What I Know About: Breed-specific yarn (with Brooke Sinnes)

What I Know About: Breed-specific yarn (with Brooke Sinnes)

I’ve always counted Brooke Sinnes of Sincere Sheep Yarns as my original newfound friend in the yarn world, and she is still one of the most knowledgable and thoughtful people I know, in addition to simply being one of my favorite humans. When I first started knitting, the two of us somehow became aware of each other on Twitter, met for tacos in Berkeley, discovered that we both had Napa and Kansas City in our backgrounds, and became instant friends. Shortly thereafter, I designed  the Double Basketweave Cowl in one of her gorgeous naturally dyed yarns, and we recently decided to upgrade the recommended yarn for that cowl to her incredible US-grown and -milled Cormo — a breed-specific, single-farm yarn, still naturally dyed. So we’re relaunching the now-Cormo cowl kit in the webshop today, and I thought it would be a great time to talk to Brooke about what it means to make and knit with breed-specific yarns and get her highly informed take on where we are with known origins at this stage in the knitting world.

For more of Brooke and her yarns, check out the Sincere Sheep website, and follow her on Instagram @sinceresheep. Here’s Brooke—

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When I first ran across you — when I first started knitting — I read the About page on your site about the name Sincere Sheep and that you were selling yarns made from identifiable breeds and farms, which made perfect sense to me as you live in Napa and I had lived in Napa, and that kind of awareness of “terroir” comes with the, er, territory. So I’m not sure I even realized how not-the-norm that was at the time. Did it seem groundbreaking to you when you set out with that as your mission?

At the time, although it was groundbreaking, I remember it seemed very natural to me. I moved back to Berkeley after graduating university in 2001, and I was living smack in the middle of an area known for progressive thinking. The slow food movement was really taking root. Seasonal eating, farmers’ markets and local food sourcing were a regular thing. A couple of years later, I moved to the Napa Valley and learned that wineries were creating single-vineyard wines, which was taking the concept of terroir to an even more specific level. I looked around at all of these developments related to food and the annual growing cycle and said to myself, “All of these concepts apply to natural fibers and dyes.” Every year sheep need to be shorn, and their fleece is a record of what happened to them during the year — just like grapes and other agricultural crops develop characteristics based on weather, soil, water, care, etc. The same is true of the plants we use for dyes. To take it a step further, each sheep breed has wool with different qualities that interact with the environment and make it appealing for different types of yarn. And actually, each sheep has its own individual characteristics.

Sincere Sheep came into being when I connected this concept with something I had learned while taking fiber arts classes in Berkeley: American wool prices were incredibly low. So low, in fact, that many small farmers weren’t even bothering to send their wool to the local wool broker. Instead they were throwing the wool away, composting it, or stashing it in the barn. I met with a shearer who specialized in small flocks and ‘lawnmower sheep,’ and they put me in contact with local farms where I could buy the wool. With that connection, taking the idea for terroir and translating it to fiber was doable. I had the local wool made into yarn and roving at a mill only 50 miles from my house. I dyed it with natural dyes, then labeled it with the name of the farm and its location, and also the sheep’s name if it had one. It felt really good to be supporting these farmers while making a highly transparent, local product that was fun to work with.

Like the larger “slow fashion” movement, it can feel like a new or trendy concept — knowing where your clothes or the fiber of your yarn comes from — when really it’s just an effort to get back to how things used to be. I know this is a book-sized question, but can you talk a little bit about the difference between “farm yarns” and where large-scale commercial yarns come from?

When I think about terroir in yarn, I think about texture. Farm yarns are typically made by farmers with wool from only their flock — which means all the wool comes from a specific place and reflects how the sheep lived that year. Mass-market yarns are different. They are made in large quantities, and made with wool that has been selected for specific qualities: fineness, length, or color. This means that a mass-market yarn will be exactly the same from yard to yard and from year to year. Their goal is absolute consistency. The fiber does not usually come from a specific farm, ranch, or even region!

One of my favorite things about farm yarn is how it has more texture — the wool can vary slightly from yard to yard, and it changes each year. This allows the qualities of the sheep breed(s) it is made from to shine through. For example, you get to experience the incredible elasticity of Cormo wool first hand in yarn form. Additionally this means you can revisit a farm yarn and experience how that year’s rainfall or temperature affected the character of the yarn. It is also more engaging for me to make — When I make a local, custom yarn I get to go to the farm and help with the shearing. I get to pick the fleeces that I want and send them to a mill to be processed into yarn or roving to my specifications. I think about the best yarn I can make with the wool I have just chosen. Other times, I work with a wool broker to find enough fleeces with the quality I am looking for from sheep that all live on the same ranch. From there, the wool is sent to the mill to be processed into custom yarn with specifications that we designate. It’s always interesting to open the boxes of yarn when they arrive and see how it has come out, how it is reflective of its terroir. My involvement allows me to create a yarn that shows the wool to its best advantage and a product with a unique, handmade story.

What I Know About: Breed-specific yarn (with Brooke Sinnes)

So you had this concept and named your business Sincere Sheep, but it’s a steep challenge. Was it as you imagined, or how would you describe the trajectory from where you started out to where you are now, and what you’ve had to navigate in between?

When I started Sincere Sheep 15 years ago I don’t think I was thinking long term. I saw that there was an opportunity for me to make a difference to local farmers who were hurting because of the low wool prices. That continues to be one of my goals today, even though American fine wool prices have almost doubled from 2017 to 2018. Regardless of wool price, small-scale farming is hard work and needs our support if we want it to continue.

