Tuesday, February 28, 2017

back to front

Do you ever find that re-reading something that inspired you some time back is just as rejuvenating the second time around? Such is the case for me when I spent some time perusing my collection of Jane Brocket titles - most specifically, The Gentle Art of Quilting, where she goes into some detail about how she picks out fabrics for her quilts. 

I started reading Yarnstorm, Jane's blog, back in 2007 when I really got into knitting. Through her, I discovered another quilting icon of mine, Anna Maria Horner. Now, I work with Anna Maria through her shop, Craft South, where I occasionally teach classes or work a weekend shift, but mostly where I end up reviving my love of sewing and interest in quilting. There's something really soothing for me about quilting, and I'm lucky in that Andrew finds homemade quilts incredibly comforting as well, so there's a lot of encouragement to pursue the art of it. 

Working at Craft South often means working with and encountering people who REALLY know a lot about quilting and various hand-sewing crafts. Applique, paper piecing... it's all entered my life lately and I find myself absorbed and enjoying the details of hand-stitching thousands of tiny connecting threads. I enjoy the simplicity of the action and the immensity of the end product. I found myself very inspired, for instance, by Carolyn Friedlander's amazing applique work, and I have plans to make at least one very epic hand-stitch applique using her techniques. 

That said, it was very refreshing for me to go back to Jane Brocket's book and revisit how she feels about quilting. Jane's philosophy is all about the combination of fabrics that bring you joy, simple shapes, and large-scale appreciation of color. This resonates with me deeply, as it reminds me a bit of being a painter. Quilting this way is a lot like pulling out paints and mixing them, with the fabric as medium, and I find a lot of happiness in that. It reminded me of this particular quilt that has been hanging on the wall of my studio, waiting for a backing.

You see, probably due to the way I taught myself to do quilt pulls, based on Jane Brocket's methods, I always think of my quilts a little bit like stories about things that inspired me at the time I made them. This quilt top is based off of a classic style of block - nothing special about it - but it's a little inspired by her Green Grass of Home quilt, which is inspired by well-manicured lawns and neat hedges. I adapted this in my own way while living in Iowa, where there were rolling hills and neat little corn rows. These reminded me a bit of the Rail Fence style quilt that Jane features earlier in the book, so I followed the directions for the 'Ice Cream' quilt, but built it in pale greens with pops of pink, bright blue, and goldenrod. Kind of like Iowa wildflowers that sometimes show up in fields: goldenrod, thistle, cornflowers.

This story I told myself made it much harder than it should have been to find just the right quilting back. I thought of the top as a story: looking at Iowa fields from the sky, a macro-view of grass and plains. I thought maybe something blue, like a sky, or another floral might work. I finally found the unexpectedly perfect back in the form of Heather Ross' new collection, Sleeping Porch, which featured this lovely cotton lawn adorned with the sweetest snails. I love that it's almost like you're looking at the macro on one side, and the 'micro' on the other. It's as if you got right up close to the grass itself and saw what was living in it. Perfect! I love how unexpected it is and yet it matches so perfectly - the snails have the same pinks and yellows and greens as in the main quilt.

Now, if I could only figure out *how* to quilt it. Do I want to do neat little rows, as on the front? Or a swirly pattern to mimic the snail's travels on the back? Do I want to hand-quilt, or machine quilt? Do I want to tie it? 

Friday, January 20, 2017

a little bit plucky

If you haven't heard of The Plucky Knitter, it's time to look around your living room. Do your walls feel cool to the touch? In order to leave your home, do you need to lift a boulder or crawl for miles underground? Is it possible, maybe, that you've been living under a rock?

I'm just teasing, but in all seriousness, this dyer has been around for awhile. The Plucky Knitter is a staple of indie fans, and their yarn routinely sells out quickly at events, during their frequent online updates, and in Ravelry destashes. In the 'indie dyer' world, Plucky is near the top of the heap - they've got their own app, special events for Plucky fans, and routine pattern releases that frequently go viral.

If you've been wanting to try The Plucky Knitter's yarns for awhile and feel like you can't get a hold of them, I really encourage you to go diving into Ravelry destashes. Plucky fans tend to buy lots and lots of the stuff and then maybe have a little buyer's remorse, so there's almost always a good selection for sale. In fact, you can even be pretty lazy about it, because I did a stash search for you - just click here.

The residents of Nashville recently had a bit of Plucky luck when Haus of Yarn (arguably one of the best stocked yarn stores I have ever visited) arranged a multiple day trunk show with The Plucky Knitter. They had a wide range of bases, including Primo Fingering, which I have heard good things about. I went hoping to pick up some Oxford or Scholar, and they did have Scholar 2.0, but I decided that two skeins of sock yarn in colors I know I could use were a more manageable stash acquisition than a sweater lot. I picked up one in 'Into the Woods', a rich olive green, and the other in 'Melba', the perfect coral-mauve.

