new chickadee organic heathers


October 18, 2018

Chickadee: A Love Story

A skein of Chickadee by any other name would knit as sweet. Truly, we love this yarn as only Shakespeare could properly describe.

Beloved is the soft American wool fiber that it is made from. We cherish its buoyant three-ply spin and the way it lends delicate hints of texture to simple stockinette, and gives perfect structure to cables and other crisply defined stitches. We love its dexterity and its squish. We love the expansive color palette it shares with its Core Wool sister yarns, Finch, Lark, Osprey and Puffin.

We can’t get enough of Chickadee.

One vision we’ve long carried with us: To give it even more depth and versatility by adding multicolored heathers to the soft, muted tones of the existing gray and brown heathers.

Today, with perhaps unreasonable amounts of excitement, we are announcing the fruition of a multi-year project with one of our favorite mills in the world: Chickadee Organic Heathers.

The Hard Part: Finding the Right Mill

To make heathered yarns, there are two options: One is to dye the wool, either in the raw or combed top form, and then spin the dyed shades together. The other is to use modern dye equipment to “paint” multiple colors onto white yarn. The latter, while convenient, does not yield the deep, high contrast and intimately blended colors that we wanted.

Unfortunately, this presented us with challenges. “Top dyeing” is rare in the States, and the minimum quantities are outside of our reach. “Stock dyeing” (dyeing uncombed fiber) is slightly more available, with slightly more reasonable minimums. Of the two options, we would have had to go with stock dyeing. 

Commercial-scale worsted mills like the ones we work with in the States for our Core Wool yarns prefer high-volume production so that they can dial in their machines, put their heads down, and make a lot of yarn. With the right coaxing—and extra expense—some will spin smaller lots, but the prospect of combining multiple colors in smaller spin lots was less than enticing for most of the mills we spoke with.

Further, if we decided to do stock dyeing, we would then need the wool to be combed, again in small lots. In this day and age there are precious few American mills that have the equipment to do this. And, when combed in small lots, much of the fiber is lost to production waste, making it even more expensive.

One of the mills with the technical capacity for this process has had serious challenges producing one of our fine yarns in the past (more on that soon), and another was already at capacity working on other yarns for us. No others were interested in the project.

The Fun Part: Making the Yarn

We then turned to a mill that we’ve trusted for years—the same Italian mill that makes our cherished linen yarns, Kestrel and Sparrow. We worked together through multiple rounds of sampling to recreate the weight, structure, and balance of our little sport weight yarn.

You may notice that the Chickadee Organic Heathers are actually a tiny bit heavier per yard than our American Chickadee—164 yards per 50g skein, compared to Chickadee’s original 181 yards. This is because the fiber we used is—naturally!—slightly different in micron, crimp, and staple length, and the equipment in the mill is different from that in the mill that spins our American Chickadee. Furthermore, when dyed fiber is spun, the resulting yarn will be heavier in some cases than undyed fiber that is spun and then dyed at the end. 

Add all of these variables up, and you are left with a process that is much more art than science. The expert spinners at the mill tweaked their machinery and process to hone in on the right formula through trial and error. And try we did, and err we did. Eventually, we zeroed in on perfection.

You’ll find that this yarn knits up perfectly with our original Chickadee, allowing you to substitute or integrate this yarn with Chickadee with the same gauge and nearly identical (but oh so slightly softer) fabric.

American wool vs. Organic wool

We use American wool in all of our Core Wool yarns. We do this for many reasons.

One reason is to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum. Another is that, in the US, there are strict animal husbandry laws with real enforcement mechanisms. When we participate in the market for American wool, we encourage—in our small way—more sheep ranching domestically, which also keeps farms from becoming parking lots, to paraphrase Quince’s founder, Pam Allen.

We thought long and hard about this decision, and ultimately, we decided that since this yarn is spun in Europe, using wool that was processed in Europe was the better and more ethical approach. 

As we’ve said from our founding, when we can’t make a yarn in the US, we’ll do as much as we can to ensure that the fiber we source is ethical. With this in mind, we chose to use GOTS-certified Organic wool. GOTS is the most comprehensive organic textile certification available. GOTS certification importantly ensures three mutually reinforcing categories of responsibility:

  • The sheep are raised in a humane manner aligning with organic farming standards. No chemicals are used for their forage or supplemental food. Mulesing is not allowed.
  • Fair labor practices that ensure respect for the farmers and others that participate in the process from sheep to finished fiber.
  • Protection of the environment, ensuring that no harmful chemicals, no heavy metals, formaldehydes, fluorocarbons, chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used at any point from ranch to production facility.

We would be careful not to oversell it – “Organic” is not a panacea. You could ship wool to the moon and back and still call it Organic. We find many of the specific stipulations to be fairly bewildering and needlessly strict in some cases, lax in others. That said, we rest easy knowing that at its core, this wool was produced and processed ethically, and our vision as steadfast as ever.

The result of this exquisite wool, spun by our tireless Italian partners, has exceeded our lofty dreams. We hope you’ll agree.

Let's take a closer look at our new Organic Heather Chickadee shades, shall we? In addition to the updated versions of beloved naturals shown above, a rich tapestry of heathered jewel tones is waiting to be discovered:

Above, left to right: Pretty blue Larimar, pale green Angelica, and delicate Hydrangea are our softest tones in the new heathers line.

Going a little deeper, left to right: Medium blue Kyanite, glittering bronze Gilding, and fuzzy, lovely Moss.

Deep, rich tones, left to right: Subtly heathered dark-red Jasper, pretty Cedar, and Skyline, best described as a gray with red and blue undertones, giving this shade a perfectly purple cast.

And last but not least, Skyline next to the final new heather shade, Torne—a truly multidimensional heather that gleams with subtle, multihued flecks in its overall dark gray tone. In terms of lightness/value, this shade settles in right between gray shades Kittywake and Sabine, with an additional depth of color glittering away within its twisted fibers.

Which color will you be trying first?

As you can see above, our original heathered shades have also made the journey to Organic Heathers: Gray heathers Iceland, Kumlien's Gull, Kittywake, and Sabine, as well as brown Caspian and creamy Audouin. Audouin has a new, more subtly heathered appearance in this super-soft organic version. These shades will be available in both new Organic Heathers and in the original Chickadee form until our final stock of the latter runs out.

If you're looking for a quick project, look no further: Leila Raabe's free Nalu Mitts pattern is now available from Quince, updated for Chickadee Organic Heathers, and now featuring written instructions to accompany the original charts.

Visit our blog post to cast on, or download the PDF. 

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