A few weeks ago, my friend Stephanie invited me to a super-secret party, only revealing a couple of weeks before that this party was for the launch of her new hand-dyed yarn business! Last Friday, I joined a group of knitters to count down to the opening of the online shop for Asylum Fibers.
Backing up a bit, Stephanie (who has a fascinating background as an opera singer) organizes one of the New York City knitting groups I’ve been going to for the past couple of years, and has been teaching the group workshops on brioche and two-at-a-time socks. Last year, she started holding dye parties in her apartment, which I wrote about here. Once she had the equipment and ingredients on hand, she dove into dyeing headfirst.
What’s the meaning behind the name Asylum Fibers? Stephanie explains on her website:
One of my favorite quotes came from Marilyn Monroe – “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” While I believe this applies to people, I also think these statements suit hand dyed yarn magnificently. As your dyer, I fully intend to maintain my status as some combination of mad and ridiculous, and my aim is to give you asylum, using the most beautifully imperfect yarn.
There’s even a vinyl decal of the Marilyn quote on Stephanie’s wall that I wish I’d taken a picture of.
It was kind of cool to get a behind the scenes look at one of the shop updates that dyers regularly post about on Indie Untangled. And it came with some definite perks. Before the countdown to the opening of Asylum Fibers began, I and my fellow guests got to do a little pre-shopping. I focused on Stephanie’s non-repeatable Chaos colors, picking up this beauty on a light fingering weight.
After stuffing our stashes, and our faces with delicious pulled pork and cornbread, Stephanie gave each of us a massive faux plastic syringe filled with (an also pretty massive) Jello shot to celebrate as she opened her virtual doors.
The orders started coming in, including from some of my knitting friends and newsletter subscribers, and Stephanie even sold out of a lot of her Choas colors. I had my eye on a few of her repeatable colors, especially on her Funny Farm MCN base. But I do know where she lives…
Earlier this year, Linda Lencovic of Kettle Yarn Co. posted to the Indie Untangled marketplace about her new custom yarn base. Baskerville, a fingering-weight blend of two British wools — Exmoor Blueface and Gotland — plus silk, was born of a collaboration between Linda and John Arbon Textiles, a small worsted spinning and processing mill in North Devon, on the coast of southwest England.
Linda described the process on her blog, noting that she was looking for a blend of British wool that was sheep-y and rustic, but still soft against her sensitive skin. “I wanted a yarn that looked like handspun and had enough tooth to hold its shape, without the scritchy qualities I normally associate with these types of traditional yarns,” Linda wrote.
It’s the perfect marriage between small fiber businesses.
The mill has been built up over the last 15 years by founder John Arbon, who, awesomely, spent his teen years as a guitarist in a punk band, later studied textiles at De Montford University in Leicester and then came to Devon to work with the British Alpaca Fibre Co-op. After a while, he decided to go off on his own, and began buying, refurbishing and reconditioning old manual mill machinery. While many UK mills have since gone overseas to utilize cheap labor, John Arbon is one of only a handful of mills still operating in the UK, producing specialty yarns and tops using local and rare breed fleeces, as well as luxurious wool and alpaca socks.
A roving frame at the mill.
Several years ago, the mill began working with independent yarn dyers on custom bases, putting together a blend of their own fibers or using fiber that the dyer supplies. The Exmoor Blueface in Linda’s Baskerville, a cross between the Exmoor Horn and Blueface Leicester sheep, comes from the sheep farmed on fields in nearby Exmoor. She has offered it both naturally dyed with indigo, and in its raw, undyed beauty.
John Arbon has also put together its own fibers to create personal blends for other indies, including Debbie Orr of Skein Queen, Joy McMillan of The Knitting Goddess and designer Ysolda Teague, whose Blend No. 1 — a 3-ply, worsted-spun sport weight made with Merino, Polwarth and Zwartbles, which gives the creamy wool a touch of gray — I got to pet when visiting my friend Sherri’s last weekend (unfortunately for me, it sold out lightning fast after it was released in March).
The mill also creates yarn for dyers using their own fiber, including The Little Grey Sheep, a small family farm on the border of Surrey and Hampshire counties, and Rachel Atkinson of My Life In Knitwear.