What I didn’t realize when I first started making yarn was how little of the American textile industry was still around after the mass exodus of both jobs and machinery in the ’80s due to the push toward globalization. It was a real challenge to find a mill that could handle fine wool in small to medium quantities and then spin a yarn to consistent specifications year after year. It has been heartening to see some of these small-scale production capabilities return to the American textile industry over the past 15 years

As the business grew, I started to incorporate more international yarns that were Merino-based because of market demand. I semi-jokingly refer to those years as the era of the ‘cult of the soft.’ Throughout that time, I continued to make small farm yarns and roving mostly from California ranches and kept my eye open for when I would be able to offer more domestic bases. That happened about 4 years ago. Since 2014, I’ve been custom making my American-sourced and -spun Cormo yarn in coordination with Jeane deCoster of Elemental Affects. By working collaboratively, we can buy a large lot of wool and take advantage of large-quantity price breaks given by the mills where we have the wool cleaned and spun.

I’ve had yarns custom made for me since the beginning, and as my business has grown so has the scale of these projects. Scaling up has really changed a lot of the dynamics within Sincere Sheep. Most indie dyers buy [finished, undyed] yarn from wholesalers on an as-needed basis. This means that they only buy what they need, when they need it. The wholesaler is therefore the one who is shouldering the bulk of the production risk and inventory warehousing in order to fulfill orders. Currently, if you want to make a custom-spun yarn that includes wool from only one clip and only one location, you have to buy all the wool at one time that you are going to need to make all of the yarn that you will need for the following year. So it becomes more complicated: Not only are you forecasting how much wool is enough without being too much, but you also have to be prepared to outlay all of your cash at once. Then when the yarn is finished being milled it all comes at one time, and you have to warehouse hundreds of pounds of yarn. It is a lot of planning ahead. With everything that goes into it, it’s always an exciting day when we finally get a batch of yarn or roving back from the mill!

I know in the 6.5 years I’ve been knitting, the surge in visibility of farm yarns — and I’m referring here specifically to farmers who are having their fleece milled into yarn, and marketing it with some success, even beyond their own farmers’ market — and in yarn companies shifting more and more toward origin transparency and breed specificity has been really amazing to watch. Where do you think we’re really headed?

My mom is in sales and taught me the term ‘bleeding edge’ — meaning you are too far ahead of a trend and there isn’t yet a market for your goods. Fifteen years ago, when I was starting to make farm yarns from non-Merino wools, I was the bleeding edge. People were interested and supportive, but they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around using my yarns. Around the same time, Merino was really starting to make a huge splash as a breed-specific yarn and people were discovering that wool could be soft and wearable. Over the years since then, there has certainly grown a greater understanding of breeds and origins and that’s a very positive shift! People are now interested in single origin, non-Merino wool yarns, but I still have new customers who are surprised by just how many breeds there are. I am hopeful that this trend in origin transparency and breed specificity will continue and that people understand that they have the powerful ability to directly support farmers, mills and dyers with their purchase.

Double Basketweave Cowl (free pattern)

So let’s talk about this Cormo of yours. Cormo, to the extent it’s known at all really, is best known as an Australian breed, right? But you’re among a small number of people bringing US Cormo to the forefront. What is it about Cormo that lights you up especially, and how did you come to be making Cormo yarn?

You’re correct, Cormo is an Australian breed. The Cormo sheep was developed in the 1960s in Tasmania by crossing Corriedales (a medium-wool type sheep) with Saxon Merinos (a fine-wool type sheep). Cormo sheep were selected for breeding based on the weight of their fleeces (high); the diameter of their fiber (18-23 microns, which is relatively fine but still strong); high fertility so more lambs per litter; and body weight. Cormos were then imported in the 1970s to the US to improve the wool produced on rangeland ranches.

What I love about Cormo wool is its soft, downy hand and incredible elasticity. It’s common for me to have people unfamiliar with Cormo ask me if my yarn is cotton because of how soft it feels. We have the yarn spun and plied on the tighter side to help the yarn wear better and it looks equally great in accessories and garments. I love it when a customer wears their finished sweater to a show and tells me how much they loved working with the yarn — and then proceeds to buy more for their next project! It is incredibly satisfying to see someone love a specific yarn that much.

I first discovered Cormo wool via Sue Reuser who was farming Cormo sheep up in Orland, CA. She had the most amazing flock of white and colored Cormos. She was breeding them towards producing fleeces for handspinners. Sue had a strong and loyal base of spinners that would buy a fleece or two or three every year and would often reserve a fleece a year in advance and then come up for the shearing. I was at one of those shearings when Sue offered to sell me some white Cormo fleece that wasn’t already reserved. I bought the wool and made my first Cormo yarn from it. This continued on the next couple of years until Sue retired, and I convinced Jeane DeCoster to start making a replacement Cormo yarn with me. Now Jeane and I make four different weights of Cormo yarns every year and then each of us dyes the yarns in our own distinctive way. I love the hand of our yarns, and it takes natural dyes beautifully. I have yet to tire of knitting with it on a daily basis!

What makes you so excited about switching over to the Cormo Sport for the Double Basketweave Cowl kit?

I often talk about how much I enjoy being a part of and supporting the handmade community, and connecting with all of the people that I meet through Sincere Sheep. I’m passionate about providing makers with the best quality yarn that is both enjoyable to work with while knitting and results in a finished project that is richly textured and enjoyable to wear. I love the way the Cormo Sport feels to knit and it’s so cozy in the finished cowl. As a bonus, it’s a meaningful opportunity for your customers to support an American wool farmer, mill and dyer.

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Thank you so much, Brooke! And for those interested, check out the free Double Basketweave Cowl pattern here on the blog, and find the Cormo cowl kit (includes the printed pattern and two skeins of Brooke’s beautiful yarn) over at Fringe Supply Co.!

