SOFT GOLD

In a previous post we talked about one of the most famous -and rightly so- wools, merino wool, and the immense power we have as consumers to decisively influence producers on ensuring animal welfare and fair and equitable treatment of shepherds. Today I would like to share some interesting facts about another extremely renowned one; cashmere wool. It is an exceptional fabric, scarce and difficult to find. In fact, although goats have been domesticated, their breeding remains quite difficult and feasible only in an extreme climate. No wonder, then, its nickname: soft gold. Let's find out if in this case we can also knitt with a clean conscience.

A few figures

Cashmere wool... the word Kashmir immediately conjures up a remote place of spectacular yet harsh and challenging beauty. Breathtakingly landscapes, legendary peaks and a mystical halo define this region disputed by India, Pakistan and China, sadly one of the most militarized regions in the world. Today, however, production from Kashmir has been significantly reduced, and 67% of the world's cashmere comes from goats grazing in northern China. In second place among producers is Mongolia, then Afghanistan and Iran, although the cashmere from these two countries is much less appreciated.

Is the 'soft gold' nickname a bit of an exaggeration? Not at all: although the world production of the so-called Soft Gold (about 20,000 tons) accounts for only about 0.5% of the total wool production, the cashmere business is worth $4 billion a year. By the way, of those 20,000 tons, only 6,500 are pure cashmere.

The wool

Cashmere is obtained from processing the fleece of the small cashmere goat, whose wool is particularly fine, soft and warm, as it serves to protect it from the harshness of winter in the Gobi steppe, with temperatures that can drop to -40 ° F. Mongolia has the strongest and longest wool fiber: 43 millimeters, compared to 35 millimeters for the Chinese product. The longer the fiber, the less tendency it has to wear out and create those unsightly pilling balls that form at the points of greatest friction.

Harvesting consists of two phases: a first cut of the thickest layer in spring and a manual brushing of the fleece during the moulting, when a fine wool called duvet is obtained. The hairs are then selected, cleaned and woven into yarn. About 100 grams of cashmere can be obtained from each animal per year, which means that a minimum of two goats are needed to obtain a fine sweater, and up to six for thicker woven garments.

The gold price

The pastoral tradition around the cashmere goat, with nomadic herds under extreme conditions, where shepherds, following a millenary tradition, transhumance more than three times a year in search of more prosperous lands for their animals, leaving the necessary time for Nature to regenerate itself, in perfect balance with the ecosystem, is losing its relevance.

In 2016, the Chinese cloned the first cashmere goat and in April 2018 the birth of its offspring was documented. At the moment, however, the costs are too high for large-scale production. Nevertheless, the price continues to fall. In addition, China has managed to drastically lower the price by increasing the number of animals grazing on smaller and smaller plots of land. Today, some 29 million goats graze on the steppes, almost five times more than 30 years ago. This has led to the desertification of 25% of the land used for grazing, in an area where temperatures have risen four degrees since 1940, compared to an average global increase of about 1.5 degrees.

Shepherds are exploited, the goats' habitat disappears and the animals are industrially bred, subjected to continuous and even violent combing, as documented by the animal welfare association PETA.

What we can do

Again, the most powerful message each of us can send to the wool industry is that caring consumers will not support animal cruelty. Care for the welfare of animals and their ecosystems is intrinsically linked to the welfare of human communities that respectfully and traditionally make a living from pastoralism. The exploitation model that China establishes in relation to this issue results in animal abuse, harm to the human communities that traditionally live from this sector and serious damage to the environment. And if there is one thing that all scientists agree on, it is that the destruction of natural habitats, the decrease in biodiversity and the alteration of ecosystems are behind the current pandemic and those to come, if we do not prevent it.

So probably the golden rule that, as ethical knitters, we have to bear in mind is that, generally speaking, we should be hesitant when cashmere prices are too low. Let's face it, this wool is what it is: a slight luxury that we can't knit as much as we would like, it's true, but by keeping it that way our knitting is ethical and guilt-free. And that is much more valuable than gold, isn't it?

The good news is that, precisely to justify a higher expense, several companies have undertaken initiatives to certify the origin and sustainability of their wool, working more closely with producers within disintermediation projects similar to those of fair trade. Ideally, the adoption of a single certificate should be achieved as soon as possible, but while this is not the case, there are at least several very noteworthy initiatives underway, such as the three I present to you here:

  • The certificate managed by Sustainable Fiber Alliance, based in the UK. Its SFA Cashmere standard promises the fulfillment of five freedoms, among which are freeing goats from mistreatment and thirst.