When I first began knitting seriously, a little over 10 years ago now, I was gifted the Interweave book Favorite Socks. The first pair of socks I ever knit were the Cable Rib socks from this book by Erica Alexander. I made them in Dream in Color Smooshy, colorway 'Strange Harvest', and really enjoyed the process, but found that the DiC yarn wore out very, very quickly, and that the gauge (or maybe just my gauge) was a bit loose, resulting in the socks falling apart after about three wearings. After getting these two skeins of Plucky home, I realized that the 'Into the Woods' colorway was just similar enough that perhaps it might be best to make it into a replacement pair.

While I don't know that Primo Fingering will hold up very well to socks long term (and certainly doubt that it will hold up as well as handspun socks with heftier wools do), I think that I know how to better pamper and repair my socks now. I still have guilty moments thinking about my Strange Harvest socks, which surely could have been darned and kept having years of wear, but instead ended up in the trash because I didn't know what to do with them.

I cast on while visiting Miami this week for business, and I'm already almost completely done with the leg. Instead of the recommended US 2 for the leg and US 1 for the foot, I am going to give it a shot with US 1 all the way through and see how it changes the density of the sock. I may even switch to US 0 on the foot, if I can bring myself to buy a set and knit with toothpicks...

Monday, January 9, 2017

new year, new goals

Without fail, I always seem to return to this space at the beginning of the year. Along with everyone else, I tend to offer a list of goals, hopes, and wishes for myself. I promise to share them here, but I often let my day to day life and work pull me away from writing here. This year, I've got a little more resolve and self discipline than the last, but it still took me a whole week into 2017 before I could sit down and draft this post.

This year, I turned 29. That means that 2017 will be the year that I turn 30. Sometimes that number feels old, and other days it feels young -- I wake up feeling like I have done so much living, but then turn around and meet so many people who have done so much more than I have. Here are some of my meager accomplishments in 2016, and an idea of what I'll be doing in this year to come. 


I wrote a book. This is probably the biggest thing I completed in 2016, although it really began so much earlier. I submitted the proposal for my book, Slow Knitting, to Abrams back in May 2015. The contracts and everything were solidified closer to August and September, and then I got that first terrifying advance check (you know, the one that means that things really have to happen, or else you owe someone with lots of lawyers a lot of money), in the mail. I bought a new computer (not a Mac), hired designers I admired (I still can't believe that so many of them said yes, and I can't wait to tell you who is involved), and spent every Saturday and Sunday, and many weekday evenings, trying to write something that somebody would like to read. 

What nobody will tell you about writing a book is that the whole time you're working on it, you're also re-reading it. When you re-read something about fifty times, it seems much less poignant and interesting than when you originally wrote it -- it's a very quick way to make yourself feel like a fraud for even having such ridiculous thoughts in the first place. You also notice that you have horrible repetitive tendencies, and you're not as original as you first believed. I would recommend making friends and family read things through for you, but honestly, if the book isn't their cup of tea, that's pretty much assuring that they won't come to any of your signings or speak to you about the project past the first three months. I have no idea how my editor did it, but she is amazing and I should really get her some flowers. The book comes out this Fall!

I moved to Nashville, TN. Nashville has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it's easy to see why after being here a short time. There are new businesses opening constantly, the food is great, and the weather is a breeze. While I miss the snow and wintery days, I am thankful that there are fewer of them, and my summer-loving self is grateful for more sun and heat. If anything, the shortened Southern winters have helped me truly appreciate the days that are coldest, where I can break out my knits and snuggle up.

I got engaged. Andrew and I have spent seven years (!) on this planet in the company of one another. We live together full time and while he certainly has plenty of habits and tendencies that drive me bonkers, he is really the most tolerable and wonderful person, and my very dearest friend every day. He asked me to marry him, and I said yes, but only after the book was done. We haven't done any wedding planning yet, but I'm sure we'll get around to it. Maybe in the next seven years.

I had a great job, then I left it. No, it's not the one you were thinking. I left Yarnbox in September 2015, after working there for three years as the Creative Director (which meant doing everything except ordering the yarn and shipping it, more or less.) I enjoyed my time at Yarnbox for the most part -- the subscribers and community I worked to build up were very hard to walk away from. Other parts were easier. 

I worked for the next year at a company called Studio Calico, which then morphed into Inked Brands. I honestly can't give a complete account of what I learned in this place -- time somehow warps around that office and you end up learning more in a single year than you could have learned in a similar job in five. I explored overseas manufacturing, got an inside look at how big companies handle social media, graphic design, and marketing, and got to work first hand with some amazing brands run by ultimate girl bosses: Studio DIY, The TomKat Studio, and A Beautiful Mess. I got to dream up some cool stuff and run it by people who know more about it than I do, and at the end of it all, they were really gracious and wonderful when I announced that I'd be making an exit in favor of working from home, freelance, again. I love my quiet little fast-paced yarn industry days!

