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!
In my podcast A Smaller Life, I talk to makers and business owners in my industry (and sometimes beyond) about making conscious choices and growing your brand by actually going smaller.
In this episode, I welcome Saskia Maas (@ovisetcetera), an indie yarn dyer focussing on colour and the origin of fibers. Saskia makes it her business to make very conscious decisions about where her yarn comes from and what processes she uses so the impact on the environment is minimal and the effects are maximal.
Saskia and myself share more than a first name, we share a lot of values a great friendship and some fun memories. Listen in on our conversation to learn more about Saskia's inspirations and her process.
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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.
Saskia, can you tell the good people a little bit about who you are and what you do for a living - or not for a living?
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!
How did you become a yarn dyer?
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.
Can you shortly explain what superwash yarn is and why you don't like it?
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.
That always makes me laugh because like, why? Why would you do that?
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.
Do we have to wash our wool?
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.
Saskia, I love that from the perspective of a yarn company, you didn’t choose superwash just to sell yarn, because that’s what people typically want. That is awesome. We are so alike in that way, wanting to go smaller. But to completely change the subject, if I could, I recently heard somebody saying that the superwash yarn takes up the dye a lot better, is that true?
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.
But, correct me if I’m wrong, you look at the bases first of where the yarn comes from, right? Like what type of base it is, and then go from there?
Well that, and also my my dye, I chose the brands and the type of dye that I use very carefully.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you find your bases? Do you go up to a farmer and say “I like your sheep,” “Can I come over with my scissors”?
[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.
Why is that?
Maybe because I like to collect as many yarns as possible that I like, yarns that fit my business philosophy.
What is your yarn base philosophy? And how do you pick them?
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.
There are loads of different ways to make your socks last longer; ramie is amazing, and so is silk. We have natural fibers that improve the durability of our socks, wouldn’t you agree?
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.
That’s such great information, thank you. That's why you're here, because I know you know so much about this and that you share a lot of values with me when it comes to locally produced and animal friendly and all those kinds of things. I always say that since Holland is super small, local to a Dutch person is something else then local to an American person. In my opinion, Europe is local enough when it comes to yarn and wool, because in the Netherlands we don't have as many types of sheep. Or do we?
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.
Saskia, I want to dive a little deeper into your yarns. What I really love about them is that they have all these characteristics, and you tie them together so well. They all really look like Ovis et Cetera yarn, even though the bases are so different. From what I understand, you do that by dyeing your yarns a certain way. Your colors are amazing, they're so typically you, but people often think there's something that they're not, right?
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.
I think so too, yeah. I remember I said that to you. And you're like “Oh, really?” Because I feel like your colors really remind me of naturally-dyed yarns. There's a specific palette. They look like they might have been dyed in a natural way.
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.
I would agree that your colors look great together. I would even call them sexy. It is so funny that you seem surprised by it because I think it's one of your strong points, actually.
Yeah, but I never did that on purpose. So it feels like a lucky accident almost.
Let's get back to that GOTS certified, green way of dying. I think a lot of people have the impression that natural dyeing has to be good for the environment, can you enlighten us?
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.
When you use that acidity, it could be either citric acid or vinegar, but everything you have left from that process, you can dispose of without any harm to the environment or not a lot of harm. You can just throw it out, you know? But from what I understand about the mortants used in the natural dye process, some of them are basically heavy metals, meaning you have to dispose of them in a very conscious manner. Can you say anything more about that?
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.
Well thank you for telling us a little more about what you do know. I’ll have to invite a natural dyer and ask them about how they do it the most conscious way possible. I know a little bit about both processes. I know lovely people that use the natural dye process that have a lot of the same values as us, so I'm sure they've found ways to make the impact a little less, but I can totally see why you've chosen to go in this direction. So can you tell us more about color mixing? Could you describe the type of colors that you make what they look like, maybe mention some colors?
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.
They do. Jeans jeans type of colors like worn jeans.
Yeah. Which actually, one of my color mixes is literally called Favorite Jeans, so it does have the color of worn jeans.
Yeah, you get that whole feeling with the combined palette, it definitely has that aesthetic. That's what I love about your work, the aesthetic of the natural linen, clay, hand-thrown pottery, that whole vibe, your yarns have that. You've spent so much time on making these decisions to do it the best way you can with respect for the environment. And I think that is really admirable.
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.
I think it's just who you are. You are a lover of nature, of plants. You have a bunch of animals, don’t you?
Yeah, we have a tiny little doggie, two cats, and five horses, Icelandic horses, and a Shetland pony.
Does that take up a lot of time, caring for the animals?
