The Dog in the Hat: A Christmas Story

My father is the impossible-to-shop-for member of my family, but this Christmas the gift he has been dreaming of for years will await him under the tree.

Although my mother may find its scent pas à son goût, for him it will evoke Proustian memories redolent of happy days spent in the company of his friend, Chester. Sadly, Chester died of cancer suddenly the summer before last, leaving dad devastated. His friend was not human, but he might as well have been: My father can distinguish between a person and a dog—in this instance it was a golden retriever—but he chooses to ignore the difference.

He had long exchanges with Chester, who regarded him with adulation, paw resting on his arm. Chester never talked back, unlike other cheeky members of the family, and so my father found this mode of communication the most rewarding.

The present he will receive on Christmas Day is a memento of his best friend: a hat knit from Chester’s fur. (I am referring here to the soft down, not the pelt.) The story of how I received the fur my father lovingly combed from his companion is a miracle, comparable in my mind to the birth of the Christ child.

You see, my mother disapproved of my father’s plan to have the down spun into a garment some day, because she said, frankly, it stank. He, however, found it odourless and hid it among his socks in his chest of drawers. Unfortunately, the cleaning lady smelled something rank about a year and a half later when she was returning clean socks to his drawer. Perplexed, she showed the fur bag to my mother, who immediately banished it to the garage, where its fate hung in the balance.

By coincidence, I phoned home in early December, a few days after this incident had occurred, to inquire about the controversial fibre, as I had discovered that fur spinners do, in fact, exist in Ontario. My mother could not believe that such people had set up shop and would handle the smelly stuff. Eventually, though, I convinced her, assuring her that it would be washed, and she reluctantly sent me the bag.

As soon as I received my father’s treasure, I shipped it off to Vera Forsythe, a spinner based in Grand Valley, who kindly agreed to make me a hat on short notice (cost: approximately $60). Later, I met with her colleague Marjorie Haist at the Signatures Christmas Craft Show in Toronto to discuss canine textile arts.

When I arrived at her booth, Marjorie explained that she actually specializes in mohair products, and that spinning dog hair, as it is called in her circle, is a sideline. She added that she refers to a garment made of canine down as containing “exotic fibre” to help sell it when it is not custom-ordered. I admired several of these items, including a beautiful pair of thick camel-coloured mittens handspun from 75 per cent Pekingese hair (deodorized) and 25 per cent mohair, as well as an unscented blue cableknit sweater made of 50 per cent Malamute and 50 per cent sheep’s wool. Wool must always be blended with the fur, because fur is very fine.

Marjorie and I chatted as I examined her wares. “How do you feel about people requesting dog-hair products?” I asked. “Do you think it’s odd?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “For me it’s a really good, long-wearing exotic fibre. It’s one of the better fibres to use, actually. It lasts twice as long as wool. Hair is a stronger fibre than wool. Mohair is the strongest fibre in the world. It was once used for train and plane seats.”

In relation to the virtues of the exotic fibre, I mentioned that Antonia Greenwood, owner of About Books, a store with an excellent selection of dog books, had told me about a man working by the DEW Line, whose wife had knit all his scarves, hats, socks and mittens from Samoyed fur. They kept him warmer than wool, a fact that did not surprise my spinning expert.

The most popular garment request? “Most people go for poodle hats, which they wear skiing,” she said. These are tuques made from poodle hair with the face of the breed emblazoned on them. The likeness is not customized; rather, it is a generic representation.

Until this point I had been concentrating on my interviewee’s face. However, the surreal turn in our conversation caused my gaze to drift upward and I noticed she was sporting a wool headband, with what I figured was a poodle on it. Only, to me, the face resembled Mickey Mouse’s. Suddenly, I felt as if I were in Disneyland, or the closest I ever got to it as a child, which was the Bell Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. Thanks to Ma Bell, I reached the Celebrity Rodent on the hot line. I couldn’t believe my luck: I had managed to catch my hero at home in his castle!

After this momentary flashback, I wrapped up the interview. On my way home, I was reminded of an anecdote my friend Sheila, a computer whiz, had related. She once logged on to a textiles-news group, where a California woman had written about a friend of her old weaving instructor. The man had decided to knit himself a sweater from his long-haired dog, which was alive at the time. He did not wash the hair. Consequently, the animal was “VERY confused” when he wore the sweater. So, if you are a do-it-your-selfer, deodorize the fur to protect your pet from having an existential crisis over the Yuletide, and have a Merry Christmas or a happy holiday, as the case may be.

This piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Since the time of writing, Vera and Marjorie have retired from spinning. Those still interested in pursuing wearable mementos of their own loved ones can find out how by contacting Nancy Verbeek, a spinner based in Cambridge, Ontario. Her telephone number is 519.624.4955.

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