Knit Local


Some knitting projects volunteer themselves and prove as delightful as flowers you didn’t plant.

The vision of a new design can grow from almost any seed—from the yarn itself, from nature, from history, and sometimes from all of these braided together. In April I found I couldn’t set aside the remnants of a skein of Spincycle Yarn I’d used for a hat for my father; the earthy tones still wanted my attention, and they wanted prominent display on the yoke of a sweater. As it was spring, I had flowers dancing before my eyes, and as I was leafing through a book of Scandinavian mitten designs, I chanced across a thumb motif I thought might be the right scale for a child’s sweater if worked at the larger gauge I was imagining. I fossicked in my stash for likely partners for the Spincycle—namely a main color—and found three plump fingering-weight skeins of Catskill Merino in the springiest watercress green. Another remnant skein of heathered brown Raumagarn was just right for the flowers’ roots (and I loved that the flowers had big strong roots in the original mitten). I knew I hadn’t enough of the Spincycle to carry me through the foliage in the motif, but lo, there was the skein of BFL/silk I’d made in my first year of spinning practice, featuring the same olive and golden greens with burgundy. It could easily pick up where the Spincycle would leave off. I auditioned a whole raft of neutrals for the yoke background and wasn’t satisfied. Everything was the wrong weight or looked too flat or too stark against the lively color play of the handspun contrast colors. But when I popped into Wild Fibers in Mt. Vernon for some buttons, there was an intriguingly flecked pale golden skein of Noro Kumo that leapt out at me. Everything was coming together.

I’ll have to steal it back to block the button band!

In the middle of my merry progress, I learned that Catskill Merino had lost Eugene Wyatt, its founding shepherd. I wrote on Instagram, “Once in awhile in life you brush against someone with a truly original spark and it kindles something in you that burns for a long time, perhaps unnoticed. Eugene was one of those—and a good writer to boot. That I’m a shepherd now is, perhaps, a little bit due to him.” Eugene certainly expanded my sense of what kind of person might choose to devote himself to sheepkeeping. He kept one of the best blogs on shepherding, equal parts poetic and practical. He punctuated his market days selling wool and lamb at Union Square with jaunts to the cinema; he read a lot of Proust. Even in a brief conversation you could sense the depth of the living and thinking he’d done.

I think about Eugene Wyatt whenever people are surprised that we’ve shelved our city life in favor of a sheep farm on a tiny island. I think about the assumptions I once made that farmers were mostly folks who’d inherited a way of life and hadn’t escaped to anything more intellectual. Eugene made me consider that you could be a passionate intellectual and a farmer all in one. And now I know from experience that learning how to farm uses every intellectual skill you’ve got—and then some. Writing about it as well as Eugene did clarifies your purposes and precipitates beauty out of the daily soup of humble chores like mowing, moving fences, scrubbing water troughs, trimming hooves, mucking sheep sheds, battling weeds, and making up fecal slurries to count worm eggs.

Eugene and Dominique, who dyes the yarn and helps with the flock and now carries the work forward alone, were also at the beginning of my awakening to the farm-to-skein story of the wool I choose to work with. Most knitting shops weren’t carrying yarns like theirs when I took up the craft, and it was fresh and marvelous to sink my fingers into wool raised just a few hours away and dyed with botanical extracts. Since I first discovered Catskill Merino, the market for locally grown wool has really begun to flower, and that’s wonderful to see. I’ve had the chance to knit with many more single-flock yarns over the years, and I’ve loved most of them. The beautiful green skeins in Ada’s new sweater only rekindled my appreciation for the quality of breeding and craft at Catskill Merino: this is really excellent wool, terrifically soft without sacrificing character. It’s still head of the class even now that the class is larger.

The true testament? My kid didn’t take this sweater off all day when I gave it to her, even as the mercury climbed to eighty.

Someone’s going to ask when the pattern will be available. I’m going to revise the motif a little bit—maybe take out some of those three-color rows with long floats—and grade it up to adult sizes. I might make a pullover for myself. I may chart a shorter version of the flower so the yoke depth can be shallower, allowing for smaller kid sizes. I’ve got another design project on my needles right now, but I’m looking forward to picking this up in September.