“When we produce a specialist blend for a customer, it usually starts with John chatting to them at a show,” writes Juliet, John’s wife and business partner. “He finds out what sort of yarn they would like and how they would like it to perform and why they are making the yarn and what they want to use it for… Then, he will suggest some fibres, and so will the customer, and after many a chat and a tweak and a trial, a new yarn is born!”
Yarns in action on the skein winder.
The mill produces the commissioned yarns in small runs, with 12 kilos or more per blend.
Some knitters may also know about John Arbon’s collaboration with Emily Foden, the talented dyer behind the nuanced, speckled colorways of Viola. A few years ago, Emily came over from Canada to do work experience at the mill, and then ended up staying on as an employee. The company created a line of special Viola yarn, a DK-weight, worsted-spun yarn made of organically farmed Merino, with colors created through a special technique of blending dyed tops that the mill refers to as “dry dyeing.”
The blend came about when John showed Emily how to blend pre-dyed yarn shades in such a way as to produce the effect of a hand dyed yarn. “She loved this and spent ages creating… and our Viola range evolved,” Juliet says.
I asked Emily about her experience at the mill. She wrote that while, as a hand spinner, she had an understanding of how yarn is made, she learned how that translated into machine spinning. Eventually, after John patiently walked Emily through all the steps in his worsted spinning process, she learned to operate the “big, clattering machines,” and could even anticipate a machine mishap before it happened.
“My time with John, Juliet and the team at the mill taught me more about fibre growing, buying, scouring, preparing, processing, spinning, yarn construction, the history of spinning in Britain… I could go on here, John knows a lot about yarn,” Emily wrote. “But I also enjoyed working with the close knit group at the mill and in the shop, tackled my fear of scary machines and picked up lots of small business owning skills. Most importantly, John and Juliet are downright lovely people and I’m so happy I got to spend that time with them!”
One of my longtime dreams is to take a cross-country road trip. In my fantasy, I would knit while my husband drives (which, um, is probably one of the reasons we haven’t done it) and visit an indie dyer at every stop. I’d blog about it, of course, and then my blog posts would get turned into a book, and it would be the Great American Road Trip, with a yarny twist…
It also always amazes me when artisans from all over the world post to the Indie Untangled marketplace — there’s Siidegarte, which is based in Hirzel, a small village in Switzerland, and Valentina of SnailYarn, who dyes outside of Rome, Italy, not to mention all of the incredible dyers out of the UK.
So, I decided it would be cool to create a map and show where in the world many of the posts on Indie Untangled come from. There are just about 80 dyers and crafters on the list, which would make for quite an amazing trip.
A note: This map has just IU dyers and accessories makers. I’m planning on creating a second map just for designers.
I certainly don’t have anything against handknit socks. The one pair I have, which a friend kindly gave me during a purge at Rhinebeck of FOs that she no longer used, are a godsend in the winter. I will probably knit a pair someday, but, for now, I enjoy making things that are more easily show-offable.
Which is why, when I approached Michelle of Berry Colorful Yarnings about a project using her self-striping sock yarn, I knew I wanted something that a non-sock knitter like me would want to make, so her beautiful colors wouldn’t get lost under my boots. Michelle had collaborated with designer Lara Smoot before on the Despicable Socks made with Michelle’s Despicable Me self-striping yarn, so we looped her in and tasked her with designing a lacy infinity scarf using a pattern that showed off the stripes.
“I do love to make self-striping yarns,” Michelle said in a recent Ravelry post explaining her dyeing process. “The idea that I have an infinite set of color combos is the biggest thrill to me. I have made the stripes on my yarns wider then the average stripes so that the knitter is not limited to just socks for their project. I love to knit hats and cowls, and these wide stripes will stripe up very nicely in both types of projects. Some knitters have made smaller shawls and several baby sweaters… Although they rock in socks, too.”
I knew I wanted to offer Michelle’s Indie blue colorway, which she dyed up as part of a giveaway after the site launched last year, and which also sold out at the Indie Untangled booth at last year’s Rhinebeck trunk show. We also decided on two others: Cafe au Lait and Berry Pie.