  • The Good Cashmere Standard is certified by a non-profit organization, the German-based Aid by Trade Foundation, which works by sending teams of testers directly to the pasture and with a DNA fiber tracking system.

  • Finally, the South Gobi Cashmere Project depends on the French group Kering and the Wildlife Conservation Society among others. The project benefits from contributions from NASA and Stanford University. The space agency uses satellites to monitor rainfall and weather conditions around the world; it transmits this data to scientists in California, who use computer models to predict floods or droughts. South Gobi program managers take advantage of this information by working directly with herders to move livestock, feed goats and allow sufficient time for vegetation to recover.

I hope you have found this post interesting.

Happy (and conscious) knitting!


THE WEIRDEST CHRISTMAS TRADITION EVER?

Christmas traditions... each society where Christmas is celebrated treasures its own customs and traditions around this special time of year. Some are very traditional and ceremonious, others are more colourful and "profane". In many places people meet with the family around a table copious with certain typical dishes of these dates. In other places streets are crowded with people strolling through Christmas markets, with a glass of hot spiced wine in one hand and a delicious Christmas street food in the other... the list would be endless and very varied. But of all the Christmas traditions I have heard about, I am absolutely convinced that the most... peculiar is the one celebrated in my adopted home, Catalonia.

I think that, way better than my explanation, which may be hard to believe, it's preferable that Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Fry tell you what it's all about... I assure you it's totally worth it :)

Viggo Mortensen Teaches Us About Uncle Crapper - a Christmas Tradition

Stephen Fry Teaches Us About Uncle Crapper - a Christmas Tradition

Tell me fellow knitters, what are your feelings about it? In the place where you live, is there such a peculiar celebration? (related to Christmas or any other holiday)? I would love you to share it... now that traveling is complicated, it would be a fun way to learn how people build our festivities and celebrate special occasions.

LET'S KNIT WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE

You go to your trusted wool store and have a great time between balls and skeins. You caress them, palpate their softness, smell them, feel them. You shuffle the different options to work out which color combination will best fit the project you envision in your imagination, which wool has the characteristics that best suit the garment to be born from your fingers.

There may be a special occasion coming up, perhaps a good friend's birthday, so you spare no expense and leave the store with a few balls of merino wool that will soon give shape to a wonderful merino wool scarf, soft as a caress and warm as toast. Unfortunately, without your knowing it, you might be contributing to animal suffering, and perhaps that scarf, woven with love and gifted with illusion, hides a sheep's cry of pain. The good news is that you can -we can- stop it.

A pinch of history

The Merino sheep is native to Spain. In the 18th century, after the war of Spanish succession, the English took some specimens of this sheep. It was not until the 19th century that the British transported these sheep to their colonies, including Australia. Today Australia is the largest habitat of these sheep. From the Spanish Merino sheep comes an excellent wool, although perhaps not at the level of Australia or New Zealand because, since the nineteenth century, have worked on genetic improvement to get more wool and better quality. Without human intervention, the sheep would only grow enough wool to protect themselves from the harsh climate. Australian Merino sheep, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, have a large number of folds in their skin which gives them a larger surface area covered with wool. Obviously this is of greater benefit to the producer.

Mulesing

The problem with this exaggerated amount of folds in the skin is that in these folds the flies can deposit their eggs causing an infestation of tremendously painful larvae and even death. The mulesing is a technique that consists in the removal of a part of that skin from around the anus, which is the area most prone to infestation by the accumulation of dirt and moisture. It is performed on young lambs and once the skin heals that area is protected.

The vast majority of merino sheep in Australia are subjected to this bloody procedure, carried out by a person who has completed the mandatory accreditation and training programme, usually a professional mulesing contractor. Antiseptics, anaesthesia and painkillers are not required by Australian law during or after the procedure even though the procedure is known to be painful to the animal.

Woolmark (an organisation that works alongside Australia’s 60,000 woolgrowers to research, develop and certify Australian wool) for its part, mantains that analgesia and anaesthesia for mulesing has been widely adopted by Australian woolgrowers from 0% in 2006 to more than 86% of woolgrowers in 2020 and that Australian woolgrowers work towards the ultimate goal of reducing the reliance on mulesing. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) recognizes the negative animal welfare implications of mulesing, but in "the absence of more humane alternatives" for preventing fly infestation, the AVA accepts the practice. But, the AVA also recommends the use of pain relief and antiseptics-- and the accreditation of mulesing practitioners.

