PORTLAND - As the cold winter weather rolls around, you may pull your warm wool sweater from the back of the closet. But these days, some people are knitting sweaters out of a different animal: dogs. It’s a new craft movement that is actually part of a very old Northwest tradition.
At the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival, you can find all sorts of yarn, from mohair to angora. And even some of the sheep and rabbits and goats that grew them. But here in the artists’ gallery, weaver Jerie Lucas displays sweaters and scarves knitted from another species.
“Pomeranian is one of the very, very best of course. And the Sheltie, of course the Keeshond, Samoyed, Chow, Golden Retriever.”
Lucas has been spinning, knitting and weaving dog hair for several decades.
“I did start with wool, and then my dog was there, and raising three kids I couldn’t afford a whole lot. And so I started spinning old Bo.”
If you didn’t know, you might guess the fluffy coats were made from angora. There are a few stiff guard hairs scattered in, but mostly it’s the dogs’ undercoat, which is surprisingly soft. But even so, Lucas has heard all the jokes.
“Does it smell like dog? Does it have fleas? It’s only men that ask that.”
It’s easy to make fun of recycling dog fur into sweaters — it’s just the sort of homespun craft the Northwest is known for these days. But it’s actually part of an older tradition. Much older.
“Early explorers like Joseph Whidbey that were here in the 1790s actually saw people driving herds of dogs, very very much like flocks of sheep,” says Ecologist Russel Barsh. He has studied the natural history of the Cosalish tribes — we reached him at his home in the San Juan Islands. Which were known for their woolly dogs.
“For example, Guemes Island, as it’s now known, was known by early settlers as Dog Island because of the very large number of woolly dog flocks that were there.”
And he says that these woolly dogs were a distinct breed. They were kept on islands during the summer, when the tribes were busy drying salmon and growing crops. And then they’d be brought back ashore for the winter. And when their fur was long enough, it would be sheared just like a sheep.
Nobody’s sure exactly how many dogs there were, but Barsh estimates it was in the thousands.
“The guess is that woolly dogs are part of a constellation of innovations that created Cosalish culture.”
Including salmon fishing, animal trapping, and cultivation of the Camas plant.
“All of these innovations, all of these technologies, came together and created this really dynamic mercantile and agricultural culture that Vancouver and Quadra first saw from the decks of their ships in 1791.”
It’s easy to see how hunting, fishing and agricultural innovations can help create a stable society. But weaving dog fur?
Barsh says yes — it’s not just about a warm blanket.
“Woolens really provided a way of storing wealth and value, and creating something that could be the bank account for some of the great projects, like building a sailing ship, or putting up the frame for a large cedar-plank village.”
After Europeans introduced wool and cotton in the mid-19th century, the Cosalish quickly abandoned the woolly dogs. Even imported sheep yarn was cheaper than keeping a herd of meat-eating dogs. And so the woolly dogs were released. They probably interbred with other hunting dogs and companion dogs, leaving their genes behind in today’s pets.
Maybe even some at your local dog park. Oh, and to answer that frequently-asked question: Does dog wool smell?
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