A skein of Nature's Palette Organic Worsted-Weight
Nature's Palette Organic Worsted-Weight knit up
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Yarn Profile:
Nature's Palette Organic Worsted-Weight Columbia Yarn

First Impressions
Judith MacKenzie-McCuin knows her fibers. She is frequently asked to judge fleece competitions at major fiber festivals around the country. And her classes on everything from spinning to rug making often fill up the moment they're announced. She could probably sell out a week-long class on flossing your teeth. That's how engaging she is. And Nature's Palette Organic Worsted-Weight Columbia is Judith's yarn.

She takes fleeces from a certified organic herd of Columbia sheep being raised in Montana. She carefully grades each one, saving the best for spinning. And then she sends the yarn to Canada to be spun following organic standards.

At this point Judith has to make a choice. She can easily sell her yarn to someone who will create gorgeous colors using synthetic chemical dyes. Or, she can spend more time finding a person who will continue to treat the yarn in environmentally conscious ways—which is where Darlene Hayes enters the picture.

Darlene Hayes left successful careers as both a lawyer and a biochemist to found Hand Jive Knits, a yarn company that specializes in naturally dyed, environmentally friendly yarns. Hayes studied with Luisa Gelenter, the founder of La Lana Wools and the godmother of natural dyeing.

Hayes uses natural dyestuffs (madder, cochineal, logwood, etc.), many of which she has harvested herself or sourced, whenever possible, from organic suppliers. Having been a biochemist, she has been especially mindful of the mordants she uses to set the colors in her yarn and has found little or no toxicity associated with those mordants, either to humans or the environment.

Natural dyeing is a slower, more quixotic process that doesn't always lend itself to the fast-paced demands of large-scale production. Hayes and Gelenter are among the few who've endeavored to do it on a wholesale level. The results, however, are extraordinary colors made even more special by the knowledge that they come straight from nature.

Knitting Up
This rugged two-ply worsted-weight yarn knits up quickly and easily. The addition of 10% mohair (which I believe is not organic) gives the yarn a hint of luster and drape. The yarn smelled only faintly of lanolin, and there were very few traces of vegetable matter to be found.

I hold the yarn in my left hand and use the right needle to "pick" my stitches, and I noticed that the yarn tended to come un-twisted and appear as two parallel plies on my needle. Even then, the stitches were easy to navigate without much snagging. After a few rows I was knitting by touch alone, although I did need to periodically glance at my stitches to make sure I was on the right track.

The two plies give the stockinette a faintly uneven, pebbly texture. Meanwhile the colors all seem to have slightly wavering hues that reflect beautifully in large pools of simple stockinette. I know the yarn would render cables and stitchwork beautifully, but I'd almost be more inclined to stick with stockinette and let the colors and natural fibers tell the story.

Blocking / Washing
My swatches relaxed immediately upon contact with their soapy bath. In warm water, they released a hint of color that ran clear with just one rinse.

They required very little blocking except for the slightly curling edges. While there was no dramatic bloom, the fibers did relax and the fabric became pleasantly cohesive. Once dry, I measured the swatches and found no change in gauge.

While this is a rugged yarn, it isn't tremendously scratchy or unduly abrasive—just rugged and hearty, rather like a whole-grain bread or a sturdy pair of shoes. Raised for both fiber and meat, the Columbia sheep breed was first developed in Wyoming in the early 1900s as a cross between the Lincoln and Rambouillet breeds. The Columbia sheep produces a medium-wool fleece with a generous staple length. It's not nearly as delicate as merino, but it's not rug yarn either. If anything, it's a great example of the wide variety of other wool breeds out there.

The long staple length and overall excellent fiber quality translate into low-pill durability for any knitted fabric made from this yarn. The fabric itself has a thick and warm feel while being lofty and lightweight. You may want to wear a turtleneck or long-sleeved T-shirt underneath any sweater made from this yarn simply to act as a barrier if you're at all sensitive to these types of wools.

Maybe it's just because I'm writing this from a frozen late-February Maine, but to me this yarn begs to become that special cardigan you put on over your pajamas every morning before going downstairs to make tea. As with all things made with such tenderness and on such a small scale, there is only one drawback: cost.

An oversized women's cardigan would require approximately 1400 yards, or just about six skeins, with a bill of $120. If your budget is tight, you can use a single $20 skein to make a lovely hat or pair of mittens.

If the notion of a traditional wool appeals but you don't really care about the whole organic, natural dyed thing (or about wearing a fiber chosen by MacKenzie-McCuin herself), you have many less-expensive options out there. The same cardigan in Peace Fleece, for example, would only cost you $45.50—and you'd be using a yarn based on sociopolitical principles rather than environmental ones.

But if you like yarns that tell a story, if you have any curiosity about what different sheep breeds besides Merino feel like, or if you're intrigued by the notion of using a yarn made from organically raised and processed fibers and that was dyed using only natural processes, there couldn't be a better yarn out there for you to try.


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