Needles: US7/4.5mm wood needles
Gauge: 21.5 stitches / 25 rows = 4 inches in cabled pattern, below

M E T H O D

For the cable chart, please see the Auster pattern by Michele Wang in Brooklyn Tweed’s Fall 2016 Collection

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Yarn and swatch photos by Jess Schreibstein; farm photos © Brian Van Wyk, courtesy of Hinterland

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

EDITOR’S NOTE: All I’m gonna say about Jess’s column this month is it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it. Iceland 2017 or bust—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

One of the great ironies of my twenties is that I went to Iceland before I was a knitter. I knitted a little bit – mostly hats and fingerless gloves and things like that – but didn’t know anything about Iceland’s knitting history, its iconic yoke sweaters, the fuzzy skeins of lopi. But when yarn is being sold in grocery stores and sheep are everywhere you look, you quickly get the idea that understanding knitting’s place in Iceland is central to understanding the country itself.

This was back in 2012, shortly after the country’s financial crisis, and that striking yoked sweater known as a lopapeysa seemed to be the uniform for all Icelanders — a source of national pride and identity. Ragga Eiríksdóttir (raggaknits on Ravelry) was interviewed during the recovery about just that, saying that following the collapse in 2008, “suddenly everyone started to knit Icelandic sweaters like crazy” as both a return to their roots and as backlash against the banking and globalization that had seemingly brought the country to this place. This isn’t just a casual observation – Ístex, the country’s biggest wool manufacturer, is now producing twice the amount of wool yarn as it did nearly 10 years ago. This quote from Árni Árnason in The Reykjavik Grapevine sums it up well:

It resembles the country’s rugged nature and reminds us of the history of farming and fishing when it provided its wearer with a vital shield from the disastrous weather one can encounter in the wild. Furthermore it appeals greatly to the disillusioned and globalised 21st Century traveller. It’s as close as one can get to the source without shovelling shit in a sheepfold.

This resurgence in knitting had me wondering (like with the Aran sweater from last month’s post) about the origins of the lopapeysa. As you drive through the country, sheep are clustered in nearly every valley and mountainside. They seem as ancient and integral to the landscape as the moss or the waterfalls. Surely, I thought, Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, right? But the recent digging on Arans gave me pause before assuming that the iconic sweater had been around for just as long.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ICELAND

Vikings began arriving to Iceland between 870 and 930 CE, first settling in what is now Reykjavík and then moving on to settle the remaining arable pockets of countryside. In 930 CE, the Alþingi (pronounced “Althing”) formed to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth, the oldest national parliament in the world. Leaders from across the island met at Þingvellir (pronounced “Thingvellir”), a huge rift valley that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s now a national park, just a short drive northeast from Reykjavík, and is stunning and awe-inspiring to see in person.

By any measures, life has never been easy on Iceland. When it was first settled, the North Atlantic was in the middle of the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than usual – a period that lasted until about 1250 when Iceland fell into the Little Ice Age until the mid-19th century. Within the first few hundred years of Vikings’ arrival, the country transformed from a lushly wooded landscape to arctic desert – mostly due to deforestation, overgrazing by cattle and sheep, and farmers pushing the land to the brink of what’s possible to survive.

After the Icelandic Commonwealth fell apart in the 13th century, the island was controlled by a mix of outside powers – the Norwegian Empire, the Kalmar Union (a united Norway, Denmark and Sweden), and later Denmark. For centuries, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was ravaged by two outbreaks of the Black Death in the 15th century; a smallpox epidemic in the 18th century; and continuous natural disasters and volcanic eruptions made survival a constant struggle.

But through it all, Icelanders remained committed to their history and identity. The sagas and eddas, written in the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries, are some of the greatest accomplishments in world literature. They detail the history and genealogy of early Icelandic settlers and many Icelanders can trace their family lineage back to figures in these stories. The literacy rate is near-universal and has been since the end of the 18th century, and I remember speaking with an Icelander while I was there who credited this high literacy rate with Iceland’s ability to rise out of poverty in the 20th century. During and after World War II, the country prospered substantially, driven by the industrialization of the fishing industry and the Marshall Plan, receiving more aid per capita than any other country in Europe. In 1944, they gained independence from Denmark.

