A skein of Zealana Eco Merino/Possum 12-Ply Yarn
Zealana Eco Merino/Possum 12-Ply yarn knitted up
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Yarn Profile: Zealana Eco Merino/Possum Chunky

First Impressions
The animal fiber world can be divided into two categories: those harvested from living animals, and those harvested from the skins, pelts, or hides of dead ones. Even though those animals aren't killed for their fibers, the fact remains that the fibers were taken from the animal after it ceased to be.

This line artfully avoids acknowledging that many of the living animals who offer up their coats to us have, by the time the fibers become yarn and reach you, also passed on to that great pasture in the sky. Either they've been slaughtered for meat, eaten by predators, killed by illness, or died of old age. (Or abducted by aliens, I suppose?)

The cycle of life and death is constant in the animal fiber world, just as in the agriculture world. Even plant-based fibers—cotton, linen, Tencel, bamboo, soy, etc.—require the destruction of living organisms. The only way to avoid this is to knit with pure synthetic yarns, but they are made from fossil fuels, which come with their own baggage.

The fibers in Zealana Eco Merino/Possum belong to both categories: the Merino shorn from living sheep and the Possum from Possums that were "humanely culled," and both fibers sourced and spun in New Zealand. To appease our conscience, Zealana provides pamphlets explaining that the Possum, introduced to New Zealand from Australia in 1837, is actually considered a terrible pest. While it has a natural niche in the Australian environment, this is not so in New Zealand. It has reproduced rampantly, has no known predators, and is capable of devouring entire forests before our very eyes.

But wait! They can't paint the Possum as too revolting a creature because they're harvesting its soft, fine coat—more than 40 tons of fiber in 2002 alone—and blending it into an extremely soft and warm handknitting yarn. (And nothing spoils sales like the tagline, "From Revolting Pests!")

It's a difficult sell, but it's an interesting fiber—extraordinarily soft and lightweight, not to mention warm. Possum is 35% warmer than cashmere, which is, itself, eight times warmer than wool. The warmest mittens I own were made from a blend of wool and Possum.

Zealana offers a host of yarns that include some Possum fiber. For this review I chose the bulky weight of Zealana Eco, a simple three-ply 80/20 Merino/Possum blend that's available in DK and chunky weights.

Knitting Up
The label suggests a needle size of US 10.5 to 13 (6.5-9mm), but I found the fabric far too loose on US 10.5 needles and nudged down to a size 9 (5.5mm) for much more snug and cohesive results (and a gauge of 16 sts per 4 inch/10cm). Knitting was swift and easy—no snags, no knots, no problems.

An interesting thing about this yarn is that it looks, from afar, like your average smooth, steadily spun industrial three-ply. As I started working with it, I noticed two things. First, it's actually quite dense. Roll it between your fingers and you feel a presence. Tug it and you don't get much give.

Second, I noticed periodic extra thin or thick areas that gave the yarn—and fabric—a much more homey, artisanal feel. They weren't different enough to produce anything "wrong" in the fabric, but they did entertain me during my knitting.

Blocking / Washing
My swatch surrendered easily to its warm soapy bath. As it absorbed water, I could feel it relaxing, especially in width. I couldn't detect any bleeding during the wash or rinse.

Once I blotted my swatch dry in a towel, I could see that the previously dense fibers had relaxed and bloomed quite a bit. The new fabric was much softer and more cohesively fluid, with all those Possum fibers rising to the surface in a tan halo. (Tan is the fiber's natural color—Possum does not take dye readily.)

Zealana marketing materials note, "It has been proven through independent testing that fabrics made from Zealana Merino Possum yarn have a higher resistance to pilling than other natural fibers." I can't really speak to those tests, but my own swatch survived a decent amount of friction—the surface growing fuzzier and the halo greater—before small clumps began to show. Some weren't even attached to the fabric, while others put up more of a fight and had to be plucked off.

As the halo grew, it looked increasingly...hairy, for lack of a better word. The contrast between the darker Possum fur and the light pink Merino fibers grew more apparent.

Possum yarn is still somewhat of a novelty here in the U.S. And for some, the animal's fate may make Possum yarn a hard sell. But others may not mind, or you could be grateful that someone found a good use for the animal after it had been killed. The fact remains that the Possum destroys some 22,000 tons of vegetation each night and that, generally speaking, folks in New Zealand aren't that sad to see the pesky marsupial go.

I'll let you decide the ethics issue for yourself.

But I can tell you that it makes for an intriguing addition to our yarn possibilities. It's soft and exceptionally warm—a welcome quality during this exceptionally cold winter.

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