Latvian textile marvels, 2

Those Latvians are doing it again. . . . Incredible textile accomplishments. . . .

I don’t have time to participate in many groups or lists, but I do keep up with the Ethnic Knits group on Yahoo. So that’s where I learned about the massive Latvian mitten project last week. Yesterday a couple of other people mentioned this on their blogs (probably more than a couple; I track only a few of the possibilities). If I had already figured out how to do trackbacks, I’d direct you to Colorjoy!’s and Yarn Spinner’s specific posts (both 10/16/2006). Since I’m
supposed to be in bed with a cold, links to their main blog pages will need to suffice.

As soon as something’s been said on a topic, I generally head for another topic. . . . But this represents another door of the textile castle that opened in front of me (see yesterday) and part of my take on this mitten-knitting is a bit different than I’ve seen elsewhere, because I’m a spinner who has an unusual interest in the breeds of sheep that produce superb wool for handwork.

However, my amazement closely resembles that of Lynn Hershberger (ColorJoy!) and Joanne Seiff (Yarn Spinner) and the member of the Ethnic Knits group on Yahoo from whom I heard of this first.

Latvian knitters have been preparing 4500 pairs of mittens—no two pairs the same—to present to participants in the NATO Summit that will take place in Riga at the end of November.

Here are just half of those mittens. Here’s an article with more information.

There are 265 women and 3 men doing the knitting; the youngest knitter is 30 and the oldest is 86. Each pair of mittens requires up to 90 g (just over 3 ounces) of wool. The information on the site says they are using 383 kg (844 pounds) of wool that has been shorn from 38 sheep. (Some of those mittens have to be lighter than 90 g, that’s for sure . . . they’ve got an average of 85 g, or 2.9 ounces, per pair. Never mind; the idea’s intact, although my mind is boggling at how fine the gauge must be to get a whole mitten—with color-patterning, so pretty much double-thickness throughout—from about 1.5 ounces of fiber.)

Somebody catch me if I’m wrong on any of this, but I think they significantly miscalculated how many sheep they were shearing. I think they needed a larger flock.

The clean weight of fleece is less than the shorn weight. First you shear. Then you skirt the fleece well, so you’re only working with the best wool. After that, you wash the wool, removing between a quarter and half of the gross weight in the form of grease and lanolin—protectants that the sheep needs but the spinner and knitter generally don’t. Small additional amounts of fiber also go by the wayside in the spinning process.

To get 844 pounds of clean wool from 38 sheep, each of those critters would have to supply more than 22 pounds of clean fleece, or between 28 and 44 pounds of grease fleece.

Uh, no.

A good estimate of annual growth for a fleece from a breed that produces fine-mitten–quality wool is between 10 and 14 pounds in the grease. Let’s assume this is wool with only a moderate amount of grease, say one-quarter to one-third of the weight, because the calculations produce interesting results without going to the max.

(Technical wool digression, skip to next paragraph unless you like this kind of information, as I do: For a baseline comparison, Corriedale, which would provide terrific fine-mitten wool, grows
between 10 and 17 pounds of fiber a year but loses 40 to 50 percent in
washing. It looks like most of the sheep in Latvia are Latvian dark-headed or Latvian blackface. One source indicates these are a cross between Shropshire (72%) and Oxfordshire (28%), two Down breeds from the U.K., and estimates average grease fleece yield at 5 kg, or 11 pounds. Another says they began with local sheep, bred with Oxford, Shropshire, and Hampshire rams, all U.K. Down breeds, and gives average fleece weights of 4.7 kg, 10 pounds, for ewes and 6.8 kg, 15 pounds, for rams. To get a grease-to-clean weight ratio, I’m looking for comparison at Shropshires, nifty and useful sheep that are an endangered but recovering breed, and their fleeces lose between a quarter and half of their weight between shearing time and spinning time. I conclude that the ballpark numbers I’m working with are good enough for this nonscientific purpose.)

So let’s say each sheep contributes between 6.5 and 9.25 pounds of clean wool. (I’m setting these endpoints by imagining greatest loss for a small fleece, one-third of a 10-pound grease weight, and least loss for a large fleece, one-quarter of a 14-pounder.)

You’d need between 90 and 130 sheep to come up with 844 pounds of clean wool (not counting spinning loss).

Following this simple progression further, I’m interested in how many pairs of mittens a single year’s growth of wool can provide: with my adjusted yield calculations (which are closer to reality than the FAQ‘s statement, but still based on estimations), each sheep seems to have provided enough fiber for between 35 and 50 pairs of

That wool is a renewable resource. Each sheep will grow a similar amount every year for as long as it lives, say between seven and ten years. In a lifetime, a sheep could grow enough wool for between 245 and 500 pairs of mittens, depending on fleece size, scouring and spinning loss, and longevity.

These aren’t discount-store mittens, almost-adequate today and needing to be replaced next week.

These are durable, hand-down-to-grandchildren mittens that keep hands warm and are gorgeous, too. (Admittedly, they may not make it to the grandchildren if they’re used to build a massive number of snow-forts, but they’ll still last much longer and provide a whole lot more protection than most of the alternatives.)

I was impressed by the photo of the mittens as soon as I saw it. Now I’m impressed by some of the associated numbers.

If this inspires you to look further into Latvian knitting and designs, two relevant books have been published by Meg Swansen at Schoolhouse Press, in Pittsville, Wisconsin: Lizbeth Upitis’ Latvian Mittens: Traditional Designs and Techniques (1997) and Joyce Williams’ Latvian Dreams:
Knitting from Weaving Charts

This kind of information helps me appreciate plain-color stockinette hand-knitted mittens and socks, too. Especially if the yarn’s been handspun from fiber shorn from just the right sheep.

And I’m really impressed with the Latvian vision and skill that the mitten-knitting project embodies. WOW.


2 thoughts on “Latvian textile marvels, 2”

  1. Hey there! I also thought the number was wrong when it came to raw wool needed…but I’m glad I came to you to get the right info. Who knew you were an expert on Latvian sheep!? (now I do)

    Thanks for mentioning my blog. I’m sending you warm wishes for a quick recovery from Kentucky! Oh, and today, I got a lot of wool back from a processing mill, so I am just itching to take my hands off the keyboard and to my wheel. Spinning=something you can do with a cold!

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