Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Commodity chains

A commodity chain shows the path that a product takes as it travels from raw materials to a finished product in the hands of the consumer. Students selected a yarn and researched its path and we thank all the companies and people who helped them learn more about the yarns they've been using in class. Although they selected a great variety of yarns, many of them traced the raw materials back to Peru, where the materials are also often processed into yarn. This includes Blue Sky Alpacas, Cascade, and Mirasol yarns. Green Mountain Spinnery is proud to say that almost all of their fiber for their yarns is raised and purchased within the U.S. and every skein they sell is created at their spinnery in rural Vermont.

Amazingly (at least amazing to me) many yarns are created here in Minnesota from both wool and alpaca. Sometimes this is the yarn that is made for personal use, like Alyssa's aunt Sue Langer who has been known to buy the coat off a sheep and process it into yarn herself. There are farmers like Salisbury Hill Farm who produce fiber for sale on a small scale - they spun a sample from their California Variegated Mutant Sheep into yarn and dyed it for Ashley. And there is also the yarn made from the alpacas we visited at Cozy Acres and their neighbors at North Country Alpacas, who helped us tour the farm. Erin wrote about their yarn; her paper below will give you a better idea of how a commodity chain is constructed. All of her information comes from an interview with Kit Almich.

North Country Alpaca Yarn

After visiting an alpaca farm and getting the chance to talk to Kit Almich, an alpaca farmer in Le Sueur, Minnesota, I was very interested in learning about alpaca yarn and the process required for making the yarn. For this reason, I chose to research North Country Alpacas handspun 100% alpaca yarn. The particular skein of yarn that I received from Kit is a two-ply yarn and is somewhere between a worsted and chunky weight yarn. The handspun yarn is not dyed so remains the gray-brown color of the alpaca from which the fiber was taken—Bandit.

Alpaca yarn, because of the nature of the alpaca fibers, is extremely soft. This quality really sets alpaca yarn apart from wool. Wool fibers tend to poke out of a strand of yarn because of their shape. This is why wool is often itchy. This is not the case with the crimped fibers of an alpaca. It also kept its twist which surprised me. Because it is handspun, I expected that the two-ply yarn would separate as I was working with it. The yarn feels great in my hands and is an absolute joy to work with.

The alpaca yarn from North Country Alpacas began its journey into my hands right here in Minnesota. Of course, the yarn is made up of fibers from alpacas that were bred and raised in Minnesota. Kit and Richard Almich, the owners of North Country Alpacas, purchased their first alpacas from a Minnesota breeder eleven years ago. Since then, their herd, raised in Le Sueur, Minnesota, has increased and they have been able to breed and sell a number of their own alpacas. Taking care of the alpacas is an important part of the process needed to make quality alpaca yarn. In order to ensure high quality fiber and, therefore, a high quality yarn the Almich’s alpacas eat a very specific, four-part diet. First, they eat pasture grass which is growing on the farm. It is important that this is orchard grass, not alfalfa, as this produces a higher quality fiber. The alpacas are then given a mixture of grass and hay which is also grown here in Minnesota. This provides nutrition for the alpacas even during the winter when the ground is covered in snow. A grain mixture, developed by the Almich’s and a veterinarian in cooperation with the local farmer’s co-op, is given to the alpacas to improve their health and fiber quality. The mixture consists of rolled oats, minerals and vitamins, beet pulp, and flax pellets. The rolled oats are from local farmers, the beet pulp is from western Minnesota, and the flax pellets are from Iowa. Together, these provide roughage, add shine to the fiber, improve heart health, strengthen bones, and provide extra calories during the cold winter. The final part of the alpacas’ diet is free choice minerals. This means that there are bins of minerals in the animals’ pens which they go to and eat when they sense they need more of a particular mineral. The use of these bins is seen most commonly amongst pregnant females and young, growing alpacas.

The first step in actually producing the alpaca yarn is to shear the alpacas. Once each, year, typically in early May before hot weather sets in, the animals are sheared by an expert shearer. The Almich’s choose to hire a shearer so as to provide the most comfortable experience for the alpacas. An expert is also able to shear very quickly allowing for the entire herd to be sheared in one day. When being sheared, the animals are laid down on a sheet or plastic tablecloth, and are stretched out. The sheet allows for the fiber to stay as clean as possible during the shearing and collecting process. The alpacas are then sheared completely. After shearing, the fibers are separated based upon their quality. The first quality fibers are those from the blanket of the alpaca. This is the area from the base of the neck to the tail and down the sides of the animal. The second and third quality fibers, which are coarser and would not create high quality yarn, are those from the neck, belly, and upper legs of the alpacas. These fibers can be used to make yarns which would not probably be used to make products worn next to the skin.

