Questions for Deborah Robson

Stephannie:  I love the look of the book and how the fibers, yarn, and knitted and woven samples are displayed with the boards, wool and matts.  You have so much experience with publishing and designing – how much input did you get, working with the art director, photographer etc?

Deb:  One of the most enjoyable parts of this project involved working with the art director and the photographer. As someone who has worked in publishing and design, I know that it can be a really bad idea to let an author near the photo studio. Most writers don’t have a clue how a photo shoot works. The shoot needs to combine extreme efficiency with an attitude that permits creative problem-solving, so the resulting images are of the highest possible quality. Authors generally gum up the works.

I was present for all eleven days that it took to do the photography for the fiber samples, which means most of the time. I was adamant that I be there, because I’ve done so many photo shoots, especially of fiber, that I knew how complicated it was going to be and how easy it would be to mix up the samples. I’d set up a system of labels in advance that would make writing captions, which happens well after the photo shoot, relatively smooth, instead of the hair-pulling task it could have been (it was still like dancing on eggs to make sure everything was right).

My self-assigned primary job was to make sure the right fibers got into each frame (and then back into the correct folders and file boxes). My self-assigned secondary job was to stay out of the way of the art director and the photographer unless my input was requested, which it occasionally was.

Again because of my background, there were many times when the art director and I would make changes directly in the layout file as we proceeded, in order to make the book the best it could possibly be. We added pages as needed, and I both cut bits of text to make the layout work and wrote new copy to fill out awkward spots in the design, always looking for ways to perform those necessary tasks while enhancing the overall value of the book. It was an amazing and fantastic process that only worked because we all functioned as a team, alternately staying out of each other’s way and helping when asked.

Mary Velgos, the art director and photo stylist, and John Polak, the photographer, are both brilliant and working with them was an honor and a delight.

© Agripicture Images/Alamy

Sometimes I sit & start reading in order (up to Cotswold so far)….other times just look at the pictures (oh! that’s a cute sheep!)….or sometimes just flip the pages & read when something, for whatever reason, catches my eye.  I’ve not had it long enough to start adding post its (i.e. hunt down this yarn or fiber for this sort of project) but I’m sure that will happen.  What sort of use do you think most people will make of it, and what did you intend?

Oh, wow, this is hard to answer, because our intentions for the book changed several times between its first conception and its final form. We had a different plan for it, but it evolved in the way it needed to, encouraged by everyone at Storey as they saw what it might become and kept bumping out the fencelines to accommodate the bigger book.

At this point, I do envision people reading for fun. Both co-author Carol Ekarius (who had final say on matters relating to animals) and I (who had final say on matters relating to fibers) like to write things we think people will find intriguing just to read. We also envision people looking up information to answer specific questions; browsing around and looking at the pictures; and discovering new aspects of fibers they want to explore. We would like the book to act as a friend and ally in the fiber life.

I used the writing process as an opportunity to dig to the bottom of questions that had niggled at me for a long time, and I hope to save others time by having dug up answers that were as solid as I could obtain. A few examples include: What’s with all the different Dorsets? What is the story with cashgora? and, How do micron measurements, Bradford counts, and USDA grades relate to each other?

Carol and I both would like to see people using fibers selected to suit the end products that they have in mind–and also (this is a huge one) supporting the shepherds and farmers who are the only reason we have access to such a diverse array of options. We hope readers will take the time to seek out special fibers, and to develop relationships with the folks who keep the animals that grow this miraculous stuff.

Rabbit © Ken Chalmers at; others © John Polak

By the way, Carol and I worked together amazingly well. To have a collaboration take four years and to have the co-authors still enjoy each other’s company and approaches to life is rather remarkable. We are both strong-minded, and we managed to evolve through all the permutations together–by keeping our eyes constantly on what would be best for the book and its readers. That’s worth acknowledging and appreciating publicly.

Any chance of a series of companion books with patterns highlighting the features of the particular breeds?  (I’m thinking similar to Lisa Lloyd’s A Fine Fleece, but with more breeds….)

I love designing and working with breed-specific wools, but I’d like to save this part of my fiber work for my own pleasure, and not push it to a place that doesn’t feel natural for me. I think other people have more of a passion for working with pattern design than I do, I know of some projects along this line by other folks that are already in the works, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with! That said, I wll almost certainly be writing articles now and then that highlight one breed or another.

