By contributor Jess Reale
It would be a bit rough perhaps, especially in the nape of my neck or the small of my back, but deliciously rough. Rough the way I like it. Sensual ecstasy. The whole thing was real in my mind. Enveloping me, embracing me, caressing my skin, sultry, and titillating.
Perhaps a simple raglan yoke, but no cables or lace or colour work; just humble stockinette and classic lines, nothing to detract from the glory of the yarn itself. The sweater would be like a pie made with freshly picked apples, or a kaolin clay mug made by a pottery artisan. It would be simple, classic, but the right quality ingredients would elevate it to something fantastic.
The fibre, of course, would come from happy, prancing sheep and alpaca that thrived on a nearby farm where they were loved like family members—the kind of place where the farmers clad the newborns in tiny sweaters so they wouldn’t get cold at night. The fibre would be such a stunning, natural shade that it would be a vile corruption to dye it. It would be processed by a local mill, carefully blended into an angelic cloud, and then spun into a squishy, lofty skein of the purest, godliest yarn. It would have mostly uniform gauge, but with just enough quirks and imperfections to evoke its handmade honesty.
I would wear this sweater through the decades. It would travel with me, comfort me when I’m sick. I would laugh in it, cry in it, and dance in it. One day, my angsty teenage son or daughter would steal it from me and wear it to beach parties because they liked the way the sleeves hung over their hands and kept the sea breeze at bay. They would leave for college and I would steal it back for walks in the woods with my old dogs. The elbows wouldn’t wear through until I was a grandmother, and then I would sew humble patches on and wear it until the end of my days. My aged children would feel too guilty to throw it away because, by then, it would be a part of me. They would keep it in the basement in a box marked “Mom,” and every so often, when they missed me the most, they would go downstairs and smell it. No matter how many times they would wash it, it would always smell like me. I would haunt that sweater.
That’s all I want—a sweater like that. Finding the wool would be the easy part. I was sure most Islanders have an appreciation for these things, and would aid me in my quest. Sure, there were a few bad eggs around my downtown neighbourhood, but country people were different: humble, jovial, hobbit-like, growing tasty vegetables, caring about bees and non-native invasive species, making homemade mead and preserves, and raising livestock humanely.
My quest was clear: the fibre I would seek, the yarn I would create, the sweater I would knit. Phase one was acquiring the fibre from those amicable country folk. I wanted sheep wool for its sturdiness, but I’ve always loved the snuggly squish of alpaca too. The problem with alpaca (I learned when a posh cowl I knit gradually became a derelict hula-hoop) is that it stretches. Alpaca needs the memory of wool and my sweater needed the balance of both worlds. Like Martin and Lewis: Dean Martin’s classy alpaca softness needed the grounding influence of Jerry Lewis’ wooly primitive comfort. Without one another for cosmic balance, the alpaca would just be a drunken crooner, and the wool would be an obnoxious gag reel, or something like that.
I began with the alpaca.
Oh sweet, silly, long-necked alpacas. When I look upon their amiable visages in knitting blogs my soul bursts with ardour. They’re so awkward and goofy-looking and charming. I couldn’t wait to meet one up close and snuggle it. I looked up the farm that was closest to me and dragged my husband and his wallet along, prepared to find a sweater-sized chunk of fibre-y rapture.
We tottered down the windy, mossy driveway. A tabby cat skittered by ahead and escorted us around the corner. Already, I was enchanted. As we turned the bend, the splendour of the farm itself took my breath away. The house was long and built into a hillside. The alpacas were far off in a large pen near some chickens, and tall trees framed the property. This was my dream, and these farmers were living it. I was jealous—I hoped they knew how lucky they were.
A short, stout brunette woman with a round face greeted us. Slightly grubby and disheveled, I was envious that she worked outside all day long in the fresh air, but noticed that she was wearing pajama pants. We had spoken on the phone, so she was expecting us, but now that we were face-to-face she seemed suspicious and resentful that I had actually shown up. We talked fibre while my husband pet the cat. Her tone was curt. “Why do you want raw alpaca in particular?” she asked. “I have some roving but it’s more money.”
“Oh no, I’d prefer it raw,” I grinned stupidly. “For a sweater. I’m going to take it to a mill and blend it with some wool. It’s going to be lovely.” I immediately wished that I’d contained my enthusiasm.
She raised her eyebrows as though I had just told her that I wanted to eat it. “Okay, follow me then.” Begrudgingly, she escorted me into an outbuilding full of damp, musty hay. “We feed them hay. Too much protein in their diet makes the fibre courser.”
“Is that good for them? To eat only hay?” She shrugged and tossed a couple of garbage bags of alpaca fibre aside. I worried their diet didn’t seem very balanced—they didn’t seem to have any grass to graze on in their pen—but dismissed my worries as ignorance. What did I know about raising alpacas?
Alpaca Lady selected a bag and opened it up. It was full of fluff, and my heart pranced against my ribcage.
“How much do you want?” she asked brusquely, contemplating my request for a pound without meeting my eyes, and said, “$60.” The most I’d ever paid for washed fleece was $22 a pound. I asked whether this was slightly pricey for raw fleece that, I’d noticed, came with mud and poo attached. She countered immediately, “I’ll knock $20 off.” At this point I had a vague sense that something was wrong, an inkling of foreboding, but I dismissed it. I said I’d think about it and asked if I could see the alpacas. With an exasperated sigh she motioned for me to follow her.
At that point, under my less enthusiastic eye, the farm took on a very different look. The cat looked scruffy and skinny, perhaps even a bit sick, not charmingly tousled by country life. There were four rats in various states of decomposition that he seemed to have caught, but didn’t dispose of. Fat, clumsy maggots flopped around on one of them.
“Where are they?” I asked eagerly, determined to maintain at least some enthusiasm.
“They’ll come.” She brandished a dirty red bucket. “This is their food bucket,” she said.
“I’ll just shake it and they’ll think there’s some food.” I thought this was cruel, to tease them in this way. She shook the bucket over the fence, and, almost instantly, four bedraggled, sad creatures desperately galloped to us. The one to my far right had mangled, protruding teeth that were dreadfully crooked and startling.
“Guh!” I exclaimed involuntarily. The one on my far left looked like his brother. The two in the middle just looked gloomy and haggard. Their hooves were so long that their legs crimped oddly, and they plodded around, pathetically, with an awkward and painful-looking gait. My husband frowned.
Sensing my concern, Alpaca Lady said, “Yeah, they need their hooves and their teeth clipped, but I just can’t afford it right now.”
The newer model Acura in the driveway made me doubt this, but I only said, “I see.”
Pointing to her right she said, “We’re going to eat that one over the winter. His name is Fred.”
I died a little inside. “Re-really?” I asked her, doing a poor job of disguising my horror.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said disdainfully. “Alpacas are livestock, and this is a farm. They’re good eatin’.”
Even though I’m a vegetarian, I’m not against eating animals if it’s done humanely and they lived a generally good life before they were snuffed. But, looking at Fred’s snaggletooth and unset jaw, and his brother’s limp, the situation was clear. At that moment, I gave up my feeble defense of her behaviour. I admitted that I despised this horrible lazy gremlin of a woman who mistreated these poor soft, sweet, majestic creatures.
I made my excuses, and we left, my little knitter soul crushed.
On the way home, I begged my husband to let me buy them, take them to our tiny backyard in Nanaimo where I could hug them, trim their hooves, and feed them fresh vegetables. For a brief moment, he seemed to actually consider it.
This was an unexpected setback on my quest. My serene, and apparently naïve, view of scenic farm life was dashed against cold sharp rocks of reality. I was traumatized, but optimistic that a visit to the wool mill would work out better and provide a much-needed morale boost. When I called ahead the Mill Lady seemed kind, mentioning that she had some local wool and alpaca available to buy. My disappointment turned into resolution—I would have my sweater, by gum.
