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Win at Lambtown

This month, I mailed off my Jacob wool skein to the Lambtown fiber festival in Dixon, CA. I entered it in the plied wool skeins class, and it came home with this:

The competition organizer told me it was in a large class, and also won a special award from Meridian Jacobs for best Jacob wool item. This was my first time entering a skein competition, and I couldn’t be happier!

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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

Blog Action Day… tomorrow

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!

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.

I still haven’t made my first “grownup” sweater–I have all the yarn for Ardent but the daunting task of the knitting math needed to alter the sizing means that for now, I’m sticking to my old habit of easy, instant-gratification (well, relatively instant) kids’ sweaters.

Such as Waffles for Brunch, made for The Botswana Project and their recent drive for sweaters:

It was a very satisfying knit–fast, simple, and yielding an extremely warm and useful garment. I really like the pattern as a charity project, because it takes so little skill and really does make for a warm sweater. I used some recycled Jaeger Shetland (85% wool, 15% alpaca) I had kicking around the stash for the last five years, and four skeins produced a sweater that would fit a small-ish child. The only thing I wasn’t quite happy with was the presence of a few holes after picking up stitches for the sleeves, but I filled them in with some extra yarn at the end.

Sometime I will sit down and work out the math for Ardent. I liked math in school, all the way through calculus, so why is figuring out how quickly and where to make my decreases such a pain in the ass? This is obviously why I’m not a designer.

New classes in Ottawa

I’m happy to announce I will be teaching my spinning classes this summer in Ottawa at the wonderful Wabi-Sabi. I love the atmosphere and workshop space at this store! The full list of classes offered can be seen here, with my classes being:

May 24 – Fibre Prep Learn how to choose, clean, and prepare a fleece for spinning
June 21 – Beginning Spinning on a Drop Spindle The basics of drop spindle spinning
June 28 – Spinning 2 More advanced techniques on the drop spindle to create a variety of different yarns

Also coming up at Wabi-Sabi is a fashion show for Twist Collective, featuring guest speaker Kate Gilbert and a number of garments from the winter and spring collections (with a sneak preview of summer!). May 2, from 6-9 pm.

Colorado spinning

A few weeks ago I took a quick trip back to Colorado to visit family and friends. I stopped by my old LYS, where I’m pretty sure I ended up leaving Maggie Casey with the impression that all Montreal knitters are drunks. She asked me to say hello to Sally Melville and her daughter Caddy when I got back to Ottawa, which I happily did at their recent book signing at Workshop back in Ottawa.

I also went with my dear friend Naveen to check out the two yarn stores in Boulder that have sprung up since I moved away in 2007. One is Gypsy Wools, at the corner of Broadway and Pine (I think?)–doesn’t have a website yet but the owner assured me one is in the works. Almost all of their stock is unique to the store, from hand-dyed yarns to local fleece sold as batts, with an emphasis on rare and heritage breeds. I snapped up the following batts, made from a prize-winning Merino/Teeswater fleece:

Then there’s this, which excited me almost as much as the fibre:

That’s a salvaged bobbin from an old mill. At a mere $2.50 apiece, I knew I’d found the perfect nostepinne I’d been looking for! The ridges do a great job of holding the yarn and I love that it’s a reclaimed piece (the mills of North America are a fascinating, if often rather dark–child labour laws were enacted partly as a response to the conditions in those mills, part of textiles history). Here it is with a center-pull ball of some organic Shetland wool from Ontario:

Next up, I spin horse hair… really!