Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World's Ugliest Sweater
“a master communicator who knows how to employ humor and integrate personal content with macro issues, Orenstein has written an accessible book, one that will resonate with many readers . . .”
Unraveling is a book that will make you care. Care about the clothes you choose to buy and wear—care about “how its fiber was produced, spun, woven, and dyed, which chemicals were used in these processes, where the buttons and zippers came from, the treatment of workers at each of these stages.”
Many individuals, including farmers and entrepreneurs, have asked similar questions about the food we grow and eat and the ways we create energy to run our machines. Are these processes and products sustainable, healthy for the environment? Do they serve to reduce climate change, viable for the long term? But few of us have asked similar questions about the fabrics we wear and discard. What are the ecological, environmental, even social justice and equity issues surrounding clothing?
A few facts about how our clothing is made today might be enlightening. For example, “over 60 percent of the garments worn on this planet are now either partly or entirely made up of petroleum-derived synthetics—polyester, viscose, nylon, rayon, Dacron, acetate, Lycra, spandex, Gore-Tex—and that, my friend, is just a fancy way of saying plastic.”
Such clothing, when washed, “sheds nondegradable plastic filaments too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment facilities. These particles go straight into the waterways, the equivalent of fifty billion plastic bottles a year flood into the oceans alone through microfibers.”
In 1856 the first synthetic dye was created; up until then, only naturally produced dyes were used. Synthetic dyes soon dominated the clothing industry, making a range of colorful fashions available to more people. But the processes used to allow even the common person to wear purple, the color of royals, brought devastation to the environment. “Clothing production, especially dyeing and finishing, is, all by itself, responsible for a fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Orenstein didn’t start out to address these matters. She looked for a project to occupy her mind and hands: knitting a sweater was her answer. She had a lot on her mind: her beloved mother who had recently died, her aging father whose memory was failing, her adolescent daughter who would soon leave for college, and her own and her husband’s aging. She masterfully weaves her reflections on her personal life issues through the main story of her sweater project.
Known for her meticulous research and thoughtful writing, Orenstein will thrill her Unraveling readers with her multi-disciplinary exploration of the history, economics, mythology, social, political, and linguistic aspects of string and how humans over time created, spun, wove, dyed, and invented novel ways of using string. Women have historically been the spinners and weavers of most societies, and the stories of how women have used their skills in powerful political ways are highlighted by Orenstein throughout her memoir.
In addition to turning to the traditional sources of data such as historical documents and interviewing subjects, Orenstein becomes an active part of her research by actually tracing back her final goal of a knit sweater to its origins: sheep. She doesn’t stop by visiting Bodega Pastures, but learns to hand shear sheep: “belly, crutch, undermine, top knot, neck, cheek, first shoulder, short blows, long blows, last side.” It is the fleece from Martha, the ewe she shears, that serves her throughout the processes of spinning, dyeing, and knitting.
And so she continues with each phase of turning the wool into a sweater: spinning, dyeing, designing, creating, getting her hands bruised, wet, and discolored. Along the way she explores the many dimensions and ethical issues of each process, from its linguistic, political, and social history, to the humans who did the work, and the overt and covert ways they tried to improve their working conditions.
This is a serious and important book, one that will enlighten the reader about issues we seldom consider—important matters surrounding the activity we each do every day: get dressed. As a master communicator who knows how to employ humor and integrate personal content with macro issues, Orenstein has written an accessible book, one that will resonate with many readers and certainly all of us who are aging through the pandemic and those of us who know little about clothing and its impact on our environment.