My husband decided to sit this one out, perhaps still unsettled by the Alpaca Lady. As I approached Mill Lady’s homestead, I crept uneasily down another long, winding driveway. It was thick with trees and bracken, and I couldn’t see more than six feet ahead of me. The daylight barely reached the ground, and the trees had grown impenetrable and foreboding. I wondered whether there was really a wooly haven beyond this thick copse, or if it was some sort of clever trap for fibre enthusiasts—maybe her house was made of wool and I’d find dismembered knitter remains in the fireplace. Rounding the corner, it was a beautiful sight.
Maybe her house was made of wool and I’d find dismembered knitter remains in the fireplace.
Now, this woman was living my dream life. Sheep roamed free, eating windfall apples, while free-range chickens pecked and clucked merrily in front of a storybook cottage with a rickety porch and mossy roof. A duck stretched his wings in the garden. Delighted, I skipped up to an outbuilding that had shelf after shelf bursting with bags. The fleeces were round and overstuffed, and looked as though they might burst through the clear bags at any moment. They reminded me of jumbo marshmallows. I resisted the urge to squeal aloud in pure mirth.
Mill Lady greeted me amicably enough, although she also seemed slightly annoyed that I had disturbed her. I reasoned that if I were living in a giant pile of wooly marshmallows armed with the machines to card them into otherworldly yarn, I shouldn’t like to be disturbed either, so I forgave her. There was something unusual about this lady though. When she turned to face me I realized that it was her magnificent, grey beard.
At first this struck me as odd. But then I berated myself: “Why shouldn’t she have facial hair?” the feminist side of me demanded. The more I thought about it, the more I liked Mill Lady. Why should women be ashamed to have a few whiskers? Or rather a lot of whiskers, a hefty beard’s worth? I admired her resolution and stoic unconventionality. It seemed fitting that this woman should be surrounded by fibre and wooly goodness, and also grow some wooly goodness on her face. I wondered briefly whether she was a product of her environs, and whether I would grow a beard if I kept knitting and spinning so voraciously. I felt very close to her just then. It appeared that the feeling was not mutual though. She seemed to take me for some sort of wayfaring knitter, but I assured her that I was looking for raw wool and raw alpaca, and that I wanted her to card them together into something glorious.
“Have you ever used raw wool before?” she asked, haughtily.
“Yes,” I answered, still trying to win her over with my fibre-y prowess. For some reason, I felt a desperate need to win her respect. “I’ve scoured and flicked and hand-carded and everything.” I looked into her eyes, trying to convey my earnestness and enthusiasm. If I could get her on my side, then she might let me use her marvelous machines. I could hear them whirring and whizzing away behind her.
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll be waiting a while.”
“Because there is a three-month long waiting list. And even then, I’m very picky about what fibre goes into my machines.” Suddenly, the beard that I had admired became sinister. She seemed smug behind it. She offered no amendment to this statement, no offer of help or reassurance. She didn’t even attempt to sell me this mystical, fancy wool that would be superior enough to grace her machines. I was denied, pure and simple.
“Oh. That’s okay,” I said, annihilated. “I’ll just card it myself.” This was a dirty lie. There was no way I could card a sweater’s worth of the perfect fibre blend with my sad little hand carders at home. It would take me eons. By the time I finished processing and blending two whole pounds of fibre, my children would be grown, and it would be too late for them to steal my sweater for their beach parties.
I puddled away from the outbuilding, weighted by despair and defeat. Inwardly, I vented as I made my way back down the long, windy pathway. That bearded elitist. She sensed my desperation and was using it to torture me. Her beard was not one of nobility—it was one of scorn, of malice. Here she was, holed up in this wool palace, denying me the use of her superb machines, and she reveled in it.
At the end of the Mill Lady’s driveway, I reached the end of my own road. I went home. And I knit a sock.