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Time to change your bookmarks, as I’m retiring quenouille. From now on, I’m blogging at my own website.

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I’ve written before on the negative environmental effects of the cashmere industry, but for this year’s climate-change-themed Blog Action Day I’d like to write on the subject in greater detail, and how knitters and other fibre artists can avoid contributing to the problem while not giving up the chance to work with luxury fibres. My sources are listed at the end of this blog, should you want to read more.

Up until very recently, cashmere truly was a luxury item: produced in small quantities of a high quality and commanding high prices in a select market. Grown predominantly in central Asia, most cashmere was milled in Scotland and Italy with the finished garments known for their softness and long life. The explosion of Chinese textile mills in the 1980s began to alter how cashmere is produced and sold, with the changes accelerated by relaxing of EU tariffs in 2005 that allowed cheap cashmere to flood the market. These garments were by and large lower quality than their Scottish-milled counterparts, but their low prices (and the cachet of the word ‘cashmere’, no doubt) resulted in a very high demand.

In response, cashmere growers increased the size of their flocks, and many people who had never raised goats purchased their own herds to take advantage of the demand. Goats, whose sharp hooves tear up the soil and have foraging habits that strip the land of all vegetation, replaced lighter-grazing sheep as the predominant livestock animal in the steppes of Mongolia and China. The end result has been a worsening of the desertification occurring in the region–between 1994 and 1999, the Gobi desert grew by an area the size of the Netherlands, and the incidence and severity of duststorms has risen dramatically. These duststorms even affect air quality in North America, with Asian-originating dust accounting for as much as 40 percent of the worst dust days in the western US. The goats themselves suffer as their grazing areas become desert, and it is not uncommon for them to starve. The situation has not worked out well for the herders, either, as they lose their livestock either to starvation, or government-mandated culls designed to combat desertification. Many nomads living in Inner Mongolia have had to give up their livelihood altogether, unwillingly relocated to cities after generations of herding goats on the steppes.

As I mentioned above, many of the cashmere garments exported from China are of a lower quality and wear poorly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak with Angus McColl, of Yocom-McColl Wool Testing Labs in Denver, about cashmere production. He said that most of the Asian “100% cashmere” samples he tested contained wool or other fibres. The cashmere fibres themselves in Chinese-produced garments are often coarser and shorter, and therefore less soft and more prone to pilling, but with an attractive low price.

Some companies only buy cashmere produced sustainably, i.e., from goats kept in pens rather than allowed to openly graze the steppes, with the herders paid fairly for their clip. Linda Cortright, of Wild Fibers magazine, has spearheaded an effort to educate nomadic Asian cashmere producers on how to best sort their fibre in order to ask for better prices. In addition, some cashmere is produced sustainably in North American, though not nearly as much as in Asia.

So what does this mean for the knitter/fibre artist who wants to work with a luxury fibre like cashmere, but doesn’t want to contribute to the environmental disaster of desertification? Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to know if a cashmere yarn or other item was produced sustainably. Even high-quality cashmere may come from a non-sustainable herd. Until sustainable cashmere growing practices become widespread in Asia, the best thing a concerned knitter can do may be to buy only North American cashmere products, or substitute another luxury fibre such as alpaca, and certainly avoid any cashmere that seems to be priced much lower than it should be. I would encourage anyone buying cashmere, as with anything else, to fully investigate claims of sustainability made by a manufacturer. Ultimately, for the sake of the environment, the nomadic cashmere growers, and their goats, the ideal solution is to reduce demand. Cashmere is an example of the negative environmental and human impacts that can occur when a luxury good becomes commonplace, and should serve as a reminder to us to reduce consumption wherever we can.

Sources:

Mongolian Herdsmen No Longer Free to Roam
Green grass of steppes falls victim to West’s stampede for cashmere
A gripping yarn
That low-priced cashmere sweater has a hidden cost
Woolly thinking
Fibre people — Linda Cortright

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I hate to do this, but my Blog Action Day post will have to go up tomorrow. Note to self: write stuff in Google docs, not in Word, just in case your computer crashes and can’t be recovered for 24 hours.

Cashmere production tomorrow!

