Knit local

Published on Wednesday August 27th, 2008

Yesterday’s news (to me) that Butternut Woolens had closed hung heavy in my heart. Shelly’s wrenching post about giving up her farm, her dream, her family’s lifestyle, her sons’ chance to grow up on the land as she did, touched something deep. I’m a rural girl — not a farm girl, but a woods girl, an island girl — who moved to the city, but all along I’ve trusted that the doors are open to go back to that life of forests and fields, seashore and small town, flora and fauna and clean air and quiet.

But it’s hard to make a living close to the land nowadays. My sister-in-law and her husband breathe the struggle every day as they fight for their dream of living off the land in Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever they can manage to lease enough acreage and scrape by to get their lambs to market. The scope of their vision, their sheer cussed determination to make a go of it in a profession conventional wisdom says is doomed, has always astonished me. But dreams like Shelly’s — a five-acre plot, a modest menagerie of sheep and rabbits, a little business dyeing, spinning, and selling wool — it saddens me deeply to see those die. It wasn’t so long ago that many, many Americans lived this way. I’m not saying I think life was easy for them, or financially stable. I just want to believe that it’s still possible to farm on a small scale, as a vital part of a local economy. I want to live in a world where you can get eggs and milk and produce and wool from your neighbors, because I think it’s a sustainable way to exist, and because I value the bonds that are formed when your children can see where their food comes from and when neighbors know they can rely on each other for help, solace, and celebration.

These relationships exist in the urban world, too, of course. I’ve never had as close-knit a group of neighbors as I do in Portland. I love that we’re part of a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) that lets us help with the farm work now and then. It’s important to me that we can get good food that hasn’t had to travel around the globe to reach our table. But yesterday I started to think: if Local is valuable to me in my food, and in the clothes and goods I buy, why haven’t I carried that sentiment over into my knitting? Why haven’t I committed to supporting small farmers like Shelly whenever I can?

So I’m trying the idea on. At this point, I’m not ready to go totally ascetic and cut international brands like Rowan out of my yarn diet, but whenever it’s possible — financially and design-wise — for me to support a local grower or dyer or spinner instead of buying a more commercial fiber, I’m going to do it. This means buying Oregon stuff when I’m at home (I’m eager to try the Imperial Stock Ranch wool, for instance), but doesn’t exclude souvenirs from my travels. If I can’t achieve a design idea with something local, I’ll still try to favor a small, family-run producer over a big company. With my rudimentary skills in Adobe Illustrator, I made a little button:

Download it to your computer and put it on your blog if you think you’d like to support more farmers and artisans in your own community. (Or use your own superior skills to make a better button, and then come back here and tell me about it!) I might even start a Ravelry group where folks can share their local-origin knits.

The background photo in the button is another skein of sock yarn from Butternut Woolens. I happened to be loitering in Abundant Yarn (a great resource for local stuff – they do a lot of their own dyeing with natural dyestuffs, and they also carry Imperial Stock Ranch and a number of other Oregon products) yesterday afternoon, and I spied this tempting skein of shifting rusty reds in a display basket. I picked it up, and lo, it was from Butternut Woolens. It was one of only a few remaining skeins, and it felt like a sign after I’d been mulling over Shelly’s quandary all day, so home it came with me. The gesture was small, too little too late, but it felt like a tiny step in a worthy direction. Butternut Woolens may be gone, but a beautiful pair of red socks in my drawer will remind me that it existed and meant the world to one woman in Gaston, Oregon. Thank you, Shelly, for the lovingly crafted yarn, and for opening my eyes a little wider.

23 Comments to “Knit local”

  1. LizKnits Comment Says:

    I absolutely love this idea. It’s something I’ve thought about too but haven’t ever been able to “do” quite right. I think one of my favorite FO is made from alpaca that I bought on the farm on a trip to Maine… part of the reason I love it so much is that I’m connected to the animals and people from person contact. Definitely keep us posted about the Rav group!

  2. Jodi Comment Says:

    What a great idea, Sarah! I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, so it seems a natural next step. I was so sad that Shelly had to close things down at Butternut Woolens.

    I do think that supporting co-ops and Fair Trade-type initiatives is also a responsible thing to do, even though they are not local.

  3. Karen Comment Says:

    Love it and it’s on my blog now!

  4. mamie Comment Says:

    i am saddened by her loss too. thank you for sharing her situation. i recently finished omnivore’s dilemma and started in defense of food and it makes you think, so deeply, about the world we live in today. the loss of the contact with so many aspects of our lives. i love the knit local idea and may find lots of new locals just by searching for them. great post and glad you found the yarn from her…funny, how those things seem to happen.

  5. Julie Comment Says:

    Stuff like this is SO important- you know, I spend ages mulling over organic meat choices and free run eggs in farmer’s markets and grocery stores, but I don’t spend much time thinking about where my yarn is really coming from. Thanks for this- I’m going to seek out more local yarn.

  6. rebecca Comment Says:

    Bravo! I’m right there with you!

  7. Saralyn Comment Says:

    I think this is a good idea. If you would like to find more local fiber sources, I recommend the search feature at While you’re there, you can also search for local berries, tomatoes, pumpkins, or anything else that might suit your fancy.

  8. Saralyn Comment Says:

    Oh, and I forgot about where you can even shop online.

  9. Jenna Comment Says:

    Amen sister. There’s a group on Ravelry for the 100 Mile Fibre Diet that may be a good place for you to start.

    Part of the quandary is that I don’t know what producers are local to me. It would be great if there was a central resource for such a thing…

    Also, for the food perspective on this, I highly recommend the book “Plenty.” It’s about a couple who only eat from within 100 miles for a year, and it also have some fascinating history of the NW.