Test knitting commenced after Maryland Sheep & Wool, and I decided to knit mine in Berry Pie, which I’ve had my eye on since spying it in a Facebook post, but I was waiting for project inspiration to strike — which it did, in Lara’s Untangling scarf. The lace pattern was perfect: just complex enough to keep my interest, but easily memorizable, which was great because I took it everywhere. The only snag I ran into was when I unzipped my provisional cast-on, which was a crocheted cast-on where you knit into the back bumps of a crochet chain. I think it would have been easier if I had done Judy’s Magic Cast-on, which leaves the stitches on a needle or stitch holder instead of waste yarn. But, I persevered, and rocked the kitchener stitch (this video is a godsend to help you memorize it).
I also knew we needed a project bag to tie this all together. So, I of course called on Vicki Moss of That Clever Clementine. Even as a fairly monogamous knitter, I never have enough project bags and I’ve always loved Vicki’s, ever since I got one of her drawstring Belle bags with a beautiful New Orleans map fabric in the coveted Jackson Square shawl kit she collaborated on with Margaret of French Market Fibers and designer Beth Kling. Not to mention the yarn ball bags Vicki created in honor of Indie Untangled. The lined bags are so well made, keep my projects safe and I feel like I make a fashion statement whenever I carry around my knitting.
I knew I wanted a different kind of bag for this kit, so we all scoured fabric websites (honestly, I’m so glad I don’t seriously sew, because I’d be spending a lot of money at Hawthorne Threads) and eventually agreed that the beautiful loop fabric, in complementary colors of grey, white and aqua, would perfectly represent the Untangling theme we had come up with — and as a bonus, it works really well the loop-handled bag.
The cowl in the Indie blue colorway, which is exclusive to the kit.
Orders have been steadily coming in for the kit since they went on sale earlier this week, and you have a chance to snag one of your own until the end of the day Sunday, June 21. I’m so proud of this collaboration, which will be the first of many indie exclusives that I will be enabling you wit–, erm, bringing you through Indie Untangled.
In my 12+ years in NYC, I’ve generally tried to avoid waiting in line for things. This mostly applies to food, since I’m not myself when I’m hangry. I don’t go to Shopsin’s on a Saturday and, for a while, anything with food trucks was a no-go. I knew the Plucky Knitter trunk show at the now-former, tiny Greenpoint location of Gauge + Tension (which is moving to its new location at the Brooklyn Craft Company on Feb. 7!) was going to take a while but, as most fiber-related things are, it was worth the wait, and of course the line was full of beautiful handknits to admire.
I got there around 10:20 a.m., and probably waited an hour or so to get in, but had a lot of fun meeting and chatting with the knitters I met in line. Sarah and Hayley, along with designer Amy Miller, were the perfect hostesses, supplying us knitters waiting out in a cold, misty rain with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and Baked By Melissa cupcakes. Michele, the mastermind behind G+T and the Plucky trunk show, knit the gorgeous cabled hat above, her new design called Treccia, with the ultra-luxurious pure Cashmere.
Since the only Plucky yarns I’ve used are Primo Sport and Worsted, as well as Cozy, I enjoyed the opportunity to see the bases I wasn’t as familiar with, including Bello and Scholar, in one place, and how the brilliantly-named colorways, like Dive Bar and Tiny Bubbles, end up looking slightly different on each one.
The shopping was a bit frenzied which, given how fast Plucky updates sell out, I was expecting. But there was plenty of yarn to go around, including a ton of the special colorways (olive Greenpoint, golden Williamsburg, and Brownstone, a rusty orange that was my fave) and everyone was happy to direct people to the different areas and answer questions. Knitters are awesome like that.
There were some really fantastic samples, especially of colorwork in the bold and unexpected combinations that Sarah is known for.
People left with their bags full of color. (Those are the special colorways above.)
My haul: Bello in French Laundry and Brownstone, which I think I’ll turn into Amy Miller’s Bees to Honey; Scholar in Strawberry wine, which may become boot toppers, but I’m also eyeing some hats; and Primo Sport in Round Table, which is designated for a wurm for my husband. While I’ll probably still be scouring destashes for my red whale — Hayley’s Bleedin’ Armadillo Groom’s Cake, a Plucky Classics club color that I want for both the color and the name — I’m in love with everything I got.
