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Do not be fooled by the adorable cover of "Unraveling," or by its flippant subtitle ("What I learned about life while shearing sheep, dyeing wool, and making the world's ugliest sweater"). This witty, irreverent memoir is, at heart, extremely serious.

When COVID-19 hits and the country is locked down, Peggy Orenstein is not content simply to knit the days away. At 58, she's at a crossroads — her mother has died, her father has dementia, her daughter is about to leave for college, her husband is retiring. Her own frequent travels for speaking and book tours have come to a halt.

The third sheep Orenstein sheared, Martha, provided the wool for the sweater Orenstein later knitted.
The third sheep Orenstein sheared, Martha, provided the wool for the sweater Orenstein later knitted.

Courtesy of Peggy Orenstein

It occurs to Orenstein that the antidote for all this angst is to make a sweater from scratch. Not just knitting a sweater — she's an old hand at that, learning at the knee of her mother. But making one from the very rawest of raw materials. She decides to find a sheep, shear it, card the wool, spin and dye the yarn — and then knit the days away.

Tucked among these tasks, which she tackles with verve and writes about with breezy humor, are lessons about the origins of clothing, the importance of women's work and the enormous toll the garment industry takes on the environment. (Every second, more than 5,000 pounds of textiles are either dumped or burned — the real cost of cheap and abundant fashion.)

The work of women, Orenstein notes, has always been crucial to civilization yet underrated by historians and contemporaries. "Making something from nothing is the quintessential magic of women, whether turning fiber to thread or flour to bread or engaging in the ultimate creative act: conjuring new humans from nowhere at all."

Shearing a sheep is difficult, physical work. ("Why the hell couldn't I have stuck to sourdough?" she asks herself.) Carding the wool is the opposite — slow and sedentary. She uses the time to reconnect with her father in Minneapolis, watching reruns of Twins ballgames on TV with him via FaceTime.

It is when she begins to dye the wool that some of the most complex questions arise. Surely natural dyes are best, right? But using indigo requires such mammoth amounts of water that she, living in drought-stricken California, can't justify it. "A single pair of conventional denim jeans takes as much as fifteen hundred gallons of water to produce," she notes. To dye a few skeins of yarn, "I fill bucket after bucket after five-gallon bucket with water," she says. "Five gallons. Ten. Twenty. Forty."

Other colors aren't much friendlier. For years, the color purple required "a milky mucus extracted from the butts of a particular sea snail." It took 250,000 snails to produce one ounce of dye, and "archaeologists in Europe have excavated billions of discarded snail shells, in some places mounded over 150 feet high."

Orenstein’s finished sweater.
Orenstein’s finished sweater.

Courtesy of Peggy Orenstein

But synthetic dyes create a different kind of ecological disaster. "Factories in the countries where most of our garments are produced freely dump their wastewater ... right back into local rivers and lakes. ... Clothing production, especially dyeing and finishing, is, all by itself, responsible for a fifth of the world's industrial water pollution."

Orenstein never preaches — she ponders, mulling problems, admitting when there is no clear solution and always lightening the mood with her flippant, funny observations.

The sweater she eventually produces is a festival of stripes of all the colors she learned to dye. It weighs three pounds — too heavy for California, something she might wear "when I visit Minnesota. In the dead of February."

But it is also a symbol of all that she learned, and all that she accomplished. As is this book; Orenstein's upbeat voice and strong reporting make it an absolute delight to read.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. books@startribune.com

Unraveling

By: Peggy Orenstein.

Publisher: Harper, 224 pages, $27.99.