The next step in the process of making yarn is called skirting. During this step, the blanket is laid on top of a mesh table and both sides are examined. The mesh table is used because the blankets typically contain a great deal of dust and debris which comes loose and can fall through the mesh and away from the fibers. While examining the blanket, Kit is looking for any second quality fiber which needs to be removed. After this step is complete, the first quality fiber can be sent to a mill or, in the case of the handspun yarn, Kit can begin the hand spinning process.

To begin the process of hand spinning the yarn, Kit removes individual chunks of first quality fiber from the alpaca blankets. She puts this fiber in a lingerie bag and places it in a mixture of hot tap water and a fine fabric soap called Delicare. She allows this to sit for about twenty minutes being careful not to agitate it as this would felt the fibers. The lingerie bag is then removed from the water, now filthy from dust and dirt, and the process is repeated one more time in clean hot water and Delicare. Following the second soaking, the fiber, still in the lingerie bag, is rinsed, squeezed to remove excess water, and rolled in a towel. The fiber is then removed from the bag and spread out to air dry in coated wire baskets. Drying is typically finished after eighteen to twenty-four hours. When the fiber is dry, Kit is ready to begin the carding process. The fiber is slowly fed into a four-inch hand carder, purchased from a Minnesota distributor, which aligns all of the fibers. By turning the handle of the carder, Kit is able to produce long strands of roving. The roving is about an inch in width and is ready to be spun into yarn.

To spin the yarn, Kit uses an Ashford Traveller spinning wheel from New Zealand. The wheel itself is made of New Zealand silverbeech wood and was purchased by Kit from a North Carolina supplier called the Woolery. While spinning, Kit, who is very concerned with the quality of the yarn she creates, focuses on maintaining a consistent weight throughout the yarn.

After spinning, Kit begins plying the yarn. Typically, she makes and sells two-ply yarn. This requires her to twist two strands from her spinning wheel around each other. She then has to set the twist in the yarn by placing it into another bath of hot water and Delicare. This process, similar to blocking a finished knitting project, helps to ensure that the yarn does not split when it is being worked with. The yarn is then placed on hangers to dry.

Finally, Kit takes the dry yarn and places it on a tool called a Knitty Knotty which allows her to easily put the yarn into skeins. The yarn is then labeled and is ready to be sold. All North Country Alpaca yarn is purchased directly from Kit herself. A few times a year, Kit takes part in a sale or exhibit where she is able to sell the yarn. The Minnesota State Fair and the Landmark Center Holiday Sale are examples of these. Typically, as was the case when I purchased my skein of North Country Alpaca yarn, yarn is ordered over the phone and is mailed to the customer.

Contact Information

North Country Alpacas

Kit Almich

(507) 665-6059

Some comments on our trip to see knitting machines

Kathy: This part of the trip was pretty crazy. The lady demonstrated a knitting machine to us and it blew my mind. Although many of us thought that knitting by hand made you feel more accomplished, the knitting machine is still pretty cool.

Whitney: Although knitting machines are quite handy, they don't seem to have the same effects on a person. To me, knitting is relaxing and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you're done. Knitting something means that you worked hard to make an item out of a ball of yarn, and when you get done everything was worth it. Therefore, using a knitting machine wouldn't give me the same satisfaction.

Mary: Learning how to use this machine just makes me appreciate hand-knit items that much more. I have a hard time believing that anyone who uses this machine is technically a knitter because all they do is slide a handle back and forth. I guess I can understand that some talent is required when one would make their own patterns.

Haley: I had no idea knitting machines even existed until the beginning of this class. It was a jaw dropper! I really enjoyed seeing how a knitting machine worked, but I personally enjoy making my own knitted items by hand.

Erin: Despite the speed of this technique, I have absolutely no interest in purchasing a knitting machine. While I enjoy the final products I produce when knitting, the real joy that I find in knitting comes from the process itself.

Cassie: I personally was not impressed with machine knitting. Although it was fast and amazing how quickly the machine did patterns, I did not feel there was any sense of accomplishment when finishing a knitting project. The reason for me to knit is for a relaxing hobby. A lot of work goes into hand knitting a project, so when I am done, I feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment in what I have made. When learning the process of completing a project on a knitting machine, I just could not envision myself getting the same feeling with machine knitting.

Ashley: The knitting machine store was slightly agitating. I was impressed by the variety of stitches one person could do on a simple machine. I found it, however, infuriating that someone would count machine knitting, which takes a couple hours, better or as great as hand knitting. True appreciation in my eyes comes from taking the time to commit to an item and feel proud when it is done.

Stephy: For me, knitting is more like a way to relax, a way to enjoy the process, not the speed. Knitting machines can definitely save a lot of time, but it loses the true meaning of knitting.

