Want to know in what ways acid dyeing is better for the environment than natural dyeing? Don't miss this episode of A Smaller Life!
For the 15th episode of A Smaller Life Podcast, I got to speak with Saskia Maas. She's a yarn dyer and her brand is called Ovis et Cetera, ovis being the Latin name for sheep. She has such interesting things to say about why she chooses to do certain things in her business, and that goes from choosing the base of the yarn, to the technique she uses for dyeing, to the kind of products that she has. She's super knowledgeable and also is a queen of conscious decisions within her business. I know you’re going to enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed giving it.
Before we started recording, Saskia and I were reminiscing about festivals where we have worked together. And it was actually really funny because we didn't know each other that well, but we spent a week in my camper together. So it was super intense right from the start, but we stayed really good friends and I wish I could see her more and do festivals again!
Nonetheless, we look forward to going back to that one day. Until then, we can have these nice conversations over the internet and even share them with you through the podcast or the blog. Let delve into who Saskia is and what she’s all about.
Well, I was born in Breda; that's in the south of Holland, near the Belgian border. And now I live again near a border but in Germany, close to the Dutch border, which is total North Holland. About me? For college, first I did horticultural college and I became a florist. After that, I went to art school, where I studied photography... then I did a lot of things that don't have anything to do with what I'm doing now. [laughs] And now I have a day job next to my yarn business. During the day, I sell houseplants, so that relates to my florist background. And then, yeah, I'm a yarn dyer as well!
Like many people nowadays who are thankfully becoming more conscious, I started to care more about the things that I was using, which included yarn. And I noticed that the yarn that I consider to be good and nice, wasn't very widely available. That's a totally different story now because there's a lot there. That really, really changed over the last few years, but back then it was very superwash orientated. And I knew back then I definitely didn't want to sell superwash yarn.
Superwash is yarn that's chemically treated so it won't felt, but the whole characteristic of wool is that it can capture air, that's why wool is so warm. With superwash, there's different methods to make it, either by chemically taking the scales off of the yarn, or the hair shaft, or coating it in a layer of plastic, basically.
Yes, exactly. It completely defeats the purpose. Maybe I'm a bit extreme, but I wouldn't even call superwash yarn wool, especially if it's coated in plastic, because then it's got nothing to do with wool. You lose all the good properties of wool!
------- Saskia makes a great point. I think a lot of people have no idea, they just think, “But I want to be able to wash the wool,” because they have been brought up with the idea that everything that they use, and their bodies has to be cleaned every other second, right? But what’s the alternative? I asked Saskia her thoughts on this.
No wool wool stays clean longer. It has self cleaning properties. You can air it out, or what I do is, when it’s necessary, wash it in the washing machine on the wool setting, and that works perfectly fine. But no, you absolutely don't need to wash it. Your woolen socks you can wear several times before they need to be washed.
------- All you readers, dive into what Saskia is saying here. A lot of people might think it’s gross but wool really has this self cleaning property. Oftentimes,airing it out is enough. It’s different for everyone. I know people that never wash their sweaters, they just hang them out. I put them in the snow when we have snow. With socks, it’s understandable if, at a certain point, you're like, “I really kind of want to wash my socks now, just for my mental comfort,” but if you really know what wool does, you don't really need to wash it. Not that often.
Absolutely. Yes. Like the speckles? I mean, there are people who do speckles on non-superwash yarn, but the really, really sharp tiny little speckles and the very bright colors, yeah. I mean, that just looks the best on superwash yarn and those are just the facts. Certain dyers with a certain style choose superwash yarn because of that. It's their style, and that’s the type of dyeing their style is suited for, and it would be completely different if they would switch to non superwash.
Well that, and also my my dye, I chose the brands and the type of dye that I use very carefully.
[Laughing] That’s almost creepy. No, but I would like to do that. [More laughing] Well, for as long as I've had my yarn business, I thought I didn't want to do that. But now I've come to want more control over my yarn bases. So yes, I would like to do that in the future, but up until now, I haven't. And I get my yarn from as many mills and as many sources as possible. I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket, so I get them from loads of different places.
Maybe because I like to collect as many yarns as possible that I like, yarns that fit my business philosophy.
