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!

. . .

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.

.

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

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Yarns in Waiting, mid-2017

Yarns in Waiting, mid-2017

Unlike my assorted Yarns in Waiting from last April, nearly all of which have since factored into garments, my year-end lineup is still mostly sitting patiently on the shelf. But in the meantime, I’ve acquired a few more lovelies that are now hoping for a turn (clockwise from top):

– Rosa Pomar sent me this ball of her newest yarn, Mungo, which is milled in her native Portugal like her other yarns. In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous and exactly the shade of blackish-blue I’ve been on the hunt for, it’s recycled. 100% pre-consumer waste, wool and cotton (50/50), all fiber sourced in Portugal and Spain. And the fiber mix gives the color that inherent heathered look I love.

– The four balls of Gilliatt by De Rerum Natura were given to me by Aimee of La Bien Aimée when I was in Paris in April. This is French milled, French merino, and everyone’s always telling me I have to try it! (I love that the label says “Fabriqué en France dans le respect des moutons et des hommes.”) At least two of these colors are undyed but possibly all four, and these amount to a sweater’s worth if I can decide on a strategy!

Luma from Kelbourne Woolens/The Fibre Co is a reinvention of a former yarn that I always wanted to love, and I do love this iteration of it. It’s 50% merino, 25% organic cotton, plus linen and silk, spun and dyed at a well-respected mill in Peru, but that’s really all I know about it. Other than it’s a light, lovely DK-weight yarn. The natural is a really great non-yellowy natural.

– At the Squam Art Fair there was a table full of baskets of incredible farm yarns that I couldn’t choose between and also couldn’t walk away from — to the point that I broke my single skein rule. (The rule: No single skeins.) The vendor was New England Farm to Fiber, who rep a bunch of New England farm yarns at the Boston Public Market (and on their website), and the skein I walked away with is this gorgeous 80% Romedale/CVM and 20% alpaca blend from Crooked Fence Farm. I think it will make an exceptional pair of mitts.

– And I just acquired this skein of YOTH’s new Best Friend from my pal Meg at Haus of Yarn. This is YOTH’s collaboration with Francis Chester of Cestari, as it happens — it’s 75% cotton (grown by Cestari) and 25% wool (US-sourced), milled in VA by Cestari. Again, beautiful heathered color due to the fiber mix, and it’s also spun with a bit of a slubby texture. This “blueberry” skein is perfectly gorgeous — like your favorite old faded jeans. It’s light fingering (550 yards!), so whatever I do with it, it will be held double or triple, but I can’t wait to experiment with it and see if I need a sweater’s worth. Maybe next summer’s summer sweater project!

.

PREVIOUSLY: Yarns in Waiting, late 2016

SaveSave

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // Knitting can happen to anyone, at any time — with needles, yarn and lessons or tutorials readily available online, in local yarn stores, or even stashed away forgotten in a closet. Animal husbandry, agricultural science and managing a working farm, on the other hand, are huge undertakings, yet it seems like new shepherds and wool farmers are emerging every year, taking hobby flocks’ wool to the market under their own label, or selling to other small businesses. This small-to-small model is what makes a large farm like Cestari (est. 1946) — run by Francis Chester, whose extended family had been farmers in Italy — all the more exceptional. Cestari has become one of the largest and strongest wool producers in the US, and it’s pretty unbelievable to think that it all started in Brooklyn with a boy whose dream was to own livestock. He began with a small farm stand, selling goat-milk products and home-grown vegetables at ten years old. He used the money to put himself through law school — not a passion project, but a backup plan that would prove fruitful later in life. He has since put the law degree to use helping small farms retain their holdings in the face of big businesses seeking to take advantage of tough times.

Chester and his wife relocated to Virginia in 1968, where they fulfilled his life-long dream of owning a larger farm. Augusta County, just outside Lynchburg, is idyllic countryside, complete with the type of rocky soil that sheep tend to love. Chester has also made room on his farm for a less mobile fiber: cotton. Cotton comes with a wide variety of challenges and concerns. Soil depletion is a major impact of the industry as cotton pulls nitrates out of soil at an alarming rate, and has to be rotated to avoid stripping farmland entirely. (You can read more about cotton production and challenges in this wonderful article from Seamwork.)

