Keeping your pet forever
Community of artists makes hand-spun wool out of cat and dog fur for keepsake items
After I learned that Frances, my 13-yearold black cat, was dying of heart disease — her heart is too large, beating too fast — my first impulse was to think about how best to commemorate her, when the time came.
To distract myself from a vague but grave prognosis, I took my anxiety to Google, where I found the grief space thoroughly disrupted by all manner of modern memento mori (the Latin term for an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death).
Would I like her turned into a diamond? Tattoo ink? I wasn’t so sure. And after the vet bills, I probably couldn’t afford it.
But on Etsy, there is a much more affordable alternative: a community of artists offering a form of hand-spun healing called chiengora. The word is a portmanteau of “chien,” the French word for dog, and “angora,” the name given to yarn spun from the soft belly fur of the Angora rabbit. “Catgora” is yarn from cats.
For Theresa Furrer, 45, of Nine Lives Twine, spinning cat and dog hair into yarn and woven keepsakes has become a full-time job. She works an average of 60 hours a week in her home’s converted third-floor studio, she said, kept company by two hairless sphynx cats (Fergus and Poppy), her beloved taxidermied Devon Rex cat (Cleo) and Cleo’s 20year-old sister (Lupe).
“I look at it as my ministry,” Furrer said. “If I’m able to help someone’s heart to heal, that’s the goal.”
In 2013, while on bed rest after donating a piece of her liver to her father, Furrer, a lifelong knitter and crocheter, took out an old spinning wheel purchased on a whim. A vegan for several decades, Furrer doesn’t wear sheep’s wool and didn’t want to spin it, either.
So she crowdsourced cat and dog fur, figuring she would learn that way. She spun her first skein of chiengora with hair harvested from a customer’s deceased black poodle, Rose.
“Poodle is the worst dog to spin,” Furrer said of the notoriously difficult matted curls. “I was like, ‘If I can get this poodle, I can do anything.’ ”
At any given time, Furrer has up to a dozen different pieces of work in various stages of the yarn-making process; yarns start at $23 (U.S.) an ounce. In addition to spinning yarn, she will triple-wash finished skeins and sometimes combines pet fur with a support fiber, which can help extend a limited quantity of fur into a usable amount of yarn, as well as helping with breathability.
Furrer’s favourite fur to spin comes from husky dogs, malamutes and Great Pyrenees.
“Their cortical and cuticle cellular structure is perfect for yarn,” she said.
Cat fur felts almost upon contact and rarely comes in great quantity, but she will do it, often supplementing with a supporting fiber, like alpaca or bamboo fiber, to produce a soft skein.
She will also knit for her customers who don’t know how to: Scarves, blankets, pillows, mittens, headbands and even stuffed teddy bears are available for an additional fee.
Although these products may sound strange, bereavement keepsakes made from hair aren’t new. Mourning jewelry fashioned from a braided lock of a loved one was fashionable in Victorian and Georgian times, worn as rings or in lockets.
And it’s not just people in the United States getting in on the trade. From the Black Forest in Germany, Anke Bawa, 58, wrote by email: “I was astonished how often people with loss of a loved pets use my service,” said Bawa, another chiengora spinner.