Sheep to Shawl

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Sheep to Shawl

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I’ve had a spell of time–an entire summer, really–where the Ugly really got to me.

That’s not quite right. It wasn’t one Ugly, it was all the Uglies. A torrent of Uglies. A cascade of Uglies.

When the Uglies rally, they form a tight circle around me and lock arms so I can’t get out. They hum, horribly, so no other sound gets in.

What does a person do when surrounded by Uglies?

In my case, the same things I do when they’re not there. I kept knitting. I kept teaching knitting. I walked the dog, bought books, made supper.

I figure I look and sound pretty normal to most folks, even when I’ve got the Uglies. But most folks don’t look or sound normal to me. They go all flat and pale, like faded paper dolls. Everything fades. Yarn. Books. Sometimes I buy more of both, too much of both, hoping to spark enough energy to chase the Uglies away. It doesn’t work.

I went for the first time to a national weaving conference. The Uglies came with me. I thought a few days in a new city, away from work, would shake them off. They met me at baggage claim.

There was a lot of cool stuff at the weaving conference. I was with nice friends, looking at pretty textiles. There were looms and books and (of course) yarns I hadn’t seen before.

People kept asking if I was having fun. I said yes. I bought yarn and books. Everyone and everything seemed further and further away. Harder to see and hear. The world was in the dark at the other end of a long tunnel, or behind dirty glass.

I left my room one day to take a look at the conference’s Sheep to Shawl competition. I had been stuck in the room for an entire day, trying in vain to sort out a major project that had gone horribly awry in my absence. I was angry. My head and back ached. I could feel that my face had frozen into a grimace.

The Sheep to Shawl competition took up one end of the market hall. This is how they work.

Competitors assemble in teams. The size of teams may vary from five members to a dozen; but they will all include some who card or comb, others who spin, and at least one designated weaver. Each team begins with a fleece, spinning wheels, and a loom. The goal is to transform the wool from fiber, to yarn, to a high-quality shawl within a strict time frame–usually eight to twelve hours of a single day.

I have taught at dozens of events that have included a Sheep to Shawl, but of course I’m always stuck in my classroom. I never get more than a glimpse of the teams at work, and I never get to see what the shawls look like, or find out who wins.

That day, still grimacing, I wandered among the teams. I felt dimly aware of clacking and whirring. My vision was foggy.

I watched two women from the Sacramento team feed their wool carefully into a wooden carder. They were smiling, focused. As the wool emerged, they encouraged the cloud off the prickly drum and passed it to the spinners. The spinners were also smiling, focused. Card, card, spin, spin. The spun yarn went onto bobbins for the weaver, and the cheerful weaver tromped and threw and beat, tromped and threw and beat.

There was almost no talking. Still, all the women in the little pens holding the teams were happy and connected. You could almost hear their network of thoughts, like the buzzing of electric wire. Card, spin, weave. Card, spin, weave. From me, to you, to her.

And the shawls grew, and the shawls were beautiful.

The looms were beautiful, and so were the wheels, the carders, and the busy hands and bright eyes in calm faces. They liked each other, these women. They were working hard, happy in their work, happy to be together, proud of themselves.

And the shawls grew, and the shawls were beautiful.

Sheep to Shawl

The whir and the clack and the fuzz and the faces and hands started to merge, until suddenly they became one thing. A ball, glowing warm like the sun, but friendlier. I could look at it and my eyes didn’t didn’t sting.

Then I was crying.

After so many months of ugly everywhere–people fighting, angry people yelling, hurt people sobbing, people shaking with worry, people shaking angry fists–here in this room, right now, women were joining together to make beauty and comfort.

It felt good, while it lasted, to remember that humans band together to create almost as readily as they band together to crush. If we can turn fleece into fabric, we can turn chaos into order. And the same spinning wheel that carries us down today will lift us up tomorrow.

Hang on tight.

Franklin Habit

Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and

He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

Visit him at


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  • Wow. Great essay. Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for this. I needed it.

  • I really needed this today. I am so very grateful to you for writing it.

  • Oh, Franklin! You are a beautiful soul.

  • Thank you so much for such a wonderful essay! We all have uglies in our lives, and yours sound terrible, but here was an opportunity to get rid of them and obviously the ‘sheep to shawl’ competition did a wonderful job for you. I’m so glad too, because your humor helps many of us get rid of our own uglies! Thank you!

    p.s., I live in Sacramento

  • Franklin, thank you for your wonderful tribute to “sheep to shawl”. I’ve been involved with sheep and, of course. sheep to shawl, weaving, knitting and everything else connected to it for almost 40 years. We have always known we could get rid of the “uglies” this way and I’m so glad it helped get rid of yours. Can’t tell you how many crises I’ve weathered at my spinning wheel. It’s grounding, it’s connecting, it’s creative, it’s heart warming, it’s loving, it’s respectful to nature and being real, and it transcends artificial boundaries like, money, politics and everything else that can get ugly. So happy you finally got to experience it. Love knitting with my handspun wool, too. Warmest greetings from Canada! Thank you again.