Luckily, Virginia soil is ideal for a nutrient-rich, underground product that has proven to be the perfect pairing for cotton: peanuts. Cestari Farms work to crop rotate every acre of land dedicated to their cotton product with peanuts in order to keep the soil in good condition and avoid the pitfalls often associated with its production. The resulting lightweight, soft cottons in their 100% Cotton Old Dominion Collection are grown, processed, spun and dyed in their own mill facilities, which means the family is comfortable and familiar with the process and can answer questions and concerns from their customer base with confidence.

Perhaps better known than their cottons are Cestari’s wools. Having started with his own small flock of Targhee and Columbia sheep, Chester felt that the processing of the wool was just as integral to its quality as the growing. In 1969, he and his wife added a mill business to their farm business. They wanted to preserve their wool’s hard-wearing softness over time by not removing too much of the lanolin — a natural oil that sheep produce, which is often removed from wool and sold as a side product to the cosmetic industry. Wools processed at their mill are all scoured gently, not carbonized (an acid burning process that is used frequently in wool production). While Cestari’s Traditional yarn lines tend to have a bit more vegetable matter in the wool, they have a higher lanolin content and the wool retains more of its natural crimp, softness and spirit. When I met Mr. Chester during his recent visit to Nashville, I was impressed by a sweater he was wearing and asked if it was new. He laughed, and said that it was almost two decades old — the lanolin in Cestari wools protects the fibers and increases their longevity, which results in better-looking finished garments over time. Cestari garments can truly be the heirloom pieces that so many knitters intend to make.

As the demand for Cestari wools grew, so did Chester’s network of farmers and farms. He began carefully sourcing wool from other US producers, allowing them to keep doing what they loved, raising high-quality sheep and fleeces. His faith in the domestic textile industry is contagious — listening to him speak about his projects infects you with a desire to cast on and begin knitting something exceptional.

What I find most special about Cestari is not just that they are domestic producers who care about the wool industry, but that they have been able to expand in such a big way and still retain the intrinsic values of their company. In fact, Mr. Chester told me during his visit that they are intending to expand into textile industry education, with a new project on the horizon: a museum on their Virginia property that will show the history of American textile production to the modern day, which is sure to inspire countless future knitters.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative and social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Francis Chester/family photos © Cestari; used with permission / yarn photo Hannah Thiessen for Fringe Association

Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // If you have the pleasure of following @wingandaprayerfarm on Instagram, you know all about Tamara White and her merry cast of creatures: pot belly pigs and guinea hogs, goslings and chickens, ducks and turkeys. Ponies, alpacas, angora goats, sheep and farm dogs. You might even have seen Bilbo the miniature donkey chasing the mail truck. Tammy shares it all through photos and video, and her worldwide audience is eager to soak up a bit of Vermont farm life from the comfort of a phone screen. I certainly find daily escape from my own life of computers and chores that are so ordinary in comparison, so imagine my excitement when Katrina Rodabaugh offered to “introduce” me to Tammy after she returned from the Hudson Valley Textile Summit they had both attended.

Tammy began her history with farm animals early. The fourth of five children, she grew up in a family of makers, learning to sew, knit, crochet, can, bake and garden at home and through 4-H. The life of a big family kept her busy as a child, and she has carried that momentum into adulthood: She ran her own floral business, worked for a textile manufacturer, and eventually home-schooled her children for over a decade. The children were the impetus for the farm: In their first year of home schooling, Tammy and her husband invested in a dozen chickens, then purchased some Shetland sheep, and continued learning and expanding their skills and animal roster until suddenly they found themselves with a full-blown working farm.

Many of the animals she has brought into the fold have stories all their own, or have found their way to Wing and a Prayer Farm because of unique circumstances or lost homes. Many acquisitions are the result of neighbors’ life changes and an animal’s need for a safe place to land. Tammy has a way of finding just the right name and story for each creature, and has found the ideal balance between pets and livestock: a loving, warm welcome for all, and place for them in the farm’s future.

Many of the animals are fiber-producing, and Tammy has been carefully selecting the finest fleeces at shearing time and sorting them into unique blends for wool lovers: a 100% Shetland is in the works, while the Taconic Twist blend (long wool, mohair and a bit of fine wool) undergoes revisions each time. (This time, it will feature Wensleydale rather than Cotswold.) She eagerly works within her friend-and-farmer group to create new blends and projects, as well. Ellen Mason (Odacier) lent a bevy of Clun Forest fleeces that promise to become “The Happiest Yarn of 2017,” an ideal blend for colorwork and knitting creativity. Mary Jeanne Packer, proprietor of Battenkill Fibers Spinning Mill, lent the Wensleydales for this year’s Taconic Twist. A blend of her own alpaca and Shetland is also currently at the mill and due out this summer.

