Monday, May 10, 2010

Distracted, but Coming Back Soon

I know it's been nearly two weeks since I posted last, but I promise I'm not abandoning the blog again. Personal obligations have intervened, there was the massive distraction of the massive Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival right here on my doorstep, I've been taking a lot of photographs in an odd burst of feeling more image- than word-inclined, and of course there's that pesky job hunt. Go figure.
There are a couple of posts-by-me up on the Crazy for Ewe website.
If you're interested, go to,
and click on "What's New" at the top of the home page.
I'll be back here tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is Green Your Baby's Favorite Color?

Recently I had an interesting exchange with a young mother on Ravelry (the social networking site for knitters and other fiber-arts folk). She wrote that she wanted to knit for her new baby using "organic" fibers, but she didn't know where to get them, and "What do people mean when they call yarn or roving 'organic' anyway?" she asked.
Seemed like a good question to me, so I started digging. Here's what I found.
he U.S. standard for labeling wool “organic” refers to conditions for the raising of livestock. Feed and forage must be certified organic; no synthetic hormones or genetic engineering; no synthetic pesticides used on pastureland; no parasiticides applied to the sheep. Organic livestock standards don’t specify anything about how the fleece is processed, and that processing can be far from “green,” involving massive water consumption and various detergents (some quite toxic) to scour, or clean, the wool. Then of course there are dyes, most of which (on commercial scale) are synthetic, and other substances (petroleum-based spinning oils, for example) used in yarn manufacture that may not be what you want next to your baby's skin, or your own. The Organic Trade Association has developed a set of voluntary standards for “organic” fiber processing for its members, and the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standards also has a certification program (the Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS) for processors that follows the fiber all the way to end-user labeling. While U.S. law would protect both organizations from unlicensed use of their certification marks, neither of these programs is compulsory. There is currently no U.S. national legal standard for “organic” wool that extends past the raising of the fiber animal or crop. You can look for OTA or GOTS certification, or you just have to rely on the honesty of the producer for the reliability of claims made about the processing of the fiber. The challenge we all face is that there is no legal meaning of “all natural,” or many of the other promotional terms many businesses attach to their products. I recall a clever writer who advised his readers to remember, when they found themselves drawn to expensive cosmetics advertised as "European," and "natural," that "Arsenic is natural, and Mussolini was European." ;) There are many small- to medium-sized producers who make honest and consistent efforts to manufacture their fibers and yarns in as environmentally sound a manner as possible. Vermont’s Green Mountain Spinnery ( provides abundant information about the provenance and treatment of their fibers. Their yarns aren’t cheap, but they are wonderful to work with, and can produce beautiful and long-lasting results. That’s just one example.
But for anyone who wants to focus on working with low-impact, low-toxin fibers, much of the due diligence remains an individual consumer challenge. Fiber festivals, where spinners, knitters, and weavers can often actually speak directly to the people who raise the sheep and process the fibers, are a great place to learn, and to shop. Local agricultural extension agents (usually associated with a public university) know who their local farmers are, what they’re producing, and how, and can connect fiber artists and crafters with local sources of sustainably produced materials.
There’s lots more information on the subject of "organic" textiles to be found on the websites of the Organic Trade Association ( and the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standards (
For many craftspersons, learning where our materials come from, and how they are produced, is as important as mastery of technique. If you're one such, I hope this post proves useful to you!
[image of a babydoll lamb from, a Minnesota organic feed retailer]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alpaca Meets Linen, Round, Round, Round (and a small rant)

