Experience: I knit with pet hair
I was born in the former Soviet Union, where my mother taught me to knit when I was very young. It was a skill every Russian woman had when I was growing up, because clothes were in short supply. After moving to Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, I quickly fell out of the habit: why knit a cardigan you could easily pick up for $20 in a store?
It was adopting a cat that led to me taking it up again. I had always thought of myself as a dog person, but when I was offered a beautiful ragdoll cat called Mittens, I couldn’t resist him. Ragdolls have soft, silky coats, and Mittens loved to be brushed. His hair was so beautiful that rather than throw away the loose strands that came away in the brush, I started collecting them. Eventually, I had enough to fill a shoebox. That’s when I wondered if it might be any good as yarn.
I had never tried spinning hair before, and none of the knitters I knew could give me any advice. But there were plenty of videos on YouTube. I invested in a handheld spindle to create my threads. I still had the same knitting hook I had used in Russia, and I picked up a couple of antique carding brushes (used to detangle the hair before it is spun) on eBay. I ruined a ton of hair during the learning process, and it took a few months before I started to produce yarn of a really good quality.
A friend donated hair from her English setter, and I got good results with that, using the yarn to make a pair of gloves. I set up an Etsy shop, starting with a very limited inventory. Soon I had customers sending me hair collected from their own pets, with requests for specific items. The most popular ones have grown from these: decorative flowers, handbags and pillowcases sell well; I was recently commissioned to make my first dreamcatcher. I always ask for a photo of the animal whose hair I’m using, so I can refer to it while working. It helps me feel more connected.
Animals with luxuriant undercoats, such as huskies and German shepherds, make for the softest, most beautiful yarn. People often ask if hair removed from their vacuum cleaner is suitable, but it’s not ideal. You don’t need much hair to make a small item, just a couple of ounces.
Potential customers sometimes have to be convinced that items won’t produce that “wet dog” smell if they get damp. But once the oil and grease have been washed out, the hair has no odour. Even so, some clients ask me to send their orders unwashed. Usually, this is because their pet has died; the scent gives them comfort.
One customer whose cat had died asked me to make a replica out of its hair. She later told me that when she received it, she took it to bed with her and had the first undisturbed night’s sleep since losing her pet.
I’ve had some other unusual commissions. One customer, who had collected his cat’s hair for two and a half years, sent me the lot; I made a scarf almost two meters long. In general, though, I steer clear of larger items such as sweaters, coats and blankets – they are too time-consuming and I like to satisfy as many requests as I can.
I’m not the first person to knit with pet hair. Wool made with dog’s hair is called chiengora. A woman wrote claiming that her mother had coined the word in the 70s; she had been trying to sell dog hair knits at fairs, but no one was interested, but using the term chiengora helped to change people’s perception of the craft and seemed to elevate it to a different level.
I would love to see pet hair products become more mainstream. Dog yarn is much warmer than sheep’s wool and as easy to dye. Cat hair is silkier and more delicate, and develops a beautiful halo effect after it has been washed.
Many friends and family members laughed at me when I started this, but they are used to it now. I work in a hospital as a researcher, and though some of my workmates know I knit in my spare time, I’ve never told them what yarn I use. The money I make goes to a pet rescue centre and other animal charities. I find this satisfyingly apt – it’s almost as if the animals themselves are donating.