Now, what's up for the new year? 


I joined a quilting bee. This year, I really want to pick up a few new skills. I have dabbled a bit in quilting in the past, but mostly wasn't consistent about learning things correctly: cutting accurately, piecing neatly and measuring twice weren't really strong suits for me. Now that I'm working part-time at Craft South on the weekends, I found myself wanting to improve. What better way than the Low Key Quilting Bee my friend Hadley is hosting on Instagram? A group of 12 women, completing one block per month and shipping it off, seemed like the perfect way to stash down, learn, and get inspired. My month is March. 

I resolved to spend more time and less money. One of my goals this year is to pay off more of my personal debt. We're taking a Dave Ramsey class, courtesy of Andrew's parents, and I'm hoping to finally get ahead of my pretty substantial student loan and IRS debt, but also tackle my meager credit card debt. It would be great to end 2017 without so many payments hanging over our heads, and at the end, we're going to try and reward ourselves with a trip somewhere amazing. To help accomplish this, I'm diving in more to projects at home, crafting with a purpose (more on that soon) and expanding my client base. I'm hoping to actually hire a part time assistant in 2017!

I'm spending more time with people. I am the biggest homebody. I honestly leave my house maybe... two or three days a week. I took on a job at Craft South to force me out of the house and socialize me, but I'm also trying to say yes to more events, meetups, coffee dates and knitting groups. Haus of Yarn has a knitting group that meets weekly that I still haven't attended - going to try and go this year. There's a spinning meetup locally too, I've penciled that into my calendar. If someone invites me to something, I'm going to work against my mode of operation involving sweatpants, binge-watching episodes of shows on Hulu. This might mean I get less knitting done, but I think it will also mean I have more friends. Friends are good.

I'm living my truth. I wrote Slow Knitting last year, and while I was writing it, I realized that despite believing a lot of the bits and pieces I was putting into it, I was doing a pretty lackluster job of actually living the principles in the book. I loved writing, and yet this blog was pretty empty for several months. I love knitting, and prefer to knit with yarns that I can take a close look at (sourcing, sheep breeds, processes), but I really wasn't posting here. This year, I want to write more, both here and elsewhere, and I want to share more thoughts, even if nobody is listening. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

hiring designers as a yarn company

Fairly recently, author and designer Alex Capshaw-Taylor started a great site meant to allow designers, teachers, and technical editors within the yarn industry to leave real data on payment for services, pattern design and more. Who Pays Knitters is quickly becoming a database that will allow generations of designers to reference real-world pay scales and develop reasonable expecations when entering our industry. I think it's a wonderful resource and quickly asked how I could be a part of her project! I will be writing occasional articles for the site, on various industry related topics. They will also be cross-posted here for Handmade by Hannahbelle readers.

One of the biggest challenges any new yarn company faces is the issue of patterns, or rather, pattern support. Patterns are an important aspect of a yarn company’s marketing campaign: they help knitters and crocheters visualize, through a finished object, the unique and varied qualities of their yarns. Having spent time hiring designers for books, magazine features, and commissions, I hope some of my tips and direction will help new yarn companies navigate what can be a wonderful and rewarding aspect of their business.

Evaluate Your Market & Brand

Before you ever started your business, you probably knew what your branding and marketing plan would be -- often, this is directly influenced by your Ï aesthetic as an artist and dyer and how that Ï translates to the yarn you create. Are your yarns light, airy, and romantic, bright and bouncy, workhorse and wooly? Your patterns should reflect this tone and message. Consider what your overall goal for communication is before you contract your first designer. This serves two purposes:

  1. It allows you to choose designers who have portfolios similar in feel to your brand’s direction. If you’re able to work with a designer who has a similar style, voice, or branding to your own, the process will be more seamless, with fewer design edits and modifications along the way.

  1. It allows you to guide the designs you need for designers you have hired by evaluating the best garment styles to show off your product. If you come into the relationship knowing that you need to show off the stitch definition of a yarn as opposed to its drape, you can give the designer an idea of what you’re looking for before they invest design time into the project.

Small Patterns, Big Rewards
Accessories are an easy way to dip your toe into providing great pattern support. They provide the most bang for your buck; a little piece, well planned, photographed, and backed with good marketing can go really far! In fact, if you search Ravelry for the most popular (read, most made) designs of all time, most of them are scarves, shawls, cowls, and socks. Not only that, but accessory patterns cost less time for the designer and technical editor, and less money for you. At the time this article was published, Freelance designer rates for accessory patterns via Who Pays Knitters were between $40- $700, averaging $246, and often do not include costs for technical editing, photography, and layout.
Valuing the Designers

Knitwear designers possess a set of specialized skills. Using your yarn as the inspiration, they take a sketch and a swatch and turn it into written technical directions that result in a beautiful finished object. A well designed, well written knitting pattern inspires knitters and crocheters to purchase your yarn, resulting in a boost to your bottom line. Knitwear designers are professionals and deserve a professional rate of pay.