In the beginning, it was just being non superwash. And being relatively local. I do have a few exceptions to that, though. But in the beginning, I still had, for example, sock yarn, which was non superwash, but it still had nylon in it. I don’t sell it anymore because I want to be completely plastic-free, and nylon is plastic. So now all my yarn bases are non superwash and nylon free, just all natural materials.
I have a few Dutch yarns, I have British yarns, I have my silk yarn from Switzerland, and I do have a few yarns, which are wool and come from South America that have ramie added, which I find just very special. They're really nice yarn bases. Ramie is a plant fiber, which is very strong, it's almost like hemp, but it’s related to the nettle family. It substitutes nylon, so the yarns with the ramie in it are very good for sock yarns, plus they're just overall very nice yarns for basically everything.
----- For the readers who are not great knitters, or don’t know why it would matter, we tend to want to use nylon in sock knitting, mostly because it helps us to improve the durability. So less holes, less heels and toes that are poking out. There is a whole discussion in the sock knitting world of:
Do we want the socks to last longer so that they are more, I don't know sustainable in that way?
Or do we want to avoid anything that is manmade and not helping the environment in the process?
So I have spent some time learning about this and I have used Saskia’s sock yarn as well. I've actually even used Merino yarn for socks, which they say the fibers way too short and you cannot use Merino for sock yarns unless there's nylon in it. But there's so much that you can do to make your socks more wearable. For example, tighter knitting, make them fit better, make your shoes fit better, make sure that you don’t walk on a stone floor, to name a few.
Yes. In the way of spinning as well, if the yarn is spun with a high twist, it's also more durable.
Yeah, oh, I actually have one more thing to say about non superwash and no-nylon sock yarn purchase. I've read and heard a lot of people who are so used to superwash, nylon, sock yarn who knit socks out of non superwash yarn for the first time. And then when they wear the socks, wherever there's friction, so under your heel or under the ball of your foot, they say “Oh, but immediately my socks felted and I didn't even put them in the washing machine yet. And they already felted just by wearing them.” That's actually not felting. So that actually says that people are not used to how wool behaves. Because yes, when there’s friction, then wool kind of becomes one, all the little strands become one. It's called netting, and it makes your sock stronger. So don't panic when you wear your non superwash socks for the first time and you take them off and see that happening, because that's actually good.
We do, but I'm absolutely no sheep expert. I know a bit about the breeds that my yarns are made of. Mainly Shetland and Tessel, or Texel, in English. Texel yarn is… Well I like it well enough, or I wouldn’t sell it in my store, but it’s not the nicest yarn there is.
------ Saskia is completely right. You could totally scrub your skin with it and then have like, really soft skin. But it is an acquired taste. If you get into the knitty gritty of the yarn and fiber worlds, you learn so much about wool and its properties. And then if you knit a lot, or if you work with wool, you get curious and you want to know what properties a certain kind of sheep or fiber has and then if you know more, you know what to use what kind of fiber for.
I would never knit a shawl or scarf to wear around my neck in Texel because it's quite sensitive. But socks? Yes, definitely.
I would consider Shetland to be a very soft wool, but I think the general public talks about it as if it's really itchy. I really wish that I could give people a tasting platter of sorts, like a smorgasbord of different types of fiber and let them try it out and really get the feel for this whole world that's out there.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, because I kind of focus on that my yarns are very consciously dyed and consciously sourced and environmentally friendly. So people then think that I use natural dyes. It may also be because of the colors I use.
Yeah, but it sounds funny to me. People often are surprised that I use acid dye, but I use an environmentally friendly dye. It's GOTS certified and doesn't contain any heavy metals. The brand that I use is called Green Sheets Dyes, and it actually only comes in nine colors. They have the primary colors, so yellow, blue, and red, and then all the complimentary colors in between like orange, purple, green, and black.
When I started dying, I never really went for a certain color palette. And to be honest, I remember when when we went to yarndale and for the first time, seeing my yarn on display in such a way... Before, I only saw my yarn at home in bins. I was so afraid that it wasn't going to be cohesive because I never went for that, I just dyed whatever colors I liked. But when I saw it all hanging there and I thought, “It does all fit together nicely.” And I was so relieved because I thought it was going to be a hot mess of colors together.
Yeah, but I never did that on purpose. So it feels like a lucky accident almost.