Friday, 10am: The journey begins on a clear June day. Some clouds pretending innocence are loitering in the west, no threat to a beautiful summer’s day in this mild, maritime climate. The ferry poots a warning to the lesser boats, leaves Friday Harbor and rumbles northwest. Sea lions have rafted up to bask on a rock off Yellow Island, warm and tawny in the sunlight and still as driftwood. It has been an unusually dry spring and the islands are showing their golden flanks and shoulders—their August plumage. The sea is sparkling and the kelp beds wink and glisten. A flock of gulls is squabbling over a little run of fish.

Down on the car deck, my blue station wagon holds a tent, a sleeping bag, an LED lantern, a rain jacket, and three clear drum liners stuffed with North Country Cheviot wool. We’re nearing the international border now, crossing from the San Juans into the Gulf Islands, one archipelago with two names parted by an imaginary line drawn by a German Kaiser at the end of the 19th century to resolve some armed bickering over a dead pig. To the north is Salt Spring Island. It’s only about 14 miles from my island to this one as the orca swims, but today I’ll set foot on Salt Spring for the first time. My three bags full are bound for the Gulf Islands Cooperative Spinning Mill.

11:30am: It turns out Americans don’t try to breeze through Sidney Customs with carloads of agricultural product very often. Or ever. Three agents consult on what’s to be done with me and my wool, asking questions about the state of my tires and shoes in the friendliest of manners. They are relieved to hear I don’t drive the family car about the sheep pasture or into the barn. They are ever so pleased to hear about the hours I spent picking seeds and manure out of the fleeces and charitably decide it must be mostly clean. They wish I had a firmer figure for the value of three bags of fleece, but in the end they nicely send me on my way.


This post is photo heavy so I scaled them smaller than usual. Click for better!

1:30pm: Salt Spring’s topography is more amplified than I had realized. My island works up to its heights, so I wasn’t prepared for big hills rearing right out of the sea. Roadwise, it’s completely different from home. Beaver Point Road swoops and veers; every corner is blind. It seems possible that this route was engineered by barn swallows. Noted: If you don’t have a farm stand at the end of your driveway, you’re certainly not keeping up with the Salt Spring Joneses.


2:00pm: I’ve parked at Ruckle Provincial Park and trotted down a woodsy path toward the sea with my tent under my arm to claim a campsite. This tent dates to my childhood and is looking a bit sun crisped. The rain fly is sporting some duct tape, but it’s better than the one to my tent, which disintegrated last time I pulled it from the sack. I’m grateful to my parents for the loan. And the dead earwigs are mostly on the outside, anyway.




3:17pm: I didn’t know what to expect of the Gulf Islands Spinning Mill, but it’s a surprise to find it nestled within a kind of living agricultural history exhibit. Antique tractors rust nobly on the green. No one is around except a blacksmith, who is sure enough beating a piece of glowing metal into submission with a soundtrack of punk bagpipes. The mill is locked up, with a sign posted that recommends calling John in such a scenario. I can’t call from my American mobile here, though. The blacksmith directs me to find Barry, who oversees this place and is working on a bobcat over yonder. From Barry I learn that Bob, who gave me the green light to deliver the wool today, has gone to Ontario because his mother-in-law died. Barry calls John’s wife and learns that luckily John is on his way to the mill right now about another matter.



John arrives and shows me the other matter: the pin drafter is broken, and he’s spent all week sending photographs of various parts to the company in North Carolina that built it 70 years ago and then awaiting their suggestions about what to try next. He’s finally isolated the area where it’s jammed and hopes to have it back in action within the next week, but for the moment all he can spin is a truly Rubenesque singles. John has been running this mill for 20 years. He likes Cheviot.


My visit is brief; I need to wait until Amy comes in on Monday and takes a look at the wool so I can have a conversation with her about how best to spin it. The options are not many; it is a very little mill, after all. But it suits the modest scale of this particular adventure and I’m delighted to have seen it in person.

4:30pm: Back in downtown Ganges, I putter through the busiest area to see what’s what. Ganges is a little bigger than my town but feels familiar, brimming with summer weekend tourist traffic. I park near the Coast Guard station because I spy a bookshop and imagine this will be a good place to ask for dinner recommendations. Also, it’s called Black Sheep Books, and when you put sheep and books in the same name you’ve got me firmly in your tractor beam. Black Sheep Books is a second-hand trove of antiquarian oddities and greedily thumbed romances and everything in between. If I were feeling less hungry and more decisive I could do real damage here. After about forty happily aimless minutes I settle on In Deep, Maxine Kumin’s essays on country life, and the bookseller points me to the nearby Treehouse Café.