You know that alpaca-linen blend yarn I mentioned yesterday? Here it is. And that's the shawl I'm knitting with it—though it's bigger, now.
I'm up to 250 stitches, and a diameter of about 14 inches. Long way to go. Goal: 72 inches across. I figure I'll end up needing at least three 60-inch circular needles, US size 2.
Size 2. That's right. I'm getting a nice fabric at 6 stitches and 8 rows to the inch, on a 2. A tighter knitter could maybe get the same gauge on a 3 or a 4, but not on the size needle the yarn label says it needs.
Which leads me to my mini-rant. The ball band for this yarn claims that it knits at a gauge of 5 stitches to the inch on a size 7 needle. That claim is actually why I bought 10 skeins of the yarn—if it really worked to that gauge, I'd be making a sweater with it. I bought the pattern at the same time I got the yarn.
I even swatched on a 7, then on a 6 because I tend to be a loose knitter. (Stop that giggling in the back, there!) At five stitches to the inch this fabric would sag woefully the first time a garment made from it was worn. The fibers are too dense and smooth to be worked that loosely, unless fishnet is the goal.
So here's my paranoid theory du jour. I think that it's quite likely that yarn manufacturers will put pretty much anything on a label that they think will help sell the yarn. Lots of knitters are drawn to yarns that knit at 4 stitches to the inch on a nice, big needle. (Size 8, 9, 10, for instance.) 5 stitches to the inch on a 7 is still quite un-frightening to most knitters. Tell 'em they've got to knit on toothpicks, and your market immediately contracts dramatically.
Hence the dishonest ball band.
A friend of mine had a similar experience in just the past few days, with a yarn she'd bought for her shops. Ball band says 4 to the inch on a 10. My friend—who is a tight knitter—gets 4 to the inch on an 8. Me, I'd probably have to go down to a 7 or a 6. On a 10, as directed, the yarn works at closer to 3 stitches to the inch, and would produce a garment that would probably need underlayers to be decent, and would sag and pill with dismaying swiftness.
It's my own fault I got suckered with my blend, though. I should have realized that a yarn composed of smooth, heavy fibers (like alpaca and linen) with 219 yards to 100 grams was more than halfway to sock yarn, and unlikely to be suitable for a worsted pattern. But I believed the label. I'm going to be a LOT less credulous from now on.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In Praise of Alpaca

This morning I started knitting a shawl in an intriguing blend of alpaca and linen. It makes a fabric that is somehow simultaneously plush and cool, sort of like very, very nice sheets on a freshly made bed.
Alpacas (scientific name Lama pacos) are most excellent fiber animals. Native to the Andes, where they thrive at altitudes of 13,000 to 16,000 feet, they're members of the Camelid family. In an odd paleontological irony, the fossil record shows that New World camelids--alpacas, llamas, vicunas, guanacos--were around long before the Old World dromedary (one hump) and bactrian (two hump) camels. All of these creatures produce wonderfully useful fibers, but the alpaca holds a special place of honor in my heart.
They're adorable animals, with improbably long eyelashes, comical ears, and sweet faces. Their fleece is fabulously soft, and since alpacas don't produce secretions like the lanolin of sheep, the fiber is relatively hypoallergenic. Even people who are quite sensitive to wool can often wear alpaca fabrics with no difficulty. Alpacas also come in a an array of nearly two dozen natural colors, from pale cream to rich chestnuts to a minky brown so deep it's almost black.
Pure alpaca yarn makes a luxuriously warm knitted fabric, with great drape. And alpaca plays well with others, too: alpaca and wool, alpaca and silk, and--as I'm discovering today--alpaca and linen are all felicitous matches.
I've also found alpaca fiber a treat to spin. As with yarn, the pure stuff is great, and the blend possibilities are most excellent, too. I'm in the midst of spinning a couple of pounds of a blend of alpaca, angora rabbit, and silk. All the fibers are in natural colors, so the blend looks like what you have in the bowl a few minutes after you start eating a butterscotch sundae. And the texture quite exceeds my poor power to describe. If you can imagine holding a handful of the most perfect summer breeze you ever felt, then you have a hint of how soft and lofty this fluff is.
The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is coming up this weekend. There are always alpacas on display. I'm sure I'll linger by the pens, as I always do, fantasizing about the fibery delights I could harvest from a modest group of backyard alpacas. It's what Virginia Woolf might have yearned for, if she'd ever knitted with alpaca: five hundred pounds a year, and a herd of one's own.
[Alpaca photograph by Tony Richards, from]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Back to the Blog

Okay, so I haven't blogged in a year. Or more. But tonight I'm sitting at the kitchen counter of my friend Ellen, and she tells me I've gotta blog. Must. Blog.
It's pretty much an order.
And so I obey.
I'm going to write here every day (at least until Ellen tells me I can stop).
No promises about any special coherence of topic. I'm just going to write about whatever I want to.

