When you see a nice handmade sweater, you know it took a while to make.
The knitting or crocheting is just part of it. (A fun online calculator at www.lovecrafts.com estimates how long anything from a basic scarf to a blanket, baby booties or patterned garment would take you; figure on 20 to 80 hours.)
Before that, however, there are those who make the yarns. Indie craftspeople are doing new things with wool and other fibers, including recycled plastic, as well as with dyes.
Samantha Myrhe, owner of RavensWood Fibre Co. in Nova Scotia, Canada, began a dozen years ago with a few sheep, and her third generation of lambs was shorn this fall. She sells her yarns online and at local markets, and gives her original dyes original names, like Sea Glass, a blend of dreamy water hues; Fireflies, with starry, night sky colors; and Autumn Drive, evoking a ride through a fall forest.
“Dyeing is chemistry,” she says. “Although the process we use is a simple, heat-and-acid-vinegar process to set the colors, the chemistry behind it involves the binding of a color molecule to a wool molecule. More or less molecules, more or less intense color."
She found that using water from the local municipal system created unpredictable colors, so she turned to well water instead. Still, there's an element of chance: more rain means more minerals in the water. “More minerals mean my reds may be more orange, my blacks break and go to gold. It's crazy,” she says.
Myrhe has a good group of reliable, “stable” colors, but also what the indie dye world refers to as OOAKs: One of a Kinds.
“The magic of what the dye gods give me that day,” she says.
Different fibers take dye in different ways. Alpaca hues tends toward pastel, as it doesn’t absorb as much color. Nylon and silk soak up dye, and when blended with merino wool, give beautiful color depth.
Some dyers are exploring other types of wool, including yak, cashmere, and Australian Polwarth sheep, which has a strong, silky character good for many woven projects.
Wool gets high marks for sustainability; as the International Wool Textile Organization notes, it's renewable, biodegradable and recyclable. Around the world, many farms, studios and workshops are producing yarns and other textile products using techniques with a gentle environmental impact, including recycling water and using few if any additives.
Britt-Marie Alm, who runs Love Fest Fibers in San Francisco, offers small-batch yarns sourced from sustainably operated workshops on the West Coast, Nepal and Tibet. Alm has had a decades-long love for Tibetan culture since joining a high school community service project in the region. She has learned spinning and weaving techniques from Tibetan artisans, and now supports several women-run collectives there and in the U.S.
Her soft, chunky yarns include Color Core, in which she spins ethically sourced merino wool around a colorful organic cotton fiber; the result looks like a woolly Twizzler. Alm came up with the idea during the pandemic.
“I was spending more time inside, as we all were, and I became captivated by the incredible weavings made by customers who were exploring the inside of our yarn," she says. "Their techniques centered around cutting yarns to show the inner cross-section, and it was fascinating — the textures and color gradations were just stunning.”
With her Washington State mill partners — a mother-daughter team who also raise a few alpacas — she developed seven Color Core colorways.
Love Fest also has a naturally shed, downy yak yarn called kullu, which feels like cashmere, without the sheep shearing.
“Recent years have seen a reimagining of what yarn can make,” Alm says. She cites a range of knitted and crocheted home goods, from baskets and rugs to pillows and poufs. The chunky yarn and huge stitches that makes these projects possible, she says, is more than visually striking.
"It’s also very gratifying to be able to make a project so quickly. This has captured the imagination of a new generation of fiber artists who learn the skills to knit a chunky basket and then continue on to explore macrame and weaving,” she says.
Sustainable options for yarn now also include upcycled linen and plastic fiber.
“I grew up crocheting and knitting so much polyester and acrylic yarn; it seemed such a shame that more recycled materials weren’t being utilized,” says Alm.
She worked with her mill to create ReLove, a fiber that blends plastic water bottles with merino to make a soft, chunky yarn available in colors like denim, curry, fog and leche. Sets contain 40 yards of yarn, which rescues about 10 plastic bottles from landfills, she says.
Other notable independent operations include farm/mill combos like Red Hill Fiber Mill in Taswell, Indiana, which raises alpacas, gives educational tours, and spins and sells yarns and wool products gleaned from their herd. Lydia Christiansen’s Abundant Earth Fiber, on Whidbey Island north of Seattle, includes wool spun from East Friesian sheep that graze just down the road from her mill.
Yarn enthusiast Michelle Thymmons has compiled a list of popular Instagram yarn dyers across North America and Europe on her website www.vamicreations.com. They include a multi-generational family at Bumblebee Farm in Davis, Illinois, who raise sheep and rabbits, dye and make their own knitting fibers, and host yarn clubs themed around Harry Potter, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.”
Knit and pattern designer Norman Schwarze in Munich, Germany, has a globe-spanning compilation at www.nimble-needles.com that includes Vivid Wool outside Reykjavik, Iceland; Wishbone yarns in South Africa, and The Blue Brick in Ontario, Canada.
The company Yarnspirations has developed a new format for the yarn ball itself – a Lifesaver-shaped ring called an O’Go that it says is less prone to tangles. O’Go is available under various brands and in a range of colors.
Myrhe and Alm say indie-made dyes and yarns tell stories that make a knitted piece feel more precious to its wearer.
Myrhe loves the journey the dyes take her on. Often her best finds, she says, are “happy accidents,” and she tries to write everything down promptly. "I’ve lost many a treasure thinking I would remember and record later. I didn’t remember, and the most beautiful copper red eluded me for years, only to be found accidentally once again a few months later.”