I also have several ideas in mind for my own next research and writing. To “stick” as a next plan the topic or topics need to be something that I’m passionate about. Nothing less can carry a human through what needs to happen to make a book, or similar big effort, come into being. I am not sure yet which idea will be put on the front burner, and am open to suggestions about what other people would be interested in finding out that I might be able to help with . . . if the question “clicks.”

There will be an article in an issue of PieceWork later this year that highlights four rare breeds. I have written the text, and four designers are each being assigned a breed for which to create a project; I’ve provided preliminary guidance on the types of projects that would be appropriate for the breeds, so they can begin thinking before they get yarn in hand. I’m also working on an article for Spin-Off on a fifth breed, and I’ll design the project for that. I admit that while I generally find deadlines useful, I am not comfortable producing a project to a deadline, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to enjoy the creative process. I have too many ideas, and I don’t like to settle on one because I have to meet a deadline rather than because it’s the right idea.

What breeds would you have in your own handspinner’s flock of sheep?  (feel free to toss in an alpaca, goat, rabbit, etc!)

This is another hard one! I don’t have the ability to have a flock. If I did, I would need to research several animal-related concerns that this open-ended question doesn’t require me to consider, like the environment in which the animals would live, their size (although I’m taking that into account somewhat in the list that I’m about to imagine), and their temperaments.

When people are picking dogs, I suggest they read Stanley Coren’s Why We Love the Dogs We Do. My favorite dog breeds are Border collies and Australian shepherds (our household tends to rescue dogs of these types), Golden Retrievers, and old-style Springer Spaniels. If I needed to get a small dog, it would be a Corgi, a Papillon, or a dog from particular lines of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Probably a rescue, again.

There’s no similar guide for selecting sheep. From a spinning perspective, this is a very personal set of choices. Given no environmental constraints, among the sheep I’d have Santa Cruz (they need human advocates, and the wool can be astonishingly interesting, although much of what we can get now does not seem at all promising), Shetlands (in the rare colors), one of the longwools (probably Leicester Longwools). If I thought I was in a situation where I could care for them properly, I’d add Mohair goats and French Angora rabbits.

All of these breeds (except for some of the Leicester Longwools) are on the small end of the range of possibilities. Among the Leicesters, I’d be looking for smaller individuals. That’s because of my own age and strength, although I’d be tempted by this combination even if someone else was doing the physical work.

Do you sleep?  Seriously, I look at your blog and all the things you do (including the detailed blog posts themselves, which are a joy to read)… How do you balance work/life?

Balance? What’s that? I don’t think a “balanced” life can produce a piece of work like the one Carol and I just completed. It started as a small project that ballooned. It was supposed to be part of a balanced life (a nine-month project, not a four-year one), but it refused to be contained.

Top © Mike Lane/Alamy; bottom © Roberst Dowling

I did make conscious decisions (several times) that carrying it forward in the way it was dragging me was likely a good decision for how to invest a chunk of my life, even though those decisions threw other parts of my existence completely out of whack. (Think: finances, other than holding them together with band-aids, as well as maintaining some sort of household order beyond what was required for safe living and accommodation of the project.)

I do pay attention to some types of balance. That includes yoga, meditation, exercise (walking and training dogs), good food (including occasional infusions of dark chocolate), vitamins, and sleep (as much as I can manage, which is sometimes not as much as I really need). On sleep: I practice some discipline on getting enough, although I sometimes fail because I wake up with ideas that I need to write down. If I lose the ability to think straight later in the day, a short nap may be in order. . . .

Thanks for letting me know you enjoy the blog posts. I don’t write them unless I want to, when there’s something I want to explore in that format. (I don’t even get posts on all the topics I want to write about started, much less published. Ideas exceed available time.) So they’re always enjoyable for me to do, and it’s always great to know that others find them interesting.

One of the huge balance-producing activities for me in this project was spinning the samples. Each involved a voyage of playful discovery (although a small handful were less playful than the others). This process wasn’t something that I could rush, although obviously I had to stick with the sequence steadily (almost, but not quite, obsessively). I knew I could only hint at what each wool was capable of, so the sampling became a creative act, like making sketches. The finished painting, to extend the metaphor, is the book itself, which came into being through the efforts of everyone involved.

Questions for Carol (and thank you, Carol, for fielding some hard questions!)

I was interested in the (very logical) Slow Food tie in. To me, preserving rare breeds is similar to preserving heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruit — like SeedSavers for sheep (or any domesticated farm animal) — for many (if not all) of the same reasons. Do you think the current interest in these topics will continue? Will increase?

