Learn how to crawl: the New York City Yarn Crawl is on through Sunday, September 25.

Mason-Dixon Mailbag: Our Far-Flung Correspondent

Dear Kay,
We just got a letter from my sister-in-law Mary Neal–she who designed the Knitty Jamesey pattern, she who provides us here at MDK with the broad view of the worldwide textile scene, she who puts up with my wandering brother Clif. Read on:
Dear Ann,
Your brother Clif has returned at last from being in China all summer. As usual, he was on the job being our extremely foreign textile correspondent. For those who want to play along with a world atlas, here is where he went.
Chicago to Beijing, change planes to Chengdu, capital of Szechuan province. Stay a few days to try to get over that stunned feeling. Bus to Kangding, where things started to get a little Tibetan. Hire car and driver to Gandze. Only one fatal accident witnessed (no guard rails). Stay a few days successfully working out permissions for the rest of the trip.
By hired car over the Tro La pass (about 5,000 meters) to Dege, only a couple of kilometers from the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It must be noted that he didn’t actually go to the TAR, but much of western Szechuan is ethnically, culturally, (and historically) Tibet. But we won’t go there.
Dege is a town in a steep valley of the Yangtze River, at about 3,500 meters. There are several temples there where the monks do all the thanka and sutra printing for Tibetan Buddhists around the world. They do the whole process there in Dege: they make the paper, cut the wood blocks, proof, and print. Since Clif is the coordinator of the Book and Paper program at Columbia College, this was like being in paradise.
Here is a paragraph from one of the emails he sent. (There were “web ba’s” most everywhere, so we were able to keep in touch every few days by email.)

“Yesterday we were working with the correctors, the guys who get back the proofread copy. The first proof from a new block gets sent to a Kampo [abbot of a monastery with two phd degrees] who make corrections to the block by drilling out the bad part and cutting a little plug of wood, glueing it in, and recutting the correct spelling of the word. I do not have the heart to tell them about InDesign.”

Anyway, they spent 3 weeks in Dege, interviewing, photographing, documenting all the temples, the processes, the daily life of the printers, block cutters, and papermakers.
There were many opportunities to indulge in textile-related purchases.
Here is one store in the mall.
After buying some beautiful brass buttons for me in Dege,
Clif thought they weren’t fancy enough, so he commissioned a silversmith to make some exquisite buttons just for me:
Clif says, “The silversmith was Han (ethnically Chinese), from somewhere in the east, but in any case, not Tibetan. He had been there a few years.”
On his way back through Gandze, he stopped at a wool merchant’s shop.
Clif says, “The wool merchants are Tibetan and were in Gandze. The wool was grown (raised?) in Ganze Autonomous Prefecture (its official name, an ethnically-Tibetan, supposedly Tibetan-run province of Szechuan) and hand spun somewhere in the northwestern part, up west and north of Gandze.”
He also bought some wool stoles that are woven in colored stripes, with beautifully block printed/bleached patterns on them. Like all the high-mountain wool I have ever experienced, these will be really great for removing that annoying layer of dead skin from my body.
The 3/4 of a kilo of spun wool is likewise pretty rough stuff. Skeins 3 and 5 were spun by someone who had done it before. Skeins 1, 2, and 4, not so much. I’m getting a wpi of around 18 here. It smells loudly of sheep and is quite lanoliniferous. If knitted up tightly, this will produce a completely waterproof garment I’m sure. Of course, there will be that agricultural aroma, but what the heck, people are all the time eating nasty stuff on the El, so I won’t stick out.
So now, it’s time for the blog poll. What do I knit with this? I will have to double strand it to account for unevenness in the spinning, and also to be able to finish anything before my 65th birthday.





  1. I say all of the above!
    Also, first poster! Whee!

  2. log cabin blankie, I’m making one right now, out of my very old handspun. It’s name is ” I’m not bad yarn, I was just spun that way”
    I’m knitting it all from one color, with the last row done from colored wool from the stash. Nice little lines going round and round. I will back this baby with nice soft flannel. Perfect for movie watching and buttery hand wipeing. That or shower back scrubing things.
    lot’s o luck luv denny in T.O.

  3. Grow wool..hahahah.

  4. That’s what I love about Mason-Dixon Knitting. Where else can we witness such sickness (the plague), such amazing knitting, such culture!
    As for a suggestion of what to from this…I say house slippers. Glorified socks, if you will. Make the most advantage of the hardiness of this yarn and on feet, no one worries too much about that rustic smell.

