Editor's Note: The Slow Living movement—which influences everything from food to fashion—emphasizes a more eco-conscious, mindful way of everyday life. In her latest book Slow Knitting: A Journey from Sheep to Skein to Stitch, author Hannah Thiessen promotes the concept of "slow knitting" which discards the pressure to produce prolifically and instead, revolves around the idea that thoughtfully produced yarn will result in better projects for you—the crafter. When Thiessen embarked on her slow knitting journey, she committed to living by a few basic tenets: source carefully, make thoughtfully, think environmentally, experiment fearlessly, and explore openly. In this exclusive excerpt, she explores the first tenet: source carefully.
I have been knitting for a long time, a lot longer than the average knitter of my skill level. I learned when I was very small and kept it up by way of quick and simple projects throughout the years. Then, in my early 20s, I decided to dive in head first, spurred by a combination of loneliness and the terrible beauty of my first Midwestern winter. How humbled I was to discover in the first few years of actively working in the knitting industry that this was not the case for every one of the very best and brightest designers and fiber producers! Many crafters whose skills far exceeded my own had been knitting for a fraction of the time, yet they were much more comfortable whispering yarns into beautiful projects or patterns. The one thing they all had in common was that by indulging their passion through not only making, but also learning about the materials they used, they had gathered more knowledge in a much shorter period.
This quest to knitting knowledge is easily begun by forming a relationship with the fibers that you use. Wool, easily accessible in any local yarn store, is a wonderful place to start. First look at the yarn as a whole object made of a fiber. That fiber comes from somewhere—a sheep, in this case, but what kind of sheep? Each breed has its own merits. Where it comes from matters, too. Who feeds it? Who found this fiber and turned it into this yarn, and why did they choose this weight, this ply? Why did they blend it with another fiber, and what color was it before it was dyed? You can read the label or ask the yarn store owner for this information (I find yarn store owners are a bit like librarians who know where all the best books are hidden away). How do these qualities show in the skein in your hand? Weigh it, squish it, and smell it. Breathe in the lanolin, the barn, the spinning mill, the vinegar or clean, fresh scent of wool wash. Roll a single strand between your thumb and fore finger and admire the character. Let the wool convince you that it deserves to be yours, that it has earned a place in your home and in your future project.
All too often, I find the answers to these questions wanting, or missing, and leave a skein on a shelf. Yarn is not a lost puppy, looking for a home. Above all, it is a purchase, one that I see as a commitment not only of money, but also time. Knowing where it comes from matters, because you will be spending countless hours together—make sure you have found yourself in good company. The wide availability of information online has made obtaining this knowledge easier, along with the expert opinions of knitters from all over the world who have likely already spent time with this fiber. Knitting has the interesting cultural identity of being both a communal and solitary craft, and we can take both natures into account here by remembering that every yarn is not for every person.
When I encounter someone whose professional or personal identity sits firmly within the fiber world, particularly the working-with-wool camp, I love to ask them how they came about developing this identity. There is something supremely nostalgic about reliving your first few stitches, your initial projects, and the frustrations of learning, which remind us of everything that we love about knitting now. I love to see someone who has come so far in their knitting journey relive the beginning of it again, go back to a time when they had no idea how important this skill would become.
My own knitting story is fairly stereotypical, in a way. I learned from Mary Hal, an older shepherdess and fiber artist living in my community in rural central Kentucky. Occasionally, she would invite some of the "city kids" from her church over on Sunday afternoons to learn different crafty things: a bit of baking, a bit of spinning, and a lot of knitting. We learned on leftover wools from Mary Hal's extensive collection. At our first session, she handed each of us a pair of double-pointed needles she'd made from old dowels and a pencil sharpener, carefully sanded and oiled with lavender. They had a "10" written on them and fit perfectly in my hands. The smell of lavender always brings back my memory of these needles.
We moved away from Kentucky only a year or two after the lessons began, and my knitting became less and less, though I never fully let it go. Then, in college, a boyfriend bought me a subscription to a knitting magazine as a present. That subscription, combined with the recent rise of the Internet knitting culture and friends who were eager to learn from my skills, opened the door to me rediscovering my love of knitting. Eventually, I dropped out of school to pursue my love of wool and sheep.
Mary Hal's early teachings about the sustainability, the benefits, and the history of wool still stick with me. She taught me that the best wool comes from sheep raised by those with yarn in mind (although there is plenty to be said for dual-use flocks). Stress shows in a fleece's color and strength, in the shine and crimp. Healthy, happy sheep produce beautiful fibers, which in turn become beautiful yarns, and beautiful projects. Each finished skein maintains this lament line of the heritage, breeding, and history of the wool. Knitting, for me, is about remembering my own story, but also the story of the sheep and the people who raise them. Casting on with a good wool pulls my memories of spending time in the barn, the smell and feel of spinning in the grease, the soft slick of lanolin, and the scent of lavender oil. There is simply no better fiber to reach for when I want to remember where I discovered myself.
Careful sourcing can seem like a big undertaking, so I recommend starting small by combing through your stash before purchasing new materials. As fiber appreciators, it's easy for us to be overzealous about our passion and then feel overwhelmed by stashes that exceed what we believe we could ever truly conquer. Analyzing what we have already collected is a wonderful first step toward practicing careful yarn sourcing.
First, look beyond the yarn to the fiber. Yarn is born in a barn and travels for years on hoof before it ever becomes a single stitch. Where and how the animals are raised, what genetic makeup they have, and the individuals caring for them are key ingredients in some of my favorite wools. Look at what you already have in your stash and take note of any holes you'd like to fill. Then, read up on different breeds and test out any new fibers on smaller projects before making larger stash commitments. Because this process can quickly result in a large stash of solo skeins, I have adapted a revolving door strategy: If a yarn doesn't beg me to cast on within the year, it goes to a new home (sell, gift, or donate—just let it go!).
Our knitting time is not limitless, and keeping a yarn we don't love only means that it will be neglected and passed over continually for better prospects. It also means that we have less space for experimenting with new fibers. Sort through, cull generously, and release yourself from guilt by knowing you'll be using what you've kept. There are many yarns in the world, so don't hesitate to let one go in favor of another.
This chapter is reprinted with permission from Hannah Thiessen's Slow Knitting: A Journey from Sheep to Skein to Stitch.
Feeling inspired? Watch how to arm-knit a giant blanket: