Anna Bauer & Eva Zethraeus Yarn color tests

SDA Book Club: “Unraveling” reviewed by Faith Hagenhofer 

Unraveling: What I learned about life while shearing sheep, dyeing wool, and making the world’s ugliest sweater by Peggy Orenstein

Fortunately for SDA review readers and writers, the book topics we encounter are familiar: Review readers of Surface Design Journal have immense curiosity and some knowledge—passing as well as deep—about all things textiles. So talk of shearing, scouring, carding, spinning, dyeing, patternmaking and knitting are not novel. Review writers often are reading as experts, or at least as experienced choir members being preached to. As a shepherd I am intimately familiar with all stages of Peggy Orenstein’s journey. Unraveling immerses the reader in the world of “sheep-to-shawl,” or in this case ewe-to-useful-sweater. “Do not be jaded,” I tell myself, as I dive into one woman’s project to knit a sweater from the scratch end of shearing. 

This is not the first book to outline an author’s fresh new experience with all things sheep and wool. But here’s the thing—Orenstein’s excitement is contagious at every step. When she undertakes each process, as outlined in the subtitle and clearly pictured on the back cover, her writing, peppered with historical asides and personal ruminations, is completely engaging. Her teachers are many, and throughout, she frames her choices in this whole endeavor as responses to welcoming anachronistic work tasks that may just have some positive impact and bearing on future climate justice. Unsurprisingly there are subtle stripes of political and feminist commentary as well. In comparison to food awareness she writes that, “there has been no movement yet with similar reach in the clothing world, though many are trying and both the desire and the will are increasingly there.” 

But if a rendition of the material work was all there was to this book it wouldn’t have that other part of the subtitle… “what I learned about life.” For Orenstein, the value of the process outweighs the end product. Or does it? Tackled during the Covid-19 pandemic and California’s drought and fire fears, Orenstein weaves all the concerns of mortality, aging parents, aging children and an aging self through every part of the Unraveling journey. She writes with a healthy dose of memoir and reflection. As an example: In the chapter on natural dyeing Orenstein collects dyestuffs from her neighborhood and considers planting madder. She asks herself if she is “really after a stronger link to my environment,… or its opposite, (being) prepared to go any time.”

The product, therefore, may well be the life lessons gained and, held within the threads of her sweater, shared with readers of Unraveling

–Faith Hagenhofer 

  • Publisher: HarperCollins (buy it here)
  • Date: January 2023
  • ISBN: 9780063081727

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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