The True Cost of Design

Knitwear designers possess a set of specialized skills. Using your yarn as the inspiration, they take a sketch and a swatch and turn it into written technical directions that result in a beautiful finished object. A well designed, well written knitting pattern inspires knitters and crocheters to purchase your yarn, resulting in a boost to your bottom line.

When working with a designer, it’s important to establish contractual obligations up front about rights, expenses, and presentation.

There are a few options when it comes to rights. As the yarn company, you can own all the rights, partial (or temporary) rights, or you can allow the designer to keep all the rights. Here are some notes on each option:

Full Rights: it’s becoming rarer and rarer for yarn companies to ask for or pay for full rights. First, it’s more expensive, especially since these rights should also cover the costs of purchasing the sample, managing the digital sales as well as the physical printing and distribution of the patterns, and providing pattern support to customers. This can create stress on sole proprietorships. The positives of this arrangement are that if the design goes big, you receive all of the profit.

Partial Rights: there are numerous ways in which yarn companies and designers arrange partial rights for designs. Some companies pay a flat fee for a period of exclusivity (typically between 6 - 12 months), where the designer has all rights to pattern sales after a specific date. This allows the yarn company to capitalize on the freshness of a new design, but not on long-term sales if the design is popular. Other arrangements allow the designer to concurrently self-publish the design,  splitting the percentage of sales made by the yarn company through their website and distribution channels, over time, similar to an advance (in which your original payment to the designer is pre-payment for anticipated sales), with royalties (a percentage of residual sales, managed and paid out by the yarn company.) Some designers may have suggestions or systems that they prefer from past arrangements, and it can be worth it to ask.

Yarn Support: in this instance, the yarn company simply acts as yarn support for the design process and does not receive residuals on pattern sales. Typically, the designer will cover all of the other pattern expenses. It’s not uncommon to ask that the designer list your yarn as the only recommended yarn for the pattern.

In all instances, be sure to write up an agreement shared and signed between you and the designer.  A written contract protects you and the designer and helps correct any misunderstanding that may have occurred during the negotiation and discussions leading up to the design process. Make sure costs, payment, rights, responsibilities (such as who is responsible for tech editing, photography, layout, pattern support), a nullification clause, and deadlines are fully laid out, and be sure to include (after discussing with your designer) any mutual marketing or advertising plans you expect.

Choose Mutually Beneficial Collaborations

While many yarn companies big and small dream of having their yarns featured in patterns designed by top names, often you have a better chance of working with someone at your level or with a slightly bigger following than your brand. Many of the top-name designers are inundated with yarn requests and are given free yarn at most shows they attend -- this means that unless they are instantly able to fit it into their schedule, your yarns could sit for years without being used. Remember that every skein of yarn you give away should be included in your budget and business expenses as potential advertising or marketing -- treat it as such and set deadlines for designs to come back to you. I know it’s tempting, but try not to give away lots of yarn for free in the hopes that somebody might use it -- that’s a good way to lose out on inventory you could sell instead.

In the same way that you wouldn’t want your work overlooked in favor of one of the ‘bigger brands’, you should consider who you hire in the same way. There are so many talented designers at all levels of their businesses. Those starting out are a great fit for small yarn companies doing the same -- together, you can both attract more attention to your brands. If you’re willing to reach a little higher, look at designers who are consistent at Ïpublishing, either independently or through an established publisher, and have a good following of their own.

Evaluate your Expectations

When hiring designers for a project, there are a few things you can do to evaluate if they will be a good fit (designers, listen up!) First, look them up on Ravelry and open the page for their personal website and any other business accounts they have on social media. See how many of your social media sources match up and mesh with theirs -- are you both extremely active on Instagram? Do you or the designer have Ravelry groups that are fairly busy?

Ravelry portfolios are a wonderful way to see how a designer handles photography and where they publish. Designers who have many self-published patterns are often used to working on their own or developing their own systems -- make sure you discuss with them how they like working and see if they can fit your deadlines and requirements. Designers used to publishing in books and magazines should be able to meet deadlines, but might not be set up to handle their own photography. If you like their design aesthetic, but are unsure of their process, ability to meet deadlines, photography skills, or otherwise, contact them and ask.

Make sure you know what your own strengths and weaknesses are and look for designers who compliment and assist your business through their own strengths. In the end, this will help you create good relationships and beneficial partnerships as you develop your yarn company. Eventually, designers who are excited about your product will start approaching you, knowing that you’re professional to work with and know what you want.