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Way back when, I bought a part-fleece from a Jacob sheep at the Rocky Mountain Natural Colored Sheep Breeders’ Association (what a mouthful, just imagine what it’s like writing even the acronym on a check), one of my favourite vendors at the Estes Park Wool Market in Colorado. Here’s the fleece posing artistically with my cotton cards for a promo photo for one of my classes:

Last summer I partitioned the spotted fleece into three sections: white, black, and border areas with a bit of each mixed in. With my then-new wool combs, I made these bird’s-nests of top:

Before I could spin it, life got crazy with a couple of international moves, career changes, etc. Well, I finally got around to spinning it over the past couple of weeks, creating a self-striping yarn (oh, chain ply, how I love your ability to preserve colours) that I tried to make as light and lofty as possible. I made two skeins’ worth, and even though I concentrated on spinning them the same way, the second bobbin of singles was slightly denser and thinner than the first. I now understand why some skein competitions include a “handspinner’s basket” category, where larger amounts (8 oz. of yarn, versus the typical 1 or 2 oz.) must be submitted: it’s difficult to be consistent in your spinning! I should’ve used a control sample, which is a short length of yarn pulled off your bobbin to keep nearby as a visual reminder of what you’re aiming for. I always encourage my students to do this, but hey, do as I say, not as I do, right?

Regardless of the inconsistency, I’m still very happy with the results:

Super lofty and soft, just what I wanted. I’m so pleased with it I’ll be entering it into a skein competition, along with a few other nice skeins I’ve been saving up for that purpose.

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time to branch out

Recently I’ve had several strangers compliment me on items I’ve made, including my alpaca hat and felted bag, and ask me if I have more for sale. Not to mention asking me if I could teach them to spin! Time for a proper website, logo, and business cards…

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So. Vet school. Kind of takes up most of my time, but has been surprisingly conducive to knitting because of the 4-7 hours a day I spend in lecture. I used to knit during my seminars at Wellesley–I’d usually knit socks because they were small and not very distracting (although in one particular small class I started knitting under the table when I noticed everyone intently focused on my hands, rather than the professor). So far at Penn I’ve knit a sock and a half, a few pairs of booties (I’ve taken to keeping several on hand for the birth announcements that crop up every month or two now), and almost two teddy bears. I find it helps me focus on the lecture better, especially when the lecture is something as thrilling as glycolysis or the electron transport cycle. Sorry biochem fans, but that stuff is brutal.

I also found myself elected the Fiber Arts Chair of the new Small Ruminant Club at Penn. Quite a surprise to me since I didn’t even know I was nominated, but I’m happy to take on the role of organising fibre arts activities among vet students–weekly knitting gatherings, a learn to spin class, maybe a trip to an alpaca farm. I also joined as a student member of the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, since that’s where I could see myself in the veterinary field someday.

And on an unrelated note, I really like this Turkish motif adapted by Charlene Schurch. I’ve used it in several hats, the most recent one shown in progress below in Noro Kureyon and Lamb’s Pride. Unfortunately I miscalculated the number of stitiches required and it turned out huuuuuuuuge, so it’ll be frogged and redone. Probably during biochemistry this week.

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Future plans

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written here. The bout of food poisoning I mentioned in my last entry turned into gastroenteritis, complete with a trip to the ER to get rehydrated, and I’d say that interrupted the blogging roll I was on.

However, I’m back with a mind to get my blog layout finished (starting with a proper header graphic) and update more often. My eventual goal is to start selling some of my handspun/handknit items, preferably with an emphasis on using locally produced, naturally coloured (i.e., undyed) raw materials. I’m a big proponent of the “buy local” mindset and I like buying unprepared fibre to work with, so I can have control over every step of its processing: not only can I create an object with exactly the characteristics I want (such as leaving some of the lanolin in for greater water resistance), but I can avoid the use of a lot of the caustic chemicals used in traditional fibre processing.

Up to this point I’ve always donated or given away my knitwear, and I still plan to do that (even though some people may be getting sick of receiving knitted presents from me!). Selling my work is a new thing for me, though, so I’ve got some research ahead of me. I’m not sure whether I’ll go the online store route, or try to get my stuff stocked in a brick-and-mortar shop. I’m hoping to find some other artists and see what their suggestions are.

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