Friday, April 14, 2017

the handmade year


I'm not going to preach at anyone here. The world we live in is hard: even when you have access to necessities and enough to spare for all of the bills, and the food, and the things you need, I myself often feel as if I'm coming up a bit short. I have credit card debt I'm trying to pay off. A mountain of student debt. I work a forty hour week, from home, which means that sometimes I work a sixty hour week. I think that I'm pretty lucky to get to work with so many amazing people and do something that I love. It wasn't always this way, but I worked to get here, and here I am. I've been on food stamps. I've worked six jobs at once and had a breakdown in the moments I wasn't working. It could be harder. I don't have any children. I'm at a place now where I make time for time off on the weekends. I had to learn to say no and not to apologize for not wanting to work jobs I didn't have to (to the people hiring me and also to myself.)

So, the point is, that it would be easier to take a path of less resistance with clothing. It would be easy to hop over to one of the amazing shopping places we have here in Nashville, Tennessee, and pick up some new outfits at Forever 21. I love retail therapy. In middle and high school, shopping was something I was really good at. As in, good enough that sometimes people hired me to do it. I thought I would go into fashion. I can go to a rack of clothes and run my hands over the fabrics and pull out the winning pieces. The pieces nobody sees -- and I love doing it. That said, lately, I haven't been doing it at all. In fact, I have only bought one new garment this year. Last year I bought five.

Partially, this is because it's harder to buy things that are poorly made when you see how well something can be made. Spending time among people who make their own things has that effect on you: it makes you think about what you could be doing with your own clothes that you aren't. Also, doing a lot of research for a book on taking things slow, slow fashion, makes you think long and hard about how you're living your own lifestyle and how you could change it. Writing the book changed me more than a little bit. It made me passionate about taking my time with things. About not needing so much of everything, and preferring quality over quantity. About where things come from.

We're getting closer to Me Made May, and there's the 100 Acts of Sewing Project, and Fibershed's focus on textiles, and I just feel like everything in my world is pointing towards making rather than buying. I do social media for a magazine focused on it. I work for yarn companies that care deeply about supporting the fiber industry around the world. I spend a few hours a week at a shop that teaches the skills needed to create your own. Brushing against all of these worlds makes me feel like everything else lacks soul. Handmade clothing is full color and light and sound, where fast fashion is this soul-less, consuming being. It's hard to convince myself to spend money on something that doesn't benefit very many people in the process, myself included.

Last year, I bought less clothing, but more fabric. I've been hunting trims for years at antique stores and flea markets, and collecting some of the most lovely yarns. Now it's time to use them, and I couldn't be more excited about it.

I'm going to start by listing three simple steps I'm taking to prep myself for what I'm hoping will be a very productive year of making, and I look forward to hopefully sharing a lot of it here. It won't all be knitting, but some of it will be.

Step 1: Make my own slopers so that I can design my own patterns

I purchased a used copy of my old textbook from fashion school, which outlines how to do this as well as the slash and spread method of flat pattern drafting, but I'm sure there are a million tutorials on this online. I don't have the luxury of a dressmaker's dummy yet, so slash and spread seems most attainable to me at the moment.

Step 2: Plan out my makes 

I find that I get things done if I have a plan, so my goal is to go through and assign each of my yarns and fabrics a future identity. This means re-documenting some of the Ravelry stash (which has gotten way inaccurate and out of hand) and maybe selling off some yarn. It also means figuring out what I want to make with everything and putting my Fashionary journal to some use.

Step 3: Sew for an hour, knit for an hour

In the evenings, I find that it's very easy for me to get distracted by television. We've set up a tv in the craft room now, in a fashion (it's a computer), so I can sew in there, and knit in by the main television if I want to watch movies. I'm hoping this makes it a little easier to stick to this goal. I want to try and do some sewing (on a quilt, on a garment) every night, and knit on something every night, too.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

new moon phase

About a month ago, I got the most lovely lookbook in the mail from the team at Shibui Knits. If you haven't taken a look at their new collection, out today, for Spring and Summer, I assure you, it's worth the time. Shibui has come into their own with their in-house produced collections, and I am always on the lookout for their easily worn, casual pieces: the perfect thing to put on my growing list of wardrobe must-knits. While the small needle and yarn sizes may seem daunting for some knitters, I cannot recommend the finished fabrics enough. The time spent knitting these is only a fraction of the time you will spend wearing them.

Out of this most recent collection, I'm adding Milan to the list. I have had a split hem, textured pullover in mind for a few seasons, but now that Shellie Anderson has released a pattern, I don't know how much longer I'll be able to hold out on making one. It just seems like the type of thing I would wear extremely often in Tennessee (something that I'm really struggling with lately, having knit several aran-weight garments for my time in Iowa.)

Milan pattern photo via Shibui Knits
The team at Shibui was also kind enough to send along a skein of their new yarn, Lunar. Lunar is classified as a 'lace weight' in the Ravelry database, but it knits up beautifully at a sport weight gauge - as evidenced by Milan, which is knit on US 4's and US 3's. I have to say that this is one of Shibui's prettiest releases since Dune. I don't know that too many other companies do silk to the quality level and sheen that I see in their lineup. 60% merino wool, 40% silk, this yarn reminds me of Staccato (a 70/30 blend), but with better yardage and put-up, and a slightly more relaxed ply. Staccato has been one of my favorite yarns to work with to date, especially when combined through the Shibui MIX concept with other yarns like Silk Cloud or Cima.

Lunar photo via Shibui Knits

Other patterns currently on my 'wait list' from this company include: Trace, Volute, and Slope. I see Slope going on the needles fairly soon, especially with the weather warming up here. Do you have any favorites from this new collection?



Yarn and a free printed copy of the SS17 lookbook were provided to me from Shibui Knits, but opinions, preferences, and yarn comments are my own. 

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. 

2016

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? 

2017

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!