Monday, November 23, 2009

Tour: Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill

Awhile back I purchased a skein of yarn at a local apple orchard, that came from sheep raised at the orchard, and was spun at a local woolen mill (local = 30 mile radius of where I live). At the time I was amazed by the idea that I had purchased a skein of yarn that came from a sheep that I was staring at just 5 minutes before.

The tag on the skein noted that it was spun locally, and thus I started to think about how that yarn actually went from the muddy, prickly, dirty fleece coat on the sheep into the soft, beautifully wound skein of yarn in my hand. Enter Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill.

I found myself with some extra kid-free time on Saturday afternoon and took a chance to get away. I drove out to Mount Horeb, WI and attended an open house hosted by BBR Woolen Mill.

I can hardly describe what I saw::

: A living museum to America's industrial age. Many of the carding, processing and spinning machines date from the early 1910's.

: Bales, and bales, and bales of raw and washed wool.

: More spindles and cones then I could ever dream about.

: Skeins, upon skeins, upon skeins of yarn - some natural, some dyed and some hand painted.

: A team of highly skilled and knowledgeable machines(wo)men, spinners, and artists.

The mill processes its own merino (white) and corriedale (grey) fleeces, purchased from farmers in South Dakota and other midwestern locales . After processing they sell yarn and roving direct from the mill via the internet or by appointment only. The mill also processes fiber from other farmers around the country (the farmer at the apple orchard, for example) - the minimum processing weight is 20 lbs. of fiber. An average garbage bag of wool weighs approximately 9 lbs, but I'm not sure how many sheep that 9 lbs. of wool represents. On the top end, they can process up to 2,000 lbs.

Records of the different yarn runs are meticulously kept by hand in a series of notebooks - everything is recorded: from the initial weight of the fiber, to the final yardage and all the machine settings in between.

The mill hasn't been in its current location for very long (I think only about 6 years, but I could be mistaken on this point), and the machinery was originally purchased from a manufacturing company on the east coast. I'm not sure how the machines and parts made their way to Wisconsin, but I look forward to learning more at their next open house.

I took many photos of the machinery - I rarely, if ever, get this close to the machines that process and make the things I use daily. You can find photos of my tour here.

This trip was a peek into one of the 'missing links' of my handicraft/artwork. I understand on an intellectual level how wool and other fibers are made into yarn. But before this trip I didn't truly appreciate how yarn got from an animal (or from a plant) into my LYS. I saw up close how raw materials shift from one state to another. Now I know, experientially, how wool from the back of a sheep is transformed into something for my own back.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Direct from Ireland

My parents embarked on a journey to Ireland at the end of October. My mom, understanding my love of yarn, brought me back 6 skeins of Blizzard. I can't locate this particular yarn on ravelry, so I'm completely free to daydream about what this yarn might become. Could be a set of matching hats, could be a vest, could be a sweater, could be a scarf...

It's a superwash wool/polyester blend and very soft. Might be perfect for girly vests - something like this perhaps?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mauda Bonnet

Last winter I knit up the bonnet from Last Minute Knitted Gifts. The pattern photo was so cute and the yarn was a dream to work with. However, the finished bonnet wasn't as close fitting as I wanted. It gets C-O-L-D here in Wisconsin and I hoped for something that would fit closer to the neck, to prevent the snow and cold from creeping up to the top of little heads.

After trying to modify the bonnet post-knitting, I decided to knit up a new one and make a few modifications along the way. The result is my Mauda Bonnet.

If you are interested in my modifications you can find them on my ravelry projects page (I got permission from Joelle Hoverson to post my mods there). This bonnet should fit kiddos 9-18 mos. and it's been knit up at least twice by other knitters without any problems. If you use the mods leave me a comment below, or on ravelry, and happy knitting!

Friday, November 13, 2009

FO: Shalom Cardigan

One reason I was not very productive during Socktoberfest was because I got distracted. Awhile back, thanks to friends and white wine, I got the courage to completely frog the first sweater I ever knit. I planned to let the yarn sit, but once it was nicely balled up and stored away I felt lonely for it. Strange I know. The sweater had been in my closet for about 5 years, definately since before the twins were born, just sitting there. It was never worn. But once it was gone I started missing it. So I began the slow process of reincarnation.

The yarn re-knit beautifully, and I'm happy to say that my skills have mightily improved since I first knit that sweater. The new piece is the Shalom Cardigan. It's a great staple to add to my fall/winter wardrobe. It nicely layers over a long-sleeve t-shirt, perfect for those days when it's too chilly to wear one on it's own. It is 100% wool so it is also quite warm. Good thing it's short-sleeved and a cardigan. It adds just the right layer of warmth and color.