Those of you who know me in the analog realm may be astonished that I have meekly accepted an order to write every day. It could have something to do with the multiples of high-octane gin-and-tonics Ellen plied me with before issuing her edict. Or it could be her pointing out that when I respond to queries on one of the social media sites I follow, I rarely do so in private messages. I almost always post publicly. "You want people to read what you have to say," Ellen declared. "You need to know this about yourself. It's a good thing."

So whatever happens here, from today onward, blame it on Ellen.
And come back tomorrow, okay?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

French Guys

These guys named Jack, je les aime:
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who made Oceanography and Marine Biology chic, and who proved that television could be so much more than sitcoms, hospital tearjerkers, and "courtroom dramas." Did you know that on board the Calypso, water was rationed, but wine never was? Perfectly French, non?
Jacques Torres, chocolatier extraodinaire, who looked straight into the camera and promised with a straight face that I too could manage the astounding confections he produced on Dessert Circus, and who now rules a growning chocolate retail empire in New York. He swears that chocolate is health food, and I have no reason to doubt.
Jacques Pepin, who is simply The Master of the Kitchen. He's a sprightly, accessible writer, a clear teacher, and at once absolutely resolute about what constitutes food worth eating and quite modern and flexible about making real meals at home. How can you resist a man who will, with perfect seriousness, teach you how to turn a black olive into a charming little bunny rabbit for your salad platter, in a half-dozen beautifully economical movements?
Of course, I'm also quite fond of a couple of other Jacks:
My brother, Jack, who's probably the smartest guy I've ever met, a riveting speaker, a public historian of extraordinary skill and determination, a deeply dedicated father, and creator of platters of blackened grouper so delicious that they've made more than one person glad to be alive.
And his son, my nephew Jack, who is the most gallant 11-year-old ever. He's on his second tuxedo. He's been to London and Paris, Venice and the Black Forest. He's wicked at Wii, and can quote Cole Porter; he drives his sisters insane, and charms even the most reluctant cat into a purring armful of fluff; he can't remember where his shoes are, but he'll notice if you cut your hair.
Brilliance and charm, that's what the Jacques—and the Jacks—have. How lucky I am to have them.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I love Pepe Le Pew.
He's a skunk, and skunks are cool, but it's more than that.

Pepe first appeared in 1945, with a Mel Blanc voice inspired by Charles Boyer. He was a regular in Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons and won an Oscar in 1949 in For Scent-imental Reasons (written by Michael Maltese). Johnny Depp is reported to have based his Pirates of the Caribbean character Captain Jack Sparrow not only on Rolling Stone Keith Richards, but also on the urbane Le Pew. But it's more than that.

Pepe's self-esteem is made of solid stainless steel. 'E pursues zee beeyootiful laydee, and eet does not matter eff she rebuff heem. But not in a yucky, date-rape, Pepe-needs-to-learn-that-no-means-no kind of way. He's just totally sure that he's fabulous, and if the object of his affections will just get over the whole vile stink issue, zey can mek zee beeyootiful music together, eh, oui? Being a skunk, he lives in a virtual tuxedo, so he's always elegant. And the fluff of the tail--gotta love the flourish there. But really, it's the confidence that makes him so captivating. There's a line between revolting arrogance and charming self-assurance, of course. Probably different people draw it in different places (I adore Russell Crowe, for instance. Other people maybe don't so much.). But Pepe's got the magic, I say.

Of course he's a French guy. That probably has something to do with it, even if he's not a French guy named Jacques (my favorite kind). 
More on the joys of French guys in the next post.
I 'ope you all 'ave zee fabulous day, mez amies!