Vogue Knitting Live always tends to sneak up on me, but it never fails to supply me with a ton of knitting inspiration and remind me why I decided to pick up my first pair of Clover needles several years ago.
I didn’t end up taking any classes this year, like I have in the past. The ones I was particularly interested in (with Amy Herzog and Kate Atherley) sold out pretty quickly, and some others conflicted with plans I had with friends that I see far less often than I should. But, between meeting some new-to-me indie dyers in the marketplace, discovering some special skeins and taking in the fabulous Stephen West & Steven Be fashion show, this year’s VKL — my fourth — was pretty epic, and definitely very indie.
While last year was all about Dragonfly Fibers and Neighborhood Fiber Co., this year I made sure to check out the newest indie additions. One of the first booths I went to was Pepperberry Knits. I had already heard of the company through my friend Stacy, who now lives in Idaho, where Pepperberry is based, and she had introduced me to owner Heidi recently over Facebook (Stacy also just started working for them, which makes me extremely jealous). Heidi, a redhead with a personality to match her brightly-colored yarns, told me about how she once decided to unravel and reknit a vintage Cashmere sweater, which led her to decide to sell Cashmere exclusively.
The Pepperberry booth was so fun to photograph, and not just because the light there was actually pretty good. It was filled with such vibrant colors, and the Cashmere in the samples hanging up just seemed to glow. I particularly liked the Fun Size Bundles that were available to make a few different striped cowls and infinity scarves, like Lucy and Lydia.
Jill Draper Makes Stuff has been at VKL NYC for the past few years, but I made it a point to visit her booth because I had a sweater quantity of her Hudson (Made in the USA superwash Merino) on my list to make Yelena Dasher’s new West End Girl.
No sooner had I finally decided on a color (a beautiful orange called Spessartine) when I was tempted by something new — Jill’s Rifton gradient skeins. They were dyed up just in time for VKL, and Jill explained that the browns and greys were the natural wool, while the oranges and pinks, or aquas and blues, were added to the fleece before the yarn was plied.
The Heidi & Lana booth really impressed me. I went there expecting just to see their pretty snag-free stitch markers, but I loved the kits that this Ohio LYS had on offer, including one for owner Margaret Craig’s Passage, which came with yarn from Spincycle Yarns and handmade fabric buttons for a shawl/scarf that can be worn several different ways.
I also enjoyed meeting Angela of MollyGirl Yarns, a relatively new dyer based in nearby New Jersey who has fun music-themed bases and colorways, like Rolling in the Deep and Pink Bullets, and some unique bases (her limited-edition Meet and Greet was an amazingly soft alpaca/silk/linen blend). She had the help of her boyfriend for her first-ever show, and it was fun to see her excitement at being part of this crazy knitting event.
In the middle of the Saturday madness, I spoke with Carol of Black Bunny Fibers, who taught the Yarn Substitution Made Easy class on Sunday. Carol told me about the clubs that she’ll be cooking up in the near future.
And I had to snap some pics of the Kismet Fiber Works booth. I became a huge fan of this Virginia-based company when they came to VKL for the first time last year, and stunned me with their baby camel/silk and Merino/silk blends that make their colors extra stunning.
Of course, I admired the colorful knitted teepee and the Seven Wonders of the Yarn World, which Marsha of One Geek to Craft Them All captured perfectly on her blog (I wish I’d taken pictures of the awesome yarn earrings and geeky stitch markers in her booth!), and the refrigerator full of knit produce and cheeses — with the way my stash is getting these days, this would probably be the only way I’d ever have that much stuff in my fridge.
You can see some more of my VKL photos on Instagram.
New York City certainly doesn’t lack for local yarn shops (and there will be plenty to keep everyone busy during the NYC Yarn Crawl next weekend), but Michele Wang’s Gauge + Tension, which opened Saturday, fills a special niche. Since it’s only open for three months, it kind of has the feel of a long-term, chic fiber festival, with skeins from indie dyers that you’ll only be able to find there.