Happy weekend, everyone—

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PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

When I first posted that seemingly innocuous photo of Daniel Day-Lewis wearing his splendid gansey, I did not imagine anything like where it has led. I’ve spent loads of time since then in conversation with assorted people about their knowledge of these sweaters, fielding recommendations and following leads, reading the informed comments on that and the follow-up post, and most of all exchanging emails with Deb Gillanders, above, of Propagansey, who reached out after the initial post and has been filling me in on so much of what I was wanting to know! So of course, I asked if I could pick her brain a bit on behalf of all of you, and interview her for the blog. Ganseys are a rich well in the land of knitting history — tables full of books have been written on the subject — and we’re just scratching the surface here, but be sure to check out the resources at the end, and pattern suggestions here

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So Deb, how did you first become interested in Ganseys?

My interest in Ganseys began some years ago when I met a retired trawlerman at a party; he was telling a scurrilous tale and wearing a beautiful old blue patinated Gansey that he’d knitted himself. I was hooked.

As Propagansey I sell Frangipani wool, attend wool shows and give talks and workshops on Ganseys and their yarns. I also curate an annual exhibition every September in Robin Hoods Bay. When I began, over 10 years ago, I thought I was doing well to show two dozen or so but it’s now probably the biggest display of its kind in the world, with well over 100 Ganseys old and new from around UK and Holland.

Ok, so first let’s talk about that: UK and Holland, or country of origin. I think most knitters have a general sense of what a gansey is (and you can set me straight on any fine distinctions here) — A type of fisherman’s sweater most closely associated with Great Britain, typically navy blue, that features a mix of stitch patterns (from simple to complex, sometimes cables but often just knits and purls) often contained to the upper part of the sweater, along with seamless construction and a distinctive underarm gusset. It’s often said that they’re called Ganseys (or Guernseys) because they originated in the Channel island of Guernsey, but that’s thought to be a myth, correct? They’re not just a UK thing — you mentioned Holland as well. And they’re distinct from that other famous fisherman’s sweater, the heavily cabled, typically ivory, Aran sweater. Where are the geographical boundaries between ganseys and jerseys and aran sweaters, fuzzy though they may be?

I hope purists will forgive me if, for the sake of brevity, I say that although the origins of the Channel Islands’ Guernsey and the more northern Gansey were possibly different, they evolved into almost identical garments, and the history is probably not worth unpicking. More recent developments have been more date-able; there was a revival of the Aran before WW2 and around the same time the Eriskay Gansey appeared; this seems to have been the brainchild of a local lady who designed a Gansey with the upper and lower body bearing different patterns. Also, in the 1930s tuna fishing became extremely popular off the Yorkshire coast with many well-heeled recreational fishermen coming to places like Scarborough for this sport — they saw the local Ganseys, wanted a special version for themselves, and thus was born the white Gansey for ‘Best.’ Around the same time, Channel Island Parishes were being altered, with some deciding to mark the occasion and promote their identity with a new motif for their Guernseys. So all these human activities had an impact on what we now think of as ‘traditional’ Arans, Guernseys, etc. As for geographical areas, Arans are still associated with the Aran Islands; the Channel Island cod fishermen took their word Jersey across the Atlantic with them and it now denotes a sweater that differs from Guernsey/Gansey in construction and use of more than one colour; and as fishermen from around the North Sea converged on the annually migrating shoals of herring it’s no surprise to find both Dutch and British fishermen wearing blue garments, patterned and knitted in the round. This seamless construction is not only unlikely to fall apart in heavy-duty working conditions, it’s also very easy to effect repairs. The Dutch word is Visserstruien.

Within the realm of Ganseys, there are varieties associated with different ports or regions — this is the part I’ve been digging into more since all that erupted in the wake of my initial Daniel Day-Lewis post. In particular, there are several patterns and references to “a Staithes” as the sub-type of gansey DDL is wearing. And I’ve also seen references to a historical figure named Henry Freeman, survivor of multiple disasters, who famously wore such a gansey in famous photos. This super-simple version almost looks to me like a starter gansey — like maybe you would have learned this and then gone on to knit more elaborate ones. But is that a logical assumption in any way, or is it in fact tied to a specific place, Staithes? Or even more specifically to Henry Freeman somehow? I noted before that Gladys Thompson and Penny Straker both have published “Staithes” patterns with their notes referencing one in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, but I haven’t been able to turn up a photo of the one they’ve apparently modeled their patterns on. So what’s the story on Staithes?

Staithes is a small, scenic, isolated ex-fishing village 12 miles north of Whitby. (Look out for the scene in Phantom Thread with a chapel behind them further up the hill where they’re walking down a street together — yes, that’s Staithes!)

There are two Gansey patterns associated with, although not exclusive to, Staithes: one in the V&A is a vertical pattern involving cable and moss, very similar to Robin Hoods Bay, about 6 miles south of Whitby; the other, associated with the Verrill family, is DDL’s. I’ve attached a photo of James Verrill (see photo above) modelling his Gansey rather successfully outside Old St. Stephen’s Church, where Propagansey 2015 was held. A ‘Staithes Gansey’ isn’t a subset of the genre, it’s simply from that place patternwise, as is a Sheringham Gansey or a Whitby Gansey. They’re all built more or less the same. You’re right; the Seeds & Bars pattern is an easy one; not only to knit but also to adjust to fit the wearer. More complex patterns can break down into more manageable, bite-sized pieces that are simply repeated ad infinitum, but still require a practised eye to alter sizewise. Growing up with Gansey knitters, a child would start on small items, e.g. socks, then graduate on to the pattern most commonly knitted in their house, which might be in the local style, with variations added from the knitters’ travels. Then she herself might marry and move to her husband’s village. Thousands of herring lassies moved down the East coast of Britain every year gutting and packing the herring, knitting and nicking each others’ patterns, and they hadn’t heard of intellectual property rights — if they saw something they liked, it was copied and added to their repertoire! Compare Gansey patterns to the treatment tartan received when Queen Victoria became so fond of Scotland; every fashionista had a ball, and tartans became officialised beyond their previous form; this never happened with Ganseys, the tribal ID of many fishermen.