Tammy is one of many farmers who believed in their work and did not give up when their fleeces did not sell or move in years past, but simply kept experimenting and learning, and are now enjoying the rise in awareness and popularity of farm yarns.

These days she takes the time to educate not only herself, but others, hosting a rotating series of workshops on topics that range from homesteading to garment making. This year’s workshops promise pies, slow (practical) fashion, natural dyeing and shearing, with a culminating event at the farm titled the New England Fiber Summit. In a return to her roots, Tammy leads small groups of industrious students through tasks and skills that, for many, have been lost to time. One thing that I learned is that Wing and a Prayer Farm is ultimately about reclaiming the joy in hard work, stewardship of animals and individuals, and the simple pleasure of knowing (and making) your way in the world. I cannot help but admire Tammy’s advice for those of us who may feel too busy to enjoy wherever we are in our lives:

This is the time in my life when I am enjoying the hosting of events and the raising of fiber animals as much as I am enjoying spending time with my craft. Much of what I like to do sitting at the wheel — or with a pair of knitting needles in my hands or at the sewing machine — is something I will continue to do for the rest of my life. But this workshop hosting, sheep and goat wrangling, and alpaca handling is limited. One day my body will not want to carry 50-lb. grain bags or hoist hay bales into the loft. One day my body will be more than happy to sit tight in the morning, sip a cuppa and knit. But that day is not quite here yet!

Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

.

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

Photos © Wing & a Prayer Farm; used with permission

What I Know About: Holding yarns together

What I Know About: Holding yarns together

There are some questions I get asked over and over, some of which I have answers for and many of which I do not. So today I’m kicking off a new occasional series called “What I Know About” in which I or someone more knowledgeable than me will respond to your most pressing inquiries. It might be a Q&A, a guest post, who knows — but I’m starting with probably the MOST frequently asked question and my own answer to it: Why are you always knitting with multiple yarns held together?

There are basically three categories of reasons:

GAUGE
The most common reason I personally do it is to get the yarn I want at the gauge I want. For instance, I wanted to knit a cardigan out of the gorgeous heathery black Linen Quill, but it’s light-fingering weight. I neither want to knit at that gauge or want a sweater that thin, so by holding two strands together, I got the weight/gauge I was after. There are dozens of fabulous lace- or fingering-weight yarns I’d never get to knit with if I didn’t double them up. Conversely, there are limited options available at the bulky-superbulky end of the spectrum, so holding yarns together is a great option for knitting at a bulkier gauge without being limited to the available yarns. Such as my linen Sloper in progress, because there’s no such thing as bulky linen. (Possibly with good reason, lol!)

FABRIC/FIBER
It’s also quite common to hold yarns together in order to blend those fibers into one fabric. (The entire Shibui line is built on this concept.) For example, for my grandmother’s shawl, I held together one strand of Shibui Staccato (70% merino, 30% silk) and one Shibui Linen (100% linen), so the finished fabric is 50% linen, 35% merino, 15% silk. She lives in Texas, but I wanted the shawl to have more soft-cuddliness than 100% linen, so I blended it in this way. And again holding together two strands of fingering weight yarn created a weightier fabric than knitting with either yarn on its own. One really common trick is to hold one strand of something like cobweb-weight Silk Cloud or Kidsilk Haze together with whatever your main yarn is, to give the fabric that soft mohair halo. In addition to making the most astonishing swatch books I’ve ever laid eyes on, Shibui posts a downloadable Mix Cheat Sheet that shows what happens gauge-wise when you hold multiple strands of any one Shibui yarn or combine different ones, which is also a useful guide in general as to how yarns of differing weights might add up. You always have to swatch to know for sure, of course, but that’s a great starting point for getting a sense of gauge.

COLOR
Likely the first reason I ever held yarns together was to create a marl, and it’s still one of my favorite reasons. Again, there aren’t a ton of marled yarn options in the world, but by holding two (or more) strands together, you can create any combo you want!The yarns you’re mixing may or may not be the same weight or fiber content — you could create a 50/50 marl with two stands of the same yarn in different colors, or something much more creative with varying weights and fibers, so a combination of all of the above motivations and results. And it could be a marl or an ombré or lots of other effects. One of my all-time favorite examples of creative mixes is this Chloé sweater from a few years ago. (The swatch pictured up top is mine from awhile back, playing around with different Shibui yarns — two strands of an ivory, one black with one ivory, one ivory with one grey.)

