Hair of the dog

ALPENA – Karen Upham and Sheila Robbins don’t mind dog hair. In fact, Upham collects hers by the bagful when she brushes her two fluffy Keeshonds. Then she brings it to Robbins to card and spin into yarn.

“I love my dogs, and I just like the process,” said Upham, who is from Ossineke. “It’s like a circle. I care for the dogs and know the dogs as living beings. Then you brush out the hair and Sheila turns it into yarn and I knit it into something I can use.”

So far, Upham has created a sweater shawl and an afghan blanket.

“I’m not a great knitter like my mom or grandmother, but it’s one of the more meaningful things that I do,” she said. “I’m knitting meaningful memories into something I can continue to cherish for a long time. I usually cuddle up with the afghan over me and a dog on my lap and one at my feet.”

Robbins estimates that it takes her 21 hours to produce a single skein of dog hair yarn.

First, she blends the hair with wool from her own sheep and alpaca from her aunt’s herd. Then she cards the mix with a hand-crank machine so all of the fibers are going in the same direction.

“Many of my customers are surprised when they learn how soft the sweaters and mittens are, with a halo of soft down,” said Robbins, who owns Spruce Shadow Farms.

Up to this point, the fluffy clouds of carded fibers are unwashed, but they have no smell, even when wet, she said.

The next step is to spin the fluff into yarn, using her foot to power a small wooden spinning wheel. Then she washes the yarn.

“When it’s dry I call Karen to come and get it,” she said.

The work is a labor of love and labor intensive, Robbins said.

Some of her projects take up to a year to get to because she is busy running her farm and a small yarn shop in Alpena. But she’s had a lot of experience.

Robbins said she began turning dog hair into yarn 24 years ago and occasionally even knits the materials into hats, scarves or gloves for her dog-owning customers.

Last fall, a Curran man gave her a bag of black poodle hair from a pet that belonged to his mother. But the fibers were short, Robbins said. So she blended the hair with natural black wool from her farm and gave him the yarn when she was done spinning it.

Only then did she learn that the pet had been dead, so she knitted the yarn into mittens and a scarf, which the man gave to his mother for Christmas.

“It’s something that they can have forever,” she said.

There is one bag of hair on her work table that could take her a lot longer to get to. It belongs to her dog Tillie, who died 18 months ago.

“It was my mother’s idea to collect the dog hair one day, and I was just letting it blow away in the wind,” Robbins said. “She said, ‘you spin everybody else’s dog hair; you need to spin your own.’ “

But after her dog died, she put the bag away.

“I haven’t touched it yet,” she said. “It’s easier to spin dog hair for other customers.

“In my heart I always knew I’d have Tillie forever,” Robbins said. “So spinning is a whole circle. It’s infinity. It doesn’t stop.”

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.