In a way it is, of course, but those plants or whatever is used also uses resources. I'm not definitely not a natural dye expert, but what I know of it is: to die in a natural way costs a lot of energy. Most of the time it needs to simmer for a very long time, which uses a lot of heat, it uses a lot of water, because you need to rinse it a lot, then you need to set the dye - not always, but in most cases, you need to set the dye with a mordant which, again, uses water and again uses heat. So it's a long process, which is beautiful. Of course, it's very slow, and it is fascinating, but it's absolutely not the most environmentally friendly way of dyeing that you can think of.
I very consciously chose to die, the way I dye with acid because with acid dies, you only need to bring the water up to a certain temperature, which is just below boiling, and when it's there, it's there. You can just turn the heat off, and it sets. And, and when you make sure that you don't use too much dye, so that all the yarn can soak up all the dye, then you only need a little rinse, because there's nothing to rinse out. The only reason I rinse is to neutralize the acidity because you dye in very acidic water and a rinse kind of neutralizes it again.
Well I don't know enough about it. But yeah, the chemicals that are being used for natural dyeing, which you don't have to use them, except with some colors, otherwise they fade, are not the best. It sounds very counterintuitive to use something natural, but you need something unnatural to... and then again, you can also use soy milk, but then soy, I don't think is the most environmentally friendly thing, either.
I think clay and toffee are very nice, I think. If I had to describe them, I think all my colors have a kind of dust about them.
Yeah. Which actually, one of my color mixes is literally called Favorite Jeans, so it does have the color of worn jeans.
Thank you. I find it kind of funny to hear your description of my colors because I never went for that feeling. Like I said, I never thought “Oh, I'm gonna go for the clay-throwing linen vibe.” [laughing] It just happened.
Yeah, we have a tiny little doggie, two cats, and five horses, Icelandic horses, and a Shetland pony.
I guess it does, but I mean, I don't know any better. There was a time that I didn't have horses, of course, but you get used to it.
My ideal day... my day job starts in the afternoon because I actually always try to-- most people like to be finished early so they have the afternoon off, but I'm an absolute morning person, so I love for my day job to start late.
Usually I get up at 6. And so when I have to work my other job, I usually start that at 12. That means I have six hours, which is almost a full workday left to spend, that's how I like to do it. And then while, for example, the pots are simmering, slowly getting to they're the right temperature, then I can go and feed the horses or go and take the dog out. That takes up the most time, it’s usually more than half an hour. So yeah, when I’m really busy, like finishing the whole wholesale order, I always do yarn dyeing in the morning, and when it's a workday for my day job then I spend the rest of the day there. I'm not an evening person. I can't do anything after I get home from my day job. That's-- no, that's it. I'm done, so I have to dye either in the mornings or on my days off.
Yeah, when I can stay awake. I like to knit in the morning, too, I mean, I definitely don't dye yarn every single morning before I go to work. But yes, I do my knitting, either in the morning before I go to work, or in the evening after dinner.
Yeah, just in the kitchen! I don't have a fancy studio or anything, so I have to clean up everything after myself again. Yeah, the kitchen is where I dye and the bathroom is where I rinse the yarn.
No, actually not. Because like what we just talked about, when all the dye goes into your yarn, there's nothing there's no dye to be spilled.
First watching YouTube videos, and then literally, just by doing it. I just did loads and loads and loads of 10 gram skeins. It went through loads of trial and error, like, “Oh, when I put just a tiny little bit more green, and a little bit more of this,” and just repeated that over and over.
Speaking of the way I do my colors, I think that's where my photography background comes in. Because if you will, if you print color pictures, I don't know if you've ever done that in color --
Okay, but it works the same as basically editing a photo on the computer. You take away a yellow hue, your picture is too blue or your picture can be too red, and it’s the same with yarn colors. That's how I do my yarn colors. If I'm trying to get a certain color and I see “Oh, there is a bit too much yellow,” then I add a bit of blue, for example, or take out a bit yellow. So I mix my colors like I edit color pictures.
Um, you just mentioned nature and all but funnily enough, that’s not where my inspiration comes from. It comes from fashion. Like the color toffee, I saw somebody with a coat walking through the shop of my day job and I thought, “Ohhh, that's a nice color.” And I remembered that color and I tried to replicate it. That's how toffee came to me.
