The Provenance of Our Couched Fibers:  Yarns and Roving

Close-up view of couching: roving spiral held in place with stitches of pearl cotton

Close-up view of couching: roving spiral held in place with stitches of pearl cotton

Many Folk Tote bags feature couching - a technique in which thicker threads, yarn, or roving is held in place by a series of thinner strands.  Traditionally, couching was used on medieval tapestries to secure gold filaments with fine silk stitching.  Couched yarns and roving add the final layer of complexity to many Folk Tote designs, but where do they come from?  And how are they selected? 

YARNS

We choose beautiful yarns with unique backgrounds.  Peek in the yarn basket at my side today and here's what you'll find:

  • Uruguayan yarn spun and dyed by artisans in rural cooperatives
  • Turkish art yarn hand-tied by women in financial need in Istanbul
  • Hand-dyed ribbon yarn from Wales
  • A skein of wool hand-carried from Ireland by a dear friend
  • Two bundles, one organic cotton slub yarn, and one yak (yes, yak!) yarn that came to me in their natural state and have since been dyed by me in variegated coral and pink

Navajo-Churro yarn is one of my closer-to-home favorites.  Known as “America’s first domesticated sheep,” the Navajo-Churro is a heritage breed descended from Spanish livestock brought to the New World in the 1500s.  These rugged animals seeded Native American herds, including those of the Navajo Nation.  There, two forces combined to produce a unique animal: Navajo herders selectively bred their sheep to enhance the qualities of the fleece for hand spinning and weaving while nature selected animals able to thrive in the high desert environment.   

Sheep assumed a deep cultural significance for the Navajo, but the Navajo-Churro population suffered dramatic historical declines. During the 1860s, brutal military campaigns against the Navajo Nation systematically decimated the herds, and during the 1930s, the United States government slaughtered tens of thousands of sheep in ruthless stock reductions. The “old-type” Navajo-Churro was driven nearly to extinction. In the 1970s, however, new efforts were launched to conserve the remaining Navajo-Churro, then numbering fewer than 500.  As a result, close to 5000 head exist today, many of those among traditional herders and weavers.

Couched Navajo-Churro roving in gold

Couched Navajo-Churro roving in gold

The Navajo-Churro fleece is layered: its soft undercoat is guarded by a rugged outer coat of long, coarser wool.  Once spun, the yarn is strong and lustrous.  At Folk Tote, we use Navajo-Churro yarn that has been hand-dyed over traditional fire pits in New Mexico.  I especially like the yarn in lines of couching because its natural slubs add visual movement to the design and its slight translucence and fuzziness combine to create a diffuse halo at the edges. 

Another heritage breed, the Gulf Coast, also traces its roots to sixteenth century Spanish livestock. But in the American deep South, other sheep breeds mingled with the original population. Human interaction with the animals was also very different: Many herds were rounded up only once a year for shearing, while other escaped domestication completely and led a feral existence.  Natural selection adapted these wild and near-wild sheep to the heat and humidity of their environment.  In the twentieth century, the remaining individuals were re-domesticated, but the breed is even rarer than the Navajo-Churro, with the Livestock Conservancy ranking Gulf Coasts as “critical” on their priority list.

ROVING

Roving is wool that has been carded into a continuous cord, but not yet spun into yarn. As you can see on many of our bags, I love both the visual dimension and the tactile qualities that come from lines of couched roving. We use roving from a variety of sources. Some comes to us already artisan-dyed and some we color ourselves to get the perfect hues.

At Folk Tote, we look for roving that…

  • Is produced by family-run farms that raise their sheep humanely
  • If colored, has been processed with eco-friendly dyes that comply with international Oeko-Tex standards
  • Comes from heritage breeds or species less commonly used for fiber (alpaca, llama, yak, goat…)

Lately I’ve been working with Bluefaced Leicester roving.  It’s lovely wool, but I have to admit that part of my fascination comes from its name and history. It turns out that the “blue face” is an effect created by blackish skin underlying the white fur of its bold Roman snout. An old breed, the Bluefaced Leicester emerged more than a century ago in Northumberland, England, but its ancestry stretches back much farther, to the British longwool sheep of the middle ages.  It is related to the “luster longwools” who, just after shearing, seem to glisten when the clean wool next to their skin catches the light (The Livestock Conservancy).  In The Practical Spinner’s Guide, Kate Larson describes the highly reflective fleece of luster longwools as “liquid sunshine.”

Our home base is in San Antonio, which puts us within miles of loads of family-run farms and ranches.  These local, small-footprint Texas herds are important sources of fiber – including all of our alpaca roving – for us.

And finally, when nothing else seems quite right, I have been known to use my own drop spindle to (clumsily) spin a bit of my own chunky art yarn.