With the weather turning steadily warmer, farmers markets are beginning to pop up in Portland. With three markets open nearby (Pioneer Courthouse Square, Shemanski Park, and PSU), we are just steps away from vendors unloading baskets of colorful produce, flowers, canned goods, wines, and pastas from their trucks and into the hands of waiting customers. The availability of fresh food seems ever increasing; grocery stores and supermarkets now stock their shelves with food labeled “non-GMO” and “organically grown.” All of these indicators of provenance — the place from which these foods come from — help us become more informed about our purchases as consumers. And there is something special about speaking directly to a farmer at the market stall while they weigh a large tomato, or pass you a basket of freshly-picked berries.
In the wool market, we’re seeing a similar slow-source resurgence. While wools used to be labeled “100% wool” or if they were feeling specific, “100% fine merino,” there are an increasing number of yarn companies who are not only researching where everything is sourced from fiber animal to final skein, but also are willing to pass along this information to their consumers. At Knit Purl, we value this traceability for our fibers, and hope to celebrate these products as they arise.
Where the growing of a plant affects the taste of the fruit, the care of an animal also affects the quality of the fiber. Everything from diet to the ground on which the herd travels can affect the finished outcome of each shearing. Less-stressed animals produce wool that is stronger and has more desirable qualities for the finished yarn — sheen, bounce, and elasticity. As a knitter, you see this result in a skein that behaves the way you need it to, every time, and fully embodies all of the wonderful characteristics the fiber is known for.
Knitters are becoming familiar with different types of wool as a result. Heritage breeds like Wensleydale, Targhee, and Rambouillet are being celebrated for their unique characteristics. Knitters are becoming experts on wools outside of the standard merino varieties, and are willing to experiment, especially when told the redeeming qualities of a wool with more sheen, crimp, or “crunch.”
Fibers that used to be considered exotic — alpaca, camel, yak, bison — are more available. Due to the smaller herd nature of these animals, they are perhaps some of the easiest to trace the histories of. It’s not uncommon to see the picture of the alpaca on the label right next to the yarn’s yardage and weight! Another added benefit is that in the areas of the world where the more exotic fibers have been traditionally sourced, farmers are finally being rewarded with favorable fair-trade policies in exchange for more transparency in the fiber process.
Subsequently, choosing a well-tended wool is rewarding — there’s something beautiful about realizing that not only are you the recipient of the fiber, but that you have become the next caregiver of this sheep’s gift. It is up to you to create something that will continue the sheep’s legacy, turning the yarns between your fingers and conjuring up a garment that will be well-loved and worn.
And that, we well know, is an experience all its own.