I’m telling you this not because it’s related to knitting, but because it’s central to understanding who Icelanders are. They have been living for centuries in one of the most remote and unforgiving landscapes in the world, and have somehow risen above those odds to become one of the most prosperous, highly educated, creative and independent people of anywhere. These are some of the qualities that I admire most in Iceland and its people, and ones that I see come through in their knitting.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

KNITTING ON ICELAND

When the Vikings first arrived, they brought sheep with them. Bred in near-total isolation for centuries, Icelandic sheep have become one of the purest livestock populations in the world. Icelanders have relied on them for centuries for meat, milk and fiber (and still do), but now the rest of the world knows them primarily for their fleece. Their fleeces are dramatically double-coated. The outer coat, called tog, which has a mohair-like quality, is most suitable for outerwear. The inner coat, called þel (pronounced “thel”) is fine and incredibly soft. These two fibers can be spun separately, but they’re often spun together.

The word lopi simply refers to roving, but Icelandic knitters realized that they could knit with lopi instead of spun yarn to create a light but durable sweater. Traditional lopi can be found in a plate or disk, called a plötulopi , which is harder to find outside Iceland. Most commercially-available lopi is a lightly spun yarn that can be found in aran, bulky and superbulky weight.

The oldest piece of knitting found in Iceland is a mitten excavated at the Stora Borg farm in southern Iceland, dated to early 16th century, but written sources about knitting suggest it’s likely been around much longer. All people knitted, both men and women, and children were taught to knit very young. Everyone was expected to complete knitting tasks that were equal to their age and ability. For women, that might be a pair of socks each day, and for kids, a pair of mittens each week. Other objects have been found on other farms across Iceland too, but as you may suspect, the lopapeysa is not one of them. The story of that iconic garment is a much more recent one.

THE LOPAPEYSA

There are a few things that unite all lopapeysas. First, they’re always knit in lopi, usually a bulky weight. Second, there’s usually no shaping, so most designs are unisex. Lastly, there’s a unified pattern or design sweeping across the yoke.

As for the origins of the sweater, there are a few theories. But maybe the most convincing theory (and also most surprising – for me, anyway), suggests that the yoke pattern was inspired by the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. I had never heard of this garment before, but after a quick Google image search, you’ll see the connection. A nuilarmiut is an intricate, brightly-colored beaded yoke that’s part of a traditional Greenlandic woman’s costume for an important ceremony, such as a wedding or national holiday, and has become a powerful symbol of Greenlander identity.

Greenland and Iceland share a long history, shaped in part by their close geographic proximity but also their history of Danish rule. Laurie Bertram, a history professor at the University of Toronto, writes that the nuilarmiut/lopapeysa connection was likely fostered by a 20th-century Norwegian land claim campaign and handknitting revival movements in both Iceland and Norway. She then points to Kate Davies and Harpa Hreinsdóttir’s book Yokes for more of the history.

Davies writes that a Norwegian knitter and activist named Annichen Sibbern Bøhn drafted the first knitting pattern using the nuilarmiut as inspiration around 1929, basing her pattern on the beaded collar depicted in George Schnéevoigt film, Eskimo. (Davies writes about this a bit on her blog if you want to see photos.) Annichen named her pattern Eskimo, and combined the structure of the circularly-knit Norwegian sweater with the patterning of the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. Annichen was a pretty rad woman – she spent 1927 traveling around Norway and documenting traditional knitting patterns, which were compiled in her landmark book, Norsk Strikkemonstre. During WWII, she and her husband were active in the Norwegian Resistance. If you’re interested in learning more about her, you can check out a PDF of an article that Terri Shea wrote for Piecework Magazine here, and thanks to Terri, now order Annichen’s reprinted book here.