During the opening day Saturday, I ducked in from the rain and humidity and into what looked like an art gallery, but for yarn. There were white cubbies filled with colorful skeins from dyers like Julie Asselin, Western Sky Knits and Hedgehog Fibres, and samples of Michele’s sweater designs artfully hung on the walls.
Michele’s Stonecutter, which I faved as soon as I saw it in Brooklyn Tweed.
There are some great shop exclusives, including special “Gauge” and “Tension” colorways from Sleep Season, which Meg from Colorado apparently dyes in crock pots!
I met up with Maria of Subway Knits, and we also admired the great Quince & Co. collection, and vowed to return after going over our Ravelry faves and deciding on some sweater patterns. We also bumped into some of the Madelinetosh Stalkers, including Yelena, who might have just bought the shop out of their Q&C Owl.
Pull up a bench and knit a while.
And even though it’s temporary, Michele has created such a welcoming atmosphere that the shop almost feels like it could be a permanent fixture.
If you happen to be traveling to Rhinebeck and are bookending your trip with a weekend in NYC, I highly recommend stopping in. There’s also plenty to see and nom on in the vicinity — brunch at Five Leaves, pierogi at Krolewskie Jadlo and ice cream at Van Leeuwen.
Oh, and don’t think for a second that I made it out of there without some yarn. While there’s no question I’ll be back, my inaugural purchase was a skein of WSK Willow Sport in the Earthen colorway, which I’m thinking will make a fantastic cowl or hat.
I was already a fan of the A Playful Day podcast and blog when Kate launched the Love Our Indies campaign last month. The first post from Victoria of Eden Cottage Yarns — responding to a collaboration between a UK women’s group and an arts and crafts superstore chain that produced a special line of mostly acrylic yarns in the land of BFL, Hebridean and dozens of other sheep breeds — was so thoughtful and well-written. I knew I had to reach out to Kate so that we could collaborate in some way and boost the Indie Dyer Love.
Last week, my post on the importance of independent artisans sharing their stories ran on the A Playful Day blog. I asked Kate to write about her work promoting indie dyers and why she felt it was so important to launch the series. I think it’s a valuable read for all of us who are fans of these special products:
When I started blogging some years ago, I was mostly concerned with finding a way to write about what I enjoyed in life and the things that kept me feeling fresh and playful. Like many, I was burnt out in my work life and I needed the creative outlet to help me counteract my energy-sapping day job. As time went on I realised the potential for a creating a community around my blog as I discovered other writers, found stories behind yarn businesses I loved and interacted with people on Ravelry to talk about my knitting. These stories and the community they sprang from became the focus of my podcast, A Playful Day, and pretty soon I was interacting with creators of yarns, fibres, designs and notions from all over the world and sharing them with my audiences.
It was while at a fibre event I heard a sentence that changed my life forever. “Urgh, how much for one skein of yarn? What is it, gold?” I was horrified. The dyer in question politely explained that she hand dyed each yarn, mixing the colours herself and twisting up each and every skein. She talked about the exact makeup of the base, the quality of the fibre she looked for and even how she had worked with a graphic designer to get the labels just how she wanted. She was telling her story and I stood entranced by the description of a product made with so much love. If anything, I felt sure she could rightly ask for more — did she not deserve to be paid well for her efforts? An independent, or Indie as they’re lovingly called, is not associated with a commercial brand that employs multiple staff and pays for sick days. In my experience, most are growing their businesses in their kitchen or back garden and to say it’s a labour of love is an understatement.
Two months later, I too joined the ranks of self-employed Creatives pursuing their passion. My new quest? Telling independent producers’ stories and working with them to develop a community around their products. It seemed like the perfect evolution from the podcast and I have been very careful to separate features for the blog and potential work set-ups. My editorial calendar is a work of art because I’d hate for people to think I only share stories of people who pay me on the blog — there are far too many good Indies for that!
A few months ago, I came across a piece about a standard for pricing patterns and it lit a fire under me. This came on the same week a Ravelry post went up on a main board asking for a price cap on patterns as the poster felt prices were becoming too high and she felt this unreasonable. This spoke to me on so many levels and fed right into my choices around changing my career and working in the way I do. I started the Love Our Indies series that very day and the response has been overwhelming.