Friday, April 29, 2016

river hill ranch

Since the last few posts for Suri week have been more text-heavy than picture heavy, I've tried to include more pictures in this post about my visit to River Hill Ranch - lots of alpaca photos ahead! 

After speaking to both Liz and Margaret about these exceptional animals and the production side of manufacturing and dyeing yarn from the fiber, I knew that I wouldn't be able to provide a really comprehensive look at Suri alpaca without visiting a farm that specializes in raising them. I asked Liz if she had any suppliers in my area, and she told me pretty quickly that I simply had to visit the River Hill Ranch, located in Richmond, Kentucky.

I work every day in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is about four hours away from Lexington (and only an hour North of Nashville.) When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Georgetown, Kentucky, for awhile, so that area of the country feels a lot like home to me. If you've never been, Kentucky is absolutely one of the most beautiful states in the nation you can visit. Rolling hills are graced with green grass, horses, and a variety of plants and flowers. When I was little, you could drive for miles through tobacco fields, their arm-length leaves and sweet smell guiding you around each curve of country road. The country roads (and the beautiful stone fences that line them) are still intact -- the tobacco has made it's way out, for most farms. 

You take a long stretch of highway South of the city, then turn off onto winding country back roads, following a creek bed along the edge of open hills beneath a curtain of greenery. Break out into sunshine at the top of the hill and a valley lays below you, dotted with farm houses and alpacas. Suri alpacas. 

River Hill Ranch is run by Alvina Maynard and her husband. Alvina felt the calling to become an alpaca rancher after watching a commercial for National Alpaca Farm Day. A member of the US Air Force (now reserve), former country-girl and Californian (weird combination, right?), Alvina convinced her husband that starting an alpaca ranch was the right thing to do. Through raising Suris, she connected with both Liz and Margaret and has begun the work of developing a herd geared towards fineness and fiber dye-ability. You'll notice that many of the animals in these pictures are on the lighter end of the spectrum (and you may even spot a goat!) 

The River Hill Ranch focuses on all aspects of alpaca farming in an environmentally respectful and animal-conscientious way. Alpacas are grazing animals, and the two herds -- one male, one female -- travel the acreage of Alvina's farm (and possibly some nearby farmland in the future.) Alpacas contribute to the livelihood of the River Hill Ranch in a variety of ways. While grazing, they work up soil that otherwise would go undisturbed, interrupting invasive root systems. Alvina's alpacas often graze with chickens -- the two populations in co-existence help lower parasite counts in both animals. 

Baby alpacas' first shearing, the finest and typically longest fleece, will be sent off to makers who specialize in high-end dolls. Suri alpaca is a much sought-after material for doll hair, since it comes in both dyeable colors and a natural range of browns from strawberry blonde to deep auburn (especially Blythe, if any of you are fans!) The adult animals' fiber is graded and sent off to become yarns for Alvina's own farm stands (you can see the upcoming schedule here), and for other yarn companies working with alpaca fiber, like Salt River Mills (Liz's company) and Little Gidding Farms. In fact, Alvina has some of Margaret, Sue and Liz's animals on-site! All grades of fiber are used -- River Hill Ranch's cozy shed-shop even has a large-scale spun yarn woven into a rug made from skirt, leg and neck fiber -- fiber typically too short to be used in yarn production. I have to say, it certainly is a lot softer than rug wool! 

While I have not had a chance to try it myself, Alpaca meat is an important piece in the survival of Suri alpacas as a species. You can read about this aspect of the industry here, and I caution you not to jump to conclusions! As fiber people, it can often be hard for us to accept the idea of eating one of our fiber-producing friends, be they sheep, rabbits, goats or alpacas, but it's a necessary part of farm life that allows no part of the animal to be wasted. Alpaca meat has become a gourmet item on many menus, and knowing that any food can be raised and used locally (saving expensive and environmentally impacting travel across the continent) gives me hope that more Americans will begin adopting it in areas where alpacas are raised. While not every farm is a business, and some alpacas are more pets than livestock, the fiber industry counts on higher yield production farms like Alvina's to survive.

I, for one, am glad that there are farmers reviving the interest and increasing the availability of Suri Alpaca fiber in the US. Something over the last year that has become very important to me is low-impact, big difference production, and River Hill Ranch is doing just that. Going and meeting your farmers -- whether at a farm stand at your local market or by arranging a visit or tour -- is a wonderful way to educate yourself and feel connected to the person who makes the yarn that you love. I feel very blessed and happy to have had the opportunity to meet the determined people who can make my yarn dreams come true! 

If you'd like to visit the River Hill Ranch in Richmond, KY, Alvina and her family do give tours! I got to see some adorable crias (baby alpacas) while I was visiting, and the farm shop is full of goodies, from manufactured socks using Suri fiber (these are crazy warm and amazing for hiking, I'm told) to hand-woven scarves and professionally manufactured garments (there was the most beautiful seamless dress!) Be sure to check out her show schedule this year, as Suri shearing season is underway -- you don't want to miss out on this year's crop of this fantastic, home-grown, luxury fiber. 