Davies and Hreinsdóttir argue that the adoption of a Greenlandic pattern by a Norwegian woman was a political act, a deliberate stance of independence in response to a scramble between Norway and Denmark over Greenlandic resources and territory at the time. The pattern was published in several magazines and eventually spread to Iceland, where Hreinsdóttir suggests that the pattern and its roots took on new meaning for Icelandic knitters. Following Iceland’s independence in the 1940s and the Cod Wars of the ’50s and ’70s, the lopapeysa — a hard-wearing sweater made from Icelandic lopi — symbolized Iceland’s independence from foreign powers. The sweater took on a life of its own and went on to become a cornerstone of the Icelandic handknitting and tourism industry and the icon we know today.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

THE SWATCH

Knitting with lopi was obvious for this swatch, but the design options were seemingly limitless! I picked up a copy of Védís Jónsdóttir’s book “Knitting with Icelandic Wool” from my local library for some pattern inspiration, and was struck by the tree design in Jóhanna Hjaltadóttir’s pattern Ár trésins. It was originally published in the 1960s or ’70s, but the design looks geometric and fresh, as if it could be designed today.

I’m also not sure how this happened, but I had never knit with lopi before! It’s light, lofty and knits up super fast. It’s also pretty affordable compared with other bulky yarns (under $10 per skein), which is great if you’re going to make a big, cozy colorwork sweater with it. Since the colorwork yoke of any lopapeysa is worked in the round, I knit the swatch in the round as well.
—Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

Yarn: Álafosslopi in Black, Light Grey Heather and White
Needles: US9/5.5mm metal needles
Gauge: 16.5 stitches / 18 rows = 4 inches in colorwork pattern, below

ME T H O D

For the colorwork chart, please see Védís Jónsdóttir’s “Knitting with Icelandic Wool.”

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

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Swatch of the Month: Aran sweater legends

EDITOR’S NOTE: You all know how I feel about an Aran sweater, and can imagine how my heart raced when I first saw this swatch. This is another delicious post by Jess to occupy you today or this weekend, and we’ll be back next week with the Top-Down Knitalong kickoff! Woohoo, see you then—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

There’s one style of knitting that perhaps has an aura of myth above all others, one that even non-knitters know and admire. You know the one – the Aran sweater. Oceans of cream cables laden with symbols. Worn by fishermen on the Aran islands for thousands of years. Each sweater inscribed with unique motifs that could identify a fisherman’s drowned body after his ship was lost at sea.

Funny thing about those legends – they’re not true.

THE HISTORY

When we talk about “Aran sweaters,” we’re talking about the heavily cabled, cream-colored sweaters that hail from the Aran Islands, a cluster of three islands in Galway Bay off the coast of Ireland, named Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Their cliffs jut dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky soil doesn’t make for fertile farming, but tenacious men, women and monks have called these islands “home” for hundreds of years. It’s a land full of pagan myths and history. Do a quick search online for photos – it’s magical and  gorgeous.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Aran islanders’ lives were incredibly hard. They subsisted on simple crops like potatoes, and kept pigs and cows along with sheep for wool. Surprisingly, they didn’t make their living off of fishing – while the islanders were experienced fishermen, they weren’t able to afford boats large enough to take full advantage of the nearby fisheries. By the turn of the century, islanders were reliant on exporting kelp to the chemical industry for fertilizer for most of their income. Famine, crop failure and poverty were a persistent reality. 

And guess what? Up until the early 1900s, there is no historical record of what we now call Aran sweaters. In fact, the only evidence of knitting on the islands is of wool stockings.

THE MYTHS

In 1936, a man named Heinz Edgar Kiewe stepped into a Dublin shop and happened upon a sweater. It was a striking cream pullover with a center panel of braided cables and an intricate combination of zigzags, twisted stitches and moss stitch framing the center braids. A photograph of the sweater was later published in “Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns” (1943), the first book ever to publish an image of an Aran sweater.

Kiewe, a Prussian-born, self-styled anthropologist, is responsible for much of the resulting international fame of the Aran sweater, as well as the fables surrounding it. He later went on to write books like The Sacred History of Knitting (1971) in which he makes dubious claims about the history and origins of the Aran sweater and its cable motifs. In one such claim, he argues that a figure in The Book of Kells (circa 800 CE) is wearing a knitted catsuit, and therefore the Aran sweater has clearly been around since that time period. Taking a closer look at the image, it’s easy to see that the heavily-stylized figure could be wearing a woven outfit, a knitted outfit, or no outfit at all.