The history of ganseys — and origins of Daniel Day Lewis'sAs for Henry Freeman, that Seeds & Bars wasn’t his only Gansey! Incidentally, Henry Freeman was from Bridlington (these things are important) although he gained fame as Cox’n of the Whitby lifeboat, having been the sole survivor of a disaster where he was wearing the only brand-new cork life jacket.

This upper body Seeds & Bars is also frequently associated with Polperro in Cornwall. This was a place where many women did contract knitting, and as this is a very economical pattern to knit, having no cable, it turns up all over the place. I have heard that there was a connection between Staithes and Cornwall, but I haven’t looked into that. Certainly Cornish fishermen were amongst the fleet that followed the herring down the East coast every year.

I love having the term Seeds & Bars for describing the Staithes design, thank you. And that makes perfect sense about contract knitters sticking to this comparatively simple pattern. But even though knitters all over knitted it, it’s still commonly known as a Staithes gansey? Going back to the geography question, it’s also widely believed that each port (or even each family) had its own distinct design, and you could identify a drowned fisherman by his sweater. (This is also a persistent tale with Aran sweaters.) In reality, it’s not that clear-cut, correct? And yet there are types with names that are commonly known and used and understood. How many different sub-types are there, would you say?

It’s not really true to think of each village having its own pattern. Many early, working Ganseys were very plain; Ganseys were often contract knitted and bought in chandlers’ around the UK; even local patterns were fluid. Having said that, there are regional styles — I can recognise a Gansey from Fife, Sheringham or Eriskay, for example; but I can also spot individual knitters, not only in their favourite patterns/variations but also by the construction details, and it’s when you get to this level that you begin to see the cleverness in little changes.

Having been associated for some time with Old St. Stephen’s, an old church in Robin Hoods Bay where the gravestones date back over 200 years, I can say that most drowned men remained buried at sea; the number of purely commemorative inscriptions attest to this. It was very rare for a drowned man to be returned to his home; logistically, emotionally and financially it was unfeasible. However, I have heard of a body being recognised by its Gansey.

The out-takes illustrate not only how a thing ‘should’ be done, but how impossible it is to really pin a tradition down. Just when you think you’ve nailed it … . There is a type of Double Moss motif made up of 2 rows of knit then 2 rows of p2k2 to end, which is known as Betty Martin and was widely used in Filey and Flamborough, but none knows if Betty Martin actually existed. One Yorkshire woman married and moved to Cornwall, taking her Betty Martin upper sleeve motif with her — it was seen as very distinctive. One Filey pattern is named after a local man called Matt Cammish. His family came from NE Scotland. Ganseys in Whitby usually have a 3-button opening on the left side of the neck; this came down with the Scottish herring lassies, and when I met some Polperro knitters a few years ago they hadn’t seen this but thought it was a very good idea. Incidentally, the Cornish term for Gansey is Knitfrock. The typical Guernsey has a split welt, not normally found in other Ganseys.

However, I do believe that many Gansey knitters were operating when Ganseys were a part of life and you’d pick up the basics with your daily breath, just as kids today are at home with their various devices. Hence Propagansey — I love the yarns, and how by actually spending time with them, you can get what the knitter was doing, even if was over 100 years ago. There were definitely some clever tarts around!

For those wanting to know more about Gansey history and patterns, in addition to your Propgansey website, what books or other resources do you recommend? Any specific knitting patterns you’d encourage people toward?

• Gladys Thompson; Patterns for Jerseys, Guernseys & Arans
• Mary Wright; Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks
• Michael Pearson; Traditional Knitting of the British Isles, vol 1: Fisher Gansey Patterns of North East England, and vol 2: Fisher Gansey Patterns of Scotland and the Scottish Fleet (In-print option: Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys)
• Beth Brown-Reinsel; Knitting Ganseys: Techniques and Patterns for Traditional Sweaters
Propagansey 2018; 8-16th September at Fylingthorpe Methodist Chapel, Fylingthorpe, N Yorks, UK; 10-4 daily

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Thanks so much, Deb! I hope to get to your exhibit someday.

And here’s a fun fact, dear readers: The gansey Deb is wearing in the top photo was later knitted for her by the trawlerman who first sparked her interest in ganseys. How awesome is that?

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PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

Photos courtesy of Deb Gillanders

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What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

I’m cross-posting this lively interview to both Craftlands and What I Know About. You see, I’ll soon be making my second pilgrimage to the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck NY for the knitterati-packed New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, and rather than telling you what I know about it, I asked Kay Gardiner — mover and shaker, knower of things — to give us her much more informed perspective on how it has come to be the most famous fiber festival in the US, as well as her tips for how to get the most out of the event. I’m already wishing I’d had this advice before going my first time!*

You can find Kay’s wit and wisdom on the regular at Mason-Dixon Knitting and on Instagram @kaygardiner.

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How long have you been attending the NY Sheep and Wool Festival, aka “Rhinebeck”? What was it like in your earlier years?

I tried to figure out the correct factual answer to this question, but the archives of Mason-Dixon Knitting did not yield it up. The oldest Rhinebeck post I could find was in 2007, which was certainly not my first or even second Rhinebeck. I think my first Rhinebeck must have been 2004 or 2005. I remember my husband dropping me off with my daughter, who was a little girl then (wearing a Rowan Denim pullover that was very long on her), and that I was surprised and a little worried that a few people recognized her from the blog. The power of the Internet! Husband (who had a shockingly low interest in sheep) gave us something like a two-hour time limit before picking us up again, but I was hooked. I have missed very few Rhinebecks since that first one, and I’ve generally stayed two days instead of two hours.