Another example from my own past that’s a combination of the above is my Bellows cardigan. That pattern is written for two strands of Shelter (i.e. bulky gauge) and could easily be knitted with a single strand of a bulky yarn instead. I knitted mine with two strands of Balance, which served a dual purpose: 1) it got me to the bulky gauge, as the original pattern did and 2) it counteracted the need to alternate skeins when working with that yarn. Because the wool and cotton fibers in Balance take the dyes differently, Balance behaves a lot like a hand-dyed yarn. When working with hand-dyed, it’s important to alternate skeins every row if you want to avoid pooling or an obvious change in the fabric at the point where you joined a new ball. By holding two strands together, you’re literally blending them, thereby canceling out those concerns.

So there are lots of reasons you might hold multiple yarns together, but at the center of it is control and creativity — allowing you to create whatever you want.

For more on some of the things you can do with yarns held together, see: The other breed of colorwork

Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // I truly believe that most people have a passion for the environment. Regardless of how you feel about climate change or the politics of going green, I would wager that most humans around the world have had at least one outdoor experience they found enjoyable. Whether this means long hikes and biking on deserted trails, a car trip through the mountains, a summer camp memory in your childhood or a long day at the beach, people find intrinsic value in beautiful landscapes. We find solace in the reality of ever-present nature around us: We look for homes nestled in greenery, are delighted at the appearance of a rare, bright bird each Spring, and dream of vacations that often feature unknown-to-us plants and locations. If you have ever experienced the loss of a place you’ve loved (perhaps through a tourism boom, construction or natural disaster), you know all too well the importance of preservation: In your own way, your heart has urged you towards making small changes in your own life in order to affect larger changes in the lives of others.

One of the ways that Karen discusses preservation here on the Fringe Association blog is through sustainable garment choices. There are endless ways to apply preservation principles: mending, thrifting, upcycling, hand-making and sharing are just a few. As a knitter, one of my favorite ways to support sustainable garment making is through buying traceable fibers. While I have fallen in love (madly, madly in love) with many beautiful yarns in my decades of knitting, I have recently committed to the idea that if the maker of these yarns will not (or cannot) tell me where they come from, I should not keep buying them. My dollars instead will go to companies willing to be transparent about their supply chain and how their products are impacting the environment — knowledge is power in the hands of knitters.

This doesn’t mean that I knit exclusively with “farm yarns.” While I adore a wonderfully rustic, sheepy wool, I also often find myself craving the sleek and fashionable, comfortable and soft. When a company can combine fashion with transparency, I feel that they’ve hit the “sweet spot.” Such is the case with Wool and the Gang, a fashion knitting company that supports uncomplicated, accessible making, and has made a splash, bringing new knitters into the fold with fun, fast projects and a variety of squishy yarns. Packed in trendy, branded kits and wrapped with recycled paper labels, their goods are the gateway drug of knitting. I cannot count how many kits walk out the door of our local shop in hands that eagerly return, ready to try a new project a few weeks later. While bulky yarns and quick projects have overtones of fast fashion, the reality of Wool and the Gang’s yarn line is based on the idea that by understanding how things are made, we can see more intrinsic value in those made by others.

Jade Harwood, one of the co-founders of Wool in the Gang, is the perfect example of this idea. She learned to knit as many other knitters do, from a relative at a young age. In making miniature outfits for her toys, she embraced her love of making, specifically garment-making, and set herself on the path towards becoming a fashion designer. At 14, inspired by fellow British designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, she focused her attention on the dream of someday attending Central St. Martins, a London-based college with a world-renowned fashion program. While in attendance years later, she met Aurelie Popper working for a summer at Balmain. (Yes, the Balmain!) After finishing school, they combined efforts with Lisa Sabrier. The three shared a mutual love for building a fashion brand with a soul, a message that could make knitting accessible for a new generation.

The kit concept developed out of breaking down what was hard about learning: super simple introductions, chunky wool and large stitches, paired with online video tutorials. By slowing down and making your basics, they worked to counteract fast fashion by helping people learn new skills. They created a community, the ‘Gang’ part of their name, to support, encourage and connect knitters of all skill levels and ages. They believed that the first step to sustainable fashion was helping people identify with the person behind their garments: in this case, themselves. By pulling back the glossy, magazine layers of fashion, they revealed the truth below — people make things, and it’s possible for all people to make things.

