What I did on my summer vacation

musingsSasha TorresComment

Remember Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist's Way? It came out in 1992, when the current flood of books on creativity was just a trickle, and it made a big impact on me at the time. At Cameron's suggestion, I started journaling in the mornings, and it's a habit I still maintain.

Cameron also writes about what she calls "artist dates": weekly, playful, solo excursions that serve to refill one's creative well. In her words

Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish– an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. 
If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked. Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well.
As artists we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them– to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well. 

For me, travel is a huge part of refilling my creative well. I live where it's flat and 99% of the buildings are brown. It's a pretty deadening environment, visually speaking. So I love getting into other landscapes. I live in a small city that feels very suburban (my husband and I call it a suburb without an urb), so big cities are always a wonderful jolt to my senses. And since I love the sea and live in the middle of the continent, I make a concerted effort to get to an ocean as often as I possibly can. 

Last month Mr. Sheepspot and I spent two weeks in the US visiting family and friends. We spent three fabulous days in Manhattan, then drove to Rhode Island for some beach time, and then spent time with friends in Vermont and western Massachusetts (hills!). It was a perfect, well-filling trip.

Then I did something I never do: I went to a concert. I went to see Counting Crows, whom I've loved for years. By myself. I sang along loudly and badly and loved every minute of it.

I returned refreshed and energized and resolved to make my artist dates more frequent occurrences, so I've been collecting ideas. Here are some of the things I'm going to try. 

  • hearing more live music
  • more walks in nature
  • spending more in-person time with other fiberistas
  • taking classes, like this Photography for Makers class that I'm taking next month
  • giving myself permission to make things that don't involve yarn, like quilts and embroidery projects
  • going somewhere new in town
  • swimming in Lake Huron a few last times this season

What do you do to refill your creative well?

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Books that make new (and better) knitters

musingsAlicia de los Reyes2 Comments

I want to share three of my favorite knitting books for new knitters with you. If you want to make knitters of your friends, these books are the gateway drugs. If you're getting your feet wet in the realm of needles and yarn, then these are a perfect way to start your library.

These are all time-tested classics. They're easy to find and easy to read.

Knitting in Plain English by Maggie Righetti: A  one-stop solution for general information about almost any knitting fiasco. Think of it as a kinder, less intimidating version of June Hyatt's Principles of Knitting (an over 700-page tome that literally addresses every knitting question). Righetti's clear and comprehensive guide is perfect for new knitters.

Knitting Rules by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee: Pearl-McPhee writes a hilarious blog, Yarn Harlot, which provides witty commentary on life and knitting. Knitting Rules is full of useful advice about topics like swatching, equipment, and building a stash, plus reflection on why knitting is so tricky-wonderful-fun. It's a great intro to knitting culture.

Knit Fix: Problem Solving for Knitters by Lisa Kartus: This book is perfect for adventurous knitters, new or intermediate. It gives tactics and strategies for fixing errors, and each method is clearly illustrated. Every knitter makes mistakes, and with this book, you'll be able to solve them.

If you'd like information like this, along with sneak peeks at upcoming yarns and fibers, delivered right to your inbox each week, sign up here to get my newsletter! You can also opt-in to get my e-course on choosing and using breed-specific wools as a special thank you!

The project bag problem

musingsSasha TorresComment

The bags I use to store my knitting projects loom large in my life. I am a slow knitter, and I'm usually working on lots of projects at the same time. Whether or not a WIP is housed in an appropriate bag has a lot to do with how likely I am to take it along with me when I go out, which in turn has a lot to do with how quickly I finish it. I usually knit socks or accessories, so I need lots of sturdy bags that can hold a skein or two and my needles. (All my patterns live on my phone and on my iPad, so they're always with me.)

For a while I thought I had the solution: these project bags from Tom Bihn. There are a lot of things to like about these bags. My favorite thing about them is that they have these neat clear bottoms so that I can easily see what project is in which bag. Since they're made of nylon, they are indestructible. And Tom Bihn makes all its products in Seattle. 

But there are a couple of things that have always bugged me about them. The first is this clip, which is on the outside of every bag. It allows you to hook the project bag to a larger Tom Bihn bag, which is not something I ever want to do, and it provides a perfect place for the yarn to get caught. Drives me crazy!  

The crazy-making thing

The crazy-making thing


The second thing: for me, the very thing that makes these bags so great also makes them terrible, which is that they're made of nylon. The production of nylon is highly resource intensive, and worse, produces nitrous oxide, a very powerful greenhouse gas. As I've become more aware of the environmental effects of all kinds of textile production, it's become clear to me that I really don't want my knitting habit to be bringing more nylon into the world. There are uses for which nylon makes sense, but for me, project bags isn't one of them. 

