Making a Sweater—In Patagonia
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN ARGENTINA
“I’M FEELING cold!” In temperate regions, who has not at some time uttered those words? And the reaction may have been, ‘Where is my sweater?’
If you are one of millions who wear a sweater, have you ever wondered how it was made? How is the wool spun? How are the colors obtained? Here in Argentina we have native Indians who do all of this by hand. Let us visit them and see how they do it.
Making a Sweater the Old-Fashioned Way
A number of Mapuche, an Indian tribe of the Araucanian people, live in the south of Patagonia, in Argentina. They use the traditional methods of spinning the wool and of coloring it. In the spring of the Southern Hemisphere, toward the end of November and the beginning of December, they shear the sheep, using special steel scissors. Sheepshearing is an art that has to be seen!
Obviously, the wool that comes off the sheep contains grasses, plants, and clotted soil. So it has to be thoroughly washed. This is done by submerging it in hot water and then putting it out to dry. Next, the remaining impurities are removed. This is known as escardado, or carding the wool. If this process is done properly, the wool will be clean, dry, and very soft. This means that the fleece is ready to be turned into knitting wool, or yarn.
There are two traditional ways of making the yarn. In one, a spindle is used. (See photo 1.) The spinner turns the wool into yarn by winding it onto the spindle while rubbing the wool against her leg with one hand and twisting it. The yarn then accumulates on the spindle. The thickness of the yarn is controlled by the amount of wool that is wound onto the spindle.
In the other method of making yarn, a spinning wheel is used, which the spinner operates by a foot pedal. The wool is fed into the wheel through a hole, and the spinner controls the thickness of the yarn. (See photo 2.) Once the yarn is formed, it can be made into the typical ball of wool that most women buy. But what about dyeing the wool different colors? How is that done?
The Mapuche make the colors from certain roots or plants by boiling them for about 30 minutes in water that is slightly salty. This is similar to the way that some Navajo Indians in Arizona, U.S.A., make the colors for the blankets that they weave. In Argentina, for yellow coloring, the Mapuche boil the roots of the michai bush, an Indian name for the Berberis darwinii plant; for a brown color with white flecks, they use the leaves of the radal bush, or wild walnut; for red, they use beets. Although this method is laborious, the colors are very resistant to fading. Now, with the yarns all colored, we can start knitting the sweater.
For centuries women have used needles to knit wool into flat fabric that can then be stitched to form a garment. Four needles can be used to knit socks, sleeves, and tubular shapes. One source says that knitting probably began in Arabia about 200 C.E. This skill then spread into Europe, and the Spanish brought knitting to South and Central America in the 16th century, although the art may have been practiced earlier by some local peasants.
Our friendly knitter now asks, “How thick do you want the sweater to be?” That decision will determine the width of the needles and the thickness of the wool she will use. Then, “What colors do you want?” With that decided, she can now start knitting.
What surprises the uninitiated is that the art of knitting can be reduced to two basic stitches—knit, or plain, as some call it, and purl. Purl is an inverted plain stitch and serves to give a ribbed effect. Used in combination, these two stitches can produce a variety of patterns.
Our knitter makes the sweater in parts, and these are then stitched together—the front, the back, the sleeves, and the neck—to make the finished product. Of course, it takes hours, even days, to make the garment. So if you receive one as a gift, don’t take it for granted! A lot of patient work went into it.
The Modern Methods
Since the industrial revolution, machines have been invented that can knit thousands of sweaters in next to no time. Today these industrial knitting machines are often controlled by computers. Many women use a smaller machine at home, which saves a lot of time.
In Patagonia, knitting is still a family enterprise in which the mother does the knitting and the husband and children help to complete the finished article. Often, they use a home knitting machine and then sell their extra production to a knitwear factory. This helps out with the family budget.
Are You Going to Buy a Sweater?
What should you consider if you are going to buy a sweater? If you want a handmade sweater, you will probably pay more, so you might as well get the best you can for the price. Choose your sweater carefully, according to your needs, and check the quality. How can you do that? Check how the garment seams are finished and how the neck holds up. Look at the texture and composition of the yarn. Is it 100-percent wool? A mixture? If stretched, does it give way easily and stay stretched, or does it return to its original form? Then, every time you wear your sweater, think of all the work that went into it, especially if it was handmade in Patagonia!
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[Pictures on page 23]
1. Using a spindle to form the yarn
2. The spinning wheel is a faster method for making the yarn
3. Close-up of wool being fed into the spinning wheel
4. Knitting the traditional way
5. Front pieces of a sweater
6. Modern, computer-controlled knitting machine