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A skein of Buffalo Gals Yarn
Buffalo Gals
click each image to enlarge
Yarn Profile:
Buffalo Gals Yarn

First Impressions
No moss gathers under Judith MacKenzie McCuin's feet. In addition to helping establish the Golden Gate Fiber Institute with Morgaine Wilder, collaborating with Darlene Hayes at Hand Jive Knits to produce Organic Worsted-Weight Columbia, and collaborating with Jeane deCoster to produce Elemental Affects Shetland, maintaining a very busy teaching schedule throughout the year and writing a second book to follow up on the success of Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning, she has also decided to launch her own small yarn and dye company. Not just any yarn, but a yarn that blends fibers she, herself, harvested from American bison. Fibers that are short, delicate, and a challenge to spin.

Judith first stumbled upon American bison fibers by accident—actually, her beloved husband Nick did, and literally. He was out patrolling Ted Turner's herd of 500+ bison when he came across a dead bison. He stopped to check the animal and noticed soft fluffy fibers close to the animal's skin. Being the husband of a lifelong spinner and textile artist, he knew enough to pull a tuft of the fibers from the animal and bring them home to her. "Do you think you can spin this?" he asked. She seized upon the delicate downy fibers and exclaimed a most emphatic, "Yes!" And there you have the extremely abbreviated version of how Buffalo Gals yarn began.

As part of their work with Turner, Judith and Nick went to many livestock auctions and watched as bison sold for $50,000 to $60,000 apiece to wealthy ranchers and landowners while the Native Americans were, in her words, going hungry. Along with her fiber work, Judith has been working to set up a program to get bison back on the reservations.

And how do the Native Americans on those reservations feel about what Judith is doing? I'll share a story that Judith told us at SOAR. (I didn't record it, so I apologize in advance to Judith if I've gotten anything wrong in the re-telling.) She had woven a beautiful scarf out of bison fiber and given it to a much-respected Native American friend. He came to her house and told her how important it was, in their tradition, to make use of every single part of an animal that's been killed. The only part of the bison they hadn't found a use for was that downy fiber. In fact, as a boy, his job had been to brush the fibers out of the way. He was deeply moved that Judith had finally made the circle complete—in making yarn out of those fibers, every part of the animal now had a use.

This review is a little unconventional because a) I'm reviewing two skeins Judith gave me at SOAR last fall, neither of which had any identifying details on them, and b) the yarn is not easily available online. In addition to everything else I've already described, Judith also dyes every single skein herself—which means that when a store gets a skein of her yarn, it will sell pretty quickly. As of this writing, Carolina Homespun just received a batch—but I honestly don't know how long it'll last. If you're at all interested and she's sold out, set your bookmarks and keep checking back.

Knitting Up
Judith gave me two skeins—the plump three-ply you see photographed above, and a slightly lighter-weight skein that's made from the very same fibers, spun at the same mill on the same day, but presented in two plies instead of three. It produces a fabric with a slightly more "pebbly" surface, which is caused by the shadows and gaps left by the movement of those two plies along the strand.

The yarn is 70% American bison, 30% Merino wool. The bison fibers add an element of luxurious "slipperiness" to the yarn, while the Merino keeps it snug and helps it hug your needles. This yarn wants to be squeezed.

In knitting both the two- and three-ply versions I encountered no snags or problems. But it really was amazing how much fuller and more cohesive the three-ply yarn was—a real lesson in how different plies impact the feel of a yarn.

Looking up close, I could still see a hint of the "hairiness" of the bison fibers—but no scratch. It's just a different kind of fiber, that's all. In both the multicolored and more subdued colorway, Judith's dye work is exquisite.

Blocking / Washing
Woollen-spun Merino likes to bloom. And woollen-spun bison—by virtue of being a short crimpy fiber—also likes to bloom. Put these two together, knit up a swatch, drop it in warm water, and it's like April in Paris. Bloom, bloom, bloom.

The yarn transformed from your basic average nice knitted swatch to a gorgeous plush piece of cohesive fabric. There was just a hint of bleeding that rinsed clear immediately. And when I pulled my swatches out of the water, squeezed them dry, and set them out on a towel, I marveled at just how beautiful they had become. I wanted to wrap myself in that soft fuzzy fabric and not take it off until the real spring arrived here in Maine.

Wearing
In terms of touch alone, I found the three-ply to be softer than the two-ply—which technically makes no sense because they are made of the very same fibers, spun at the same time at the same mill. The rounded three-ply simply feels "softer," while the two-ply has more texture to it.

The fibers themselves are definitely soft enough for next-to-skin wear, although the bison down may not have been as perfectly dehaired as, say, the Buffalo Gold #11. But its preparation is perfect for blending with 30% Merino wool. As I already mentioned, the bison down adds an intriguing "slippery" feel to the fabric, while the Merino ensures wonderful bounce and elasticity.

Both bison down and Merino hold heat very well, especially when spun woollen, so anything you knit with this yarn will have good insulating qualities. If you really want to guarantee warmth, I'd recommend you use the three-ply and knit it on slightly smaller needles than you normally would a yarn of that thickness.

Conclusion
As a rule, I try not to review a yarn unless it's pretty easily available. Otherwise, you'll just get all excited about something that you can't actually have. Which seems awful, don't you think?

This yarn forced me to make an exception. It has Judith's heart and soul in every twist, and I want to make sure each skein she produces finds an appreciative home. This yarn is an inspiring example of what can happen when one woman gets an idea and works extremely hard, putting a lot on the line, to bring it to fruition. It's the same reason I support the work that Buffalo Gold is doing—and Judith has a very positive collaborative relationship with them.

As I mentioned before, supply is very limited. Judith's first production batch—which represented a year's worth of work—was 1,000 pounds of fiber. Most mid-range commercial mills won't even touch an order for less than 10,000 pounds. By working with a smaller mill, Judith can maintain greater control over the finished product—but she loses the economics of scale, and this is reflected in the cost of each skein.

Consider a skein of this yarn rather like a bottle of wine from an artisanal vineyard that only produces 100 or so bottles per year. It's special, and you'll want to savor every drop.

 

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