A New Favorite Sweater

When it’s chilly and damp, one of life’s pleasures is to put on a favorite sweater, curl up with a good book and sip cup of tea.  This is the story of a new favorite sweater as told by Ellen Letourneau and Patty Sanville who participated in the 2022 Sustainable Cloth Challenge.

Ellen:  It was a cold and stormy night, (haha) and I went to don my go-to cable sweater to brace for a dog walk through the fields. Since I’ve been reading clothing labels even more carefully since entering the Fibershed Sustainable Cloth Challenge, I just took a quick peak. To my shock and dismay, what I thought was 100% wool, although it was remarkably inexpensive when I bought it 25 years ago, was actually mostly acrylic and nylon, with only 15% natural fiber content. Woe is me. Not being a knitter myself, but inspired by the challenge, I started asking around if someone could simply copy the sweater pattern but in a locally sourced wool. Ha again! Apparently it isn’t so simple to eye ball a complex sweater and easily recreate it. After asking most of the knitters I knew personally, Marian Bruno suggested expert knitter Patty Sanville of Budding Creek Farm might be game to give making the sweater a go.

Patty was incredibly gracious and cheerful about the prospect and suggested I search Ravelry for a pattern I might like.  Patty also gave me some options and talked through some of the technical aspects of how patterns work. After a DEEP dive into the Ravelry site, we finally arrived at a pattern, “Caulkins” by Kristen TenDyke. Patty explained how to determine how much yarn we’d need and did the calculations – and let’s throw in a hat while we’re at it.  Now to find the yarn. The original sweater is a charcoal grey, and I sort of had my heart set on that, but I also wanted to pursue getting wool from Lee Langstaff, who I’ve known and admired for a while, who’s sheep make me smile every time I drive by their farm, and who’s lambs I’ve had the great fortune to cuddle.  Lee sent along a picture of the colors she had available, and the yummy dark chocolate brown color was irresistible. Lee and Patty explained that the sheep’s wool is black but the tips get bleached by the sun … more so where the coats don’t cover but to a lesser extent everywhere else. When the fleeces are skirted, the neck and hip areas that aren’t covered by the coats are set aside and this creates her “good skirtings.” The combination of the bleached tips and the black create the “special dark” chocolate brown. It looked like I’d actually be INSIDE OF a warm and cozy cup of ‘special dark’ hot chocolate. Perhaps we’d even put a little marshmallow looking pompom on top of the new hat.

The day before my Birthday in January of 2022, I picked up the yarn from Lee and took it up to Patty. A team was formed! Patty measured the old sweater and me, and we decided how we wanted it to fit and “not ride up” along the hem – which was something I hadn’t even considered, but being an expert, Patty knew to ask. She sent me progress pictures and I went up for a fitting in June. She sent me more progress pictures along the way, and on October 13, 2022, I met Lee and Patty for the try on and hand off.  The sweater is so scrumptious and I’ll always remember and value the work it took to get my heirloom custom sweater from lamb to glam.

Patty: I was approached to be part of a special project by Ellen to create a “new” loved sweater with the same feeling as the “old” loved sweater. Ellen bought the yarn from a fellow shepherd as I had none ready (shocking that all my fleeces are still in bags in the barn waiting to be skirted and taken to the mill for processing). Lee Langstaff of Shepherds Hey Farm has lovely yarn that I have always admired.  One year I even participated in the creation of her yarn at a mill where I was working (sadly, that mill has since closed). I had always wanted to get my hands on a skein to knit of Lee’s yarn.  With Ellen agreeing to purchase the yarn from Lee and my willingness to attempt to create a new favorite sweater for Ellen, the search began for a pattern that had enough of the elements of the original sweater that would at least provide a blueprint for me to begin following.

Ellen and I searched Ravelry and found a sweater pattern that had similar cables and I started to ask questions about modifications. What was it that Ellen loved and didn’t love about the old sweater? The neck for example on the original sweater was a cowl/turtleneck – Ellen could do without that – but the sleeve length was absolutely perfect. She also loved that it didn’t have ribbing at the bottom so when you raised your arms it didn’t lift up and stay up. With a pattern in hand and a needle size and gauge to aim for, Ellen headed to Lee’s to see if there was a yarn that would fit the requirements. Ellen purchased the yarn – plus an extra skein since we weren’t sure what some of the alterations to the original pattern purchased would require. When Ellen pulled up here with the box of yarn, I took a few measurements and notes confirming Ellen’s vision and desires. I began knitting the sweater almost immediately – I knew life would get in the way of this project and there were times where it sat idle waiting for a break in my schedule to sit and concentrate on making this perfect. Was I hesitant at first about the yarn… yes – I was worried my needles would split the ply – were these worries unfounded? – absolutely. The yarn was simply perfection. The suggested needle size yielded the exact number of stitches and rows when I made my swatch. (When I knit for myself I rarely swatch first – a very bad habit!).

The progress was slow and took nearly a year I believe – but Ellen was patient. I would send photos of the progress and when I was unsure if a section was going to fit perfectly I would ask Ellen to take a run over to try it on for me. Never was I told no! The night before Ellen and Lee were due to stop in to pick up and just see the sweater respectively, I was full of anxiety. Would it fit as designed, would the sleeves be the correct length? Would Ellen love it as much as the original sweater? Would Lee think I had done her yarn justice? So many questions swirling in my head. The answers to all of my questions were YES. Ellen looked amazing in the sweater, the sleeves were perfect, the hem I designed worked as hoped. Lee seemed pleased. For me – there was joy in all of this, (plus I got to try a new technique of a bottom up sweater). This was an amazing collaboration of one woman’s hard work and years of breeding selections, one woman’s desire to have a sweater that was created within our fibershed in a sustainable way, and another woman’s passion for knitting and making dreams come true. I think we made a great team!

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