But several animal rights organizations report that the animals are attached to a metal frame, lying on their back with their lower body exposed to the air. Often the occasion is used to cut off their tails, and the male specimens are castrated. Usually also without anesthesia. They say that whoever hears the lambs' cries never forgets them. "The lambs suffer terrible pain and enormous stress. It is a blood-stained wool", says Hanna Zedlacher, from the German animal welfare organization Vier Pfoten. The animal rights organisation PETA strongly opposes mulesing, considering that the practice is cruel and painful, and that more humane alternatives exist, and claim that sheep can be spared maggot infestation through more humane methods, including special diets and spray washing. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) states that "mulesing is performed without anaesthesia, and pain relief is not always used. The operation is quick; however the acute pain is long lasting – at least up to 48 hours or from several days to several weeks. The resulting wound bed takes 5-7 weeks to completely heal." and believes that "it is unacceptable to continue to breed sheep that are susceptible to flystrike (the infestation of wounded sheep by blowflies or maggots) and therefore require an ongoing need for mulesing or other breech modification procedures to manage infection by flies risk.

Progress against Mulesing

There has been a growing recognition that better husbandry is the answer, not mutilating animals. In March 2008 Australia’s NSW Farmers Association called for an immediate ban on mulesing in order to stave off threatened boycotts of Australian wool by up to 60 foreign (mostly European) retailers following negative publicity in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. On that same day the Western Australian Department of Agriculture announced that it would end mulesing of lambs on itsresearch stations.

A growing number of Australian farmers don't mules, but many still do. Companies such as SRS Wool and I-Merino are already producing wool without mulesing sheep, and New Zealand has been free of mulesing for nearly 10 years.

What we can do

The most powerful message each of us can send to the wool industry is that caring consumers will not support animal cruelty. When buying merino wool, inquire of your retailer whether the wool is ethically sourced— that is, from sheep that are not mulesed. If your retailer is unaware of the animal cruelty implications of mulesed sheep, educate them.



HEATHER

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How grand are the mountains of bonnie auld Scotland,

Her torrents' wild waters, sun-jewel'd and gloaming;

How rosy the breath of each moorland and heath,

How lovely her lakes, and her valleys how blooming.

No foreign strand, no classic land,

Earth's fairest scenes together,

Can win our praise like yonder braes,

And fragrant hills of purple Heather.

—G. Bennett.

Heather, in all its varieties, shapes and colors, is one of my favorite plants and one of the many reasons why I look forward to visiting the Highlands of Scotland, where its little hardy flower has made it's mark on the wind swept landscape, rocky hills and moors until it has become a symbol of the region and its people.

And it's not just for her beauty, or her fragrance... if we're talking about usefulness, Heather is a firm candidate for first prize. In times gone by it was used to sweep the home, taking away the dust leaving behind a sweet aroma... very metaphorical, right? In the Highlands the medicinal properties of an infusion of heather tops were used to treat coughs, and to soothe the nerves, and heather tea and ointments were used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. ‘Moorland tea’ made from heather flowers, was reputed to be a favourite of the poet Robert Burns.

Heather has its fair share of legends attached to it. As the story of heather goes, when God created the world he looked at the bare hillsides of Scotland and decided that a plant was needed to make the slopes more beautiful. He asked the Oak, the Honeysuckle and the Rose but none were able to live in the harsh conditions. By chance he came upon a small, low-lying shrub with tiny white and purple flowers. It was Heather and He asked “Will you grow on the hillsides to make them more beautiful?”. Heather was not sure if she could do the job but said she would try her best. God was so pleased that he bestowed three gifts upon her; the strength of the Oak, the fragrance of the Honeysuckle and the sweetness of the Rose.

And last but not least, if you have a sweet tooth like me, you'll probably want to know that some of the world's award winning honey comes from Heather Hills Farm, in the stunning landscapes of rural Perthshire. The bees thrive on heather in the moorlands and create a fragrant heather honey that is not only delicious, it is also said to have health benefits too!.

Anyway, when I stumbled upon a wool whose colors matched Heather's so well, I couldn't help but use it to design not one, but three patterns, ( Heather's Charm top, Heather’s Charm Mitts, and Heather's Charm cardigan) adding some white motifs, just in case the legend that says that white Heather brings good luck is true...

ROWANBERRY


Besurt Hat


I am currently working on my "Besurt Hat", a pattern inspired by the rowan tree, perhaps my favorite tree, with its red berries and lighted foliage. This tree holds a starring role in the happy memories of my childhood. Under its branches, always visited by a multitude of birds -robins, blackbirds, thrushes, and even goshawks- eager to feast on its berries, my grandmother told me stories, taught me to knit and, while her bones allowed it, helped me to swing on the swing that hung from one of the branches. In the winter we used to pick the berries and she would make Rowanberry Marmalade. Here I leave you her recipe, in case you feel like making it sometime.