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.
So you have a day job, you have your own business, you have, like almost a farm. What does a typical day at Ovit et Cetera look like?
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.
You're a hobby knitter, too, right? Do you do that at night? Do you still have the brainpower to do that at night?
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.
What does your workplace look like? Do you work in the house?
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.
I hope you don’t have colored drops on your floor going from the kitchen to the bathroom!
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.
Yarn dyeing isn't hard, but getting the right amount of dye and getting those things just right, that's where you get really professional at it. You have to really know the right temperatures and all these different things. How did you actually learn?
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 --
No, only in black and white.
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.
Wow, that is truly fascinating. Where do you get your inspiration for colors?
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.
So you don't think like, “I would love to have a toffee-colored sweater, I'm now making that color?”
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.
It’s like a pink-ish, sand-ish type of color. Like a dirty pink. It’s the color of my walls in here, actually, so yes a very popular color.
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.
We’ve talked to Bregje here on the show in an earlier episode and she makes spindles. For some people who spin yarn, the project is the yarn itself, they spin for the sake of spinning, and then they have this skein of yarn. That's the finished object. My question to you is, do you look at your yarn as a finished object? Or do you have a vision of what it will become?
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.
I was wondering, since we talked about speckles, and you're not dying speckles, we talked about the technical reason behind that. But do you dye mostly solids? Or what does your yarn look like in terms of the way the color is spread in the skein?
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.
They all have that quality of a hand-dyed yarn, where it's not a solid color block. They are very lively, they all have these little tiny pieces of color here and there that maybe aren’t supposed to be in there. But it's so characteristic. What is that about?
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.
I love them. They are like little giggles in the yarn.
Well they are not supposed to be there, but yeah.
But if someone doesn’t like them, they can always cut that part out and start their knitting again. Let me change the subject, though. Can we talk about sets? I think we are both lovers of sets.
Yes, yeah, I love them!
You have sets, I think they are 25 grams and 25 grams? Or a 50-50 Shetland? I used to sell your yarn in my shop, and this is fun to talk about for me because a lot of people get really intimidated by sets. The average customer gets kind of freaked out, they think, “What am I supposed to do with them?” And the Saskias are the exact opposite.
Yeah, like what can’t you make with them??
Yeah, exactly. Can you give us some ideas of things to make with sets?
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:
- Instagram accounts of Saskia and Cynthia
- Search for #miniskein
- Skeindeers Patterns on Ravelry
Saskia, do you actually look at the colors if they work together? Because that's like a whole different skill set, right? To know colors that work together in color work?
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.
Now you have an online workshop and we've mentioned yarn shows before-- obviously there's not a lot of those right now-- and I also used to sell your yarns in my shop, but otherwise how do you get your yarns out there?
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.
I know what you mean. For us introverts, like, I am completely knackered after all that communication with people and all the sounds and the colors and everything, but that doesn't mean that we don't enjoy it. Coming together with people, talking about your project and showing off your skills is such a wonderful thing.
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.
I feel conflicted about yarn shows. On one hand, they take business away from local yarn shops because people go and spend their whole budget on these annual events, but on the other hand, what I so loved about selling products at the show is that people will come especially for you and they already understand what it is that you're doing. I've mentioned this before in the podcast that there's people that don't understand the level of values that you have when selling your products, and they just want a cheap ball of yarn. But in a show, they are there because they love what you do.
Yes, well, actually a lot of the people at those shows are yarn connoisseurs, and yeah, they understand the value of good yarn.
Yes, and that makes it so fun. Yeah, because you don't have to go into this whole discussion of price and why it costs what it costs because most of them already understand that they're especially there to get it. Oh, gosh, let's just hope that we can go back to the kind of being together. Sharing the love for what we do with people. I can't wait. And let's do it together again.
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.
But you do have some other shops that sell your yarn, right?
Yes. But they, of course, also never have the whole collection. They never have all the bases.
Do you have shops worldwide?
Yes, yeah. I have a few shops in America now that those are the most current ones that I'm working with.
We'll make sure that people know where to find you. What is your instagram account and your website?
Thank you so much, Saskia. I’m so glad to have you on the show.
I told you it was going to be a great episode! Thank you for reading it here on the blog.
Do you have any questions? You can send in a voice message and get featured on the show! I would absolutely love to hear from you. Let me know what you think of the episode, if you have any questions, and I'm happy to answer them in another episode. Everything is welcome. If you just want to leave an idea for the podcast, it's completely open. Go ahead, leave me a message. Just click the tab on the right, or leave a text comment below.
Thank you. And I hope you listen or read again next time.
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