We visited Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs on Tuesday. (It’s a bit of a stretch to think it’s in Carstairs. For a BC woman it felt like the mill was dozens of miles out on the prairie in the middle of nowhere. In truth it’s only 20 km off highway 2.) Thanks to Fen and Maddy for the amazing tour. The mill is an Albertan treasure, a Canadian treasure for that matter. Custom Woolen Mills is a collection of ancient industrial revolution equipment operated by modern, forward thinking, environmentally conscious people who produce unique woollen products.
Thank you thank you thank you Fen for your energy, enthusiasm and persistence for maintaining this amazing industry and thank you thank you thank you Maddy and Lori (sorry if I've got the spelling wrong) for keeping it going.
Salish Fusion has been buying Custom Woolen Mills for a few years and producing beautiful wool products infused with the beauty of Coast Salish knitting. Check out Tex’s manbag designed and made for him by Joni and Sylvia.
The wool is as close to the texture and quality Sarah Modeste used to produce in the 80s at Modeste Wool Carding. Sarah was the hub of the Cowichan Sweater industry in that she was the main supplier of local roving. In those days the only other option for a Coast Salish knitter (if she no longer made her yarn from scratch) was to get her unspun wool from the other sweater shops in town. The dealers all imported roving from New Zealand, which made sweaters with very different characteristics than what everyone expected from their beloved Indian sweaters. To make matters worse, today many of the shops are importing pre spun wool from India pushing the sweater further yet from the quality the sweaters once embodied.
In an effort to produce a pre spun product that again mirrors the quality and characteristics of the old sweaters, Fen did her first batch of soft spun 6 strand and the result is as close as I can find to the wool used by Coast Salish knitters. She used wool from western Canada—mixed breeds, in the same way the wool used in Cowichan sweaters in the 70s came from local farms. In the early days no one worried about the breed, in fact Coast Salish knitters didn’t ask what sort of sheep the wool came from. They wanted the whitest white as possible (if it was yellow they laid it out in the sun to bleach) and as much coloured wool as they could find. Black fleece was at a premium so everyone hunted for whatever dark wool there was. The fabulous bouncy soft yarn used in Coast Salish knitting was a result of mixing fleeces from various breeds together creating a unique blend that could not be matched.
When I get home I’ll take this sample to Sarah Modeste and see what she has to say about Fen’s new product. I am really excited about the prospects. The colours are right, the weight is right, the lanolin content is right…this is good stuff.
I’ve knit this little sweater on 6.5mm so it’s tight and feels a little stiff—a 7mm might be better. But once it’s been blocked it will soften up. Even so I remember telling customers who came to Mount Newton Indian Sweaters to buy an authentic, high quality Cowichan sweater, “Your sweater will take about 5 years to wear in and about 50 years to wear out.”
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