Another pervasive myth is that the Aran sweater was made for and worn primarily by fishermen. In fact, there is no evidence that the Aran sweater was ever a traditional fisherman’s garment at all! All photographic evidence points to Aran fishermen wearing ganseys that were likely bought on the mainland and produced by contract knitters in Britain — ganseys being thinner, seamless garments with underarm gussets for movement, and decorative knit-purl patterning contained to the upper portion of the sweater. What the earliest photo evidence of Aran sweaters shows, according to Deirdre McQuillen in her compact history “The Aran Sweater,” is that the heavily patterned white sweater may well have gotten its start as a communion sweater for children.

As for the story that the Aran sweater was used to identify a dead fisherman? This fabrication likely arose from playwright J.M. Synge. In his play, Riders to the Sea, a drowned man is identified by the dropped stitches in one of his stockings.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE TRUTH, ACCORDING TO ALICE STARMORE

At this point, it’s worth noting that the strongest argument I’ve found for the origin of the Aran sweater is from Alice Starmore’s book, “Aran Knitting.” I read several other chapters regarding Aran sweaters in classics like “Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans” by Gladys Thompson; “A History of Hand Knitting” by Richard Rutt (also a key source for McQuillen); and “Knitting in the Old Way” by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. None were as detailed and thorough as Starmore in digging into the history and questioning assumptions about the origins of the craft. Starmore, a revered Scottish knitting designer, clearly has an axe to grind against Kiewe and others who have perpetuated the Aran myths. The book is worthwhile for the gorgeous patterns alone, but it’s her thorough research into the history and dismantling of the fabrications that make it such a gem.

Starmore makes quick work of Kiewe’s crockpot history. But then she digs deeper, and actually visits the eleven Aran sweaters in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. The true history of the Aran sweater, she argues, can be found right where it started – in the knitting itself. From this evidence, Starmore draws several conclusions about the construction, style and patterns of Aran sweaters. I have condensed and paraphrased some of her key findings here, but encourage you to check out her book for more detailed explanations.

First, the Aran sweater evolved from the traditional Scottish gansey. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was established to help stimulate the economy on the Aran Islands, primarily with farming and fishing. Around the turn of the century, the Board brought in Scottish women, known as “herring lassies,” to help energize the fishing industry. These women were experts at gutting, filleting and packing fish, and were most numerous on the islands during World War I. And whenever they weren’t working or were taking a break, they were knitting. It’s most likely that Aran women learned Scottish gansey knitting techniques from these herring lassies.

As techniques for knitting sweaters didn’t arrive on the Aran Islands until the early 1900s, any claim that an Aran sweater “tradition” is hundreds of years old, and has been passed down generation to generation, rings false. As the hand knitting industry began to pick up in the 1930s, Starmore argues that the development of the sweater design and patterns became heavily influenced by commercial considerations – basically, what would sell to tourists. Some examples of this can be seen in the color choices, weight of the yarn, and designs of these sweaters. The earliest Aran sweaters that Starmore has identified were cream, red and navy, but she thinks that the classic white won out because it shows the stitches most clearly. Same goes for the heavy weight of yarn used, which create bold, striking patterns with the greatest visual impact. Lastly, the most dominant patterns in Aran sweaters have evolved from openwork patterns, chevrons, and delicate twisted stitches to ropes, braids, honeycombs, diamonds, moss stitch and bobbles – a combination of patterns, she argues, that won out because they were most marketable as masculine fishermen’s sweaters. Of course, these are her own conclusions, and it’s very possible that the common design elements of the Aran sweater evolved for a variety of additional unknown reasons.

So, what is an Aran sweater? Starmore defines it this way:

An Aran sweater is a hand knitted garment of flat construction, composed of vertical panels of cabled geometric patterns and textured stitches. On each piece of the sweater there is a central panel, flanked by symmetrically arranged side panels. The use of heavy, undyed cream wool is a classic – though not essential – component of the style.

Of course, when knitting your own Aran-inspired sweater, you can take any bit of this definition and follow it, discard it, or evolve it to make something that’s truly unique and your own.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE SWATCH

When knitting a swatch for this month, I knew I wanted it to include two elements – the yarn must be a natural cream wool, and the knitting must include cables. Lots of cables. Beyond that, the possibilities for a classic Aran sweater are seemingly endless, as you can incorporate any variety of rope cables, braided cables, twisted stitches, bobbles and more into a pattern.

