They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In journalist Peggy Orenstein’s entertaining and informative new book, “Unraveling,” the journey of a thousand yards of yarn begins with a single sheep. Her name is Martha.
“All I knew,” she writes, “was that while everyone else was stress-baking and doomscrolling, I felt an inexplicable, unquenchable urge to confront a large animal while wielding a razor-sharp, juddering clipper; shear off its fleece; and figure out how to make it into a sweater.”
Orenstein’s unlikely endeavor takes place in 2020, the year life as we knew it unraveled. But the coronavirus is not the only villain in “Unraveling,” or even the most threatening one. Orenstein resides in Northern California, so the climate disaster is breathing fire at her door — forcing her to shut her windows against the smoke, keep a “go-bag” packed and assess her role in the future health of the planet.
How does she knit this all together? Very skillfully.
Although the soft, woolly sheep on the cover of this book might suggest that “Unraveling” is a lighthearted yarn about yarn, it really isn’t — though it does contain plenty of laugh-out-loud humor, mostly directed at the author herself. That the book is filled with hard realities and sharp observations shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Orenstein is an accomplished author known for diving into the weighty and uncomfortable territory of teen sexuality with books such as “Girls & Sex” (2016) and its recent follow-up, “Boys & Sex” (2020). She is also, as she is writing “Unraveling,” the apprehensive parent of a teen about to leave the nest for college, as well as a grieving daughter mourning the loss of the mother who taught her to knit.
“For my mom and me, knitting bridged the generation gap, created reliably neutral ground where we could meet,” Orenstein recounts. “When things were fraught between us — when I bristled at her, fairly or not, for being intrusive or narrow-minded or lacking all boundaries, when I resented that as a housewife of her era she could not be the guide to contemporary womanhood I needed — we could still bond over a trip to the yarn store.”
Orenstein’s pandemic project (something of a luxury, which isn’t lost on her) becomes a way of reinforcing the fabric of that relationship, weaving in countless women across centuries who have done the vital work of making cloth. Along the way, she examines how garment making has evolved and must still evolve in new directions for the sake of the environment. Orenstein tenaciously approaches her subject from every angle, literally wrestling it to the ground. Which brings us back to Martha the sheep.
Since Orenstein doesn’t have ready access to a fleece-covered animal, she must rely on someone else to find her one — and to teach her how to shear it. This turns out to be a 29-year-old professional small-flock shearer named Lora Kinkade, one of several remarkable women readers meet during Orenstein’s quest.
Kinkade takes Orenstein to a ranch in Sonoma County, where she demonstrates — in just three minutes — the proper way to subdue an undulating ungulate, flop it over into nine different positions and make 48 cuts to the fleece so that it lifts off in a tidy sheep silhouette. It doesn’t go quite so well for Orenstein, whom the animals immediately perceive as a novice. She will eventually snip off enough fleece for her project — along with wee bits of several fingers.
Yet shearing is only step one. Next Orenstein must clean the fleece and spin it into yarn, which she does at a wheel set up outdoors in her spinning teacher’s driveway — while enduring occasional comments from passersby about “skill-building for the apocalypse.” They’re not entirely wrong, Orenstein acknowledges, but it’s also more than that:
“Making can be a way to resist a disposable culture, to connect to basic processes in a world where we’ve lost such awareness, a world that, too often, reduces us to either workers or consumers,” she writes. “For me, at bottom, it is simply a source of joy.”
Orenstein seems to experience the most happiness during the dyeing phase, in which she takes “locally sourced” to new heights by brewing leaves from a fig tree in her yard. The pigments she ends up with prompt her to wonder what other colors might be released from all the plants around her.
“As I explore the possibilities of natural dye, my perception pulses with almost psychedelic wonder,” she writes.
At last, it’s time to knit the sweater. We already know, from the spoiler in the book’s subtitle, that it will turn out to be “the world’s ugliest.” That’s okay, because it was never really about the end result.
By this time, Orenstein has achieved not only “the dawning recognition both of what it takes to make a garment from scratch as well as what it means to have relinquished that art,” but also the elation of creativity without self-judgment. While Orenstein’s garment is the work of an amateur, this book is anything but.
Kimberly Schaye lives, writes and farms in the Hudson Valley of New York. She is a co-author of “Stronger Than Dirt: How One Urban Couple Grew a Business, a Family, and a New Way of Life From the Ground Up.”
What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater
By Peggy Orenstein
Harper. 195 pp. $27.99
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