Thursday, September 9, 2021

Vanishing Fleece - Clara Parkes

I'm going to seriously show my knitting ignorance here, but until a mostly American (knitting and textile) based reading group I'm in introduced me to Clara Parkes I'd never heard of her. Turns out she's quite a big name, and Vanishing Fleece is but one of many books she's written about yarn. Based on Vanishing Fleece I'd happily read more of her.

This book follows the journey of a 676 pound bale of Saxon merino wool that Clara has the chance to buy from a small sheep farm in New York State. It's an awkward amount of wool to have on your hands - far more than one person could reasonably use, but not enough to do anything commercial with.

Fortunately, Clara had the connections, and mailing list, to generate interest from individuals who would be prepared to subscribe to her project. From there she decides she'll split her bale into 4 and send each quarter to a different mill to be processed, she also gets some of it dyed. What follows is a lot of information about technical processes which is far more interesting to read than you might think - I certainly found it to be so, and a good general overview of the wool industry in America.

The journey of her bale is meant to be a learning process, she admits to buying 2 more during the process of this project, and I'd like to know what happened to them as a sequel to this project - did she find a milling process that best suited the wool is the biggest question I have?

What I really found inspiring about this book was Clara's advocacy for wool. She knows, as so many knitters and spinners do, that there's a real market for good quality products with an interesting provenance, but banks don't seem interested in financing smaller scale products, and anecdotally seem suspicious of the success of some of the small businesses they encounter. 

The costs for setting up a small-scale but viable mill are not astronomical, and as such I'm wondering why more people aren't doing it. There's very little money for the farmer in selling their raw fleeces - in the UK there have been years where the price of the wool isn't enough to cover the cost of shearing it, but it has to come off the sheep for health purposes. Anybody who's spent £20+ on a skein of something nice (and then realised they'll need more than 1 to even knit a scarf) will wonder at where the value is acquired.

This is not a criticism of those prices - I'm really delighted to see in Shetland that more people are producing and selling their own yarn at prices that represent the work and cost involved in rearing sheep. The knitwear designers who have started their own yarn lines impress me too. It would be great to see more of this kind of thing happening everywhere, and Parkes makes a great case for it. 

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