For my yarn, I chose one made with wool right in my backyard – Cestari’s Traditional 2 Ply Worsted, a heavy worsted-weight Columbia Targhee wool raised and spun in Virginia. During the trade show in June, I had the chance to meet Francis Chester, the owner of Cestari Sheep and Wool Company, and pet, squish and admire his 2-ply that I had heard only good things about. The yarn is a very sheepy wool – it’s minimally processed and has a high lanolin content, making it feel slightly waxy when you knit with it. And it’s hardworking. I’d imagine that anything knitted with it would last generations, and the fabric benefitted from a good soak to block and soften it. (I bought my skeins from Tolt Yarn and Wool.)

As for the cables, I’ve knit plenty before, including rope cables, honeycombs and twisted stitches. But I had never worked braided cables, so I decided to knit a swatch that included a group of them, as outlined in “Swatch 8” in Starmore’s book.

The exciting thing about this family of cables is that they become increasingly more complex as you move right to left. The two cables on the right are basic plaits, the first with four strands and the second with five. The center braid is identical to the second braid, but with a single purl stitch worked between each rope. Moving even further to the left, the next braid shows the knit stitches moving across the purl background by one stitch before crossing over each other. The final braid on the far left is the most complex, incorporating all of the crosses of the previous two braids. Overall, Starmore’s swatch was a fantastic study in braided cables, and one I’d highly recommend practicing to increase your understanding of cable construction.
—Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Cestari Traditional 2 Ply Worsted in Natural
Needles: US7/4.5mm bamboo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 28 rows = 4 inches in braided cable pattern, below

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

M E T H O D

For the braided cable charts, please see Alice Starmore’s “Aran Knitting”

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PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

Swatch of the Month: Herringbone Churro

For this second installment of Swatch of the Month, Jess has really outdone herself! This is a rich and meaty post, and I hope you’ll spend some time with it today or over the weekend. And please have a lovely one! Here’s Jess—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

When you visit Oaxaca, one of the first things you notice are the textiles. Hanging from doorways, draped across clay walls and clotheslines, piled up on tables, spread at your feet. The landscape is a rolling expanse of tans, sage and stormy blue mountains, but the buildings, the clothing and the woven rugs are a riot of color – fuchsia, peach, indigo, marigold. Zapotec weavings are ubiquitous in Oaxaca and particularly in the small village of Teotitlán del Valle, where I stayed for a few days for a one-on-one weaving residency.

As I’ve talked about on Fringe before, I visited Oaxaca in 2014 for a wedding but extended my stay to study under Federico Chavez Sosa, a third-generation master weaver who taught me to weave rugs in the traditional Zapotec style. On my final day in Teotitlán, I knew I had to take home a few skeins of the rainbow of Navajo-Churro wool yarn that hung along the walls of his workshop. I wasn’t an active weaver then and am still not now (hope that a bigger space that accommodates a floor loom could change that someday), so it never occurred to me that not all yarn could or should be used interchangeably for both weaving and knitting. Caught up in the colors, the excitement of the week and probably a healthy dose of FOMO, I picked out a few skeins in the hopes of knitting a sweater or two, and brought them home where they’ve sat in my stash ever since.

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

THE SHEEP

The thing about Navajo-Churro wool is that it’s coarse and probably not something you’d want to wear next to your skin (although I’m sure Churro diehards would disagree). The Navajo-Churro sheep are descendents of the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed known for their hardiness and adaptability. They’re part of the so-called “primitive” breeds – meaning those that haven’t been bred to specific characteristics and can trace their lineage back to early Bronze Age sheep – along with perhaps better-known breeds like Icelandic, Jacob and Shetland. Their long, double-coated wool has a coarse, almost hair-like, outer layer while the inner, shorter coat is fine and soft. But it’s just these qualities that make the wool so well-suited for weavings, rugs, blankets and outerwear, which is what it’s been primarily used for since the sheep were brought over by the Spanish in 1494, becoming the first domesticated sheep in the Americas.