Stephanie: I have to wonder if following a pattern verbatim by hand is really that much different from doing it on a machine. The time it takes to hand knit versus machine knit is intimidating, but both can be artistic and creative under the right circumstances.

Alyssa: I personally did not care for the knitting machine. The products did not look handmade and that's one of the things I love about knitting. The machine turned knitting into just being about the end result. Knitting for me is about the process and relaxation.

Katie: I think it is more valuable to actually hand knit a scarf or hat because it has more sentimental value and I feel like you would have more pride after finishing it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More projects have been finished

Liz and Kathy tried lace and made scarves. Ashley made thrummed mittens (have fiber knit in to create a fuzzy interior). Lindsay and Whitney both made the spiral hat pattern from the Tangled Skein. Haley knit an quilted baby hat using a slip stitch pattern. Michele used intarsia to create her pillow.

Almost done: Stephanie's Norwegian sock, a dog sweater for Cassie's dog Nick, and lace scarves by Amanda and Alyssa.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Final projects, part 1

A few students have finished their final projects. Mary made an Estonian inspired mitten, putting the pattern only on the cuff. Erin shows off her Estonian sock; the second one is currently on her needles. Jonas adapted a cabled hat pattern to create a headband. Katie models her spiral hat made from a pattern available from the Tangled Skein. Lynn made an eggplant using a pear pattern. Stephy has her first Estonian glove done.

The rest of the class continues knitting...

Online knitting communities

Traditionally, new knitters would sit down with friends and family to learn techniques and improve their skills, but many seem to lack opportunities for these face-to-face experiences and instead have created knitting communities in the online world. If you're reading this blog, you are probably well aware of the vast number of knitting blogs out there. Knitters are a major part of the blogosphere. There seems to be no end to the number of knitters who want to share their work with a wider audience than the local yarn store or are trying to reach out because they have no local community of knitters.

Although you might consider knitting blogs themselves to have a fairly limited audience, many of the knitting blogs have a more specific target audience. For example, there's a blog for Nordic knitters, born-again Christian knitters, and punk rock knitters. The rules for participating in each of these blogs are clearly established so you must live in a Nordic country, love Jesus as your Lord, or love rock music in order to be a member of each of these blogs respectively. You can also subscribe to knitting podcasts, like Secret Knitting in which you knit according to the instructions without seeing in advance what you will be creating. You can then share your pictures with the blog author and other secret knitters.

I've encouraged my students to explore these online options to find people who might share their particular interests in knitting. As for me, I haven't been able to find anyone else who has enjoyed forcing college students to knit for six hours each day.

Where are we?

In preparation for our discussion of online knitting communities, I created a few maps to visualize the geography of our class and its blog. Members of the community we created came from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China.
In the contiguous U.S., we find the cluster in Minnesota because that's where the majority of Gustavus students come from. We have students from other parts of the Midwest (Wisconsin & Nebraska), one from Minnesota who now lives in the South (Georgia), one from Alaska, and two who live in China, but these other dots are the people who have been reached through the blog.

We've also reached these lovely people in the U.K. from London, Cardiff, and Stockport (ok, that dot is really Manchester).

Monday, January 28, 2008

The final project

After our third and final quiz, students got to work on their fourth and final project. This is one they selected for themselves using a published pattern that can be modified to their liking. They must learn either a new shape like socks or a new technique like lace.
Here they are, hard at work.


Barb Kaiser provided us with some background on lace, showing us examples from Shetland, Orenburg, and the Faroe Islands, and gave us tips on techniques and materials. You can view her temporary website with links to lace websites.
She also showed the students how to block lace, demonstrating the use of her fancy blocking wires.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Arts vs. crafts

In preparation for today’s class, I had asked students to read two essays and one news article: Is it art? Is it craft? (Charles Lewton-Brain, Ganoskin), Craft versus art (Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer,, and The fine art of crafts (April Austin, Christian Science Monitor).

We had a good bit of discussion in class about the difference between arts and crafts. There was quite a range of opinions – art is the high-class stuff like paintings and sculpture, crafts are the things you did as a little kid, art is unique, craft is when you make something by following a pattern, art is expensive and requires more education, craft produces useful items, etc. As we talked we looked at the work of Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer (or try this site), Marta McCall, Shane Waltener, and Karen Allen. We also looked at knitting in art, including William Sidney Mount’s Winding Up, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s Woman Doing Handwork
, and art that shows knit fabric by Gail Rothschild.

So how do you know when it's art or craft? I like the idea that it’s not an either/or question, but that arts and crafts are on a continuum. However, we came to no conclusions; that wasn’t the point of the conversation – it was just to get us thinking about these things as we knit and progress as knitters.