I just couldn't sign off without telling you the cutest story Alvina told me while I was there -- Alpacas, when it's hot and sunny, will often lay down on their sides in the field. Since the herd here is guarded by Maremma sheep dogs, often in the middle of summer, all the alpacas will be laying around and the dog is the only one left standing. The first summer that Alvina raised alpacas, she looked out her window to see the whole herd flattened against the ground and the dog walking around, nudging each of them with her nose. The herd looked like they had all fainted in the night, and a worried alpaca farmer ran out, only to scare them up and away, confused about why their naps had been so rudely interrupted!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

little gidding farm suri

It's easy enough, as a consumer of beautiful yarns, to take every new skein you see at face value. With a quick squeeze, a check of the tag, and the right colors, many new yarns have found their way into my knitting basket over the years. In the past, I have stashed dozens of fibers without knowing their story, history, or how they were made -- and it didn't effect my knitting in the slightest, or so I thought.

During the process of writing what is proving (at least on my end, for the time being) to be a very interesting book, I have re-discovered a desire to know more about the history and story behind the yarns that I use. While a pretty yarn sits on the shelf and looks nice, feels good in my hands, and knits up beautifully, the history behind the yarn adds a whole knew dimension to my knitting. It's good to know who you're supporting, what business practices they use, and the thought behind everything from structure to color -- having this knowledge connects us to the person who made this yarn, and the long line of work that has been put into creating it.

One yarn that would be easy to read at face value is LGF Suris Ultimate. At first glance (or touch), it's very easy to see that this is a fine yarn. With a content of 90% Grade 1 Suri alpaca and 10% Wool, as dyer and manufacturer Margaret Long says, "this yarn dyes like silk, and feels like cashmere."

I have to agree. After receiving a skein as a gift from my mother, I was certainly impressed to have found not one, but two, high-end Suri yarns after what felt like an eternity of searching. (Did you miss that post? Read about Liz's work developing an outlet for Suri growers in this preceding post.) In the same way that the North American Suri Company has created something special and beautiful, this yarn from Little Gidding Farms is unique in it's own way by featuring the highest, finest, grade of Suri fiber available. I called up Margaret to find out the how and why of how this beautiful yarn comes to be.

Margaret Long and her mother, Sue Simonton, have certainly made a name for themselves among the Suri growers in the U.S. They maintain a small, carefully-bred herd of 21 Suri Alpacas just outside of the Twin Cities, St. Paul / Minneapolis, in Minnesota. Two of their herd - a male and a female, both white-fleeced, have been graded the finest Suris of that color in the country. Their fiber is combined with a small amount of other Grade 1 fibers to be used in Ultimate, the yarn that I had the pleasure of sampling. To give you an idea of how rare and special this particular grade is, consider this. Out of alpaca breeders in the world, only 10% of those alpacas are suri alpacas. Out of that 10%, only 1% of Suri fiber is Grade 1.

For swatching this yarn, I wanted to keep things simple and let the fiber speak more than the stitches, so I used stockinette. As I've come accustomed to with alpaca, going up a few needle sizes for drape and bloom is a good idea -- instead of the recommended size US 1 needles I'd typically use for a fingering weight yarn, I decided to swatch on US 5's. The resulting fabric pre-blocking was light, airy, and everything you'd want in a sweater for weather in middle Tennessee. Since Suri has a longer staple fiber, it also has a lot of shine, giving it the appearance of being blended with silk (when, in fact, it is not.) Something also worth noting for those who have had trouble with alpaca in the past? I did not experience any shedding when using this yarn.

The lack of shedding doesn't surprise me at all after reviewing how the yarn is made. Margaret and her family have exceeded what you'd probably consider quality control and research regarding a fiber. 16 years ago, they decided to turn their shared love of fiber and textiles into a mother-daughter event, and took classes together at the University of Minnesota. Meanwhile, they began attending various state fairs and craft shows throughout the region. Having done some research on alpacas (and knowing Suris were the rarer of the breeds), they were surprised to encounter farmers raising Suri alpacas mostly as show animals. Often, approaching a farmer whose animal looked promising and had earned blue ribbons, they were surprised to find that the farmer didn't have the fleeces processed into usable fiber or yarn. In some cases, those raising the alpacas didn't know the micron count of their own prize animals, and simply viewed their luscious coats as an essential part of getting a blue ribbon. They were often equine breeders looking to raise a hobby 'exotic',  and Suri alpaca had been their creature of choice.

