Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category

I frequently buy dyed mohair locks from a local angora goat farm, Wellington Fibres, for my intermediate spinning class. As part of my recent fascination with embroidery, I tried out the mohair as a potential material for thread, with fairly good results. The next batch I’ll get some photos up of the whole process, from locks to combed top to spun thread, but for now here’s the finished product:

The first bit I spun about as fine as the alpaca top in my last post:

fine mohair thread

Mohair, in case you’re wondering, is a trickier fibre than wool to spin. It’s a very smooth fibre with a wave to it rather than crimp, and though it takes dye like nothing else, it’s really got to be convinced to hold itself together in yarn form. After my singles drifted apart a couple of times I realized I needed more twist than I was used to. For the second attempt, I decided to go finer, and therefore put in a LOT more twist. Even on the smallest whorl on the fast flyer I still had to be conscious of adding more twist. I do like the finished result, though:

finer mohair thread

That’s close to the finest I’ve ever spun, I think. And how does it work in its intended purpose? I practiced a few stitches on an old dark blue quilt block and they came out pretty nicely, but unfortunately getting good photos of the result eluded me. I’m going to try again on plain, natural twill and with any luck the stitches will show up better. Either that, or get a new camera already.


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For all of the courses I teach, I send like to send participants home with class notes that they can reference later. I cover a lot of material and it’s easy to miss a detail or two, and it frees up students from having to write anything down. In the past I’ve had booklets printed up and handed them out at the start of class, which has worked fine, but I usually end up with a few too many. Given that I’m always updating the notes, I’ve ended up with a stack of older booklets that I don’t have much use for, which is both a waste of money and an unnecessary negative environmental impact.

When I taught at Ariadne a couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to offer my students a choice: I could either email them a pdf of the notes after class or mail them a hard copy. Everyone enthusiastically chose the pdf, saying they’d prefer to save paper and were more likely to lose a printed booklet, anyway. So, from now on I’ll offer all of my students the same choice. I usually have one or two people who don’t have email, and I’ll be happy to mail them a hard copy, but I predict the pdf will remain the more popular version, and I’ve solved my problem of excess outdated notes.

All that being said, for my next intermediate spinning class, I will be having one sheet of cardstock printed up for each participant. I took a few classes from Kaye Collins back in Colorado and she gave us all yarn sample cards to save lengths of each type of yarn we spun, along with a few lines to note the style of preparation and spinning:

I’ve used it a few times to help myself make similar yarns to the ones I spun in her classes. I also like the tactile part of it; notes can tell you a lot but being able to see and feel the yarn is a greater inspiration to try spinning that way again:

Like Kaye, I use a variety of preparations and fibres in my intermediate-level class. Although everyone goes home with a chain-plied sample skein of everything they spun, I think the addition of the sample card (as well as the usual notes) will help keep everyone confident and inspired to practice the new techniques they learned.

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A few weeks back, my post on cashmere and climate change was featured on the Maisonneuve blog. Thanks to the Maisy staff!

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Shortly I’ll post about my a trip I took to the Laurentians back in August, which included a stop at Laurentian Alpacas, the source of the fibre for the project in this post. For now, though, a bit about my ambition to spin embroidery thread from local materials…

For the past several months I’ve been mulling over ideas for using fibre as a medium for art, rather than its more craft-designated use as a base material for garments (the distinction between art and craft is something I’ve been mulling over too, but that’s something for another post altogether). Many fibre artists use felt and create beautiful work, but my limited forays into needle-felting haven’t been too inspiring for me. Scrumble crochet leads to some amazing pieces, but I haven’t found that to be for me either. Rather coincidentally, I started thinking about getting into embroidery right about the same time I discovered a brand new website devoted to the topic. I was excited to learn and use the techniques on the site to create my own pieces but, as with most of my other textile activities, I thought why not spin my own yarn for it? I went a step further and decided to use fibre only from local, small-scale farms (and am kicking myself for not bringing home some wool from my visit to Pine Hill!).

The yarn for crewel work, a type of embroidery done using wool, is a worsted 2-ply from long-stapled fibres such as Border Leicester. I had some fairly long-stapled alpaca combed top–Laurentian Alpacas had one fleece milled into top this year, and I bought a significant chunk of it–and gave it a go. Using the fast flyer on my Lendrum, I spun a fine worsted yarn that I then plied:

It was tricky getting the right balance between enough twist to hold the single together, but not so much that it felt wiry and inflexible. Fairly typical of spinning alpaca worsted, I think. At any rate, I’m pretty happy with the results but the true test will be when I try it out in its intended purpose. I’ve got some mohair locks to try out next, and next time I’m in Montreal I’ll probably pick up some of the Border Leicester at Ariadne…

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A couple of weeks ago I made a visit to Pine Hill Farm in Hemmingford, Quebec, about one hour south of Montreal and close to the New York border. As part of an article I’m writing for Spin-Off, I decided to feature Pine Hill as a source of fleece and other spinning fibre in the Montreal region. I’d already seen their product for sale at Ariadne Knits (including yarn made from a sheep whose fleece is inexplicably uniformly canary yellow) and their small Border Leicester flock in scenic Hemmingford seemed like an excellent choice for the article.

When I made contact with the owner, Anna-Maria, she asked if I’d be open to teaching a spinning workshop for her and a couple of friends on the day of my visit. So, with spinning wheel, camera, and a lot of coffee in tow, I made the three-hour drive into southwestern Quebec. The area alternates between apple orchards and stands of sugar maples, and as such receives a healthy bit of tourist traffic in early fall and early spring.