No, it’s because I saw the color. I saw the coat with the color. And the same sort of thing happened with the clay color, that was just a color that you just saw a lot of in fashion at that time.
Yeah, you just saw that color around a lot and I liked it. And in the end, what we make with yarn is going to be fashion;you're going to wear it. So you want to you want it to be fashionable colors that you get you also see in ready-to-wear clothes.
I think both because a skein, sometimes a skein can be just very, very pretty as a skein and you almost find it a shame to even make a yarn ball out of it. But ultimately, when I mix my colors I want a garment or something made out of them.
Most of my colors are solid or semi-solid or very mildly variegated. They're not too wild. Not that you can't wear wild colors. But that's not my personal style and taste. Unless it’s for socks. When I dye yarn with the idea that it will be a sock, so the actual sock yarns, I like to make the colors a bit more fun. And I also have yarns that I do with Shibori style, so they have speckles, but only where the dye didn’t get to the yarn because of the way it’s tied. I don't have a lot of them. And still the colors that are in those colorwaves or are kind of related; they're all or in blue, or greenish family together.
It’s actually just because the dye comes in powder form. And those tiny little specks are actually little powdery bits that for some reason have not been dissolved in the water and then stuck to the yarn.
Well they are not supposed to be there, but yeah.
Yes, yeah, I love them!
Yeah, like what can’t you make with them??
Well, you just mentioned the Shetland 50-50 sets, they actually do have a purpose and that's for the mittens or colorwork mittens. You could also make hats out of it, but they're really suitable for colorwork. And with a set of two times 50 grams, shoot, that's perfect for a pair of mittens or hats. In that way, they do kind of have a specific purpose but of course, you could also use it in a yoke, just get a set and and use another yarn for the whole body and use those two colors in the yoke, that's possible as well.
I also do mini skein sets. For a long time they didn't have any purpose- or unlimited purposes, actually. Also, stripey socks or shawl borders, sweater yokes, whatnot, blankets... but a while back, Cynthia who's @fromCynthia on Instagram and Ravelry, she actually bought a mini skein set. She bought it from you, which I thought was again, a very nice connection, but she designed two bunnies, and a full wardrobe for these bunnies with a mini skein set, using up as much as possible of this whole set, which I think is just genius.
---- As a sidenote, for more inspiration on what to make with mini skeins, here are a few ideas:
Well, actually, again, looking at fashion, but also interior design. There's oftenpillows or curtains that have a certain pattern with a combination of colors that I think, “Ohh, those colors look really, really nice together.” So that's also where I get my inspiration from; it can literally come from the curtains.
----- At this point, we were getting to the end of our time together, and I wanted to switch the conversation for a minute to be more about business. We spent most of our time talking about the artisanal side of things, like where she gets her inspiration, what happens behind the pots, and so forth. Back when I spoke with Bregje, we spent a lot of time covering prices and how to charge what the product is worth, because I like to also dive into business. So I posed a different kind of question to Saskia before slowly bringing the episode to a close.
To be honest, it's just Instagram, that is my shop window to the world. And I guess word of mouth as well, and yarn shows, when they were happening. And those, I never thought I would enjoy as much as I did.
Oh, and I love it. And I love seeing your customers, because there's loads of times where people come up to you. They come show you pictures of things that they made from your yarn, or they tell you their Instagram name and then you're like, “Oh, it's you.” It's so nice to meet those people in real life, and the other way around. People come up to you and you say, “Oh, yeah, nice to finally see you.” And yeah, it's just so rewarding to do that.
Yes, well, actually a lot of the people at those shows are yarn connoisseurs, and yeah, they understand the value of good yarn.
Yeah, and well, now in your case, like me, you only have an online shop. If you only have an online shop, people never normally never have the chance to see everything together and get to touch it and squish it. Sometimes a customer contacts me andsomebody says,” Oh, I'm so curious about x, could you maybe send me a sample?” I absolutely do that, but that's nothing compared to just seeing everything together and being able to compare, and feel the yarn. So these shows are our wealth for both us, as business small business owners, and for the customer. Just very important and fun.
Yes. But they, of course, also never have the whole collection. They never have all the bases.
Yes, yeah. I have a few shops in America now that those are the most current ones that I'm working with.
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