Apple and rowanberry marmalade, a recipe by my granny.

First of all, bear in mind that the taste varies wildly from tree to tree, with some being palatable and some being pretty acrid (you still want them to taste edible to your palate to start with). My grandmother used to say that for the rowanberries to lose their bitterness it is better to pick them in winter, after the first frost. In any case, I would suggest tasting a berry from the tree you intend to gather from to check whether the berries are just hars or very bitter. The very bitter ones are not good for making marmelade.

Ingredients

250 gr cleaned berries, I don't mind the seeds, they're quite small, but could be run through a mill after cooking .

250 gr Apple, cut in pieces

Enough water to cover berries and get cooking started

250 gr sugar

How to do it

  1. We make a syrup. Put the sugar with water in a pan and put it on the fire. We let it boil and let it reduce a little bit. We remove from the fire.

  2. We add the rowanberries and the apple cut into small pieces to the syrup. Let it macerate for about 3 hours.

  3. Put the saucepan back on the medium-low heat and let it boil slowly, until it reduces to the desired consistency... this can take some time, be careful that it does not burn and stick!

  4. Ladle marmalade into sterilized jars, cap and process in a water canner for 10 minutes.

  5. It is kept in the refrigerator. It is better not to keep it for more than 1 month.

IN A STRESSFUL TIME...

I have stumbled upon THIS ARTICLE, and I think it is full of very interesting and meaningful reflections for these difficult times. What do you think?

PANELLETS

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All images by Nico via stock.adobe.com

Are you keen on trying new international flavours and products from different countries and regions? Do you agree with me when I say that tasting the local cuisine is almost the best part of a journey? And, more importantly, you have a sweet tooth? If the answers are yes, let me introduce you to the “Panellets”. Believe me, you won't regret it. This traditional Catalan "Panellets" recipe is easy to make with just 6 ingredients and fun to customize with different toppings.


Nothing says fall in Barcelona like "La Castanyada" (that we can freely translate as 'the chestnut feast'), a traditional festival that is deeply rooted in Catalonia and celebrated on 1st November, All Saint's Day, although in recent years more usually on the evening of October 31st so it now has to compete with the increasingly popular Halloween.

The Catalan ‘Castanyada’ revolves around the concept of family and friends. In this get-together as the weather gets colder, people eat roasted chestnuts –castanyes in Catalan–, roasted sweet potatoes and small balls of marzipan called ‘panellets(pronounced pah-neh-yets) traditionally coated in pine nuts, served with sweet dessert wine.

Their origin is unclear, but it seems they are the descendants of ancient funerary rites which involved taking small bread rolls to the church, or tombs of the departed, as an offering during this festival. Also, the fact that they are long-lasting foodstuff links to the concept of eternity and remembrance of the dead.

Although the most traditional ones are those made of pine nuts, currently there are at least a dozen different flavors of panellets, each of which has its own traditional shape to match its flavor. And all are delicious. My favorites are the (round) pine nut panellets and the (oval-shaped) almond panellets, which happen to be two of the most popular flavors. It makes me very happy to share with all of you, sweet-toothed knitters, my favourite traditional Catalan panellets recipe. It is REALLY easy to make and easy to customize with a variety of different toppings.

Yield: 45 panellets

INGREDIENTS:

The traditional ingredients used to make pine nut and/or almond panellets include:

  • 18 ounces (500 grams) ALMOND FLOUR (almond meal). This will be the base of our marzipan dough.

  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) POTATO, cooked, peeled and mashed with a fork. The original recipe is made with almond, sugar, egg and pine nuts only… or what it is the same, just traditional marzipan. The addition of either sweet potato or even regular potatoes is a much more recent contribution and it is likely to be an attempt to cut down on the cost of ingredients, specially considering the elevated price of almonds. Whatever the reason for this, I actually prefer the panellets that contain some sweet potato or regular potato. Why? Because in my humble opinion, the result is a smoother texture and a much more moisturized marzipan

  • 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) SUGAR. White granulated sugar is traditional.

  • 3 EGGS, which we will use (1) in the dough itself (2) to help bind the dough to the toppings and (3) brushed on as an egg wash before baking.

  • LEMON ZEST, which we will add to the dough.