  5. I’ll be very interested to see what you do with your yarn. I have a bunch of itchyscratchy yarn I got when I was in Estonia and not a clue what to do with it…

  6. Mary Neal, that yarn is crying out, “Plant dye me!” In Chinese, of course–植物洗染我

  7. What I learned from this post: instruct any and all traveling friends and relatives to forget the souveneir mugs and t-shirts for me. Just. Buy. Yarn. And buttons. And other textile-y things.

  8. I voted for things to felt 🙂 That’s what I’m doing with some yarn I was gifted of the same type. Except that mine was dyed pepto-pink before I got it… is it wrong to re-gift yarn back to the original gift giver if you’ve made something for them out of it? Even if it’s really, really pink?

  9. I am of the opinioon that a scratchy blanket for houseguests who stay too long is the single greatest idea of all time.

  10. What culture! I like the oversatyed guest idea. Stuff made of steel wool

  11. Lanoliniferous? Is that a word?
    I go with the felted booties. Waterproof! Warm! Maybe not too slippy on the floor?!

  12. Hand wash the wool in Dreft. You will save the lanolin but help the smell.
    Also dying it may rid some of the smell, but you will loose the lanolin.

  13. Slippers are a GREAT idea – they’d have their own in-built loofah-like quality to take care of those rough patches that one gets after a whole summer of schlepping around in flip-flops!
    And the lanolin will moisturise after the exfoliation!
    I think you could probably patent them!

  14. I’m for knitting for day three houseguests. What a beautiful way to say get lost.

  15. Some kind of vest? Then it wouldn’t be worn against the skin — though the blanket for over-staying houseguests idea and the feet scrubbing slippers turn a curse into a blessing. OR you could make very Loofahish washcloths, which need to be hand-washed (never mind).

  16. I agree with the blankie sentiment. But not log cabin because that requires something colorful. No, I’d do something that plays with textured stitches that was very dense. Then it could be your car blanket to be used on pic-nics or for watching fireworks or when the kids get cold in the backseat in the winter. Every family needs a sturdy, all purpose blanket.

  17. I am so lusting after those silver buttons and I don’t care who knows it. Yowza, those are gorgeous!

  18. This wasn’t one of your options, probably, but you should weave a rug with it.

  19. The buttons! Oh the buttons! How lucky you are, Mary Neal!! I love the shop. I used to love going to shops like that in China, and in the seedier (no offence intended at all, they were a lovely and exciting type of seedy) parts of HK. Like Kymm, I too am lusting after those buttons, must go back to HK soon….

  20. i’ve been knitting “regular-sized people” hats for afghans for afghans, in the sheep-iest of wools…..on “mondo” needles….. so moisturizing!

  21. I’ll go one step farther than the slippers–how about an equisite, textured RUG! No skin issues, the lanolin will be an asset (think waterproofing) and you can 3x or 4x the yarn to make it knit fast. OR even better, a LOG CABIN RUG after you dye some of the skeins–or go minimal and neutral and not dye any of them. Cooler than Pottery Barn fer sher!
    I have made 3 ABSORBA bathmats with varying levels of neutral and non-neutralness. I get loads of compliments. Your chinawool rug could be the front door fabulousness for your house, saying that a creative and well-travelled knitter to all who pass the threshold!

  22. I just came back from a visit to China with some yarn, although mine is quite different than the yarn you’ve just received. We happened upon our tiny little shop quite by accident after our taxi driver in Bejing rather unceremoniously deposited us on the street corner when he was unable to find our hotel. We looked up to find ourselves outside this yarn shop. After we found our hotel on foot, my son, who speaks Chinese, (he’s 17 and had just spent a year in Taiwan)and I came back to the shop and we negotiated for some beautiful apricot colored yarn that is apparently made from wool and a fiber made by an insect that eats beans–or at least that’s what my son understood! Most of the yarn in the shop was used for machine knitting, but the owner had quadrupled some and was hand knitting with it, so asked her to do that with mine. I got 250gms (if I remember right)for about 6 dollars–it’s a huge ball. It seems to be about a lace weight, so I’m looking for a shawl pattern that I really like. I’ve knitted a swatch with it and it’s beautifully soft and drapey.
    I think a knitted rug would be good for your yarn–isn’t there a book out there about rugs?
    Enjoy your blog and books–great fun, both.

  23. I voted for the totes and slippers, but what would be **perfect** for this yarn is a . . . ta, daa! . . . felted log cabin rug! It’s a natural, and the felting will help take care of the aroma (and clean it — that isn’t only lanolin you’re smelling). 🙂

  24. You have a relative in Chicago? I think she should dye the yarn and make a rug. Scratchy wool should never come in contact with naked skin –

  25. Belinda–love your phrasing! ” . . . a lovely and exciting type of seedy . . .” is my kind of place!

  26. “get a little Tibetan”? “smells loudly of sheep”? Love your use of language! Y’all rock!

