Wool at Work: The Utilitarian Yarns of Seafarer Sarah Lake Upton
I: On Water
Like many fiber artisans, Sarah Lake Upton, of Upton Yarns, has a day job to facilitate her vocation in hand-dyed yarns. . . except it’s actually a six-weeks-at-a-time job, about three thousand miles from home. She’s an assistant engineer aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion, an eco-cruise ship whose itineraries range from Alaska to Baja, California, Panama, and Costa Rica.
During these tours, Sarah’s work involves maintenance, diagnostics, and dealing with whatever weather, water, and mechanics throw at the vessel. She doesn’t get much sleep. Aboard the Sea Lion, Sarah is constantly mindful of surrounding natural forces and of the teamwork essential to smooth sailing.
Her job is about as far from yarn as you can imagine.
“The work is hard, physically demanding, sometimes lonely, and the ship’s crew is a community that becomes your protective shell,” the thirty-seven-year-old explains. Nonetheless, she appreciates the stunning phenomena—wilderness, wildlife, glaciers, bioluminescence—that are the rewards of the eco-tours, rewards that provide thrilling “moments of grace, when everything comes together.”
At six weeks’ end, Sarah flies west coast to east coast—to Portland, Maine, where she lives with husband, Sam, and their dog, Nell. She catches up on sleep, then re-enters the world of her vocation, the world of highly specialized hand-dyed yarn. “I love wool,” Sarah says. “Yarn has so many different properties. My pet peeve is the idea that for knitting all your yarn should be soft.”
But who wouldn’t want soft yarn? Sarah’s answer is rooted in both her love of gansey sweaters and her Yankee practicality. An interest in cultural history, a college degree in anthropology, archaeological fieldwork, and employment on traditionally rigged ships, taught her the value of durable fibers. In her early twenties, she knitted her first gansey, following Beth Brown-Reinsel’s pattern in Melanie Falick’s benchmark volume, Knitting in America (Artisan Press, 1996). “I had never seen anything like it—the fit, the motifs, the genius little armpit gussets; I loved the combination of decorative and utilitarian.”
Ganseys, originating in nineteenth-century coastal Britain, were designed for seafarers. Tightly knitted of five-ply yarn, they’re water-resistant, workhorse sweaters: “They’re like protective armor,” Sarah says, adding, “Their real important quality is that they don’t lose shape or impede range of motion when wet. From the perspective of working on a boat, that is very, very nice.” As with many garments from traditional cultures, the decorative motifs convey specific meanings, and it’s customary for the wearer’s initials to be knitted into the sweater’s front, near the waist. Nonetheless, ganseys are primarily utilitarian gear.
What Sarah wanted was abrasion-resistant, water-resistant yarn, spun specifically for ganseys she’d wear aboard ship. All-American gansey yarn wasn’t available. “As much as I loved British yarn and American yarn spun from New Zealand or Bolivian wool, New England is still full of sheep, and it drove me nuts that I couldn’t find any yarn made from these sheep.”
Sarah’s original gansey was worn so hard that she re-knitted the cuffs almost every year, and the neck at least twice. “The elbows finally went in 2011,” she reports. About that time, she discovered a nineteenth-century photo of a man wearing a gansey with cut-off sleeves. “Rather than trying to patch the elbows, I’m thinking about doing this to my gansey,” she says, drawn to this useful historical precedent.
That first gansey launched a mission leading to a nuanced knowledge of local yarns’ best uses. “Different breeds of sheep produce fleece with different qualities: strength, softness, luminosity. Matching the project to the correct wool type can make all the difference between a garment one likes well enough and a garment one wears every day.” Currently, Sarah works with yarns created from sheep that are either pure or crossbred Coopworth, Corriedale, Romney, Cotswold, and Montedale fleece.
Ultimately, Sarah’s ideal gansey yarn was spun from Coopworth wool, from a farm in Maine. “I am making the yarn that I really wanted to be able to buy,” she cheerfully declares. She calls what Upton Yarns produces “utilitarian wools.” Her five-ply Coopworth gansey yarn, whose long staple renders it stronger than conventional yarns, comes in 120-yard (110-meter) skeins (learn more on page 16).
II: On Land
A short bike ride from her apartment is Sarah’s dye studio—part of a communal workspace for textile artisans called A Gathering of Stitches (www.agatheringofstitches.com). Its open, well-lighted interior feels simultaneously calm, energetic, and inspirational. There, Sarah dyes, rinses, dries, and skeins her yarns, sourced entirely from New England farms and spun to her specifications by local mills. When dyed, the Coopworth gansey yarn projects a surprising radiance. Who would dream that such yarn could be as lustrous as it is strong?
The Coopworth comes in sportweight as well as gansey-ply. (Sarah often tries out different fiber blends, and you can keep abreast of what’s new by checking the Upton Yarns website frequently.) All the dyed yarns (she sells undyed skeins, too) are intensely colored—glowing tones resulting from natural dyestuffs, such as indigo, madder, lac, and walnut.
At A Gathering of Stitches, I watched Sarah work with madder and lac—immersing virgin skeins in pots of dye-infused water heating on electric burners. In dyeing, everything is significant—fiber, ratio of dye to water, water quality, temperature, length of immersion. The yarn, when removed, is rinsed; sometimes it’s redyed. It’s then hung to air-dry. Sarah’s unusual schedule limits her time in the studio, so her lots are small and unique. (If you like an Upton Yarn, grab more than you think you’ll need; all colors sell fast.)
III: On Yarn Magic
“Every step in yarn production can be magical. A knitted object is a wondrous, talismanic thing,” Sarah says. “How do you express this without sounding airy-fairy?” She sounds, actually, like the practical visionary she is—part engineer, part William Morris utopian, who sees in every knitted garment links to a greater community—to the sheep, farmers, mills, dye producers, knitters, wearers, to the role of textiles in human history. “A handknitted sweater is both a hug made manifest and a tie to tradition.”
Handwork, Sarah believes, should be honored with appropriate materials. Consider that we put so much effort and love into our knitting. Don’t we want it to last? What if, for instance, we knitted the stress points of clothes—toes, heels, necks, elbows, and cuffs—with a super-durable yarn that’s also, serendipitously, gorgeous? What if we knitted entire garments with such yarn? It was by chance, perhaps, that Sarah’s quest for the perfect gansey yarn led her to develop a line of utilitarian hand-dyed yarns. Yet chance favors the prepared mind, as scientist Louis Pasteur once noted, and the birth of Upton Yarns couldn’t have happened if Sarah hadn’t been the complex person she already was: seafarer, engineer, anthropologist, historian, and New England knitter.
Selma Moss-Ward is a writer and knitter based in New England. Find more at www.knittingnewengland.blogspot.com.