Evanston business Knit Your Dog celebrates the art of spinning dog hair


Catherine Kim/Daily Senior Staffer

Jeannie Sanke poses with her dog Kaya next to her spinning wheel. Sanke runs Knit Your Dog, a business that will turn dog hair into knitted garments.

Catherine Kim, Monthly Editor

When Jeannie Sanke sits down at the wooden spinning wheel located in the center of her living room, she talks about the hand cramps caused by countless hours of spinning yarn. She lays her palms out as proof and says it will take about two years to catch up with the backlog in orders. The items that are in demand: hand-knitted garments made out of dog hair.

The art of spinning dog hair isn’t new. Also known as chiengora, the textile dates back to prehistoric Scandinavia but remained widely unknown around Chicago until Sanke opened an Etsy shop for her business, Knit Your Dog, in 2014.

Business was slow until she found unexpected fame through 60 Second Docs, a popular YouTube documentary channel that featured her in 2017 — and her business hasn’t slowed down since. She’s attracted customers from all over the world, including Canada, Britain and South Africa. The popularity of a gif featuring her with the caption “Man, white people just do the craziest things” is just an inconvenient side-effect.

“I just keep thinking, people must have better things to do,” she said. “I’m just an old woman with a spinning wheel and a dog.”

Sanke’s house displays how her business has recently gotten out of hand. Her small apartment, located by the Howard station, is more of a workshop than a home. There’s a tall stack of orders on her office desk. A huge cart, filled with cleaning utensils, takes up most of the kitchen. Every surface of her living room is covered with bags of dog hair — chow chow, husky, golden retriever, you name it. Any inch that isn’t covered with the hair of other people’s dogs is coated with the gold and orange fur of her own dog, Kaya, a mixed chow chow that sits by her side the entire interview.

57-year-old Sanke first heard about chiengora in 1995, when FX’s “The Pet Department” introduced the book “Knitting with Dog Hair.” As a long-time dog lover — she’s grown up with dogs her entire life — she was fascinated by the concept and immediately bought a copy. For the next 19 years, Sanke collected the hair of her black chow chow Buster, waiting for someone who could turn the material into clothing. She ended up filling 12 large grocery bags before she met a chiengora spinner in 2013.

The first time she held a sweater knitted with Buster’s hair was a moment of awe, Sanke said. It was the softest piece of fabric she’d ever touched.

“It’s beyond fuzzy,” she said. “It almost shimmers in the air and has such a big halo.”

Mesmerized by the fabric, Sanke learned the art of spinning dog hair herself. It’s a process that requires a lot of time and labor, she said. Clients will send in hair that’s been harvested by brushing. In order to prevent the hair from matting in the water, she can only wash 50 grams of the fur at a time — a standard sweater weighs about 450 grams. After spinning the washed hair on her wooden wheel — which she’s named Lupe — she knits the yarn into clothing. The whole process can take up to six months. The price reflects the labor: Sweaters can cost up to $1100.

Those who own chiengora garments think it’s worth every penny. Beth Rivelli, who received a white winter hat from Sanke, said the headpiece is both soft and warm. Although the hat often receives compliments, Rivelli said she’s also used to people cringing when they learn the source of the fabric — but she’s learned to laugh them off.

“Every time I get around my family, when I’m wearing my hat, the first thing they do is go ‘woof, woof,’” she said. “It’s become a good source of jokes and laughter because it’s unusual in our culture.”

And while dog-hair garments are fashionable garments for customers like Rivelli, they also carry sentimental value for many of Sanke’s clients. A large portion of her customers are people who held onto their deceased dog’s hair out of grief, she said. These clients experience a “huge emotional release” with Sanke’s services.

“It’s, in some ways, more powerful than a memory because you can touch it. You can feel it,” she said. “They’re still physically here in some way.”

Humans aren’t the only ones that experience grief. The garments can also be used to console a dog that’s lost a companion, Sanke said. When Buster died, her other dog Fuzzy — a small orange Pekingese whose picture she still keeps framed on the wall — developed a heart disease and stopped growing hair. As a solution, Sanke said she knitted Fuzzy a sweater out of Buster’s fur.

“Buster kept him warm for the rest of his life,” she said. “I didn’t take that sweater off of Fuzzy until he died.”

Because she knows how special the garments are for some clients, Sanke works closely with them throughout the entire process. Nikki Pelance, one of her customers from Indiana, said Sanke has always been attentive and sweet when knitting the hair of several of her dogs. They now have a bond, she said, and Pelance even sent Sanke a Christmas card where she wore mittens bought from Knit Your Dog.

But continuing the business hasn’t always been easy, especially when she lost three of her other dogs — Chloe, Clarence and Shadow — in the span of eight months. Starting with Chloe in August 2018, Clarence died the following February and Shadow in April. During that period, the business came to a halt.

When she talks about the Shed Squad, which is her nickname for her furry dogs, the grief is still fresh. She points to pictures of the dogs that are scattered all over her wall and says that even breathing became difficult when her last dog died.

The grief would have been unbearable if not for Kaya, her large orange chow chow who occasionally drops her favorite fox doll at Sanke’s feet throughout the interview. Two days after Shadow’s death, the pair met each other at the Evanston Animal Shelter, where Sanke went to donate her leftover dog food. She never planned on adopting a dog that day but instantly fell in love with the orange chow chow. Sanke calls Kaya her “grief therapist,” and with her new companion’s help, she’s slowly eased back into making garments for other people who have experienced the same painful loss of a pet.

Although Sanke’s lost a few furry friends along the way, she’s looking to expand the business by hiring more workers and moving the business out of her home into an actual workspace. The work may be hard, she said, but it’s a labor of love.

“People really want and need this comfort,” she said. “The world is a really, really nasty, awful place right now. And this puts a little bit of kindness back in.”

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Twitter: @ck_525