6:30pm: One grilled halloumi sandwich wrapped in naan with a side of kaleslaw later, I am ethnically and calorically replete. There is live music starting, but I am sleepy and also keen to veer and swoop my way back through the forest to Ruckle Park while it is still fully light.


Fence envy is a real condition, folks.

8:00pm: Back at the campground, I’ve shuttled necessities down to my tent and located the potable water supply. I pass a brace of bucks browsing at the trail’s edge. They regard me peaceably from beneath their velvety antlers. I spread my sleeping bag, gather up my knitting, and settle on a little shelf of igneous rock still warm from the sun with the waves lapping near my toes.




It’s not exactly a quiet spot; there’s a steady parade of ferries to and fro on the Vancouver run, and some of those vessels make our Washington State ferries look like bathtub toys. But the throaty purr of those big engines melds lullingly with the soundscape of the strait. I watch three families of geese ply the waters. A lustily supping otter rolls and dives and surfaces, subduing something with a lot of unmannerly chewing. He trolls the shoreline for a long while. The liquid arc of his back and the furthermore of his tail hardly leave a ripple. The sky is lit with lilac and apricot; it is also loosing a spatter of rain. I retreat to the tent to write and listen.


One anniversary mitt down, one to go.

Epilogue: It will rain all night. I will learn I’ve grown old enough to want a cushier sleeping pad, but I will be wryly thankful to have packed the extra-long impermeable ridged variety, which will have protected me perfectly from the impressive lake forming under and inside my tent even while rendering half my limbs numb by turns. In the morning I’ll laze awhile, then drive back to Ganges to hunt up breakfast at the farmer’s market, where I’ll happen upon a glorious rug woven and naturally dyed in Oaxaca. It deserves its own post.

Slow fashion and privilege

Over on Instagram, there’s a movement called #slowfashionoctober happening. It’s about more than just showing off the clothes you’ve sewn or knitted. There’s an important discussion about consumption patterns bundled with it, a lot of thoughtful people taking stock of what they have, considering who made it and how, acknowledging that they have too much and thinking about how their wardrobes could do more with less, committing to vote with their dollars for companies that create fashion sustainably and fairly, strategizing about how to defuse the desire to own more pretty new things. I’m very much in that headspace myself these days and I’m glad to see this unfolding in my online community.

Yesterday Bristol Ivy, whose open eyes and brave smart mouth I’ve long admired, asked us all to take a look at what this stance means in terms of our privilege, to think about who can afford slow fashion and who can’t. About who’s left out when we’re all crooning over our beautiful sweaters knit with small-batch yarns from sheep with names, because those skeins sell for the real cost of production to the farmers and local mills and dyers—none of whom is getting rich in this business—and that cost is just too great. You can read her post on Instagram, where she’s @bristolivy, and the comments from many people reacting with gratitude that she was willing to broach the topic of inequality and adding important points of their own. Ysolda Teague draws attention to economic research that shows we spend about the same portion of our income on clothing as our forebears did… but we have many more items. The trouble isn’t that quality costs too much, it’s that we’ve developed a whole culture that depends on clothing being cheap and disposable. Most people well-off enough to be using computers and smartphones (and thus participating in this conversation) expect to see their friends wearing different clothes from one day to the next. We judge each other’s adherence to trends and use that information to make choices about our social connections, and we do it from the time we’re little children. We all want what looks correct and attractive within our particular milieu. This is pretty basic human psychology, but globalization has made it far easier for people of all income levels to play the game—and at the same old ugly cost to those who manufacture our clothes in unsafe and unjust conditions, but far away where we don’t have to see it or even think about it unless a mill catches fire and kills hundreds of workers trapped inside. Before my generation, making your children’s clothes was the budget-friendly choice. Today I can buy my son a shirt for less money than the yard of fabric required to sew it. The math has gone seriously askew—it can’t be this advantageous to me unless someone’s in an appalling deficit at the making end. No wonder people want to get out of this current and class off in a nice little slow fashion eddy where everything is fairly sourced and so timelessly well crafted it will last for generations. I know I do. I have to think it would be better for everyone if we could find our way to a broader culture that valued quality above quantity (or novelty).

