This delightful folktale from the Shetland Islands was posted a few years back on twistcollective.com. Retold by Daryl Brower and illustrated by Eloise Narrigan, it tells how the tradition of knitting Shetland lace began. This enchanting tale can be read and enjoyed here.
This woman is shown beating her husband with her distaff!
Repost of an article in at modernfarmer.com, written by Anna O’Brien, the veterinarian daughter of a good friend of mine.
Hair of the Dog: Wear Your Best Friend
Move over, sheep. Adios, alpacas. You don’t need a pasture or hay to make soft, lovely yarn. Just a lowly pooper-scooper. Clothing and other items made from dog hair, sometimes referred to as chiengora (chien is French for “dog”), isn’t a new niche fad—in fact, it’s been around for centuries. The Salish, indigenous North Americans who lived in the Pacific Northwest, were known for making blankets from dog hair. Nowadays, considered a luxury fiber by those who spin it, dog hair has yet to make waves on the commercial market. Instead, commission-based spinners craft individual keepsakes as long as you supply the hair. Most spinners working with dog hair were lured into the craft by their interest in spinning and the convenience of having their own (hairy) dogs. Such was the case with Doreen Kelly, of West Seneca, N.Y. A spinner for 12 years, Kelly has two Collies and “an endless amount of dog hair,” she says. Doreen Kelly spinning dog hair with her two Collies / Courtesy Doreen Kelly The so-called “double coated” breeds of dog are the best for making yarn. Breeds like the Collie, Old English Sheepdog, Burmese Mountain Dog, Samoyed and Golden Retriever have a dense, soft, insulating undercoat beneath their water-propelling outer coat made of stiff and much thicker guard hairs. The undercoat is mostly what is naturally shed, ends up on your couch, and can be turned into items such as mittens, scarves, pillows and blankets. Is there a dog breed above all others that makes the best hair for spinning? It doesn’t seem so, although everyone has her favorite. Patty Kruthers, a spinner from Bethlehem, Pa., once had a Briard named Britty who was her inspiration to knit dog hair. “Briard hair is primo to spin,” Kruthers says. But with commission work, other breeds are showcased, too. “Samoyeds make particularly nice yarn,” she says. “It’s a nice length and it’s not pure white; there’s a lot of variation in the color that you don’t really notice until you spin it. It’s a beautiful yarn.” Of course, even variations in coat quality within a breed can make a difference. “Between my two Collies, my female has a very soft coat but the male has much coarser hair,” Kelly says. “Like people—some have very fine hair, others very coarse.” Structure influences function and with fiber it’s no different. Sheep wool is known for its stretch and shrinkage, which is due to the natural crimp of each individual fiber as well as the presence of microscopic barbs. “The reason wool shrinks is because those little barbs that are on the hair catch on each other and keep catching. That’s why the item seems to get smaller and smaller,” Kelly says. Dog hair can be up to eight times warmer than sheep wool. In contrast, dog hairs have neither crimp nor barbs, which means no stretch and no shrinkage. However, you may not want grandma to re-knit you that sweater a la Fido just yet—dog hair can be up to eight times warmer than sheep wool. “Dog hairs have a hollow core that acts like insulation,” Kelly says. “If you wanted to make a sweater with all dog hair, it would be really, really hot to wear.” Spinners describe the care of dog hair items as similar to things made of wool. “I wash dog hair the same way I would wool,” says Kruthers. “You treat it like you would any good wool garment.” Another striking element to knitted dog hair is its halo, a knitting term for the soft fuzz that outlines an item. Angora rabbit fur has a similar feature, which adds to softness and is considered luxurious. Many spinners liken dog hair to Angora rabbit. “If you held an item made of dog hair up to the light, you would see this beautiful fuzz that sticks out,” Kelly says. This halo also adds to dog hair’s warmth. The Briard dog, Britty, who got Patty Kruthers into spinning dog hair / Courtesy Patty Kruthers It doesn’t take too much dog hair to make a small item. “If you have a brown paper grocery bag full of dog hair, that would probably be enough to knit a scarf,” Kelly says. “That would be about six ounces.” One serious grooming session with a brush—or vacuum behind the couch—may be enough to make those mittens you’ve always wanted but spinners warn not to use hair shaved from a dog. “When you clip, you get stubble along with the long hairs,” says Betty Kirk, who teaches classes on different types of spinning and weaving in Lemont, Illinois. Perhaps part of the reason dog hair may never be mainstream is a certain reaction to having a clothing item made from dog hair. Fiber length influences the strength of the yarn being made. Dog hair about two inches in length is ideal for spinning. “If the length of the hair particles is too short, it ends up being a very weak yarn,” Kruthers says. “The longer the hair is, the stronger the yarn you will make.” Individuals interested in an item made from their dog’s hair can mail the hair to spinners who will then clean the hair, spin it to make yarn, and then knit the yarn into a final product. “People like it as a memento,” Kirk says. “Sometimes I’ll get a panic email saying someone’s dog just died.” As for what the future holds for the chiengora enthusiasts, it seems it will stay a niche market. “I think it’s a thing, just not a big thing,” Kirk says. “Like, don’t dump your whole inheritance into it because you won’t become rich doing this. But, you’ll always have a little niche.” Perhaps part of the reason dog hair may never be mainstream is a certain reaction to having a clothing item made from dog hair. “Usually people think it’s pretty cool,” Kirk says. “But once in a while they think it’s gross. You can just point out that your silk blouse is made from worm spit. I’d rather have dog hair.” 1234 1A bundle of the dog hair yarn / Courtesy Patty Kruthers 2A pair of mittens made from the hair of a Samoyed / Courtesy Doreen Kelly 3Kruthers makes a winter scarf from the hair of a Shetland Sheepdog / Courtesy Doreen Kelly 4A coin purse made from the hair of a Husky / Courtesy Doreen Kelly Part of the stigma is from the incorrect assumption that something made from dog hair will therefore smell like a dog. “People don’t understand that if you have a wool sweater, when it gets wet, it smells like wool, not like the sheep in the barnyard,” Kirk says. Likewise, wet yarn from dog hair smells like wet yarn, not like wet dog. “I just think it’s cool because it’s such an odd thing,” Kruthers says. “My dog Britty may be long gone, but her garments live on. Everyone has too much dog hair lying around anyway. It’s very comfortable and very pretty.” This sort of thing might make one wonder what else out there could be spun. Domestic cat hair reportedly can be used, but what about something more exotic? “I’ve spun a lion’s mane,” Kelly says. “It was from a circus and someone wanted to make bracelets for the employees. That was pretty neat.” CULTUREDOG WEEKWOOL Related
I’ve come to dislike those women’s novels that revolve around the characters’ involvement in a knitting circle or quilting group or the like. They tend to be a bit too emotional for my taste, long on sentiment and romance and short on good writing. Recently, however, I completed several historical novels in which knitting or another of the fiber arts played key roles in moving the plots along. I generally post my book reviews on my other blog, You’re History, but I’ve decided to publish the special fiber arts novels here.
