About the challenges of making yarn the old fashion way
I was quite nervous about the reaction to my post yesterday. I cannot express what an amazing feeling I got when I read your reactions and encouragements. It means so much to us to know that we are surrounded by such a supportive community. Your kind and supportive feedback gave me extra motivation to keep on writing a follow up post about the challenges of making the yarn the old fashion way.
For those who don’t know much about why we do what we do, I invite you to listen the Woolful podcast where I explained more in length how I got the idea to start Moeke Yarns. But briefly - I wanted to do something to stop the destruction of the traditional fiber mills that served the shepherds and farmers until the 1989 revolution. If these little mills disappear, the small farmers and the local artisans will have little options for processing their wool and an entire way of life and the traditions surrounding will be in danger.
We searched long and hard until we found 3 traditional fiber mills in Romania that still function - a sad situation when I think about the abundance of mills that existed before the revolution. These mills use very old machines and the craft of spinning yarn was transmitted in all cases from generation to generation. Little we knew that their way of working and our needs will not be perfectly compatible and will create further complications.
Problem number 1. The skeins’ weight. In these fiber mills everything is done with approximation and it is not easy to obtain similar weights skeins. Nobody working there even thought that this would be needed – these mills serve farmers or artisans who need the yarn for themselves, they don’t care if the skeins have various weights. Of course, it is different with a shop who has a strong preference for standard weights skeins – think about this for a minute: an online shop that would have 20 different skein weights for the same type of yarn / color. Only updating the shop, calculating yardages for specific projects, keeping a register and physically storing and organizing all these different weight skeins would be a lot of work! Not very efficient and clearly one of the reasons why standardization emerged - less work and higher turn-over.
Problem number 2. Different mills, different machines, different thickness of the yarn. Even from the same fiber mill the thickness was different. Why is that? Because, again, it is almost an art to make consistent quality yarn on those old machines when the wool is not the same every time. Remember that we buy wool from shepherds who do not have pure breeds but mix breeds. We do not buy wool from an auction house who already sorted the wool on specific categories and then you know that you would always buy a specific quality wool with specific characteristics. But the traditional Romanian sheep is most likely a mix of Tigaie, Turcana and Merino, and then you have little control over the consistence of the wool’s characteristics between sheep and flocks.
In addition to the above, the fiber mills did not even think that consistency in thickness between batches / colors is such a big deal. Funny story – during my visit I had to explain what gauge is, why gauge is important in a pattern and why do people care about how many meters of yarn in a skein. Hard to believe but this was new information for the fiber mills and the reason for this is simple: knitting is not popular at this moment in Romania and the old grannies that still knit do not use a pattern and have no idea what all these terms mean. So why would these traditional fiber mills care about gauge or think that thickness of yarn would be an important thing when producing yarn?
So what did these problems mean to us? In this standardized consumption society, where you expect that those standard weight skeins have the same quality / thickness all the time, these problems translated into hundreds of hours of re-skeining (not kidding…). It also meant that the gauge and even the shade varied sometimes between batches and fiber mills. It meant that we received skeins of wildly different weights. And we had to deal with all of this.
In these two years since we started Moeke Yarns I felt caught between two worlds. We searched and thought to find solutions that would reconcile the two worlds, but these solutions did not work so well in practice. But we were (here read: I was) determined to buy wool from Romanian farms and to work with these traditional fiber mills and to sell this yarn abroad, to consumers who have certain expectations formed by an industry and a market that functions on different principles. Because there is no other way if we want to help these farmers and these fiber mills to stay in business.
I will stop now – I could talk much more about the infamous position of being between two worlds and trying to work with both. But I would rather hear your thoughts about all this, and tomorrow I want to share what we did to address this dilemma in the future.