A skein of Buffalo Gold
Buffalo Gold
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Yarn Profile:
Buffalo Gold #11

First Impressions
I've wanted to write about Buffalo Gold since I first saw it about two years ago, but my fingers told me to hold off until the yarn was ready. I am happy to report that the yarn is more than ready—in the case of Buffalo Gold #11, it's almost perfect.

Cecil Miskin and his son Ron may not be knitters (although Ron admits to casting on a pair of Maine Morning Mitts once), but they are genuinely passionate about making the very best possible yarn they can out of American bison fiber.

A lawyer by trade, Cecil moved to Texas some 30 years ago and bought a ranch. After raising all sorts of animals, Cecil became particularly intrigued by the American bison (commonly but unofficially called "buffalo"—true buffalo are from Africa or India and produce no usable fiber). Every spring, these animals naturally shed their heavy winter coats, and Cecil began collecting the fibers. On a whim, he posted a four-pound batch of those fibers on eBay and they sold for $240. And that's when his real fiber journey began.

Bison were long a keystone species of the Great Plains before being hunted to near extinction by the 1870s. Careful preservation and reintroduction efforts have brought the American bison population back to near 400,000 today—of which some 55,000 animals per year are slaughtered for the thriving bison meat industry.

Cecil noticed that the bison meat industry was not as interested in the hides. In fact, those hides (with their delicate down fibers) were often simply destroyed.

He made it his mission to transform that waste into gold, consulting everyone from research scientists to leather experts as he developed a gentle and effective way to remove hairs from the hides. Once he had the fiber extraction part figured out, he started consulting yarn experts, slowly and steadily experimenting with different processors and mills, twists and plies, in his quest for a perfect yarn.

Every time I'd run into Cecil or Ron at a festival, they'd pull me aside and show me their latest experiment. With each skein, I could see clear improvements. And although I admired their perseverance, I still held back on a review. Finally, I touched their Buffalo Gold #11, an ethereal two-ply lace-weight that was dehaired and carded by the only equipment on the planet that's delicate enough to do the job right, and I knew they'd made it. The yarn is not only ready for a review, it is leaping off the shelf and begging for a run on my needles.

The chocolate brown color you see in the above photographs is exactly as the animal grows it. This yarn has not been dyed or bleached and is not available in any other colors.

Knitting Up
You can tell a lot about a yarn company by its hanks. Some companies will secure the yarn ends in tight knots that strangle the skein and leave a tight mark across all the strands after you manage to get them undone. And sometimes the smaller companies will take the time to tie each end with a slip-knot so you can easily pop it off and start skeining.

But this is the first time I have encountered a skein that didn't even have tied ends—they just wrapped the ends around the hank a few times and then tucked them underneath. (They did add a few cross-ties that were easily popped off.)

The fiber in this yarn has been processed with great care. In only a few cases did I spot a slightly longer, more unruly hair sticking out. The yarn had no qualms about being asked to knit stockinette, producing even stitches with nary a snag to be found. But it really wanted to work lace, which it did with absolute ease. (Sorry, I can't tell you what I'm knitting—it's a surprise!)

Blocking / Washing
My swatches instantly surrendered to their warm soapy bath, relaxing and softening like wet tissues but without ever losing their fundamental structure. A nice bonus with this fiber is that it does not felt. I gave my swatches a nice vigorous wash and rinse before blotting them on a towel and setting them out to dry.

My swatches blocked back to a perfect shape, with no change in gauge whatsoever. And best of all, the fibers had bloomed beautifully without overpowering or concealing the stitches underneath—which is ideal for lacework where you want a halo but you don't want to lose the open architecture of your stitches.

Wearing
While American bison fiber won't felt, this particular yarn is a little more delicate than the others. That's because you have two extremely fine plies of short fibers twisted together, and, if you give the yarn a reasonable tug, you'll pull it apart—as with most short-fibered two-ply lace yarns.

Since most of us don't use lace in rugged, high-wear projects, I don't see this as much of a show-stopper. But it's something to keep in mind if you happen to be wearing your Buffalo Gold shawl and accidentally brush up against a splintered fence post while out checking on your bison herd.

In terms of touch, this yarn is extremely soft and lightweight, with excellent insulating qualities.

Conclusion
American bison fibers are very short and have a high degree of crimp, which makes them hard to regulate during drafting and spinning. For heavier plied yarns, you don't have to worry as much about any thicker or thinner spots because they tend to even themselves out with plying. But to achieve such a smooth and fine two-ply laceweight yarn as this one is sheer mastery.

The yarn's high price—$84 per 400-yard skein—reflects its best-of-breed processing choices. After skirting and scouring the fibers themselves in Texas, they send the fibers to Peru to be dehaired and carded at the same facility that processes qiviut, guanaco, and vicuna fibers for Jacques Cartier. From there, the fibers go to Italy to be spun, and are then returned to Texas for final inspection before making their way out to stores.

All that travel does leave a bit of a carbon footprint that may concern some knitters. Buffalo Gold #11 has more stamps on its passport (and costs more) than the other Buffalo Gold yarns, which are produced in Canada (Buffalo Gold #5), Michigan (Buffalo Gold #4 and #7s), and Connecticut (Buffalo Gold #6).

While far less than qiviut, Buffalo Gold #11 is still a bit more expensive than, say, your average cashmere lace-weight yarn, but cashmere processing is much more streamlined, which reduces costs. In terms of American bison fiber, Cecil and Ron—and another person I'll introduce next week—are pretty much figuring it out as they go along.

I'm willing to pay a little more for the experience of knitting with such a skillfully created yarn—even if for just one truly memorable shawl. I also like being able to put faces to the people who harvested the fibers I'm knitting—and to know that they really do care whether or not I'm happy with the results. But ultimately I admire the ongoing commitment and persistence that Cecil and Ron have demonstrated in striving to make a better product. It makes me wonder where they'll take us next.

 

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