The first title is Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier, which I reviewed here.
In this story, women living in late 18th century London are adding to their incomes by making buttons out of metal rings, which they wrap with thread in intricate designs and colors. This was a genuine cottage industry for about 100 years, and the buttons were known as Dorset buttons because the practice originated in that shire. In Burning Bright, the buttons serve as the vehicle through which two women and their families become intertwined with each other. I recently wrote a short article about Dorset buttons and posted it here.
Another fascinating novel in which knitting, crochet, and sewing are central to the story is Solstice Wood, by Patricia A. McKillip. This is the sequel to Winter Rose, a love story about a human woman who fell in love with a “fay” man. Solstice Wood is set in the same American town, and the same house, but in modern times. Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.
I won’t set down any spoilers about what happens to Syl and her family. This is a terrific story, part reality, part fantasy, with more than a touch of magic. It incorporates many classic folkloric motifs and themes, but the one that most interested me is the needlework connection. In mythology and folklore, spinning, sewing, and threads play an important role. In story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur, for example, a thread is laid so the hero can find his way back out. The 3 Fates, spinning, weaving, and finally cutting the thread, represent the cycle of life. Fairy tale heroines prick their fingers on needles or spindles, or are forced into a life of endless spinning.
In Solstice Wood, the Fiber Guild’s creations are designed to protect one world from another, using age old methods known to wise women everywhere. Today all us fiber artists recognize and appreciate the stress relieving properties of needlework. By reading such books as Solstice Wood, and by studying the magical properties of women’s work and women’s powers in folklore, I’ve come to appreciate the fiber arts in another way.
Another favorite is A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Categorized as a novel for young adults, this first novel goes beyond age limits. A retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, it brings rich characters, modern themes, and a touch of magic and romance to the process of spinning wool and dyeing cloth. Not to be missed. You can find my review here.
In August, I read The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen, and am just getting around to listing it here. This is set in Sleepy Hollow, NY, a town that sets the stage for all things eerie. The novel’s about a family that has run a knitting shop for generations, where not only great yarns and patterns are sold, but also offers a service knitting magical spells into garments as a bonus. Now the shop is threatened by redevelopment, and the family gathers to determine what to do, if anything, to save the business. Reviewed here .
Remember playing “Old Maid” as a kid? Who ever got stuck with the old maid card was the loser and received a lot of taunting. The proper term for old maid is spinster, which means a woman beyond the usual marriageable age who is still single.
But what does the “spin” in that word refer to? Since at least the 14th century, any person who did wool or flax spinning was called a spinster, gender, age, and status notwithstanding. As late as the first half of the 20th century, it was considered inappropriate for any woman to live alone. In many families, an unmarried female relative, be she cousin, aunt, or sister, would be taken in, and to “earn her keep”, was often assigned the task of spinning. So how did it become a rather demeaning term? Through common usage, it’s believed.
Some famous spinsters from history:
Jane Austen * * Louisa May Alcott * * Emily Bronte * * Helen Keller * * Greta Garbo * * Florence Nightingale * * Queen Elizabeth I * * Diane Keaton * * Oprah Winfrey * * Condoleeza Rice
Hardly a boring, sexless bunch!
Add your favorite spinster!
In centuries past, January 7th, the day following Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, was known as St. Distaff’s Day. It was not really a holiday, nor is there really a “St. Distaff”. But the marking of this day by common people indicates the importance of spinning in the days before the industrial revolution. The distaff, or “rock”, was the medieval symbol of women’s work. Year round, spinning was a never-ending chore. During the Christmas season, however, both men and women took a break from many chores during the 12 days of the holiday.
But on January 7, the festivities were officially ended, and women would resume their daily round of household tasks. Men, however, did not resume ploughing until Plough Monday, when their ploughs were blessed. That left young men with time to play pranks on the girls, as described by a poem by Robert Herrick. But whereas women would recommence spinning on Distaff Day, the men did not return to the plough until after Plough Monday when their ploughs had been blessed.
“You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.”
So St Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, as it was sometimes called, was a final opportunity for some playful high jinks,with the lads setting fire to the flax and in return, the maids soaking the men from the water-pails… Life might have been difficult during the middle ages, but there was still some room for fun.