Carol Ekarius: I do believe the interest in protecting heritage animals and heirloom plants will continue and increase, because I see more and more people who are really beginning to understand that these animals (and plants) have traits that are worth protecting for a plethora of reasons.

For example, in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook we discuss that important Tay-Sachs disease research is now taking place on Jacobs sheep. Why? Because Jacobs throw occasional lambs that suffer from a rare genetic disorder that’s very similar to Tay-Sachs in humans.

Humans also depend on just a handful of breeds and plant varieties in today’s industrialized ag sector (Holstein cows are the top example, as they account for over 90% of our national dairy herd). This means that we are putting all our “eggs” in one proverbial basket, and if some disease comes down the line that affects the breed that provides the abundance of our food, we can’t as easily regroup if we have already let the other traditional breeds slip into oblivion.

These are a couple of selfish and practical reasons why we, as a society, should protect the genetic diversity of agricultural plants and animals, but on a more spiritual level, I think another reason is that we should honor the heritage that has passed down to us through hundreds and thousands of years. Our ancestors gave us a fascinating, valuable gift. It is worth preserving, cherishing and celebrating.

You bring up SeedSavers, and they are a great example of people working to protect plants. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is the nation’s premier group doing the same for animals. Now, a number of groups have joined together to form RAFT–or Renewing America’s Food Traditions. RAFT is a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and educational organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions including, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, Chefs Collaborative, Cultural Conservancy, Native Seed/SEARCH, Seed Savers Exchange, and Slow Food USA.

But their focus is food.

I want to see us protect the fiber, too! As Deb and I learned, there are sometimes surprising, subtle differences in the fibers of different breeds, even though the statistics would suggest their fiber would be almost the same. I think the Herdwick, Swaledale, and Rough Fell sheep of Britain provide a good example that we discussed in the book.

One criticism I’ve heard regarding the whole locavore/Slow Food movement is that it’s really only affordable to relatively wealthier individuals.  Not everyone can go to the farmers’ market and spend $7 or $8 on grassfed cattle hamburger.

I know this could devolve into a discussion regarding the fact that many conventional crops, farming, ranching etc is subsidized, so we’re not really paying the true monetary cost (let alone environmental or even spiritual cost) of our food.  And I don’t want to hop on to my soapbox of conscious spending, decreasing consumption, etc, etc, and my personal belief that it’s better to spend more money on fewer but higher quality items.

Regardless, do you think Slow Fiber has the same issues?  Do you think that enough people are both willing and able to support these small ranchers & shepherds?

The cost of a fiber CSA, for example, with one farm is $175 — and I think you end up needing a double share for a sweater.

I know that price is necessary to even start covering the cost of feed, medication, veterinary bills, farm maintenance, shearing, etc — shoot, I’m a vet, albeit small animal, but I know how much a farm call can cost.  But it’s still a lot of money.

This is a challenging conversation, and there are so many nuanced layers to the discussion. I understand that Slow-Food type food seems pricey on first blush, though I think it comes down to decisions on where you invest money vis-a-vis your personal values, and your personal health. And as you point out, first blush isn’t factoring in societal costs ranging from tax subsidies for industrial ag to environmental degradation and farm-worker/animal rights. I fall in the same category as you also, that I think it is far better to spend more on less, but get better quality. I often have someone tell me they can’t afford the kind of food I buy (or real wool yarn or clothing) but I look at their shopping habits and they buy a lot of highly processed junk food that costs more per pound and is worse for you.

Thank you so much to Carol & Deb — for patiently and thoroughly answering my questions, and especially for writing such an incredible resource.

Would you like to win your very own copy?  And some fabulous Unicorn Fibre Wash?  Comment on this post by midnight PST June 26th 2011, discussing one or more of the following topics:

  • Have you ever used breed-specific yarn or fiber (other than merino)?  If not, will you? And what have you tried or are interested in trying?
  • What do you think about “Slow Fiber”?
  • Have you ever thought about a ‘fantasy flock’ (like a fantasy football team, but fiber animals) and what would it be?
  • If you have a real flock, what breeds?

US shipping only, sorry (but if you’re not in the US, but have someone to whom it can be shipped, that’s an option!).

Please leave a way to reach you (email or Ravelry name).

One winner will receive a copy of the book, graciously supplied by Storey Publishing, and a gift set of Fibre Wash and Fibre Rinse from the fabulous folks at Unicorn Fibre.  Two more winners will receive gift sets as well.

I’ll contact the winners Monday, June 27th 2011.