  10. Lee Ann Comment Says:

    I’ve been doing some research with a couple of people on small mills and farms I’ve missed in the middle of Canada (we tend to focus on British Columbia and the eastern provinces and forget the middle folks). I’ve found a ton of little places with the help of blogging friends, and I’m all for supporting them. One of our shops in Montréal, Ariadne Knits, carries a lot of yarns from small producers, and the choices are fantastically varied. I think you’re onto something there. Even if we can’t knit local, we can knit using yarns produced by small farms. I, too, don’t want to see them disappear.

  11. tracy3xl Comment Says:

    Absolutely. A friend and I started a Ravelry group (vanport spamalot) local to the PDX area for local designers, etsy-ers, and the like to advertise themselves, as well as LYSs because, although they sell non-local goods obviously, they’re a bit better than mail order in many ways. I don’t know if it’s meeting the need you’re thinking about, but check it out. I’ve also read online somewhere (can’t recall where) about an alpaca farm in the northeast that operates as a CSA for spinning fiber and yarn. One of these days I’d like to find it again and join. If only I had a blog, I’d wear your botton proudly!

  12. Catherine Comment Says:

    Have you looked into martha’s vineyard fiber farm? it’s the first CSA farm for yarn– basically you pay a fixed price for a “share” of the fiber crop for the season (I am a shareholder in a local CSA for my vegetables and produce here, and I love it)– I signed up for the Fall 2008 shearing, so I’m not sure how it’s going to work out, but…. like you, I love the idea of supporting local and/or small farmers whenever possible, so I was pretty psyched to try it out.

  13. lisa Comment Says:

    Great idea, Sarah! Supporting local and indie businesses in every way possible should be the ideal. I always get so sad when i hear of indie booksellers closing across the country, which is often. So I always try to buy my books local and indie. I love the idea of starting a ravelry group around this project. I’m sure many people feel the same way as you.

  14. Seanna Lea Comment Says:

    I like the idea of buying local knitting supplies, but I have always had an awfully hard time finding the local products in the area. Once a LYS had a farmer running a trunk show (sort of), but that was the last time I saw local yarn.

  15. Debby Comment Says:

    I grew up in a Northeastern town that was mostly farms. As the older generations die and their children can’t make a go of them, they have become housing developments. It makes me cry every time I see another one gone. So I am with you also in supporting the road side stands, farmers’ markets, and any local indy businesses we have in my current town.

    Thank you for reminding us again to support each other’s crafts, dreams, and ways of life. Off to check out…

  16. Abigail Comment Says:

    I feel the same way! I’m a provincial geologist so get to see quite a bit of my province (Ontario). Last weekend I bought some brushed mohair from a local mill and goat farm within my current study area and am adapting the interweave knits ‘Afterthought Darts’ pattern to the yarn. Last year I bought from three Ontario alpaca breeders. In fact, I’m so into natural fibres and buying from small local producers my husband took me to fibrefest UK in Devon last summer where I managed to fill a suitcase with everything from cashmere to Bluefaced to alpaca. This might sound rather far removed from ‘local’, but it was close to where I am from.

    I hope more people start doing this too.

  17. merete Comment Says:

    that is a great idea. i just wish there was anything to support here. well there is every now and then at christmas markets but not much.

    i wanted to get some blackwater abbey at some point and realised it was made in ireland. i tracked down where and now i get it from ireland when i need some. i thought it was really crazy to get a yarn that is half irish and half new zealandish imported to denmark via the us. talk about sustainability.

  18. minnie Comment Says:

    i already knit local when i can. there’s an alpaca farmer just north of omaha who has the loveliest yarns (although, right now, they’re only available at awinery near them, lol). also, i live in nebraska, with brown sheep. they use a lot of local wools, and my favorite is burlyspun.

  19. Alyssa Comment Says:

    HERE HERE! Its my dream to make enough money to move out of the city at some point and have a little farm of my own. I wanted to spn and dye all day. I’m all for support of those who share my dreams for the future. Thank you for this post I think it will help open peoples eyes.

  20. Yaya Comment Says:

    Wow! What a great introduction to your blog. I fell upon it via Popknits (great pattern by the way) and love that you’re spreading the word about local yarns. I recently had a conversation with my MIL about souvenir yarn and how she plans on sticking to local yarns whenever she travels. I’ve really become more aware about where my food comes from and now I think I’ll be looking at incorporating smaller yarn producers into my stash. In fact I just bought yarn from a family owned farm in Montana. Not really close to home, but a step in the right direction I hope 🙂

  21. knithoundbrooklyn Comment Says:

    Thank you for the button! I added it to my Blog. I agree with you we need to keep it local as much as possible. This applies to yarn and food, and a whole lot of other things. Reducing the carbon footprint is a noble goal.

  22. Nonnahs Comment Says:

    This is such a wonderful idea! I’m going to do some research into local knitty goodness in my area!

  23. MD Smith Comment Says:

    Good morning All,

    The Knit Local thread has given me much to think about and I offer this for your consideration:

    What is local to me (I live in Washington DC, so that would be MD, VA, WV, PA) is not local to folks in, say, Oregon.

    But since there are struggling farmers and fiber producers everywhere, may I respectfully suggest that we buy from small producers where ever they are?

    I understand the carbon footprint idea, and agree that I don’t need strawberries from New Zealand or Argentina in January.

    However, the idea that my yarn purchases can help a woman in India or Peru or New Mexico or Oregon or Massachusetts (you get the idea) is a far stronger motivator than the “cost” of a few pounds of carbon when the shipping vehicle is making the trip anyway.

    I look forward to further comments and to knitting with wonderful yarns from small producers – maybe even from my LYS!

    MD Smith
    Washington DC