Spun from the Earth

Nanne Kennedy creates fine wool yarn with some help from the environment

The most important part of Nanne Kennedy’s work is the ingredients. “Good craft starts with great materials,” she says. Her recipe calls for fine wool, seawater, sunshine, and soil, and her finished products are skeins of yarn, blankets, and custom sweaters accented with vintage buttons. Kennedy is the founding owner of Seacolors Yarnery at Meadowcroft Farm in Washington. She spends her days tending to her flock of sheep, ensuring that her animals remain stress-free and healthy. “Any time an animal gets sick or stressed metabolically, it’s going to get what’s called a break in the fiber,” she says. Broken and tender fibers cause fabric to pill, so her entire process for production and harvest is intensely mindful to ensure that she gets only the best ingredients in the end.

There’s a common misconception about wool. Most people associate the material with being scratchy and hot, but that’s because dairy and meat breeds are often used where fine-wool breeds should be. Kennedy works with Polwarth sheep, an Australian fine-wool breed that is particularly special because of its micron count. The thickness of a wool fiber is measured in microns, and anything under 30 microns won’t itch. Anything below 19 microns is considered cashmere. “All of my sheep are between 18 and 23,” says Kennedy. Kennedy began breeding sheep in 1991, after Polwarth germplasm was imported to the country. Since the entire process begins at breeding time, she soon began breeding her livestock for parasite and hoof-rot resistance, and to obtain a greater yield of fleece from each lamb and ram. Kennedy is the only Polwarth breeder on the continent, making her yarn naturally unique.

Kennedy’s process for dyeing yarn is just as distinctive as her sheep. In order to set color to keratin (wool fiber is keratin, just as hair and fingernails are), heat, salt, and acidity need to be applied. To keep her process as natural as possible, Kennedy has developed her own system in which she uses solar heat in place of heat from petroleum or fossil fuels, she uses seawater to introduce salinity, and she has reformatted a food-grade dye and a food-grade acid to set the color. Her yarn is created as naturally as possible, paying homage to where it’s made. “To me,” she says, “it’s a true-Maine product.”

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