Kristine Vejar wants to revitalize the California wool industry, and this yarn represents her first step. Vejar is the creative force behind the Oakland yarn shop A Verb for Keeping Warm.
Besides having discriminating taste in other people’s yarns, which manifests itself in an astonishingly well-curated store, Vejar has an even deeper passion for color. Not just any kind of color, but the color you can produce on fiber using only natural materials.
Vejar has dyed a lot of yarn since she began in 2006. But this is the first time she has created her own canvas from scratch, sourcing the fibers and following them through to production. Pioneer is made from Merino wool raised by organic cotton pioneer Sally Fox, who has a farm about 90 miles north of Oakland. The farm focuses on growing the naturally colored organic cotton for which Fox is famous. You may have read about her in Melanie Falick’s Knitting in America / America Knits.
As part of her land management practice, Fox has a flock of naturally colored Merino sheep on the farm. As with her cotton, they, too, are raised according to organic principles. Sheep need to be shorn every year, whether you plan on using their fiber or not. Fox did not, so she has stockpiled quite a bit of Merino over the years.
Vejar’s original goal was to create a true California yarn, but here she ran into a roadblock. It turns out the third-largest state in the nation, with the largest manufacturing sectors and the largest population in the nation, has only one wool mill. She put geography aside and sought a mill that could do the right job with these fibers, a mill that adheres to Vejar’s own principles and can produce a true organic yarn. She sent the fibers all the way to Vermont, where the Green Mountain Spinnery spun them into the yarn we are now swatching.
That’s the back story. Now, how is the yarn on the needles?
By virtue of its having been spun at Green Mountain Spinnery, we already know a little about how this yarn is going to behave. For starters, it will have been minimally processed. No harsh chemical treatments to remove any remaining vegetable matter. This means we’ll find tiny flecks of the field here and there, which I did as I was winding the yarn. Nothing troublesome, just gentle reminders of where this came from.
The second thing we know is that this will be a vaguely fuzzy yarn. Green Mountain Spinnery is a woolen spinning mill, which means they spin fibers straight off the card. Take those same fibers and run them through combs, and you’ll get a worsted-spun yarn that’s much, much smoother.
The fuzziness of woolen-spun yarns is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It helps the fabric absorb any irregular stitches or tension, whereas fully combed fibers have less leeway for wonkiness.
Knitting with Pioneer was swift and effortless. I had no snagging problems, nor did I encounter any knots or irregular areas within the yarn. I was able to knit my second swatch entirely by touch alone. Pioneer was happy to knit and to purl, and it rendered ribbing and rib-based motifs quite comfortably.
As my fabric grew in size, I could see greater gradations in dye saturation from row to row, giving the fabric a pleasantly organic feel. Adding to the sense of depth is the fact that the underlying fibers aren’t white to begin with, they’re a natural beige (you can see an undyed skein in the photo at the top of this page, behind the dyed one). When you overdye one color with another, intriguing things happen.
Blocking / Washing
My yarns had no labels with care instructions, so I did the usual: drop into a bowl of warm soapy water, squeeze and swish until fully saturated, let it rest, rinse and repeat until the water ran clear—always keeping the water temperature consistent. My swatch released just a vague whiff of pink and then settled in for the wash, never fully losing its curled edges and pent-up crimpy energy.
Even before it had dried, I could see a beautiful bloom along the fabric surface. What was a collection of stitches was now smooth, cohesive fabric with an inviting feel. Once dry, the swatch showed no change in gauge.
This yarn is made from Merino fibers, whose average diameter pretty much negates any risk of prickle. The fabric has a somewhat dry feel on the skein. Once my swatch had been washed, however, it softened and relaxed beautifully.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this yarn for high-wear items like socks. Its two plies and somewhat open structure won’t give fabric the support it needs. After a reasonable period of friction, tiny wisps began to form on the fabric surface. Merino pills, and this is no exception. Still, it’s entirely appropriate for just about anything, from sweaters to colorwork mittens. The larger the fabric, the larger the canvas for these naturally dyed colors to play themselves out.
I love a yarn with a good story, and this one’s as good as they get. The story doesn’t come cheap, however. A 50g skein will run you $26, which may fall well beyond your budget.
The cost factors in many steps along the way, from paying Fox a fair price for her fiber to shipping the fiber to Vermont, paying the spinnery to scour, card, spin, ply, and skein the yarn, then shipping it back to California where Kristine then begins the slow, methodical process of naturally dyeing each skein. When you make yarn this way, you pay a premium. In return, you get far more than just a skein of yarn.
Probably the closest comparable yarn would be Brooklyn Tweed Shelter, also spun in the woolen style but at a historic mill in Harrisville, New Hampshire. Shelter has heathered colors formed from fibers that were stock dyed and blended before being spun, Pioneer has colors formed from naturally colored fibers that are spun into yarn and then dyed by hand using natural dye materials. Pioneer is also faintly lighter than Shelter, with each 50g skein holding 160 yards to Shelter’s 140. It’s really not fair to compare the two, but I knew someone was bound to ask.
Kristine has built a vital cultural resource in her shop and through her yarns, and I’m excited to see what happens now that she’s turned her attention to revitalizing the California wool industry. Everyone stands to win.