Every time Jeannie Sanke would brush her chow chow, Buster, she thought, "What a waste," as she ran her fingers through the tufts of soft hair she pulled out of the brush. Growing up with Labradors and shepherds, she remembers all the hair that was tossed in the trash or that wafted away. Sanke, who learned to knit when she was 5 years old, knew she'd figure out something to do with all that dog hair someday.
Nearly 25 years later, she was watching a TV show about knitting with dog hair and the lightbulb went off. Over Buster's lifetime, Sanke had kept all his hair, amassing five garbage bags of fluffy fur. Now she had a plan.
While visiting family in New Mexico, she found an artisan who would spin her dog hair into fiber.
"It was the softest yarn I had ever held in my life," Sanke, who lives in Chicago, tells MNN. "I started knitting myself a pullover. Once I actually wore it, it was extremely warm."
The dog hair gave the sweater a huge halo, she says, which is the cloud-like fuzziness or fluffiness that floats around the yarn.
"I really had an extreme reaction from people when I wore it," she says. "They were flummoxed when I told them it was dog hair. Very few people were grossed out by it. People were telling me stories about their dogs that had passed when they were touching the sweater and reacting with it."
Collecting hair across a dog's lifetime
At the time, Sanke was a program administrator for a small nonprofit organization, but she wasn't happy in her job. She was looking for another venture, so a friend pointed out she already had a business idea that could work.
She made the leap into the dog-hair knitting business, but things were relatively slow at first. She made a few items a year. Then, when a local Chicago TV station did a story on her work, word started to spread.
"What we really didn’t expect was how quickly social media would pick it up. That’s when it started snowballing," she says.
She now has an 18-month waiting list of customers hoping to have everything from ponchos and scarves to mittens and hats made from the hair of their four-legged best friends.
She takes orders on her Knit Your Dog website. Some of the more popular items include sweater cuffs (starting at about $85) and scarves (starting around $150).
"I get a lot of people who will email me, then send samples from dogs who had passed from a few days to several years before," Sanke says. "They've collected hair across the dog's entire life."
Not all dog hair is the same
If you have a shedding dog, no doubt you've looked at the piles of hair after brushing your pet and thought you could make a sweater from all that fur. But not all dog hair is the same, Sanke says.
"The cream of the crop is the Samoyed. Their hair is considered the gold standard," she says. "Any dog that is double-coated with long hair is good to spin."
Personally, Sanke loves chow chows as pets and as dog-hair knitting material. Pekingese hair is also beautiful, she says. Over the years, she's had great success with Newfoundlands, keeshonds and Saint Bernards. Golden retriever hair, she says, is "wonderful for the most part."
Your dog's hair might seem long when it's strewn all over your house, but compared with most wool breeds of sheep, it isn't. Sanke says even a long dog-hair fiber is only about 3 inches long, while sheep wool comes to about 12 to 14 inches.
If a dog's hair isn't long enough, or if she doesn't have enough of it, Sanke has to blend it with other animal fiber, like sheep. Even though husky and malamute hair is thick and plentiful, it may need to be blended because it's short.
When a dog's hair is too short, it might shed when you're wearing it, which would make it uncomfortable. You might not be able to wear your Jack Russell's hair as a sweater, but it can be made into a flat keepsake like a heart-shaped Christmas tree ornament, for example.
The only way to know for sure how a dog's hair will work is to try the first step of the process. Sanke requires that potential customers send her some dog hair so she can weave it into a swatch or a skein. She charges a small fee for that service, but most of that is applied toward your eventual item order.
"There's no way to know without sampling whether the dog's hair is going to give you a product you'll even want," she says. "That way everybody knows what they're working with. They can feel how it reacts with their skin and we know how much we need."
'I know it sounds crazy'
The most common question Sanke gets is, "Does it smell like dog when it gets wet?" She laughs. "No. Does your cashmere sweater smell like goat when it gets wet?"
The key, she says, is to thoroughly clean the hair before it's spun and woven. She has to wash it without agitating it, so the fibers don't mat and turn into felt. She uses the highest temperature she can with a gentle cleaning agent that won't damage the fiber. The hair goes through several washes to make sure all the oil, dander and dirt is removed. Then it's laid on a drying rack with each hair manually separated. And all that has to be done indoors with no fans so the dog hair doesn't go flying all about.
"It's incredibly labor intensive," she says.
Since she began doing this, Sanke has found that working with dog hair is a common topic in forums for people who spin fibers.
"I know it sounds crazy, but loads of people do this," she says. "There are tribes in the Pacific Northwest who kept dogs valued for their hair ... and many people believed that dog hair had healing properties."