What was it like? The early 2000s were the heyday of knitting blogs, which were the first blossoming of the rich, deep and wide Internet knitting community that we know today. Rhinebeck, a country livestock show, was inundated with roving packs of very excited knitters from all over the region and country. People would run into each other and start jumping up and down and squealing when they recognized each other. Many virtual connections became real-life friendships on the Dutchess County Fairgrounds.

How would you describe the difference between Rhinebeck then and now? Better/worse? Anything you miss or feel has been lost along the way?

The crowds seem to grow every year, but otherwise the fair retains its character as a sheep-centered event, despite the knitters thronging the yarn stalls. The fleece sale thrives, farmers and their kids still show their sheep, and the sheepdog trials are as lively as ever. We continue to mourn the tragic loss of the chicken pot pie stand, but we still have the Artichokes French and the apple cider donuts. I miss the Culinary Institute of America (based in nearby Hyde Park, New York) doing a big food tent. I can’t remember if that was for just a year or for several, or if I just dreamed it.

One fun event that did not exist for my early Rhinebecks is the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show, of which Mason-Dixon Knitting is a proud sponsor. Now in its fourth year, the Trunk Show takes place on Friday evening from 4-8 at the Best Western in Kingston, New York. Independent yarnmakers and dyers, from all over, are gathered in one place to discover.

Of all the fiber festivals all over the country, how did this one come to be the Mecca for the entire knitting world? Do you have a theory?

Timing is everything, and the third weekend in October is Peak Autumn in the Hudson River Valley. The show hits the exact moment when one most wants to be outdoors, breathing country air, looking at animals and wool, buying yarn, and checking out spinning wheels and looms. Winter lies just ahead, and we have to eat a bunch of kettle corn and get ready to hunker down for the duration.

I cannot remember a single Rhinebeck that was not beautiful, with the trees glowing orange. (OK, it may have been blustery and overcast in 2009.) On a few occasions the weather has been too warm for sweaters, but the knitters still manage to pile on the handknits. One of my lifetime goals is to knit a special-purpose Rhinebeck Sweater, as many knitters do (they’re frantically trying to finish them right this minute), but that would require planning ahead.

Do you remember that time I had a sweater photo contest? My way of living vicariously that year. For those who might be contemplating their first Rhinebeck visit, what’s your advice?

I’ve given this some thought! Rhinebeck is a whirl of sensory and social stimulation, and it’s also seven-hour days on your feet, exposed to the elements. Here are my tips for having a good time.

1. Make a plan. Before you get there, spend a little time with the new-and-improved vendor list. Jot down the sellers you absolutely must see, and see them first. Or, do as I do, and just walk through the barns in order, ready to be surprised and amazed by what you find. Popular vendors get hit hard very early, so if there is a yarn that you will be disappointed not to take home, get to that booth right at the start of the day.

2. Keep your strength up. Carry a bottle of water and some energy bars so you don’t get woozy. I’m not kidding! When you’re in the Rhinebeck Zone, two or three hours can go by without your noticing it until you need to lie down on the bleachers at the dog trials and look up at the sky. The Artichoke French and cider donuts lines are very long, and they are not going to get any shorter over the course of the day, so just get in line and enjoy the experience. You are going to meet lots of people and see lots of handknits while you wait. I like to save the kettle corn for last, and pick up a big bag of it on my way out of the fairgrounds, “for the kids.”

3. Take care of your feet. This is no time to break in a pair of new shoes, or for sandals of any description. The fairgrounds are dusty and uneven when dry, and sloppy when wet. Ideally you want to be wearing old Frye boots, Blundstones or the like. If it’s been raining, you are going to want full-on rubber boots, like the farmer in Babe wore.

4. Handknits: more is more. Rhinebeck is a feast of knitwear. Wear as many handknits as you can fit, visibly, on your body. Compliment the beautiful handknits you see passing by — that’s why people are wearing them!

5. Buy stuff. Don’t get so overwhelmed by the amazing range of goods on offer that you forget to buy a few skeins of something beautiful. Rhinebeck is an opportunity to support people who have dedicated their lives to making beautiful, authentic yarns, tools and supplies for us. We didn’t always have so many choices, and we have them now because these craftspeople are able to make a living doing what they love, and what we love.

6. Make friends. Stop by the book barn (in building B, not far from the picnic tables) to meet authors who will be more than happy to sign their books. Ann and I will be there on both Saturday and Sunday from 11-2, hoping to say hi to as many people as we can.

7. Parties! On Saturday night, there are two fun events that I know of. One is the first-ever Mason-Dixon Knitting Rhinebeck Pie Party, in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s free; for details and to RSVP, go here. Stop by for a few minutes, or stay a while, have a cup of hot cider and a slice of pie from a great local baker. We’ll be there from 5-8.

Also on Saturday night, from 6-9 across the river in Kingston, is Jill Draper’s legendary open studio night, a great event of food and people and an incredible selection of her beautiful yarns for sale. Here’s her Eventbrite to RSVP.

And who are you especially keen to spot in the crowd this year?

You, of course!

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I did not pay her to say that. Thank you, Kay! See you there—

As fun as Rhinebeck is, it’s important to note that there are amazing fiber festivals all over this country. If you’re not familiar with your own state’s (or region’s) offerings, definitely Google it. And please share your favorites in the comments below! Fringe Supply Co. will have a presence in the Harrisville Designs booth at Rhinebeck this year, and that same weekend we’ll have our own booth at our favorite Tennessee festival, Fiber in the ‘Boro. Mark your calendars!

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*Please forgive me for reusing the images from my 2015 Rhinebeck recap here — the rest of my photos from that trip were all lost! I’ll take new ones this year.

PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)
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What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)

What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)

Raise your hand if you’re crazy for indigo! Ok, what’s wrong with the rest of you? JUST KIDDING. But seriously, it’s been indigo-mania for a several years now (rightfully so), and the more I think about it, the more questions I have — some of which you guys have also asked me. So I asked natural dyer extraordinaire Kristine Vejar, owner of A Verb Keeping Warm and author of The Modern Natural Dyer, to set us straight on the difference between indigo and “indigo.” That is: natural (plant derived) indigo dye versus the synthetic lookalike more commonly used.

But first, a few answers to questions that are likely to come up in response to all of this:
– The gorgeous shawl above is Kristine’s Aranami (designed by Olga Buraya-Kefelian) knitted in Verb’s Flock yarn, dyed with natural indigo
– Verb sells a variety of natural indigo dyeing supplies, from dye stuffs to kits to classes
– We still have some of the gorgeous Verb kits for making an indigo-shibori and sashiko Stowe bag
– And yes, the indigo cowl kit we sell is dyed with natural indigo by Sincere Sheep

You can follow Kristine’s adventures on Instagram @avfkw, and take a peek into her crafting life here. Thanks so much for  this fantastic information, Kristine!

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There’s so much interest in natural dyeing these days, thanks to you and many others, and I think a lot of us believe that indigo falls under the heading of Natural Dyes, but not all indigo is natural, right? For instance, commercial denim is no longer (or very rarely) dyed with plant-based indigo.

Indigo pigment can be found in 700-800 different plants, although there are only about 10 plants that have enough indigo pigment in the leaves to warrant the labor-intensive process of separating the pigment from the leaves, making it available as a dye. Today, indigo dye, extracted from plants, can still be found, obtained and used. This is referred to as natural indigo pigment.

Originally, all dyes came from plants, minerals and a few insects. In the 1850s, scientists successfully synthesized color. With this shift arose the idea — and then eventually the reality — that color could be created on demand, and no longer need to be coaxed from nature. This began a major shift in color, farming, trade, dyes and dyeing. It was only a matter of time before indigo underwent the same scrutiny. Scientists took examples of indigo-bearing plants, began to be able to identify the molecular structure of the indigo plants, zero in on indigotin, the essence of indigo pigment, and recreate it in a lab, which is called synthetic indigo. I personally don’t consider this indigo because I think of indigo as a product made by and derived from a plant. The same type of process occurs in food. Take for example artificial flavoring, like strawberry. Scientists take a strawberry, break down the molecules that make up its smell and flavor, and then create a few of these molecules in a lab to mimic a strawberry. I would never call call this flavor a strawberry. Or describe the experience of tasting this flavor as eating a strawberry. When I eat a strawberry, I can taste the sun. There is texture, nuance in flavor from one berry to the next, and indescribable joy when tasting a strawberry — especially if the berry has been picked right off the plant. The same principle applies to natural indigo pigment; there are many small nuances in color, texture, smell and experience when working with it when it comes from the plant.

True, commercial denim is rarely found dyed with natural indigo. Most of it is dyed with synthetic indigo.

What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)

I’ve taken classes that have used (and I’ve also used) those little boxed indigo kits you can buy online and craft stores, with the powdered dye and whatnot. Is that natural or synthetic? Can you talk about the difference between stirring up a bucket of that and what you do — creating and tending a natural indigo vat?

The boxes of indigo I believe you are referring to — typically made by Jacquard — is synthetic indigo. It is not natural/derived from a plant.

To examine the nuances of working with synthetic indigo versus natural indigo, let’s first discuss the basics of how an indigo vat is made. For indigo to attach to cloth, it must be transformed into a soluble material. To do this, the dyebath must be alkaline (pH of 10) and all of the oxygen in the dyebath must be taken out. This is called reduction. To raise the alkalinity, lye, soda ash and/or limestone is used. To take the oxygen out of the vat, reducing agents are used. Chemicals such as sodium hydrosulphite or thiourea dioxide may be used to reduce a vat, as well as natural materials such as henna, dates, fructose and/or bacteria.

The first indigo vat I learned how to make was a vat made with natural indigo pigment, lye to raise the pH, and thiourea dioxide as the reducing agent. This vat needs to be heated. In my search to use a cool vat — so I would not need a heating implement and could widen my choices of surface design — I learned to swap thiourea dioxide with sodium hydrosulphite. This is the fastest method to reduce an indigo vat (about 20 minutes) and to start the dyeing process. As the indigo vat reduces, the color of the water changes from blue to green. The vat is ready to use when the vat is green, and when white yarn or fabric is dipped into the vat, emerges green, and then turns blue as oxygen touches the yarn or fabric. To dye using an indigo vat, yarn or fabric is dipped into the vat, left under the surface for about 5 minutes, lifted out of the vat, and left to hang for about 5 minutes. This process is repeated to acquire darker shades of blue. Every time fabric or yarn is dipped into the indigo vat, oxygen is introduced to the vat, and the pH goes down. So part of the learning curve of being an indigo dyer is how to bring the vat back into balance — high pH and removal of oxygen.

Since dyeing with indigo has a learning curve, and countless questions are always in play, I like to teach beginners how to reduce the vat with sodium hydrosulphite (referred to as a hydro vat), as it is easy to see and to learn about the changes occurring in the indigo vat. From there, we can work our way out to using natural reducing agents, like henna or fructose, which take longer to reduce — anywhere from 4 hours to ideally 24 hours. Instructions for creating a hydro vat and a henna vat can be found in my book, The Modern Natural Dyer.

In my studio, there are many different types of vats going at once. All have their own specific applications dependent upon the type of fiber being dyed, the depth of color desired, and the price-point at which something is being sold. When hydro vats are used, most times, we continue to use them for months, adding new indigo. When fructose vats are used, we dye through the indigo in the vat until there isn’t any indigo left, and then start a new vat. Ok, so then, there are our very special vats. As you can probably tell, I am in love with indigo. It was only a matter of time before I began to dig deeper into this process, surpassing the natural indigo pigment to work with the plant.