The idea was to give voice to some of the many challenges that Indies face and offer insight into what it takes to make a business successful. Posts have ranged from the value of handmade to how to shop local and why it is so important in an open market to have both local and global shopping. I’ve asked dyers, designers, LYS owners and various people working in the fibre industry to provide posts and offer different perspectives that have opened up debates on Twitter and Ravelry in equal measure. I had a feeling this would be a popular series after I blurred professional boundaries once before when I talked openly about branding on the blog. What I learned that day from the enormous response on Twitter is that there are many Indies who feel torn between maintaining their integrity as a creative and an artist, but also the need to succeed as a business. Success isn’t always a monetary reward: it’s about being fulfilled as a person, too.
When I write about loving our Indies, I mean it. They are creating something unique and personal to them. They blur lines between art and business. They inspire. They unite similarly-minded crafters. Without so many creative people, working together and telling us their stories, this would be a very dry industry indeed. The rich variety that both independent and commercial production leads to is one that I really enjoy as both a crafter and as a professional. It keeps my interest and makes me delve into where my beloved skeins came from. I read blogs, listen to and watch podcasts, chat on Ravelry and knit, knit, knit. All the while, I’m coming across inspiration and thinking, “Now that’s a clever idea, I wonder how many other people noticed that?” You can bet I’m emailing them within the next week and inviting them to share it on the show or blog!
It’s why I was so pleased to be asked to guest post for Indie Untangled — this website encourages a closer look at independent producers from both sides. I love the idea of sharing it together because good things happen when we open up and share ideas. Blogging and podcasting has taught me that and it’s a lesson I take with me every day to work.
Love Our Indies — they make the fibre world a better place.
Kate was kind enough to do an interview with me, which will run on her blog today, and she’s also doing a giveaway of one of the yarn ball Snapdragon notions pouches. I hope you are inspired to continue following her wonderful series. And, if you haven’t listened to her bi-weekly podcast before, I highly recommend that you do.
I’ve been trying to find the best words to describe the open house that Ridgely, the artist behind Astral Bath Yarns, hosted this past Saturday in her Portland, Maine, studio. I think it could most accurately be described as one of her frenzied Etsy updates come to life, with the advantage of seeing her beautiful colorways in person and no worries about getting cart-jacked (unless you have short arms, in which case all bets were off). It was overwhelming, but in a good way, and everyone left happy and satisfied, both with their impulse buys and the preorders that Ridgely packed up in red bags, complete with stitch markers made by Jayla, who came up from NYC to help out.
The event, which was tagged #portlandcon on Instagram, was a con in the best sense of the word. We yarn geeks got together and did our thing, spending a wonderful time with friends who speak our language. Ridgely was so gracious in opening up her lovely home/workspace to us, and her fella also provided a delicious spread after the Yarnmarket Sweep in the front room. She is such a warm, funny person, with a fantastic taste in music (I could spend nearly as much time looking at her CD collection as I could petting her yarn).
Pictures are definitely the best way to capture this Day of Yarny Goodness:
This is what was left after the initial wave. Of course, many of these skeins made their way into people’s bags as the night went on.
This was the rack that held Ridgely’s Spectra DK base. I’m pretty sure those two remaining skeins are not Spectra DK.
Skeins were carried by the armload.
It was very cool to get a peek into Ridgely’s workspace.
Some people’s hair matched the yarn.
So. Many. Pretties.
After yarn shopping… more yarn!
We ogled all the sweaters, like this beautiful Acer.
And we posed with our groups, like this Army of Grace (Madelinetosh Shop Stalkers wearing Jane Richmond’s Grace cardi).
The Astraltinis flowed.
Of course, we documented our hauls. Mine included Tesseract in Tulpa, Spectra DK in Debutante and Spectra fingering in Victoria Mansion.
And, at the center of it all, was the talented Ridgely.
You’ll be learning a little bit more about Ms. Astral Bath next week. Ridgely also sent me home with a skein she dyed up especially for a giveaway!