And cotton's no better; in fact, in many ways it's worse. The production of conventionally-grown cotton is an ongoing environmental catastrophe: it requires massive amounts of water, pesticides and insecticides to grow, and its production is making small farmers in the developing world sick, driving them into ever deeper debt, and reducing their food security. And that's just growing the stuff. Processing it produces a whole other set of problems

For all these reasons, I was so excited to find a shop called Madder Root. Madder Root is a tiny company in Maine that uses organic linen to make beautiful handprinted napkins, tea towels, and bags...including project bags like these: 

Nice, huh? I love them

I've always liked linen; these days I wear more and more of it as I try to decrease the amount of cotton I use. I love its crisp hand and the fact that it gets better and better with each wash. Linen has very long, strong fibers, so it wears really well, which means I know these bags will be durable. Plus they're beautifully made by hand, and perfectly in sync with my longing to make every aspect of my crafting life as natural, clean, and sustainable as possible. 

I know many of you want these things in your crafting life, as well.  So I'm delighted to announce that these bags are now available in the shop. Each is about 10"x 12", perfect for a couple of skeins and your needles. Take them everywhere with you, and when they get dirty, simply machine wash them in cold water. At just $11 USD, they're wonderfully accessible, both for you and as gifts.

What's more, they're available in all these delicious colors: 

At last: an eco-friendly project bag that looks and feels pretty. Get yours here.

How serious is the threat to genetic diversity in farm animals?

musings, missionSasha TorresComment

In the last post of this series on genetic diversity, I want to finish up by giving you some statistics that tell us how seriously genetic diversity in livestock is threatened.

How serious is the threat?.jpg

These two statistics—that over twenty percent of the world's livestock breeds are threatened, and that we are losing breeds at the rate of one per month—suggest that a lot of breeds are at risk and that they are disappearing at an alarming rate. There are currently six sheep breeds on the Livestock Conservancy's "Critical" list, and two of them are among my all-time favorites: the Gulf Coast Native, which display what the Conservancy website calls an "exquisite" adaptation to their native environment, the US Southeast, as well as having wonderful wool; and Romeldale/CVM, a fabulous fine wool breed. Also on the list is the Leicester Longwool, the granddaddy of the longwool breeds. I won't even get started on the Santa Cruz, because their story makes me so sad; they have lovely soft wool, and there are only 150 of them left.  But that's actually good news; at one point there were only 12. 

I urge you to learn more about these breeds. The Conservancy website is a wonderful place to start; if you want to go into more depth, look at Robson and Ekarius' The Fleece and Fiber Source Book and Clara Parkes' The Knitter's Book of Wool. If you're a spinner, spin these breeds; they will delight your fingers and make you a better spinner. If you're a knitter, look for breed specific yarns made from these wools.

We all have a lot to lose.

Threats to genetic diversity in farm animals

mission, musingsSasha TorresComment

In the last post I talked about the importance of genetic diversity in helping a species survive environmental changes and disease. Today I want to say a little about why genetic diversity in farm animals is threatened.

The first reason is that large-scale industrial agriculture tends to favor what it considers the most "productive" breeds. For shepherds, this means multiple births for the largest number of lambs, fast early growth for the largest possible market lambs, and big white fleeces that are easy for large mills to process. Thus commercial agriculture leaves behind many breeds, breeds that are smaller, slower to mature or that produce multi-coated or colored wool.

The second factor is globalization. The now-global nature of industrial agriculture has meant the world-wide spread of favored commercial breeds. Unfortunately, this has meant that many local breeds have fallen out of favor, even if they have developed over time to fit perfectly into their native environment. For example, the Red Maasai sheep native to Kenya, which are well-suited to arid conditions and resistant to internal parasites, were the predominant breed in Kenya until the 1970s. Since then, though, their existence has been threatened by the importation of larger, less drought-tolerant and less pest-resistant Dorper sheep from South Africa.

Finally, technologies like artificial insemination have made it possible for a single animal to father literally hundreds of thousands of offspring. Globalization insures that these half siblings can spread out all over the world. Here the most striking example I've found comes from the world of dairy cattle. According to the Canadian Farm Animal Genetic Resources Foundation, the popular Holstein dairy bull, Hanoverhill Starbuck, fathered over 200,000 daughters around the world between 1985 and 1996. Although Starbuck died in 1998, his clone, Starbuck II was born in 2000, insuring that Starbuck's genes continue to spread.