About five years ago, we grew our first indigo plant — a variety called Indigofera tinctoria which is commonly grown in India. It stayed about 2 feet tall for 5 years until it finally died. The Bay Area was just too cold and foggy. Rebecca Burgess at Fibershed began to grow a variety of indigo, then called Polygonum tinctoria and now referred to as Persicaria tinctoria, which is commonly grown in Japan. This plant grows very well in this area. She called upon Rowland Ricketts, an artist and professor who studied indigo in Japan, to help transform the plant into dye. Following the traditional Japanese method, the plant, once harvested, is dried and then composted. Rowland came to the Bay Area. A group of us gathered to build a special floor — as similar as possible to the surface used in Japan — to compost the indigo. Its unique structure aids in air circulation and drainage of water so the indigo, while being composted, does not rot. The composting process takes about 3 months. Once the composting was completed, a batch of the composted indigo also known as sukumo, was delivered to Verb. Using ash, we created our own lye water to use as the base of the indigo vat. So this provides the high pH necessary when making an indigo vat. And then, slowly over 2-3 weeks, we combined the sukumo with the ash water and wheat bran, encouraging fermentation. In this vat, bacteria is the reducing agent. We have two of this type of indigo vat. Currently, we grow Persicaria tinctoria at Verb and we have spent the last couple of years experimenting with the leaves in a number of ways to extract indigo and to make vats from this indigo. I find working so closely with the plant the most rewarding. There are greater nuances in color and in shades of color. Less dye is released when washing the yarn and fabric. I find it fascinating to think about the Earth, nature, and the intricacies of how it works, and how nature, plants and dye can be applied to my own work — in terms of dyed yarn and fabric as well as when I teach others to work with natural indigo.

So back to synthetic indigo for a moment. Since synthetic indigo has the same molecular structure as natural indigo, you must still follow the same steps as when working with natural indigo to create the vat. Typically the instructions that accompany synthetic (pre-reduced indigo) use lye or soda ash and thiourea dioxide or sodium hydrosulphite. The same dye process would also be followed: dipping in and out of the vat multiple times to achieve multiple shades of blue.

What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)

So with synthetic indigo, there really isn’t anything about it that is genuinely indigo — it’s really just blue dye in a color that mimics indigo.

Synthetic indigo does mimic natural indigo in that the molecular structures are the same. Like I described above: making a vat is pretty much the same, the dyeing process is the same, and the way in which the indigo will wear is the same. For example, crocking. Indigo dye and the process of dyeing is the act of creating a physical bond between dye and fiber. There isn’t a chemical bond. Also, the indigotin molecule is larger than most (if not all) other dyes. So this means that indigo eventually works its way out of the cloth. Sometimes crocking occurs right when you get a garment that has been dyed with indigotin (natural or synthetic) because it can be difficult to remove the extra pigment — that which has not bonded — from the cloth. Many times, it takes actual physical pressure to remove the excess indigo. This is why you may see a tag that comes with your jeans that alerts you to the fact that your hands or legs may turn blue when first wearing your jeans. Then no matter what, with sustained pressure to areas in a garment, the indigo will work its way out of the cloth, which is why the fabric over the knee region of your jeans eventually becomes light blue or white. Historically, if a dark, uniform shade of indigo was desired, the cloth or garment would be re-dipped in the indigo vat over the course of its life. So it can be very hard to differentiate between synthetic indigo (some may refer to it as fake) and real indigo, unless you know the dye house and can see the nuances between the blue created by synthetic indigo and the blue created by natural indigo.

I place synthetic indigo in the same camp as other synthetic dyes — like acid and chemical dyes — which have a wide array of blues to choose from and are much easier to use. But why go through all the steps of reducing an indigo vat and the labor-intensive process of dyeing if the indigo is synthetic? If you are going to go through all the same steps, use natural indigo pigment, support an indigo farmer, and embrace the relationship with the plant, process, and depth and nuance of blues that can only be created using natural pigment.

And for those of us who might be using the boxed kit (or any other kind of indigo dyestuff) at home, what do we need to know about tending to and especially disposing of the dye bath when we’re done with it?

If you are using thiourea dioxide or sodium hydrosulphite to reduce an indigo vat, you can either mix oxygen — by taking a spoon or a stick and whisking air into the vat — or let the vat sit overnight and the vat will turn to blue, and can then be disposed of. The high pH is not a problem — if anything it will help clear your pipes. If you still feel worried, you can always neutralize the water by adding lemon juice (an acid). If you are on a septic system, call your local septic system company, let them know what type of alkaline and reduction agent you are using, and ask for their advice.

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PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Dress forms (with Liesl Gibson)

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What I Know About: Dress forms (with Liesl Gibson)

What I Know About: Dress forms (with Liesl Gibson)

Easily the one thing I get asked about more often than anything else is … my dress form. Every time I post a picture of it (ref. above), there’s a handful of people quite reasonably asking where I got it, do I like it, how did I pick it? I know exactly nothing about dress forms — mine came from the first page of a hasty search on Amazon for “collapsible shoulder dress form,” and I use it to hang things on in our booth at shows and for taking photos of WIPs in my little workroom at home. It tells me nothing, really, about how anything will fit me since we’re completely different, she and I. She has narrow shoulders, meaningful breasts and a nice short torso; I’m the exact opposite of all that. She’s nothing but a prop. So I’ve asked pattern designer Liesl Gibson (of Oliver + S and Liesl + Co) to give us her expert thoughts on the subject! For more of Liesl’s bottomless wisdom, check out her blog and her Instagram, and if you’ve never watched her bias tape tutorial on Creativebug, I’m telling you: It changed my sewing life. (No pins!)

[N.B: Don’t miss the SALE news at the end of this post!]