This was my first attempt at doing anything larger than kids clothes or accessories (socks, hats, mittens, shawls, etc.). It required a lot of work, and a lot of faith. I took measurements, knit a gauge swatch, used a calculator, and probably most importantly knit from my gut. The final garment mostly turned out as I had hoped.

The only hitch - the same one as from the original sweater - was that this yarn is heavy and thus wears long and drapey. When I soaked the sweater for blocking it spread all over the table and I gathered it up best I could, but there was no denying that the finished cardigan was about 8 inches longer than before I soaked it, and about 7 inches longer then I planned for. It's also bigger overall than it needs to be (that second button isn't pulling - I made a wonky buttonhole on accident). It's ok with me. Had this been my first time knitting with this yarn I may have gone back and taken off a few inches to shorten it up. But I'm happy with it and so it stays. It may not place me on any knitter's 'best dressed' list, but it surely identifies me as a knitter. I'll gladly wear it. I'll wear it proud.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Socktoberfest Round-up

Socktoberfest came and went and here's what I have to show for it. Two finished socks, but not a complete pair. I will work my way towards complete pairs with the goal of finishing by the end of the year. I am in love with both these socks and look forward to wearing them. If I had more fashion gumption I might just wear them as a pair, mis-matched and all. But such as it is I don't. And they will remain members of the single sock society for a bit longer.

Once the pairs are complete I'll go into more detail about the patterns and yarn, but I would be remiss if I didn't give a quick 'thank you' to Kirsten from Through the Loops for her '09 Mystery Sock KAL sock pattern. It's truly a work of art.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wag the Dog (or Happy Halloween)

This years Halloween costumes were sewn in a two-day event. One day to buy the fabric and cut the pieces, and one day for assembly. I relied on the help of this pattern, but adapted it to my own kids' tastes. The suits are made of polar fleece, which was perfect for our 40 degree weather.

They asked to be dogs for Halloween. Specifically, they wanted to be their favorite stuffed dogs. One is all black, and the other brown and white.

I've made costumes for the twins every year since they were born. My youngest daughter uses their old costumes, or thrifted ones that are part of the general dress-up collection in our casa.

I enjoy sewing (bags, quilts, pillows, etc.) but I don't entirely enjoy garment making. For me, kids costumes fall somewhere in the middle. So, having a interest in sewing puts me well on the road of making our own costumes. However, I also feel an overwhelming desire to make their costumes. I want my kids to remember the creative energy - as zany as it is - that surrounds dressing up for the land of make believe. But, there is more to it than that for me. For my kids they are just costumes, right?

Yet, I'm not sure what this 'more' is. Is it because my Mom sewed costumes for me and my brother when we were young? Is there tradition buried in the piles of thread and fabric scraps? Or is it something more global? Or more personal? Something that ties in to values I hold about art and craft and society? Values I hold about mother/parenthood?

In a way, I feel that making costumes is a personal statement about our culture and our choices. By making costumes - and knowing that they will be worn over and over and over again, and not just on Halloween - I choose to reject the idea that we live in a disposable society. The amount of waste produced by our family alone (a family that tries its best to recycle, reuse and repurpose as much as possible) is staggering. Often times I need to get rid of half of what I bring home from a store just to use an item: the packaging and the bag(s) it came in. So I find small ways to push back against this reality. I make or thrift cloth napkins. We make school lunches with re-usable containers. We buy in bulk. We use our own shopping sacks.

I was forced to think this issue through when a friend of a friend said, "I bet you're the kind of mom that makes your kids Halloween costumes, right?" It was a kind remark. It was intended to celebrate and support my creativity and motherhood. However, I was discomforted by the remark and I didn't figure out why until later. Making my kids costumes is less a sign of love for my kids than it is a statement about how we consume/use in our society - especially around holidays. Lots and lots of parents purchase costumes (handmade and otherwise) for their kids on Halloween and they don't love their kids any less than I do mine.

While I was taking this photo of my girls I was reminded of the saying - popularized by the movie of the same name - Wag the Dog.

To 'wag the dog' means to purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance, to something else of lesser significance. By doing so, the lesser-significant event is catapulted into the limelight, drowning proper attention to what was originally the more important issue. The expression
comes from the saying that 'a dog is smarter than its tail', but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would 'wag the dog'. [From]
So, I'm starting to wonder if this is it. Maybe I am wagging the dog with this costume issue. I want to draw attention to the sustainable handmade/homemade movement and away from the costume. For me the 'more' seems to be my desire for a society that values the art of independent creating, and not cheap plastic.