While they could see that the animals were loved, Sue and Margaret were frustrated by the lack of fine-grade suri yarns on the market. Sue instantly saw the solution, and suggested that they begin raising and breeding for fineness on their own. Margaret, a busy nurse and mom, spent a lot of late nights learning about animal husbandry and care. Over time, they began a careful selective breeding program and experimented with different ways to have their yarn spun and blended. Suri requires special attention -- with a long staple length but such a fine diameter, it can be difficult for traditional mill equipment to process this fiber correctly. Typically longer staple length does not equal softness -- think of wool fibers like Wensleydale and Gotland for examples. Margaret and Sue also wanted to take this difficult process to another level by blending their fiber with a fine wool. This presented another unique problem - matching staple length.

Fine wools come in shorter staple lengths than Suri, which has a typical length of between 4 - 6 inches. Merino, Cormo, and other soft wools often come in lengths significantly shorter - 3 to 4 inches - that make it hard to send these fibers through the carder alongside longer ones without significant loss and nupping of the shorter lengths. More notable for Little Gidding Farms was that while they bred for micron count and length, many sheep farmers had focused on producing finer fibers, not longer ones. After significant searching and narrowing their own lengths down to 4.5 - 5 inches, they found someone near to them who could provide the wool they needed, and the resulting yarns passed the ultimate quality control test - expert knitter and yarn snob extraordinaire, Sue.

Together, Margaret and Sue marketed their yarns at craft shows, fiber festivals, and to local shops. Selling direct-to-customer, they focused on not only beautiful quality yarns, but also offering these yarns in an array of beautiful colors. Hand-dyed to be fully saturated with minimal variegation, the yarns drew attention of designers and locals, but weren't getting the national recognition they deserved, still not being available wholesale. Then, Magaret was laid off from her job, and her husband, an engineer, suggested that they take the operation wholesale.

Wholesale presents new and interesting challenges for dyers. Many independent dye businesses struggle through their first larger orders and have to make a slow, plodding climb away from hot plates and small dye lots to the type of volume that they dream of. Margaret had a secret weapon -- her husband designed a vat and pulley system that allows her to dye upwards of 60 skeins in a single batch, evenly and without heavy lifting. Working with Liz from the North American Suri Company, she is able to source the remaining Grade 1 fibers she needs to fulfill larger orders. This year, LGF Suris will attend the summer TNNA show in Washington, D.C., and I suspect that the yarn will be a hit! Designers like Bristol Ivy, Talitha Kuomi, and Hunter Hammersen have already used or are using this yarn in designs, and rumor has it that there will be a new base introduced, as well as a life-size Suri cutout with which to take photos in the booth.

If you haven't heard of Little Gidding Farms yet, I'm sure you soon will -- this yarn is one to watch. Of course, you can't research a fiber until you see where it comes from, so I made a pilgrimage to River Hill Ranch, where they raise some of the suris that produce fiber used by both Little Gidding Farms and Salt River Mills (North American Suri Co.) Stay tuned for that feature on Friday!

Monday, April 25, 2016

the north american suri company

Before I tell you about this wonderful new yarn I found, first let me tell you about the search for it.

When I first started knitting, I didn't know a lot about fibers -- like most new knitters, I used whatever my teacher sat in front of me, what I saw at the craft store, or what was given to me by friends and relatives. Eventually, I realized that I preferred wool to most other fibers, so that is mostly what I worked with. It wasn't until I began spinning that I began to notice differences in wools, and to research other fibers that I wanted to try and learn more about. I attended a session of Yarn School in Harveyville, Kansas in 2010 to learn more about spinning and fiber. There, I visited the Alpacas of Wildcat Hollow Ranch, and learned about different alpacas from Ed and Marta Howe, the owners and operators of the Ranch, who also happen to raise some very beautiful Huacaya alpacas.

For those of you who aren't familiar, there are two types of alpaca, Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya alpacas make up most of the alpaca fiber that you see in stores, in yarns, and in fabrics. They make up most of the alpacas you'll see at 4-H events, fiber festivals and state fairs, too. Huacaya alpaca's fleeces remind me of teddy bears -- soft, fluffy, and crimpy, these alpacas have a medium length staple fiber at three to six inches. Great Huacaya fiber is soft, with a bit of a silky touch and a lot of drape in the skein. Ideally, it should have little to minimal shedding (although most alpaca on the market I have used does tend to shed.)

Suri alpaca is quite a bit rarer. Only 10% of the alpacas raised in the U.S.A. are Suris, and an even smaller percentage of those are raised for fiber. They are truly striking animals, with long dreadlocks of fiber, similar to that of a Puli dog. The fleece is soft, silky and shiny, with a longer staple length than Huacaya. Until fairly recently, very few Suri alpaca farmers were raising their alpacas to a specific standard for fiber, instead seeing Suri alpacas as a fancy equine "exotic" -- a show animal that could win blue ribbons when raised and bred for it's beauty. It's no wonder, then, that after learning about Suri alpacas,  I couldn't seem to find their fiber anywhere, until I attended the summer TNNA show in 2015.