Pine Hill itself sprawls across acres of rolling, rocky land and is home to a few dozen Border Leicesters and crosses, seen here walking back to the barn:

Anna-Maria could name every sheep as it walked by and tell me about the characteristics of each one’s fleece. Most were wary of us but a few bottle-fed lambs walked right up for a pat:

Speaking of the fleece, it was beautiful–Border Leicesters have a medium wool with a high lustre that grows in tight ringlets. I learned that the Border Leicester was the favoured breed in this part of Quebec, brought there by Scottish immigrants and popular because of their strong fleece and hardy constitution. Border Leicester ewes are good mothers and the breed does well in harsher climates. Fleece, on the sheep:

Teaching the workshop was a bit of challenge due to the wheels involved–two participants had antique Quebec production wheels, originally made for spinning great quantities of very fine yarn as fast as possible, and tricky even when in pristine condition. Most of the antique Quebec wheels out there are in need of repair or at least adjustment, and the ones in the workshop certainly fell into this category. I was impressed at the tenacity of their owners, though, who kept spinning despite the wheels’ tendency to suddenly stop working. Everyone spun a bit on my Lendrum and was amazed that spinning could be so easy and trouble-free! I’d love to get my hands on a restored Quebec wheel, actually–emphasis on restored. 😉

Anna-Maria and I also took a trip down to the road to Sue Heller’s farm, home of the annual Roxham Wool Gathering which draws participants from Montreal and beyond (including my friends at Ariadne). Sue’s got a small flock guarded by a geriatric and very well-bred Thoroughbred mare named Maggie. Maggie was initially unsure of these strange woolly creatures but now guards them as well as any dog:

It was great to meet Sue, who has been spinning for years and years. She was surprised to learn of the popularity of spinning in my former home of Colorado, as it really hasn’t experienced the same kind of renewed interest in Quebec that it has elsewhere. I speculated that up until fairly recently, spinning in Quebec was far from a leisure activity–it was work, and there was lots of it to be done to bring in even a small income. Sue told me that on the old Quebec farms, older unmarried female family members (“spinsters,” if you will) were allowed to spin by the fire as cold temperatures caused the wool to break. (Something Sue found out for herself at an outdoor demo in early spring one year.)

Sue dyes much of her yarn herself, and experimenting with a copper mordant (and no dye) she came up with the light green shown in the little rat here. I thought he was Yoda, at first (come on, don’t you see it?):

At the end of a glorious fall day I headed back through the maples and apple farms, over the St. Lawrence river (a few times), back to Ontario. Look for the photos in Spin-Off’s spring issue next year.

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As I’ve written on this blog before, I try as often as possible to buy my yarn and fibre from local, small-scale farms. I generally try to extend this to food as well, taking advantage of farmers’ markets as well as co-ops to buy meat, milk, and fresh produce. I like knowing that not only am I supporting local family farms, but I’m also encouraging producers to raise food animals in a more natural and humane way.

Recently I went to a panel discussion at Penn on the use of antibiotics in food animals. Representatives from both sides of the issue were there and universally agreed that prophylactic antibiotic use is, in fact, increasing the incidence of antiobiotic resistance among microbes. I went into the panel venue that night thinking that antibiotics should simply never be used unless an animal is sick, but I came out with the realisation that the issue is a lot more complicated than that. The point that stuck with me the most was made by a cattle veterinarian who works for Bayer. Since Bayer manufactures many of the antibiotics routinely given to livestock, of course he was a proponent of their use, but he talked about how routine antibiotic administration is necessary to meet the current demand for meat and other animal products. His reasoning was this: there is not enough land to raise all cattle, chickens, and other livestock in a more natural/free-range setting. Therefore, we have to rely on factory farms where animals are living indoors in very close quarters in order to produce as much as consumers are demanding. In a crowded, poorly-ventilated factory farm facility, you have to use antibiotics prophylactically to prevent widespread outbreak of disease.

Now, this vet saw the logical conclusion as being we must continue to use antiobiotics in livestock in order to keep up with consumer demand for animal products. However, I came to a different conclusion: we have to reduce our demand for animal products. The only way I see to simultaneously reduce antibiotic resistance, the cruelty of factory farm husbandry methods, and environmental devastation, is to cut back on our consumption of meat and dairy. Interestingly enough, this article in the Guardian was recently published on this very subject–reducing demand for animal products is absolutely necessary to combat climate change.

I am not a vegetarian; I was one for two years and was unhealthy and miserable most of the time, though I certainly envy people who are able to live well on a meat-free diet. I consume probably more dairy than most people and eat meat almost every day, so this is not an easy recommendation for me to make, especially when the article linked above quotes four portions of meat and 1 litre of milk as the maximum intake per person per week needed to stop climate change. However, I think when it comes to our environment as well as the welfare of the animals we depend on for food, reducing consumption of animal products–even just a little–is the only way to go.

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I first discovered Philsophers Wool a few years ago, when I stumbled upon a book of their Fair Isle sweater patterns in a library in Colorado. Since then I’ve admired them for their commitment to producing local, natural, and fair trade yarns–unlike most wool buyers, Philosophers Wool pays farmers a fair price for their fleece (think a couple dollars a pound, versus a few cents from most wool buyers) and still make a profit.

Last month I was staying not far from the PW farm in Kincardine, ON, and jumped at the chance to see the farm in person. What transpired was a lovely visit, including good conversation with the owners, Ann and Eugene, a tour of the farm, and the chance to model their newest sweater designs in exchange for some yarn (look for me on the new sweater kits if you see their booth at Rhinebeck this year). The local/organic ham sandwich Ann made me for the drive back was a treat, too. Yum. Now for some photos:

A few members of the farm flock of Dorset sheep:

This chicken kept a close eye on me as I wandered near the coop:

The full palette of yarn colours, as seen in the foyer:

I also bought some roving, since I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spin some of their wool myself. It’s now spun, skeined, and waiting to be made into hats or mittens (or possibly sold as is).

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