  • TOPPINGS: 12 ounces (350 grams) raw pine nuts or finely-chopped almonds (or a 50/50 mix of both)


INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Make the marzipan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together one egg, lemon zest and brown sugar until combined. Add in the mashed (cooked) potato and stir until combined. Gradually add in the almond flour and stir (or you may need to use your hands) the dough until it is completely combined, taking care not to overwork the dough. Shape the dough it into a disk, cover it with plastic wrap, and and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 24 hours.


  1. Roll the panellets. Roll the marzipan dough into 1-inch balls (for the pine nut version) or 1-inch little logs (for the almond version), about 20 grams each. Whisk one egg in a small bowl, and place the pine nuts or almonds in a second bowl. Dip a dough ball into the egg mixture until it is completely coated. Then transfer the dough ball to the bowl of nuts, and use your hands to gently press the nuts so that the entire ball is covered. (This takes some patience and will require you to get your hands dirty, so plan for this step to take some time).


  1. Prepare the oven. Heat the oven to 425°F.


  1. Brush the panellets. Place the rolled panellets onto a large parchment-covered baking sheet. Whisk the final egg plus 1 tablespoon of water together in a small bowl. Then brush each of the panellets with the egg wash.


  1. Bake. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the tops of the panellets are lightly golden. (Be sure to keep a close eye on them so that the nuts do not burn.)


  1. Serve. Enjoy the panellets while they are nice and warm. Or you can store them in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.


NOTES

Food processor option: Instead of mixing the marzipan by hand, you can pulse everything together (using the same order of ingredients) in a food processor. But remember: do not overwork the marzipan with the mixer, as it could extract the oil from the almonds.

Refrigerating the dough: It is always advisable to let the marzipan rest 24 hours before preparing the Panellets, in the fridge and covered so that it does not dry out.

To work on the table it is essential to have very clean hands and avoid marzipan sticking to us, as well as having a container with powdered sugar to dust the working areas.

The great enemy of marzipan is air, so whenever it is placed on the table or stored in the fridge, it should be covered with plastic or in a sealed container to prevent it from drying out.

Traditional round pine nut panellets
Traditional round pine nut panellets
Traditional oval-shaped almond panellets
Traditional pine and almond panellets

THE KNITTER'S LUCK

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Dear Knitters, how about a powerful and positive message? According to the experts, our needles are an unbeatable defense against almost any challenge. And by that I don't just mean that they can be really sharp if need be ;) but something a little deeper. Let me explain....


Recently, while I was knitting the Cherry Peaks hat and enjoying some hot chocolate tea, I was listening in the background to a podcast in which a group of psychologists and pediatricians discussed a very interesting phenomenon they called "learned helplessness". In case this is also a new concept for you, let me give you a glimpse.

Long story short, we talk about "learned helplessness" when a person or animal resigns themselves to a difficult situation because, in the past, they made great efforts to get out of it, but were unable to do so. Thus, the person or animal gives up on acting even when conditions have changed and they now have the resources to come out ahead.

The speakers in the podcast gave a couple of very illustrative examples:

The first one is the short tale "The Chained Elephant", by the Argentinean writer and psychotherapist Jorge Bucay. From a young age, the protagonist of the story wonders why the circus elephant, so strong and powerful, does not free himself from the small stake to which he is tied after the show. One day, a wise friend offers him the answer: "The circus elephant does not escape because it has been tied up since it was very, very small. At the time, he tried to free himself with all his strength without succeeding. Since then he thinks it is impossible".

The other example is from the book "Burnout" by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. It seems that studies have been carried out with mice where they develop learned helplessness in the animals by giving them impossible tasks. Eventually the animals stop trying, even when the task stops being impossible. I.e.: put a mouse in a maze with food it can't get to until it develops learned helplessness, then put the food somewhere it can get to it and it won't even try.

The very good news is that as soon as you show the mouse that it CAN get to the food, the learned helplessness just vanishes.

In the opinion of those experts, there is very powerful yet straightforward tool to overcome that learned helplessness that sometimes grips us along with the feelings of frustration or futility that comes with: simply DO SOMETHING. Make a call to a long time no see friend, cook a cake, make a cool album with the photos of the latest getaway weekend... It doesn't have to be something big, just do something.

And then I looked at my hands and there it was. A half-knitted hat, a pattern that was taking shape between my fingers, which would soon be finished and warming my head.

We knitters are lucky enough to be creators, and simply by creating, we push away moments of emotional unrest, of being overwhelmed by circumstances and helpless and numb. By knitting we create the physical evidence that we can make a beautiful impact on our world, and this simple gesture does us great good.

Happy making.