From the the time they were introduced, the Churra were relied on for food and fiber along the upper Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost tip of Texas where it meets with Mexico. With colonial expansion, flocks grew into the thousands in North America. Pueblo and Navajo acquired sheep through trade and raids, and the Navajo in particular took to shepherding, growing their flocks exponentially and using the Churra wool to produce textiles that became the basis for their economy. Over time, the name of the sheep changed from “Churra” to “Navajo-Churro,” although the sheep are also referred to as both “Churros” or “Navajo sheep.”

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government sought to further control the Navajo tribe by controlling their flocks. The U.S. Army slaughtered tens of thousands of Churro sheep in 1863 and federal agencies led crossbreeding programs with finewool sheep, like Merino, to provide softer fiber to the garment industry. These crossbred sheep were not well suited to the climate, however, and suffered. Drought and government-imposed stock reduction programs in the 1930s further decimated the breed. Small pockets of “old type” Churros survived in isolated villages, but by the 1970s had reached near-extinction, their numbers dwindling to just 500 sheep.

To protect the breed from further depletion, a Utah State University animal science professor named Lyle McNeal founded the Navajo Sheep Project in 1977. About ten years later, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA) was founded. To date, there are over 6,000 sheep registered with the N-CSA in the U.S. alone, and breeders can be found across the Southwest and beyond. Preservation efforts from dedicated ranchers are helping ensure their continued rebound, as well as allowing Navajo to continue their traditions of handspinning and weaving with Churro wool.

Further south in Oaxaca, native weavers were using cotton and the backstrap tension loom to produce textiles for clothing and trade as early as 500 B.C.E. When the Spanish arrived, they recognized Teotitlán’s potential as a weaving center, and instead of dismantling the culture there as they did for so many other communities, they forced native laborers to weave for Spanish colonies. They introduced Churra wool and the fixed-frame pedal loom to the Americas, allowing weavers to produce weavings – primarily blankets – on a faster and larger scale than ever before. As in North America, Merino sheep were introduced to try to “improve” the Churro breed, but by the mid-1600s the Churro wool blanket industry was already well underway. (Note: It’s here that my research goes cold on the Churro breed in Mexico – if anyone knows more about the history of the Churro in Mexico and in Oaxaca specifically, please share in the comments!)

By the 1970s, weavers in Teotitlán had begun creating large rugs on even larger looms – some ten or twelve feet. In 1974, the introduction by American importers of the July issue of Arizona Highways, dedicated to contemporary Navajo rugs, sparked a flurry of imitative weaving by Teotitecos. Today, weaving production in Teotitlán is focused primarily on an export market rather than selling solely to Mexican nationals or tourists. Color schemes, designs and quality of the rugs created by both Zapotec and Navajo weavers alike are now driven, for better or worse, by the American market. In Teotitlán, a small village in one of the poorest states in all of Mexico, entire families have found economic success in selling their rugs internationally, with many importers in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. The rugs and weavings of today, as they were centuries ago, are still created with Churro wool.

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

THE SWATCH

The few Churro skeins I have were carded, spun and dyed by Federico and his family in Teotitlán, and still have little flecks of grass and hay caught in the fibers. Not all weavers in Oaxaca can afford to use natural dyes in the yarns and weavings, but many still do, relying on dyestuffs from the nearby landscape – lichen, bougainvillea blossoms, pomegranate skins, indigo leaves, and even shells of caracol, or sea snails. The skein I used for my swatch is a single-ply fingering weight, dyed with cochineal, an insect that feeds on the nopal cactus and whose larvae is crushed to produce a range of vibrant reds, pinks and purples.

Given the coarseness, I knew that I didn’t want to use this yarn for a sweater, so I considered creating a fabric that could be used as functional for the home. Imagine a set of placemats or the front of a pillowcase, with the front knitted up and black linen sewn on for the back, *swoon*! To approximate the look and feel of a weaving and to stand up to continued use, I wanted the gauge to be tight and thick. I also knew that I wanted to use a simple, geometric pattern that drew inspiration from Zapotec and Navajo designs and allowed the yarn to sing. After sketching several motifs and looking through some stitch patterns, I landed on the woven transverse herringbone pattern in Barbara Walker’s “A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.” Knit up, the design was exactly what I was envisioning.