  • Thank you! I couldn’t put a description to what I have been dealing with and, thanks to your beautiful words, now I can. Thank you again, so very much.

  • This was a lovely meditation on a state of mind that can come over any of us, and an elegant way out of it. Thank you.

  • Love to you.

  • Wow! Beautiful essay. And a good thing to remember. We’ve seen a lot of ugly stuff recently, but we need to remember there is a lit of beauty, too.

  • I get the uglies, too. You have described them so well. And the good news is, we have survived. Beauties slip in between and below and above the uglies and drag us out again. Cling to the beauties. Look for them (I know you do.) I am so glad that beauty found you one more time.

  • Thank you – being part of only-my-second sheep to shawl competition at my first-time-finally at HGA Convergence this summer was a great time, and in the best of company! It was good to see you there. Glad some of these warm hearts shining were able to grin with you and send Joy through the Uglies, may they scatter and dissipate.

  • I’m crying, too, imagining all those women working in teams to execute some complicated plans and persuade beautiful things come into the world.

    Offering one thought — I think we actually band together to get ‘er done quite a bit more often than not. Look how often most things just … work. Your airplane got you there. The hotel got cleaned every day. There was electricity. There was water. There was food. For all of our nasty ways (and goodness knows we have way too many nasty ways!), most of us spend most of our time working with others and taking care of business.

    sign me Grateful for all the Ways Franklin Habit Brightens this Planet (knitting, reading, writing, teaching, Dolores, Foxe and Boxe and their abode, etc…..)

  • Thank you for writing about your own Uglies. At times, I feel like mine come with a backup band and singers, where they push all the good news/people just out of reach and hearing. It’s nice to know I’m not alone

  • Love how you describe it. Your writing is amazing! Huge Hug, mostly for me 😉

  • Thank you for this lovely piece, Franklin!! I sometimes despair at humanity, but then I read something like this and I remember that their are wonderful humans in the world after all.

  • Thanks Franklin, for sharing your heart. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, especially when the uglies are around. It is a reminder to the rest of us that we are not alone. It warms my heart to hear that you saw the beauty through it all. May you have more days of sunshine than clouds!☀️❤️

  • As one of those ladies spinning away and smiling at you as you watched, I am glad to have helped you lose those uglies!

  • What those teams were to you? You are to so many people. Keep on keeping on and know that you bring joy.

  • Thank you for an essay that is so meaningful, and much needed. It gave a respite, if only for a bit of time, from the machinations of the outside world. I’ve been focusing on sports to make a new reality for me, while I knit like crazy. Another bright spot for me is my first grandchild who arrived yesterday in the midst of the chaos. Here’s hoping we get things right long before she is old enough to know the depressing state of affairs we are living through right now.

  • Thank. you.

  • You’ve brought tears to my eyes. Such a beautiful essay, Franklin.

    I hope the Uglies are completely chased away…and stay away. You’ve brought too much beauty to us all to be bothered by the Uglies.

  • Thank you for this .

  • I love this , Franklin. Thank you so much.

  • You have described how I have been feeling the past few months. Well, maybe a little longer. Thank you for expressing things so eloquently.

  • Thank you for reminding us of how the act of creating can have such a positive impact on the soul!

  • I recognize the Uglies. They are unfortunately a part of my life. You described them so well. And also the beauty of the women, working with smiles and not words. making something Beautiful!

  • Thank you. I call my Uglies the grey fog that just comes down and covers me. I used to see it as a protective coating and now I see it as making me blind.

  • Thank you so much.

  • I am so very pleased that I was able to read this story. It is so meaningful and inspiring to me;
    Thank you so much

  • I think of the Uglies as my frequency lowering, fully sunk into 3-D. My Life Force energy is barely there. Then something triggers my spirit to soar again. I think of the World of Beauty as 5-D.

  • During a time when the Uglies keep meeting me at my car every morning, I thank you as well.

  • Yes! If only more people could get rid of the Uglies the world would be a better place.

  • What a beautiful sentiment and story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Wow. Just wow. This was amazing. Thank you for the honesty. Thank you for the beauty.

  • Thank you for your writing. It was particularly directed at what i have been going through but instead of the uglies I call it the mullygrubs. Today just before i read your essay, things started to turn around for me. Thank you for pulling me out of my uglies at a time when i really needed some sunshine!

  • This was fantastic!

  • Hang on Sloopy Sloopy hang on!

  • Thank you for this amazing essay. May you continue to find the beauties.

  • Thank you for a much needed dose of optimism.

