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!