Felting Ilya

My daughter Brianna calls one day and asks, “Mom can you take Ilya?” A colossal of husky fur and attitude, I say no. But it’s not the dog; it’s just that I am whirling in my own grief over the loss of two dogs in a span of six months. It’s a loss that reflects this season of parenthood when children clamber out of the nest leaving me to question, “When did those toddlers with Legos and Barbie shoes strewn across the living room floor get to be so grown?”

Maybe the dogs with their proclivity to scatter tennis balls and shred Rice-A-Roni boxes from the recycling bin save me from the reality that a clean living room equates to a vacant one. We had three children and as they successively put away childish things I cumulated four dogs. Actually, at one point, I had 13 German Short-haired Pointers, 10 being puppies. Hence four seemed reasonable, until one died of indeterminate seizures and the other of cancer. Now, two was enough.

Ilya was a freshman puppy—you know, one of those dogs that 18-year olds get because now they can. What an 18-year old does not yet realize is that college, retail jobs and late-night partying leave no time to raise, train and commit to the needs of a dog. Ilya’s life coursed a bumpy trail from the beginning. The girlfriend of Brianna’s roommate (one of five or six) gave the husky-mix as a gift. Within a month Ilya suffered a broken leg; by adulthood he was regularly caged, rarely walked and fed pizza.

While llya hacky-sacked from boyfriend to girlfriend, I could see the misery in Brianna’s eyes. She knew what it was like to have dogs, and I believe it broke her heart to see a dog in such sad circles. He was no longer in her house—she moved on to fewer roommates—but she saw or heard of him regularly. And the latest news was not good: Ilya was headed to the pound. Brianna, knowing my heart for dogs, was asking me to intervene, and I said no.

No turned into, “Get him!” when Brianna called again, crying that Ilya had not found a home and the humane society deemed him unadoptable. You see, he couldn’t be caged. His tolerance was gone and being a husky Ilya was vocal about his predilection for a cage-free existence. If you know huskies, then you understand their insistent voice. Pressuring him to silence led to snapping; snapping became his death knell. At least the humane society allowed Brianna’s friend to take back Ilya after surrendering him and by the end of that day Ilya joined my two pointers. Long hair, meet short.

When I say that Ilya has long hair or lots of hair, I mean that he is a Merino sheep in wolf’s clothing. The hair! He doesn’t shed; he discards pillow cases of downy mass. A single brushing gains a pile of fur that is enough to transplant the skins of at least 10 Mexican Hairless Chihuahuas. Huskies, bred for Artic conditions, come equipped with their own natural parkas. Like snow, his fur piles everywhere.  Fast-forward to felting…

Ultimately the couple who rescued Ilya and gave him a forever home is my other daughter, Allison and her husband Drew. And they didn’t stop at Ilya—he has a pack-mate named Jasper, a farm dog husky-mix from northern Wisconsin. Between the two dogs, there is enough dog wool to knit everyone in the nation a sweater—or so it seems. That got Allison to thinking about felting. Why not put all that discarded hair to use or craft into art?

So, my daughter Allison asks me, “What do you think about a felted tea cozy out of Ilya-wool?”  Hmm, sorting, carding, felting, crocheting are not familiar terms to me. But Iyla’s fur is soft and his sloughed mats are promising as a creative project.  Allison once felted wool mittens and she has a paper bag packed with Ilya’s undercoat from furminating him daily (the Furminator is a special comb designed to groom heavy-shedding dogs). It seems that all she needs to green-light this project is knowledge of the craft.

That’s how we turned up at Northwoods Dyeworks in Ashland—to find out how to card and felt wool. Let’s pause. If you are crafty in a folksy way, skip this part. If you are like me and think “card” is something you deal in a poker game and “felt” comes from Ben Franklin’s then hang around and read.  Talking to the shop’s owner Libby, quirky and Quaker, we swapped stories and learned that while it is labor intensive, felting Ilya is entirely possible.

Before husky wool is spun into yarn it must first be carded. The card is a tool, and you need two. They look like a pair of large cat brushes which has me thinking, can you card right off the dog, skipping the furmination? Apparently the answer is no; you card between two paddles. Felting is a process of heat and agitation, which sounds like Ilya’s disposition on a muggy summer day. It is more complicated than mere furmination.

Before carding and felting, however, comes cleaning and sorting. Cleaning is a given—who wants a hat that smells like dog? Sorting is separating hairs. Evidently, guard hairs—which make up the pokey coat of a GSP—are not desirable. Libby explains a wool-maker’s trick: buy two travel pillow cases (smaller than a regular twin) and stuff the clean husky wool into one while still damp from cleaning. Place the stuffed case into the second one and tumble dry on low or no heat (this is not yet the felting stage). The wool will fluff and push the guard hairs into the second pillow case.

Libby also tells us that she never spins for money, but once she spun wolf hair for a woman. She says it is a lot of work. She advises Allison to mix Ilya’s wool with Corriedale wool—a great felting fleece. Allison mentions her idea for making a felted and crocheted tea cozy out of Ilya wool which leads to a discussion of smelly wool, rams and intact male dogs. Somehow we begin talking about PETA and how outrageous it is that the organization sent a letter to the judicial court in Duluth demanding criminal charges against Lake Superior Zoo, following the horrific flash floods that drowned the barnyard animals and ravens.