  • I have the uglies right now. Thank you for reminding me I am not alone. And this too shall (eventually) pass, yoshimi


  • My most recent ugly is Hurricane Michael on October 10th and beauties are the two gorgeous sunny days that following (even with all the clean up and recovery still to do).

  • You made me cry! But it is a good cry! Thank you!

  • This has been a dark year for me and my family. Be strong, my friend.

  • I “fell” on this post and am grateful to however I fell………thank you.

  • Thank You Franklin Habit…

  • I too get the uglies. You described them spot-on. Thanks for the beautiful story.

  • Very touched by this. Thank you.

  • Beautifully written. We all need beauty and love to counter the nastiness we see all to often.i

  • This had been a crazy spring and summer and I kept thinking it was the worst one ever…not in any major way but with everything that could go wrong, going wrong. When I started reading sheep to shawl and your reference to the uglies , I found myself smiling because it was a perfect description of how I had been feeling so many times. We had a lot of work being done at our house…landscaping, masonry, etc. and at times I was literally surrounded by ugliness…the uglies seemed to be with me every day for a long while but I have found little bits of beauty showing through now just as you found the beautiful shawls and the beauty of those creating them together.
    Thank you for a touching reminder of how we all have to deal with the uglies and that the beauty is always there if we look for it.

  • Thank you so much, Franklin. It’s been a couple years of uglies. I too keep knitting. Prayer shawls for cancer patients, hats for preemies, blankets for newborns. One day at a time, and sometimes the light shines through.


  • Your piece.helps me to have a new perspective on the state of things in our country today and it seems like everyday. I get surrounded by the uglies and forget to look for the beauty. I’ll do my best to keep looking for the beauty of people working together. Thanks for this piece. Timely and necessary! I’m glad you’re coming out on the outside of the uglies.

  • I was one of those women you watched that day, and I love the way you describe it. You really did peg exactly how we fell as we fluff and spin and weave, it is always an exhausting and exhilarating experience for each of us. Win or lose we love being with our friends and creating something beautiful together.

  • I see my “uglies” as a black hole. The sides are slick and polished like marble. There is no bottom to the hole. Unless someone reaches out to you, you just keep falling.Sometimes, that person is an individual, sometimes it’s a group. A group of people. People who enjoy the same thing. They pay no attention to things that normally divide us. We are united by the love of one thing. Yarn. The rhythm of knitting, crochet, or weaving calms the nerves and brings a feeling of peace to all who participate. Having a hobby like this improves physical, mental, and physical health. Thank you for your article.

  • Yes.


  • Thank you for your writing Franklin. I have on quite a few occasions gone to read you here, on your blog, and on the maker’s mercantile and watched your craftsy classes because aside from learning a lot from you, I also get the uglies, and you are a source of comfort and joy and laughter for me. It is good to be reminded that making things of beauty isn’t a waste of time, but taps into something vital at our very core, and can be an antidote to a lot of the pain and ugliness around. I am so thankful for your presence in the knitting community and the unique ways that you enrich it. All my best to you.

  • Reminds me of the story of the Warm Fuzzies and the Cold Pricklies. Thank you for sharing.

  • Beautifully written. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this, it was lovely.

  • What I really needed right now. Thank you Franklin. Helps me to know that I’m not alone with my uglies. You lifted me up.

  • thank you. when the uglies are here, my only saving grace is sight. beauty in the world, from color to textures are what saves me.

  • I am so glad I found this essay this morning! You can be sure I will be sharing it with others. With political and social tensions at an all-time high , words of comfort like these are sorely needed. This essay is like walking a labyrinth, walking in the woods, cuddling a baby., a breath of fresh air. Soothing. It is a soothing construction of thoughts and words that wrap me up in a warm, safe place. I am grateful you took the time to offer yourself to others.

  • Well done, you! –AGAIN!!!

  • So perfect. Thank you

  • A friend of mine, and maybe you know her too, Amy Detjen, was just saying that the other day too. I told her that when The Uglies come for me, I turn OFF the TV and delve into a project. It brings me Peace, Beauty and A Sense of Accomplishment in this crazy world and helps me to sleep until the morrow.

  • Thank you so much for this beautiful piece. ❤️ I run programs which address using knitting with intention as a therapeutic tool for health and wellness in body, mind, and spirit. I am blessed to “midwife”, witness and participate in Fiber craft shining gently through the “uglies” on an almost daily basis. Thank you for putting such articulate and elegant language around the way Fiber crafting can ground and connect us. I will be sharing your essay as widely as I can!

  • Oh, Franklin, I have always enjoyed your humor. Now I love your heart. What a wonderfully creative picture of the effects of ugliness and beauty on our souls. A few days ago I resolved that building bridges would be the yardstick for my actions. With your essay, I will also purpose to consciously add as much beauty as I can. Thank you.