Of course, sustainable goes so far beyond just the act of making. It is about materials. Since day one, the team of Wool and the Gang worked to be conscientious of the environmental issues being caused by mass-produced fashion. While wool is intrinsically considered a sustainable fiber, they wanted to break the mold and introduced yarns that could make even more of an impact on consumer waste.

Heal the Wool expands upon the sustainability of wool by utilizing the leftovers from their existing yarn mill in Peru. 100% recycled wool, it began with the process of gathering six tons of waste fiber that would otherwise have gone into a landfill. Through careful blending and sorting to create colors, they avoided the use of dyes, saving 48,000 liters of water and giving these leftovers a second life. Billie Jean, a denim yarn, is made using upcycled, pre-consumer denim waste — leftovers from denim production in the fashion industry. The waste is ground into fiber and woven into yarn without chemicals or dyes, saving 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material. Wool and the Gang will also introduce a new sustainable yarn this summer, using eucalyptus tree fibers.

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

One of the toughest questions I ask of any yarn company is about outsourcing. A delicate subject in this industry, outsourcing is often about cost, and comes with a variety of concerning environmental impacts all its own: shipping, exports and questionable mill standards for workers. Often, our views of international fiber production are colored by the horror stories of sweatshop factories and child labor in developing countries. I was worried that this British based company was making a sustainable product, but at the cost of their own domestic wool production (in case you aren’t aware, the UK is having a seriously exciting moment right now with native wools — more on that in a future column!) I was pleasantly surprised by Jade’s answer to my questions about why they’ve chosen to take their production overseas: It is more environmentally sound to have a yarn milled where it is grown.

Peru is the source of the highland wool and alpaca used in Wool and the Gang’s yarns. With ample farming land and a mill partner who is actively involved in the sourcing and invested in the success of Peruvian farmers, it was not a stretch to work within the country to create yarns that embraced the history and tradition of South American wools. Beyond this, the mill they work with can handle the scale of their production, but is also passionate about offering innovative choices, as evidenced by the unique yarns Wool and the Gang is able to commission. That said, Jade and her partners are exploring the possibilities of adding a ‘Brit Wool’ to the pack, and are already dreaming up pun-based names!

In the spirit of this fresh-faced, exciting company, I asked how Wool and the Gang encourages knitters to make a start on the path of sustainable making. Jade suggests recycling yarns that you have, and points towards a recent blog post for the Gang’s top tips on how to help the environment – I am particularly interested in The Uniform Project

As for my own thoughts on the subject? I’m going to continue on my mission to share sustainable, accessible, interesting and affordable yarns with you here. In the same way that preserved nature is available to all, I believe that it’s possible to find knit-worthy yarns at all price points and preferences, from the hands of farmers or behind the sleek label of a fashion brand.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

.

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

Photos © Wool and the Gang; used with permission

Elsewhere

Elsewhere - yarny links for your clicking pleasure

As I’m writing this, I haven’t yet left for Paris, but hopefully by the time you’re reading it I’ll have had an amazing few days with an amazing weekend ahead of me, before heading home early next week. So I am well and truly Elsewhere, but here are some fabulous links for your clicking pleasure—

– Having spent time experimenting with knitting jute and rope a few years ago, I have a lot of admiration for this (top left)

– I’d seen this short video and lost track of it, and was so happy to run across it again on MDK: Harris Tweed — I’m super intrigued by the few craft and textile traditions that are protected in the same way as “Brie” and “Champagne” and “Whisky/Whiskey”

– I recently had the pleasure of meeting Andrea Hungerford who told me she’d made an indigo kimono inspired by my Idea Log, and boy is it a treasure (bottom right)

– I love the twin stories of the color inspiration for Anna’s Skogafjall (bottom left) and the meaning of Kathy’s motif modifications

– And always love a good yarn tale

– Are you excited about Vickie Howell’s The Knit Show?

– What are your thoughts on slow-fashion advocate Emma Watson’s “sustainable” Beauty and the Beast costumes (top right)

What’s in your core wardrobe?

This concept

These handmade shoes

These words to live by

– and whoa-my-god this sweater

Have a terrific weekend, everyone! Thanks, always, for being here—

.

PREVIOUSLY: Elsewhere