But here’s another tangle where I’m stuck. By editing down our wardrobes; making only what’s beautiful, serviceable, and lasting; and avoiding the temptations of the new and the now, we have to rein in our purchasing from the very independent designers, farmers, and other artisans we’re so proud to support. You couldn’t go to a yarn store and find local products fifteen years ago. Independent knitting designers existed only by the handful and relied on self-published paper newsletters to distribute their work. A community of crafters created this market out of thin air because they were willing to put up the money to buy the products even though they cost more. If many of us with the means to buy fairly priced patterns, cloth, yarn, and locally made clothing cut back, what happens to our artisans’ livelihood? How do the Bristols and Ysoldas of our community get to go on inspiring us with their brilliant art? Economists would say a contraction of the market with less successful players being weeded out is just the way things work, but I don’t think we’re so sanguine as a community. We value the human connections and the stories of regular folks living their creative dreams, and we buy from them not just because they make beautiful things but because it feels good. (I’m not sure anybody loves things that feel good more than knitters do. I suspect scientists will someday discover that the crafty gene is right next to the do-gooder gene and the one doesn’t get expressed without the other.)

In a curious alignment of threads, I’ve been digesting a historical example that brings the same questions to light. Last week a splendid book was published in Sweden and flew right ’round the world to my doorstep. It’s the first new material on Bohus Stickning to come out in twenty years, and I have been guzzling it. If you’ve never heard of Bohus knitting before, 1) apologies for the deep dive into geekdom that’s about to ensue; 2) go run a quick Google image search. You’re welcome. The gist of this story is that Bohus Stickning began as a relief effort in the late 1930s, employing rural women in one little corner of Sweden to knit garments for sale. But not just socks and hats and bazaar goods. This company shot the moon. They made gobsmackingly gorgeous couture and sold it to princesses and film stars at astronomical prices, which translated into modest but significant paychecks for the knitters. These sweaters were as exclusive and costly as mink coats, but those who could buy them did, and the artistry that flourished at this tiny little non-profit blows the roof off the whole span of handknitting history before and since. I’m not even exaggerating. Bohus Stickning had a thirty-year run, nimbly responding to fashion trends while continuing to produce wildly original designs so improbably difficult to knit that even experts were deceived about their construction. What sank this company in the end was the first wave of the forces we’ve been trying to beat back with our slow fashion movement. And you know what? The global renaissance of craft in the past two decades—and customers’ renewed willingness to pay for quality—is what has brought Bohus Stickning back in the form of painstakingly reconstructed kits to knit some of the garments yourself. They’re very expensive. They still can’t be for everyone. I wish they could, but there’s no way to cut corners with integrity.

I don’t know the right way forward, or that there is any way forward that’s righter than the rest. I have too much stuff in my closet. Some of that stuff is handmade, and I keep it because it’s handmade even though I never wear it. That’s a piece of preciousness I’ll have to get over. I’m making an effort to pare down and to think carefully about what comes in. I also have too much yarn. It’s mostly very good yarn, because I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to support what I think of as the Knit Local movement. I have exciting plans for nearly all of it, but not enough time to execute those plans. Knowing this will not always prevent me from stashing more irresistible yarn, and apparently my idea of being strict with myself about knitting from the stash I’ve got is to cart home a bag of roving so I can spin another sweater’s worth. (Because that’s a time-saving plan for sure.)

This is what I’d like to do today. It is one small thing, because I can’t begin to address the problems of inequality, exploitation, education, social pressure, corporate transparency, and what have you that freight this conversation, but I also can’t think about all of that and then do nothing. One bag of the good yarn waiting patiently for my attention is a sweater quantity of Brooklyn Tweed Shelter in a heathered charcoal shade called Soot. Ten skeins. If you care about the ideas wrapped up in #slowfashionoctober but can’t indulge in yarn like this, I would like to send it to you. (There, I’ve just pressed your “Whoo! Free yarn!” desire trigger, so if you’re also trying to stash less, I apologize.) But if this offer happens to align with your carefully honed crafting plans and wardrobe aims, send me an email—, only spell out the blog name—with your address and I’ll post the Shelter to the first responder. If it feels right, maybe I’ll do this again with some other good yarn.


To everyone else, keep making what’s useful and beautiful—by your own lights. Keep sharing it with the rest of us. Keep inviting more people into the conversation and noticing the quiet ones. Be generous to each other. Don’t make anyone feel inferior.

ETA: The Shelter has traveled to its new home, but stay tuned—I think I’ll do this again sometime!