Take a deep breath and imagine rescue—it’s all about commitment. The zoo was committed to their animals and they asked for help. Libby has a friend whose friend is a fireman in Duluth and he tells of disrupted rescues at the zoo because the human rescues prioritized the day. It was 3 a.m. when harbor seals popped up in downtown Duluth. You’ve seen the photo; it went viral, but did you see the whites of that seal’s eyes? He was terrified. He was rescued, so was the polar bear. Unless you’ve experienced a wall of water 80 feet wide cascading upon you; unless you’ve rescued an unadoptable dog, don’t judge.

You can help the zoo by mucking mud; you can support small business owners like Libby in any town you reside and you can felt a husky after you have cared enough to save one from death.

The answer for the day is yes.

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7 thoughts on “Felting Ilya

  1. Thank you, Mum. I got all teary-eyed reading this–what a beautiful reminder about how amazing rescues can be, and that I need to vaccuum. Also, for the record, Ilya gets a walk EVERY day and NEVER gets pizza (though he begs atrociously.) I’m convinced that he and Jasper are soulmates. What furry, feltable blessings!

    But you forgot another rescue! Tecca was the rescue puppy that Drew and I raised. We found her next to a cold firepit and empty box of Busch Lite on the driveway of an abandoned marble quarry over a seldom used dirt road in northern Wisconsin. She couldn’t have been more than 8 weeks old. Just a week before, Drew had joked about naming our first dog Tectonics and we just happened to be on a Tectonics geology field trip that day. So, yes, Tecca is short for Tectonics.

    Tecca was a sick puppy, however. She had a funny waddle that we later found out was a sign of hip dysplasia and she was the scrawniest pup I’d ever seen (and after living with 13 GSPs, I thought I’d seen skinny.) Once, I saw her eat roundworms out of her own diarrhea like it was spaghetti. Gross as that was (and it was GROSS), the feces eating was more of a concern. It was one of the many symptoms Tecca had that all pointed to one diagnosis: exocrine pancreatic deficiency, or EPI. EPI results in nutrient imbalances because the afflicted dog cannot produce the right enzymes to properly process its food. By the time Tecca was 9 months old, she was starving to death while eating 5 cups of food a day. However, EPI is treatable with expensive powdered enzymes that she would have to eat at every meal. We decided to go through with it and rescue our rescue.

    We had Tecca’s enzymes on order when she died. While we were eating an outdoor dinner at the Sea Salt Cafe in Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park, Tecca choked. We had given her the blue ball–her favorite toy–because we thought it would calm her down in the crowd. All it did was make her chew harder. She chomped down on it so hard that the ball compressed and shot back into her throat. We tried and tried but the ball was lodged too far down to reach. Tecca suffocated, dying in our arms after not breathing for almost 20 minutes.

    Tecca died the day before she would have met Ilya. We were already thinking about adopting him, reasoning that dogs are social creatures. Tecca needed a packmate and Ilya needed a home pronto. But while suffering the trauma of Tecca’s passing, there was no way we could take in a crazy husky who thought his mouth was a microphone to shout orders. Drew and I still went over to my parents’ house the next morning, though. Mum asked if I wanted her to put Ilya outside or in the bedroom. I said no and that changed everything.

    Ilya has one blue eye and one brown eye. His golden-coffee brown eye is the exact shade and shape of Tecca’s. It totally weirded me out. I kept moving around the living room, focusing only on his almost-white blue eye. When I forgot to concentrate, and Ilya would move or look at me with his brown eye, I thought, somehow, Tecca had come back to us. I was wrong. Tecca was gone. But Ilya had come to us. A rescue to rescue us. Tecca was going to be our ring-bearer in our August wedding. Ilya took her place (though we didn’t actually entrust the rings to him, he did escort us down the aisle of his own volition.) Now I’m felting his fur, along with the fuzz of his happy-go-lucky packmate Jasper’s.

    We all need a rescue, some support, at some time. We have to remember to step up and help others who need rescuing, too. Thanks again, Mum, for reminding me of thoe lessons.

    • Ah, Sweetie, I didn’t forget Tecca! That’s why I “fast-forwarded to felting.” Tecca’s story is yours to tell and you tell it beautifully. I admire all the heart you and Drew have for rescue dogs and for proving that none are “unadoptable.” One day, Tecca will live on as the “littlest sled dog.” There was a throat-song the Inuit girls sang on their visit to Minnesota. One day I will follow your footsteps back to Baffin Island to write my second novel (after I finish the first!) and Tecca will have a role just as Bubbie does in the Miracle of Ducks. Thank you for all your support, rescuing me from suburbia and believing in my writer’s path!

  2. Pingback: June 10: Flash Fiction Challenge « Carrot Ranch Communications

      • I found the whole post fascinating. Not only the story of the rescue but the process of “felting”. I had no idea that felt was or could be made from dog hair. I love learning new things so this was a real eye-opener for me. I had probably never thought about what felt was made from. I need to learn to ask questions! 🙂

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