To be honest though, knitting with Churro wool was tough. This was likely exacerbated by the slip-stitch pattern and tight gauge, as I held the yarn double and knit on size 6 needles to get the thickness I wanted. It really gave my hands a workout! However, the swatch softened up a lot after blocking, and I could easily envision this fabric used in outerwear, like a poncho. I’m totally in love with the stitch pattern too, and it would make a great scarf or cowl.

Despite the challenges, I’d highly recommend working with Churro wool to expand your horizons and try something uniquely different than what you might be used to. Churro wool production is supported by weavers and textile artists who are working with this special fiber. Need more ideas beyond knitting or weaving? When I was at TNNA a few weeks ago, I brought this skein with me and passed it around, asking others how they might use it. The best answer I received was from Jill Draper, who recommended felting it. The coarseness would make it felt it up like a dream. Knit it up quickly in a loose gauge, then felt the heck out of it in your washing machine to create a fabric you could use for all sorts of things.

Here are some resources for buying Churro yarn, but I’m sure there are others – please chime in with suggestions!

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

Yarn: Handspun Navajo-Churro wool dyed in cochineal, held double
Needles: US6/4mm Addi Turbo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 34 rows = 4 inches, in woven transverse herringbone pattern (below)

M E T H O D: For the woven transverse herringbone stitch pattern, please see Barbara Walker’s “A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.”

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

If you’re interested in learning more about Navajo and Zapotec textiles, there are a good number of resources out there. Five I’d recommend are:

  • “Mexican Textiles: Spirit and Style” by Masako Takahashi (a favorite of mine, the book that introduced me to Oaxaca and its history in textiles over 10 years ago)
  • “Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan” by Andra Fischgrund Stanton (a solid primer on weaving in Teotitlán, with lots of rug inspiration)
  • “Zapotec Women: Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca” by Lynn Stephen (more academic but a great look at day-to-day life for weaving families in Teotitlán)
  • “Textiles from Mexico” by Chloe Sayer (haven’t read this one personally, but it’s considered a classic in the field)
  • “Navajo Textiles: The William Randolph Hearst Collection” by Nancy Blomberg (the textbook compilation of some of the greatest Navajo weavings that Federico introduced me to in Teotitlán)

Jess Schreibstein

PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: June ’16 / Mesh rib linen

Introducing Swatch of the Month by Jess Schreibstein

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been saying to you for a couple of years now that I want there to be more than one voice on this blog, and I’m thrilled that today it’s finally beginning to happen. Sometimes (ok, almost always) things take a long time to get from idea to reality with me, and a couple of collaborations that have been swirling in the ether for quite awhile are suddenly crystallizing. I’ll tell you more about them as I can, but for today, I get to introduce you to a new column by Jess Schreibstein which we’re calling Swatch of the Month. Jess first wrote about her Oaxaca adventure here in 2014, and also appeared in Our Tools, Ourselves back in 2013. If you know her as @thekitchenwitch on Instagram, you already know how amazing she is, and I’m pleased beyond words to have her as the first official columnist for Fringe. And with that, I’ll let her tell you more about her column and her first swatch!
—Karen

Introducing Swatch of the Month by Jess Schreibstein for Fringe Association

First off, I want to thank Karen for inviting me to contribute to Fringe Association. Like many of you, I check in on Karen’s blog daily and am honored to share some of my own thoughts and musings on knitting with you in this space. Thanks, Karen!

For this series, I’m taking a look at the much-maligned and misunderstood swatch. For many new or even experienced knitters, knitting a swatch to get gauge seems like a roadblock, an annoying and seemingly unnecessary step before you can knit your actual thing. But I’m not going to go into the “how” and “why” of knitting a gauge swatch – Karen’s covered that before, and better than I’m sure I could – take a look here and here if you need further convincing.

Introducing Swatch of the Month by Jess Schreibstein for Fringe Association

Instead, I’m more interested in the role swatches play in our creative process. Swatches, these little pieces of knitted fabric, are also capsules of information — about the knitter, the fiber, and the final fabric created by both. What yarn did you use? Why did you use it? How does the weight, the content, and the way it’s spun all inform the fabric? How do the stitches behave? Do they curl or pucker? Is the gauge tight and thick, or loose and airy? How do those qualities affect the structure of the fabric and what it can do?

