Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater by Peggy Orenstein
Everyone had something that kept them grounded during pandemic lockdowns—puzzles, baking bread, yoga, new crafts, or digging into our favorite crafts. The pandemic gave us all time to think and worry, and we used new or revived skills to focus and help calm ourselves when we weren’t sure what was happening.
I’m still in awe of the knitters who knit a sweater a month during the pandemic. Me, I couldn’t craft. I worried about small fiber businesses so I did a lot of yarn and fiber shopping. I couldn’t settle into spinning or knitting; I read the entire Hercule Poirot catalog instead.
In Unraveling, her pandemic memoir, Peggy Orenstein tethers herself by expanding on her craft of knitting. She explores all the stages from shearing the sheep, prepping fleece, spinning yarn, naturally dyeing yarn, and finally knitting a sweater. She’s been a knitter for most of her life, but had never explored the whole process of taking a fleece from sheep to sweater.
Her fiber work is a framework for this book, and, as entertaining as it is, the work is important because the process gives her space to learn and ruminate.
It is amusing to read about her exploits learning to shear as an almost 60-year-old woman, with all of the blood, sweat, and tears you expect. I could viscerally feel her frustration as she learned to wash, card, and spin her fleece; it’s so much more work than anyone ever expects.
As she moves into dyeing and knitting, the frustration ebbs. She dyes with materials from her garden and her neighborhood, and she designs her sweater with the help of a mentor. These sections of the book feel like she is in more of the flow of the process—less frustration and more magic allow her to think deeper and more widely.
As she works on moving fleece to sweater, she ruminates over fast fashion, the wildfires (she lives in the San Francisco Bay area), the government; the link between feminism, fairy tales, and textiles; the government; and of course the pandemic. She worries about her father’s growing dementia, her daughter getting ready to fly the nest, her changing world, and she grieves deeply for the recent loss of her mother.
The fiber, the thinking, planning, and grieving are all intertwined. There is humor, there are interesting fiber stories, victories, and frustrations. Her mentors and their stories add depth to the experience—each moves her along her map of sheep to sweater—and help her with the processing of process.
This is a book about finding your way through difficult times, how learning something new, and allowing yourself the stumbles, focus, and progression of a beginner, can unexpectedly align things in your life. In other words, don’t come to Unraveling for the sweater (there’s not even a photo!) come for the process and processing.
P.S. Even though the title says the sweater is ugly, it is not.
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