From the very beginning I was firmly committed to Shelter being a true woolen-spun 2-ply yarn. I’ve always been a sucker for Woolen-Spun — I find them classic, comfortable, and beautiful. The texture, which to some degree always stays true to the look and feel of the animal’s natural appearance, gets me every time.
Before Shelter could be a reality (or even a possibility), I knew that finding the right mill was absolutely crucial. The first unfortunate obstacle in the process made itself blatantly apparent right away: the number of remaining US mills equipped to spin Woolen are severely limited today — few exist as the last bastions of a bygone era in US textile production.
An aside: you’ll hear me throwing the term Woolen around a lot as I talk about Shelter. This term isn’t meant to signify “something made of wool”, but rather refer to the process by which a yarn is prepared and spun. Yarns (generally) fall into two categories – Worsted Spun (a term which, confusingly, has nothing to do with a yarn’s weight) or Woolen Spun.
As a very quick summary, Worsted Spun preparation involves combing fibers of even length so that they face the same direction and are generally well-behaved — imagine uniform spaghetti noodles laying side-by-side. When these fibers are spun they produce yarns that are smooth, durable, and often lustrous as a result of their compressed nature (involving less captured air). These yarns tend to be heavier per-yard due to this compression and are known especially for durability and definition
By comparison, Woolen Spun preparation involves carding (rather than combing), which creates a jumbled configuration of fibers — imagine tumbleweeds in place of your spaghetti. When the fiber is spun, the resulting yarn holds an amazing amount of air within its unkempt tangles. As a result, Woolen spun yarns have a more rustic, “sheepier” appearance (woolly halo, anyone?) with a softer hand and lighter weight. [If you're interested in learning more about wool breeds and yarn preparation, I highly recommend "The Knitters Book of Wool" by fiber guru Clara Parkes]
The equipment needed for creating both of these types of yarn is quite different, and Worsted Spun processes tend to be more widely used for commercial yarns in both the handknitting and machine knitting/fashion industries. Us sheep-lovers though, we have a very special place in our hearts for The Woolen.
Harrisville is an historic mill town located in the Monadnock Highlands of New Hampshire. Woolen yarns have been produced here since 1794 – a fact alone that is simply powerful! When I made my first visit in early Fall of 2009, I remember driving through the woods to the village and being astounded by the beautiful jewel that I encountered. Harrisville is an historic preservation site and the only early-19th-Century industrial community that still survives in its original form in the US. That means gorgeous brick buildings, a quaint and friendly General Store, a placid stream running through town, and a beautiful mill at the heart of it all.
Many of you I’m sure are already familiar, as I was, with Harrisville Designs’ own line of high quality knitting and weaving yarns. Before I even got out of my car on the day of our first meeting, I was crossing my fingers that they would be open to the idea of custom spinning yarn for a complete stranger. The setting and the energy of the place felt so right from the very first moment.
A few hours later, that feeling was confirmed as I concluded the first of many meetings soon to come with the hard working and passionate folks at the mill. They were up for the challenge and from that moment forward Shelter became a collaboration in the truest sense. Not only have I learned so much from working with them this year, but have also been helped and guided at many points along the way when I needed advice from experienced yarn makers.
Harrisville is and has always been known for quality. I am so proud that they have been such an integral part in this process and that we, as knitters, have yet another way of supporting their efforts in producing woolen products that we can continue to enjoy.
*Some photos in this post were provided courtesy of my friend Carrie Hoge, who accompanied me on one of my first trips to the mill.