  27. I thought I was really slick for thinking up knitting a rug, but I guess I’m at the back of a rather long line. Here are some o0ther ideas:
    –A rug of Kool-aid dyed miters, mayhap?
    –More seat cushions for Ann’s porch chairs?
    –French Market bag?
    –Giant felt board on which to make quilt layouts?
    –Dog or cat beds (put that gamey animal smell to good use!)
    The possibilities for durable items are limitless.

  28. A rain hat. It could felt itself, slowly, as you wear it.

  29. Oh, and Marisa: could the bean eating insect fiber be…silk?

  30. Oh the hoodie. The hoodie. Perfect hair forever. Think of the applications!

  31. First of all, so happy to see a blog poll, reminds me of (ahem) THE PERFECT SWEATER!
    I voted for slippers, because I have terrible callouses, but it was a tossup for the houseguest blankie.
    Love the post, and Belinda, I’m going to HK in November for a few weeks so if you have any suggestions I’ll get you some yarn too.

  32. I’d go with the rug idea, definitely – but in crochet. I think crochet works better than knitting for creating heavy fabrics.
    I had much the same problem with a boat load of scratchy hand spun (can’t throw hand spun away, you know). I crocheted a double-strand afghan, with lots of bobbles. The dog thought it was just great. It has proved to be nearly indestructable, and the dog is long gone, but we’re still using it. Husband drapes it over his side of the bed, since he doesn’t have hot flashes to keep him warm.

  33. what a lovely post. It’s interesting to note that you can find yarn in most of china because the older chinese generations are voracious knitters. I’m told that all the good yarns are exported though and the majority sold tend to be the rougher stuff. thanks for all the pictures!

  34. Yes, it could very well be silk–it’s certainly soft enough. Unfortunately, she didn’t include the ball band when I picked up the wound ball, so I can’t check it out now. I almost bought some 100% silk skeins because they were incredibly cheap, but this yarn seemed a bit more substantial and was just so beautiful too. (and even cheaper!)

  35. I would go for a rug – crocheted? – or braided? By the front door, where people still have their shoes on….

  36. Can they send me some yarn!!? I will send them yuan! I have not been able to find a decent yarn shop in Zhengzhou yet & I NEED YARN. LOL

  37. Run the wool through the washing machine (twice) with Tide, and then decide. (Tide did wonders for the stinky Chinese yak yarn that came home with me from Stitches last year. Guess I won’t be able to say much if the kids bring home a puppy some day.)
    The buttons, now, those are amazing! Well done Clif!

  38. I have to say, as someone who uses Quark (like InDesign but more “crashy”) to design newspaper pages every day — this line: “… Who make corrections to the block by drilling out the bad part and cutting a little plug of wood, glueing it in, and recutting the correct spelling of the word. I do not have the heart to tell them about InDesign,” from Clif’s email made my entire day. I will be quoting it to my newspaper friends often. Thank you for that. Oh and I’m a lurker who isn’t any more.

  39. 3 words: Eucalan, Eucalan, Eucalan!!
    What a great post. hope the intrepid traveler didn’t suffer altitude sickness–my friend once led tour groups through that region and they had to administer oxygen frequently. I absolutely love overseas yarn shopping stories! (another lurker stepping into the light)

  40. Oh!! to have a hsuband who would even think to buy textiles for me while traveling the whorld. I get pictures of trains, lots and lots of trains………..hummmmm…………. Mirror mirror on the wall isn’t Mary the luckiest girl of all??

  41. I vote for retying the hanks, washing them by machine with baby shampoo of the shampoo/conditioner variety, on a gentle cycle, with warm but not hot water, and hanging to dry with a beer or soda can to keep the kinks from forming. This gets vegetable matter out, and softens most yarns by shaking out the guard hairs. Then decide.
    This worked for me with a pass-along stash of beautiful but rough stuff from a small Canadian spinnery. It made a lovely, soft blanket.
    The blanket for houseguests won’t work if you have sheets on the bed, but I love it anyway.

  42. I think a floor rug would be good. Or clogs.

  43. Another suggestion is to make some longies for a baby that does cloth diapering. They love the lanolized wool b/c it keeps leaks where they belong. I’m knitting some right now and my hands feel so moisturing as I do the work!
    Also, I just gotta say, that boy Mary Neal grew/raised is super handsome! Kudos to you for putting down those knitting needles long enough to make that!


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