I have been looking forward to this project all year. First, if you haven’t yet read Dotty’s amazing posts about her Cordova Gansey Project and all that inspired it, you should go to her blog post haste. Cordova, Alaska, is a fishing town, and Dotty and her family are fisherfolk. To very briefly summarize her wonderful eleven part series of posts; while attending Shetland Wool Week she was drawn to the knitting traditions of a culture of fishermen and inspired to bring them to her modern day (though not that different) fishing village in Alaska. To that end she has created the Cordova Gansey Project, bringing together people interested in all aspects of gansey study, design, creation, and wear. This June (date) she will be hosting a week of classes and yarn adventure in Cordova in celebration of ganseys and fisherfolk. The list of teachers reads like a who’s who of the knitters and dyers I am in awe of.
I love everything about this project (history! boats! complicated forms of traditional knitting!) but the bit that I am personally honored by is that a special batch of my gansey yarn will be at the Netloft for this event. The fleece for this gansey yarn comes from Straw’s Farm, in Newcastle, Maine. Or rather, the farm is in Newcastle, but the sheep themselves live year round on an Island in Penobscot Bay. The island has been occupied by sheep for the last two hundred years or so; whatever breed they started as has been lost to time (hence the unwieldy yarn name, “Straw’s Farm Island Sheep”). The moment I learned about this flock I knew that I had to use their fleece in some project, and when Dotty got in touch about her Gansey Project I knew that it was the perfect match - heritage island wool from Maine going to a gansey project in Alaska.
There are a variety of different fleece and yarn buying models for small yarn producers. Some have their own flocks and sell yarn only derived from that flock, some buy fleece from wool brokers or wool pools, some buy base yarns from a third party, and some, like me, buy fleeces directly from small farmers. The time needed to get from fleece to yarn to finished yarn varies, as one might imagine, depending on the source of the fleece and the mill that does the spinning. I tend to start planning my fleece buy in February, buying fleece as the sheep are sheared (the timing of which depends on the farm in question). Then it’s a matter of getting fleece to the mill, and the mill getting the yarn back to me. If I send fleece in June I sometimes get it back in August, or sometimes I get it back in January: a lot depends on the size of the job and complexity of the yarn. This is a long way of saying that I have been planning my part of this project since last February, and finally during my last rotation home I got to work with the yarn.
Last June Sarah of FiberTrek was good enough to help me pick up 172 lbs of island wool from Straw’s Farm (contributing her Subaru to the cause).
(For anyone who has ever been curious about what 172 lbs of fleece packed into the back of a station wagon looks like.)
Shortly thereafter it was off to the mill, and then all I could do was wait. And wait. And wonder. And plot.
And then in January the boxes started arriving back from the mill.
And I started turning coned yarn into skeins for scouring and dyeing. And once I had enough yarn ready, my world become all indigo all the time.
(The pot on the left is for scouring. The shorter pot on the right is my indigo pot.)
For all of my plotting and planning, once I started dyeing I left a lot of room for serendipity. Natural indigo is a funny thing. Sometimes a certain batch is just a little more gray or a little more blue than the preceding batch, and sometimes really amazing colors just appear for no predictable reason. So when I was lucky enough to get a really unique batch I let it stand rather than continuing to dye it to a dark blue.
I let the batch on the left stay as it was. Ultimately I ended up with a few more lots this color - Child’s Glacier
And the finished yarn started piling up;
And piling up;
And eventually I had five colors.
And then it all went out to the Netloft. Anyone interested in this yarn, or in the Cordova Gansey Project, should get in touch with Dotty.
And then waaaaay too quickly my rotation home was over and it was back to the Sea Lion for me, but I took a bit of my gansey yarn with me to swatch.
I swatched without any project in mind, just trying out motifs that I’ve been curious to see in person. I need to tuck ends and block it a bit harder (this yarn has spirit!) but already I am in love with the result.
I have always thought of my ganseys as armor against bad weather and the world; portable, fitted, security blankets for adventure (because in my experience Adventure! is generally cold and wet). My ganseys are not for wearing indoors when the heat could be turned up a few degrees; I bring them out when I am working outdoors or doing slightly scary things in cold weather. In my earlier life that meant sanding and painting small boats in a barn heated just enough so the paint would kick, or sailing a schooner in bad weather, or parking cars on the deck of a ferry in a Maine winter, or chopping firewood; now that I am a bit more domesticated these days they come out for cold mornings on deck in Alaska and winter walks with the dog. The Straw’s Farm Island Sheep gansey yarn is perfect for this sort of gansey, dense and tough, but with a little bit of elasticity. From an artistic standpoint, the spinning is ever so slightly irregular which combined with the slightly uneven dyeing lends a depth and texture and personality to the stitches. There are occasional small bits of kemp, which I was at first a little surprised and annoyed by (I didn’t even notice the kemp in the fleece!) but I have come to love, because it is a reminder of island sheep turning their backs to a cold Gulf of Maine wind and just going on about their sheepy business because there’s no point in getting upset about the weather. Which is exactly how I feel wearing a gansey.
And for those on the Coopworth Gansey yarn wait list, the Coopworth sheep of Buckwheat Blossom Farm have been shorn. As soon as I get home from this rotation on the Sea Lion (middle of April) I will be visiting the farm, catching up with Amy, and selecting fleeces.