  • Wow. The fog just lifted a little. Thank you.

  • This is beautiful.

  • thankyou
    Thankyou Franklin for all that you do but especially this beautiful essay, which sums up exactly what so many of us suffer, please keep on helping and supporting, we love you . xoxoxoxo

  • Thank you! I’m printing this and putting it in my datebook for frequent reading.

  • When I read the first sentence of your essay, I thought oh someone else had the same summer. But lovely people pulled me out of the Uglies, and now it’s my turn to turn around and pull someone else out of the Uglies. Thank you for your essay, and have a wonderful fall.

  • The uglies is a new term to me but it is so apt. They deprive us of our senses so we need the softest most beautiful materials to work with when they strike. The most flavoursome food to eat and the most amazing music to listen too. We all need our first aid kit for the uglies.
    Thank you Franklin

  • Thank you Franklin! I am so happy someone else sees and understands how individuals working together in peace and quiet joy can be the change we all need for ourselves. Nothing like wool to show us how! Well written, thank you for sharing such a personal experience…most of are in our Uglies now days and it helps that you share this with us.

  • Thanks I needed that uplifting essay. Good to have you back Franklin.
    God bless you,
    Mary Cole

  • I felt so alone surrounded by uglies. Now I know where to look for beauties. Thanks so very much

  • I too get the uglies! I have a husband with dementia, and when I get the uglies, I go to my knit group at the library. When I see all the lovely things my friends have made , the sunshine returns to my life.. Thank you for your essay! I seem to have more patience with my husband afterwards.

  • Thank you for putting this so eloquently. It put a smile on my face.

  • Thank you, Franklin, this was such a welcome and kindly description of the struggles we so often face.
    I, also, think that your description of Sheep to Shawl is a parallel to a meditation. I go to the Christine Center
    in Willard, Wisconsin to improve my meditation practice.

  • A well needed wake up call. I’ve needed to find a way out of the Uglies too.

  • Thank you, once again, Franklin, for your insight. Thank you for ‘sharing’ your ‘uglies’ – we all,
    at times, encounter nasty people/nasty situations – thank heavens we have fiber & crafting to
    help lift us up once again. You are an amazing writer – your writing has lifted me up and sent
    me into gales of laughter many a time. Perhaps YOU need someone who does that for you!
    Keep on plugging away – there are many who appreciate you!

  • Thanks so much. Very touching and so true that there is so much ugly out there right now.

  • Thank you. This piece was very inspiring.

  • Beautiful. Relatable.

  • Thank you. It seems that we are surrounded by the ugliness of the world.. It is so good to be reminded of the beauty that is also there. We may just have too look a little harder for it but we will always be rewarded.

  • Thanks for writing. Don’t let the uglies keep you down!

  • What a powerful essay. Thank you.

  • Thank you so much, Franklin, for such a wonderful and descriptive essay. Playing music with friends used to chase the Uglies away for me but now my hands don’t work so well. They’ve been closing in again–I must try picking up my guitar and see if I can pull some sounds from it.

  • Franklin, thank you for this well-written article.

  • Thank you Franklin, We;ve all been there. Glad you got out. I’ll remember your experience next time the Uglies are following me. Thanks so much.

  • Thank you.

  • thank you for sharing this. It’s beautiful and touching, but most of all, it probably took a lot of courage to write. It’s going to help me, and I guess a lot of people.

  • I wish I could hold you and say all will be ok….and maybe better..(???) I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for almost 2 years and hope to exhale soon. I’m enjoying being ultra kind and helpful to others, to chase away the Uglies.

  • Beautifully written. xoxo

  • I’ve had slices of time that so completely bogged me down in fog that all I could manage was a plain scarf in as glorious a color as I could find. I threw in some beads here and there, randomly…all to help soothe me, give me something lovely to look at, and a sense of accomplishment. It’s so sad that our world feel so destabilized and disparate right now. I keep my head down, try to stay calm and focused on things I can control and change. My favorite saying right now: In a world where you can be anything, be kind! I smile at strangers wherever I go, and hope that smile might lift their hearts just a little. It certainly helps lift mine..

  • Thank you for sharing. I hope you’ve managed to keep the uglies at bay.

  • Hang in there, Franklin! It is harder and harder to find joy an beauty today, but it is out there. I mostly crochet, but crocheting and related activities help to banish the Uglies. I recently crocheted while canoeing down river here in Fl, with two handsome men paddling. My vision of the world was much improved.

  • Bless you, sir. Bless you for reminding me that creating beauty is important.

  • Misty eyed here. Reaching my hand for yours, and hers, and hers and his, and all of us… If we all hold together, support each other, love each other – we can, indeed, hold tight and make it through together. Thanks for this moving article.

  • These others have said it much better than I, but thank you.

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