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KT: So, Liesl, this is a one-big-question inteview: Does the average home sewer or knitter need a dress form — and if so, what kind?

LG: Whether you need or can use a dress form depends a lot on what you want to do with it.

Many dress forms or mannequins are made solely for display in stores for merchandising the clothing. These can be great for taking photos of your sewing projects, but they’re not very useful for sewing or for draping because they aren’t very accurate in terms of body shape or sizing. On the other hand, if you’re a blogger and hate to pose for photos, go for it! I totally support this idea, especially given my personal dislike of posing for blog photos.

Here’s the truth about dress forms: Many people assume that a dress form will be really useful for making clothes that fit properly. But unless you have draping skills and plan to drape your clothes from scratch, it’s very likely that you won’t make much use of one. I was pretty certain I needed one when I graduated from design school, and then I got one and it served mostly to frighten the internet installation guy until I finally sold it.

Personally, I find that I prefer to fit clothes directly on my body. It’s difficult to find a dress form that mirrors your body, and truthfully I think it’s really important to feel how the clothing feels and looks on your body: How much easy do you need; where does the neckline look best; can you bend over, turn, and breathe? And if you don’t know how to drape, there’s a good chance you won’t know what to do with a garment once you get it on a dress form anyway. If you fit a pattern to your own body you’ll be able to see and feel what needs to change.

Yes, there are all sorts of custom options out there: the duct tape dress form, padding a basic dress form to mimic your body, 3D modelling, etc. They each have advantages and disadvantages. One distinct disadvantage of a duct tape dress form is that, although it’s quite inexpensive to make, you can’t pin into it without gunking up your pins. And frankly, when you’re wrapping yourself in duct tape (or someone is wrapping you), it’s going to distort your body, so the finished dress form won’t be very accurate. The custom models can also be really expensive. Padding a dress form to mirror your own body can be done, but it’s complicated and difficult to mimic your shape and stance. Are your shoulders forward, or is one higher than the other? How straight is your back? If you don’t get the essential posture of your body just right, the dress form probably isn’t going to give you the results you want. 3D options can be quite pricey for something you might not use as often as you think you will.

Having said all that, I own two dress forms. Here’s how I use them.

For our Oliver + S kids patterns I use a traditional Royal form, which is basically a paper mache torso, legs, and arm covered with linen. This dress form works well for checking the fit and proportions on our sample size, but I mostly develop patterns with a flat pattern technique, so the dress form serves mostly as a check to confirm that the patterns fit and look well before they’re graded. Once all the sizes have been developed we do a lot of further testing on real bodies to check the sizing and fit for all the various sizes.

For our women’s Liesl + Co patterns I use a custom AlvaForm, and I love it because it’s anatomically very accurate. By that I mean that the shape is much more accurate than the traditional dress forms like Wolf and Royal, so the fit through the bust and armhole can be better than it would be with a traditional form. If you’ve ever sewn a pattern that gapes at the armhole even if it fits well through the bust, chances are it was developed or fitted on a traditional paper mache form that didn’t allow correction of the concave area between the bust and shoulder. Alva forms solve this problem but are very expensive (and the shipping from Asia costs almost as much as the form itself!), so this is really not an option for most home sewists. But again, on a professional pattern-making level this form allows me to develop sewing patterns that adhere to a standard fit before we grade to develop the different sizes and test those sizes.

However, I never rely solely on a dress form for pattern development. It’s important to see how a pattern fits and feels on real bodies, so we do lots of fittings and wear testing before a pattern is ready for grading. I sew our women’s patterns for myself and wear them for a few weeks, at least, before they’re graded. I make basic pattern adjustments for my body when I sew the samples — I’m longer waisted and smaller busted than our standard sample size — and this way I can tell if there might be as issue somewhere in the basic pattern. Maybe I notice that the armhole is too high or that the neck is uncomfortable, or perhaps it needs more room across the upper back so you can move. This is the role that a traditional fit model plays, but of course being the small company that we are I don’t have the budget for a professional fit model. So I alter the patterns for my body and fit test them myself. I also rely on our pattern testers to do the same so we can check the sizes on a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, and I sew the samples for our photo shoots so I can check the fit against our models as well. (I have a very reliable group of testers — some experienced and some quite new to sewing — who help me with a lot of this process.)

But when it comes to sewing for myself for fun, I sew for my body and don’t use a dress form at all. And that’s despite the fact that I’m quite close in size to my Alva dress form! I honestly don’t use it for myself. It’s much more useful to fit the pattern to my body in the form of a muslin. This is what I teach in my fit classes, too. It helps to have a sewing buddy who you can work with, but none of my friends sew so I do it myself. I make a muslin, look in the mirror, ask my husband or daughter to take some photos from the angles I can’t see very well, and then I take off the muslin and make adjustments before starting the procedure again. It’s trial and error until I like the result. My best tools for fitting? A mirror, a camera and a copy of Fit for Real People, which I highly recommend to all my students and all our customers because it explains how to get a good fit in ways that are relatively intuitive, with lots of photos, diagrams and examples to help you along the way.

So do you need a dress form? It’s sort of up to you, but I generally counsel against it. It looks cool in a sewing room and in blog photos, but unless you’re developing sewing patterns yourself my personal opinion is that you won’t get very much use out of it. Use your own body and a few tools, and you’ll get much better results.

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Thanks so much, Liesl! Happy weekend, everyone—

IN SHOP NEWS: We’re clearing out the magazine shelves and a few other straggling gems — check out the Sale section for some rare markdowns while they last! But I should also warn you we’re expecting the long-awaited Lykke (full/standard) interchangeable sets to finally arrive this afternoon (although I’ve probably jinxed it by posting that). We’ll put them back in the shop the moment they arrive, so check in late today! [UPDATE: The Lykke needle sets are here!]

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PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Holding yarns together

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