Wool and Me, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sheep

Today’s contribution to LoveWovember.com is from long-time wool enthusiast Cashman Kerr Prince. Find him on Instagram as @cashmancreates.

I grew up in the southern United States. Wool was not a wardrobe staple. Besides, it was the age of polyester doubleknits – fashions which are still out in the world somewhere. It wasn’t until I was heading off to college in the Northeast that wool came into my closet.

I knew about sheep, of course. First from nursery rhymes (it was many years before I came to covet those three bags full of wool), then from eating lamb. As I recall, lamb was not something most people around us ate. But it was Dr. Bob’s favorite Sunday meal from when he was a little boy: “leg of lamb and too much mashed potatoes.” So we ate lamb with them, and rarely Mom would cook it, too. Now I have that recipe and cook leg of lamb – always for Easter (since I celebrate all holidays with food), and other times of year as well.

That summer before heading off to college, Mom took me shopping for warm clothes. By the time we finished, I joked that we had provided New Zealand with their annual Gross Domestic Product. Off to college I went with my flock of jumpers – just in time for one of the (then-) warmest winters on record. I spent most of that winter wearing an oversized green Benetton cardigan (which I love and still have, and still wear) instead of the overcoat Mom bought me even as she complained the fit of it made me look like a poor refugee. (That coat is now a distant memory.) This is how I came to learn the value and the power of wool clothing.

Cardigan I purchased my first semester of college from the Benetton outlet in Freeport, Maine. I lived in this sweater that winter! And I still wear it. Look closely and you might see a few mended spots.
Photo courtesy Cashman Kerr Prince.

When I was in school in northern California, I always had a merino cardigan on the back of my desk chair. Live in enough old buildings and you acclimate to it being chillier inside than out. In those years I learned the thermo-regulating power of wool, an insulating while also breathable fabric that keeps me comfortable.

When I took up knitting in earnest, I gravitated towards wool. It’s stretchy – what a friend calls its “sproing” – to make working the stitches easier, and it has a nice feel in hand. I may have also been influenced by all the cheap acrylic yarns of my childhood, scratching and squeaking between my fingers. I did not want to return to that harsh reality.

Somewhere in the world those scarves woven on looms made from pieces of cardboard or potholders I crocheted are still existing. I regret purging the potholders, even though they are an embarrassment of poor tension and mismanaged yarn. Now I wish I had kept them as evidence of how far I have come from that kid learning to make a world and craft a life.

My crochet remains a study in fluctuating gauge (although it is improving, finally!), but I found my stride with knitting and my tension has become more even. Now my garments come closer to fitting me (moving away from 1980s padded shoulders and bulky silhouettes helps a lot, too). I find myself loving wool, especially the woolly wools.

Cashman’s interest in wool and knitting has influenced his travel as well. These are soay sheep on Hirta, St. Kilda; July 2019. This is a “critical conservation breed”; these are the breed of sheep Vikings brought to Scotland and this flock has survived without human assistance since St. Kildans were evacuated to the Scottish mainland in 1930. Photo courtesy of Cashman Kerr Prince.

I thrill to farm yarns, non-superwash wools, and breed-specific yarns. I love the fabric it creates, the versatility of fibers from these animals we humans domesticated some 12,000 years ago. Sal Coulthard tells that story in A Short History of the World According to Sheep. The KnitMongers book group I have been running since the early days of the pandemic read this title with great interest. It is fascinating how we have altered ovines into distinct breeds, created animals that no longer shed their fleece but must be sheared (easier and more profitable to get those longer locks all in one go than chase them down across the fields), and get such very different fibers and fabrics from these flocks. As I have become more conservation-minded, I appreciate the variety, versatility, and continuity of sustainable wool. Greenwashing campaigns argue for manmade fibers; I don’t believe that hype.

From laceweight to bulky, natural to vibrantly dyed, across all breeds and mixes, wool is where it’s at. My knitting roams widely across lace to cables to brioche to stranded to intarsia: now I love (and teach) it all.

As for the worrying? In truth, it’s still there – I am a sentient human being who reads the newspapers, how could I not worry? – but the rhythmic and repetitive nature of fibre arts, the bilateral brain engagement of knitting, the cognitive anchor of yarn flowing across my fingers as I create my heart’s desire, these turn down the volume on anxiety as Elizabeth Zimmermann put it so well: “Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” More recently, the British diver & knitter & crocheter Tom Daley talked about how it helps him master his anxiety and stress. Incarcerated people find knitting a solace, too. It’s a skill for us all.

Join the flock — it does wonders for your mental health, keeps you warm, and you get the joy of creating tailor-made fabulous objects to your very own specifications!