Weaver spins pet hair into keepsakes

Kenny Kemp
Debbie Cutler spins alpaca fleece into yarn in her Clay County living room.
Kenny Kemp
Gary Cutler demonstrates his wool picker, which helps smooth different fibers and prepare them for carding.
Kenny Kemp
Debbie Cutler knits and weaves a variety of natural-fiber items including wool and mohair scarves, cotton tablecloths and wool slippers.
IVYDALE, W.Va. -- Not everyone is going to be overjoyed on Christmas or on their birthday to get a scarf or a hat knitted from pet hair, and weaver/knitter Debbie Cutler knows this.Sitting barefoot in her living room, behind her spinning wheel, Cutler acknowledged that fact with a laugh and added, "Yeah, I could see where you wouldn't be too happy if you were allergic."Under the right circumstances, giving an article made from pet hair might even be considered attempted murder, but the 58-year-old Clay County resident added that clothing knitted from pet hair didn't have to seem so weird. Some people really love their pets, but dogs and cats are often only with us for a few years. We outlive them. What's wrong with wanting to keep some part of that pet after they're gone?"I don't think it's all that strange," she said, but Cutler didn't set out to get into the business of making crafts from pet hair. She's been a spinner, knitter and weaver for more than 30 years. Her scarves, shawls, blankets and mittens are sold at Tamarack, at the store Poplar Forest in Sutton and through her website, www.willowdellfibers.com.Generally, Cutler said she's worked mostly with wool from sheep or the fleece of alpacas. The sheep's wool comes from friends in New Jersey. Alpaca fleece she gets locally, but last September, Cutler was at the Big Coal River Festival in Boone County demonstrating her craft and selling her wares when a woman approached her about knitting using dog hair."She had a couple of keeshond dogs," Cutler explained, "really beautiful long-haired dogs. The dogs had passed away and she wanted to keep some part of them."Cutler had read of spinners making things out of dog hair."There are a few in California, supposedly," she said.She agreed to give it a try.The unnamed client brought her eight plastic grocery bags full of fine silver and black dog hair. "It was hair she'd saved from brushing them," Cutler said.When she was finished, she'd created two hats and two scarves."It just spun up so beautifully."Working with dog hair, she said, wasn't as tricky or as odd as you might think.Cutler explained, "You can spin yarn out of almost any kind of fiber, but for what I do, it needs to be at least 2 inches long."
She said that probably wouldn't be a problem for pet owners who kept dogs like a keeshond or sheepdog, but it would likely rule out other dogs (or cats) such as dachshunds, Dalmatians and the average Chihuahua. Also, as with knitting with wool, there has to be enough fiber to work with."If you took your pet for grooming and saved the hair," she said, "that's probably one way you could collect what you need to make yarn, or you could just save up from brushing."And, like any other craft, it helps to have the right equipment. A significant portion of her living room is devoted to spinning and weaving equipment, some of it built by her husband, Gary, a logger and all-around handy guy.It also helps to wash the yarn thoroughly."You have to wash it a couple of times. Otherwise, it smells like -- well -- dog."Dog hair, Cutler pointed out, was probably closer to alpaca fleece than sheep's wool.
She said, "Sheep's wool hooks together very easily. It has little hook ends on the fiber, which help it to hold together. It's probably why it's also a little scratchy, but sheep's wool also has lanolin, which is good for your hands." She rubbed her fingers together. "Alpaca hair doesn't have the hooks or the lanolin, but it's softer."Alpaca is also hypoallergenic. Dog hair, however, isn't, but Cutler said after the hair has been cleaned thoroughly, it seems fine.Cutler said she doesn't expect to make knitting or weaving with dog hair to become the bulk of her business. It's just an unusual sideline, but already she's had some interest, sort of.Gary's skills with carpentry extend to design. Not only did he make several pieces of Cutler's spinning and weaving equipment, he improved on a few of them. He sells plans for them through their website.Cutler said a Russian gentleman bought a set of plans for a fiber picker, then contacted them about knitting with dog hair."He sent us pictures of two really big dogs," she said and laughed. "I don't know what kind of dogs they were, but they were big and hairy. He said he wanted to give it a try."The dogs in question turned out to be Leonberger dogs, huge, hairy canines that can weigh up to 180 pounds.Cutler wasn't certain how that particular project was going to work out, but she hoped it did. As far as her first client, Cutler said the woman had no complaints."She was really happy to have a keepsake from her pets."Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.
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