These questions and the way we answer them (because there are many ways to answer them) say a lot about how we think about and approach our knitting and how a designer might visit a new concept. Swatches are the genesis for the garments they inspire.

So, with this series, I’m going to be knitting lots of swatches! I’m diving into my stitch books, looking at both fashion and tradition for inspiration, and combing through my stash to play with yarns that have been sitting there, waiting for a project. When possible, I’ll share the stitch pattern I used so you too can knit your own swatch and maybe something even greater.

Introducing Swatch of the Month by Jess Schreibstein for Fringe Association

For my first swatch, I was inspired by an Eileen Fisher sweater I spotted in a store. The boatneck, dropped-shoulder, boxy pullover was knit in a dark blue, 100% linen with an airy, open rib. It would make the perfect layering piece or beach cover-up, as I’m sure it was designed to be. Without knowing for certain, I guessed it might be a fisherman’s rib worked up in a large gauge to give it its mesh-like appearance and relaxed drape.

To approximate something similar, I knit my swatch on 5.5mm needles in Quince & Co.’s Sparrow, a fingering weight organic linen that I had in my stash, in the Sans colorway (undyed). Linen fibers are derived from the stalk of the flax plant and produce a lustrous, durable fabric that softens with age. I’ve been quickly growing my own linen wardrobe over the past year or so, and most pieces are vintage finds that are at least 20 years old (or possibly more) — this material is built to last. But knitting in linen isn’t for everybody. Unlike wool, it has zero elasticity and can feel like you’re knitting with grass. It can be hard to control your tension, and whenever I’ve knit with it before, my stitches come out slightly uneven. Call it frustrating or call it wabi sabi, but when you knit with linen, you need to embrace the imperfection.

That’s why I was particularly curious to approach this swatch. The tension (or lack of it) is more forgiving on larger needles, creating varying sizes of stitches and lacy holes that look perfectly imperfect in the context of a larger fabric. But whether you’re knitting this stitch in linen or wool, fisherman’s rib can work up slowly. For the knit stitches in the 1×1 ribbing, you knit into the stitch below the one you would normally knit into. When knit in a tighter gauge with thicker yarn, this can create a thick, chewy fabric. For examples, see Purl Soho’s Seafaring Scarf or Justyna Lorkowska’s Flaum sweater.

My fabric, after blocking, was relaxed and ultra-drapey. I loved the way it held its structure and moved, almost like links on a chain, while I worked up the swatch. After blocking, this behavior all but disappeared and the fabric became more cohesive. I aggressively blocked the swatch and pinned it in place to open up the stitches, but found, even after blocking, that the corners curl upwards. Not sure how to solve for that problem – if it’s a characteristic of the linen or the fisherman’s rib.

Interested in knitting with linen? I’d highly recommend Sparrow for its delicate balance and color palette that is definitely designed with summer in mind. You could also try Shibui’s fingering-weight Linen, or their linen, recycled silk and wool blend, Twig. If you’re looking for a heavier weight, you could try playing with Quince’s worsted weight tube, Kestrel, and even bigger needles.

I could envision this stitch pattern knitted up as a boxy, layering t-shirt. If you wanted to make your own, you could follow the dimensions and structure for Dianna Walla’s Vasa or Michele Wang’s Shatsu — both drapey knit tees that are knit flat in two pieces then seamed. Or choose your own dimensions!
—Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Quince & Co. Sparrow, a fingering weight, 100% linen in Sans colorway
Needles: US9/5.5mm Addi Turbo needles
Gauge: 15 stitches / 19 rows = 4 inches, in fisherman’s rib pattern (below)

Introducing Swatch of the Month by Jess Schreibstein for Fringe Association

M E T H O D

CO 40 stitches or any even number of stitches using a long-tail cast on

Set up row: Purl all stitches
Row 1: *Purl 1, knit into next stitch in the row below; repeat from *, end purl 2

Repeat row 1 to desired height; bind off loosely in standard k1/p1 pattern

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