Here's a handy infographic that sums these issues up for easy reference: 

Threats to Genetic Diversity.jpg

Genetic diversity in farm animals, and why it matters

mission, musingsSasha TorresComment

Part of Sheepspot's mission is to support farmers who raise rare sheep breeds. My passion for these breeds, and for the wool they produce, began in a handspinning class with Deb Robson, co-author with Carol Ekarius, of The Fleece and Fiber Source Book, on spinning rare wools. I say it was a spinning class, but for me it was a lot more than that. It was my first introduction to what spinners call "breed study," the more or less systematic inquiry into both the characteristics of wools produced by specific breeds and how best to spin them. I had only been spinning for eighteen months or so when I took Deb's class, and my spinning education thus far had been quite limited. The class was eye-opening in showing me the sheer diversity of wool in the world, and how much I loved All Of It. Over the three days, we spun fine wools like Merino and Cormo, long wools like Border Leicester and Coopworth, Down breeds like Suffolk and Dorset, double-coated breeds like Shetland and Icelandic, and primitive breeds like Soay.

More than learning that I really, really love All The Wool, though, I learned how much of it is in real danger of disappearing. I learned about how seriously many of the breeds I enjoyed spinning the most in class, like Jacob and Black Welsh Mountain, are under threat. As I pursued my breed study in subsequent months, on my own and with some of the spinners who listened to my podcast, SpinDoctor, I gathered and spun more rare breeds, both from North American and from Britain.  I made gorgeous yarns from the wools of Gulf Coast Native (currently listed as critical by the Livestock Conservancy), North Ronaldsay and Castlemilk Morritt (of which there are fewer than a thousand animals, according to Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust). I came to appreciate the soft bounciness of Romeldale, and the silky strength of Leicester Longwool.

In the process, I learned that there is a wool for practically every purpose that I, as a knitter, can think of. There are soft wools for cozy cowls and baby blankets and strong wools for carpets that can last for generations. And just about everything in between: sturdy wools for sweaters and bouncy wools for socks. That range is what we stand to lose if we lose these breeds.

You may be wondering if there's more at stake than some spinner's and knitter's pleasure in her hobbies. Merino's fine, right? There's plenty of that, isn't there?

Here's where the story gets a bit scarier, at least to me as a lover of wool. I'm no biologist (there's an understatement, and if I've gotten any of this wrong, please let me know), but I've been doing a little research.  As I understand it, genetic diversity is what allows a species (like, say, ovis aries, otherwise know as sheep) to adapt to changes in its environment. When something happens in the world of a given species that threatens its survival, its capacity to adapt depends on the presence of variable traits within its population, traits that can help it live under the new conditions. Genetic diversity is the raw material that produces those variations. In other words, we need the genetic diversity provided by as many breeds as possible to ensure that sheep as a species continue to thrive in the face of climate change, disease, and other threats.

In the graphic below, I list some of the other reasons why genetic diversity matters, not just for sheep, but for all farm animals. Next time, I'll discuss some of the threats to genetic diversity in livestock.

Look, ma! I made an infographic!


who we are, mission, musingsSasha Torres2 Comments

We love sheep and we are grateful for wool

Wool, in all its glorious forms, is our medium and our passion. We treasure the diversity of breeds and the wool they produce as the result of thousands of years of collaboration between sheep and shepherds. We honor shepherds by paying a fair price for their wool. We honor sheep by knowing how the animals that grow our wool are cared for. 

We strive to make knitters happy by expanding their choices and making beautiful, well-crafted yarns that they can feel good about

We know that there are a lot of yarns out there, but we also believe that you want more: more sustainable options, more options that support small-scale agriculture and local economies in North America, more options that take advantage of wool's astounding diversity. Our mission is to make these yarns for you.

We think that yarn, like food, should be fresh from the farm and minimally processed

We believe that the best yarns, like the best foods, are the ones that have been touched by the fewest hands and immersed in the fewest chemicals in their journey from farm to needle. 

We know that your projects are unique; we believe your yarn should be too

Let's face it: knitting by hand is a painstaking and laborious process, and everything you knit is highly singular and uniquely yours. Yet most yarns on the market are mass-produced, with unknown ecological consequences, in faraway factories, from materials of opaque origins. 

Just as every hand-knit project reflects the particular taste and technique of the knitter, every Sheepspot yarn reflects the philosophy of an individual shepherd, the well-being of a specific flock, and the history and characteristics of a particular breed. And each bears the mark of the mill that spun it and the hand that dyed it.

We believe that small changes can make a big difference

We're a tiny company with a big dream: to make it as easy for you to learn about the provenance of your yarn—where, how, by whom and of what it is made—as it is to find out whether it's fingering or sport, or how many yards are in the skein. We exist to connect you more closely to the sources of the yarns you use in the craft you love.