The North American Suri Company's booth was easy to overlook, if you weren't meticulous about going up and down every row of the event. With so many vendors, TNNA is a huge industry show that attracts thousands of participants. The booth Liz Vahlkamp had reserved for her company, The North American Suri Company (or NA Suri Co.,) was tucked in between two very busy booths. I'm sure that some traffic was stopping in, but when I realized what Liz was selling, I didn't understand why her booth wasn't packed too.

Most alpaca I had encountered before had come in one of the 21 natural tones of browns, beige and cream. NA Suri Co.'s range of yarns come in deep, luscious jewel tones. Since each of the colors is a blend of several base colors - light, medium, or dark in natural tone - the yarns have an almost heathered appearance pre-dyeing. Additional blending for the bases with natural, white sheep's wools further enhance this effect, yielding a range of solids that have beautiful depth to them.

Unlike the handspun I have so often encountered at fiber festivals, or the minimally processed small batch alpaca skeins (all of which have their place), Liz's company coordinates much larger spins at a larger scale mill that has specialized equipment to deal with the long staple length of Suri fiber. Her bases include:

Suri Decadence, which comes in two blends. The first is a Suri and muga silk blend, the other is a Suri and angora blend. This is one of the yarns that I sampled and immediately adored. As you can see from this swatch, the Suri-Angora Decadence has a wonderful, subtle halo and small tufts of bunny fiber. I did not experience as much shedding as expected from this yarn -- in fact, I had very little, despite the reputation of angora fiber. The silk version of Decadence has more sheen and shine, but good angora blends are hard to come by, especially mixed with Suri!

Suri Textures is one of Liz's most interesting yarns. When sourcing wool to blend with Suri, it can be hard to reconcile the long staple length of the alpaca fiber with a long wool. Traditionally, the longer the wool is, the shinier -- but also coarser -- the wool is. Liz sourced some very high grade Coopworth wool, and partnered it with one of the middle grade Suri fibers she collects, to create a unique, cable-ply yarn that knits up beautifully and is as fun to work with as it is to look at.

Last but not least, Simply Suri is all about celebrating the natural Suri fiber in the best possible way. At a blend of 85% Baby Suri (this designation simply means that the micron count is between 21-23 microns -- right next to that 'cashmere soft' range), and 15% merino wool, this yarn is everything alpaca lovers adore. Soft and slinky, this yarn creates fabric with beautiful drape and halo.

(Liz also has a new yarn coming soon that I've been given to try, but I'll let her reveal that on her own at show this year, then share my thoughts with you later in the summer!)

While the yarns themselves are decadent and wonderful, I think that the story behind Liz's business and the way that North American Suri Company operates is even more interesting. Liz was serving as a Chairperson for her local Industry and Production board when she met Sue Simonton. Sue was a fiber enthusiast who had been doing some research with her daughter, Margaret, about raising high-end Suri fiber with the goal to see more Suri textiles being made. The problems they were encountering were those that farmers all across America were having - there simply wasn't a lot of education about Suri alpacas.

Liz and the team from the local industry board began going to fiber festivals and craft shows to re-educate and inform the public about  the existence of Suri fiber. They encountered many interested knitters, crocheters, and fiber enthusiasts, but discovered quickly that there was very little Suri to sell. Without a product, the most they could hope for was to be an educational group. Liz could see where there was a need -- fiber farmers had no central place to send their fiber for processing, there was no grading or sorting system for fleeces, and not everyone wanted to go into the yarn business in addition to the Suri business. She stepped down from her position on the committee and set up the North American Suri Company in 2011 as a private company.

Each year, Liz travels and connects with over 40 Suri alpaca breeders in North America. She purchases fleeces and grades them based on micron count, then sorts them by color. While her yarns use grades 1 - 4 of the finest fibers, Liz is also actively seeking uses for the lower grades in a variety of applications. One of her main goals is educating fiber farmers who have long focused on breeding the wide range of colors available in alpacas to narrow down their aim towards the cream and fawn ranges. It is easier to dye on lighter natural fibers, and customers want color. In the meantime, Liz buys fleeces in every color from white to black, and overdyes the natural colors for a unique range of tones. She has become an integral part of the hopeful resurgence of Suri fiber in North America, providing a place for dedicated Suri farmers to have their wools made into yarns -- and for those yarns to be passed on to those who will use them, whether in the textile industry at large or in the hands of a knitter at home.

Liz is all too humble about the impact she's making, but I decided to delve deeper into the world of Suri alpaca and talk to one of the yarn brands that works directly with Liz's efforts -- formed by Sue Simonton and Margaret Long. On Wednesday, join me for an interview and yarn review of their brand, Little Gidding Farms Suri.