Designer Chat With Hannah Thiessen

Just back from a whirlwind adventure in Uruguay, Hannah Thiessen stops by to tell us about her summertime experience as an intern for Malabrigo, the country’s leading yarn producer.  A freelance knitwear designer from the States with a fine arts degree, Hannah made the trip to Uruguay for a firsthand look at how some of our favorite yarns are made.  Her journey took her to the bustling capital- Montevideo, a city rich in architectural and cultural heritage, and home to the Malabrigo headquarters where she wore a multitude of hats- Product Development, Creative Director, In-House Designer, Blog Writer and Customer Service.  Hannah also spent time touring through the lush countryside to Paysandu, to visit the Malabrigo sheep ranches and see where it all begins.

Malabrigo- literally means ‘poorly dressed’, the company is named after a small town where the weather is so cold, people knit to keep themselves warm.  

Hannah Thiessen

Hannah sits down to share a behind the scenes look at Malabrigo and the spirit of the yarns we all love to knit.

MM:  Thanks so much for dropping in to share your summer story with us, would you like some tea or coffee? 

HT:  I would love a mocha, actually!  I used to work as a barista so I am pretty partial to espresso.

MM:  Working as a Malabrigo intern this summer in Montevideo, Uruguay, wow!  Now that is a dream job.  How did it all come about?

HT:  I used to be an administrator for the group Malabrigo Junkies on Ravelry.  During my time administrating the group I was able to talk with Antonio, he is the head dyer for Malabrigo.  Sometimes members would ask me questions about what colourways they had in their stashes, due to missing tags, etc. and I was really good at identifying and remembering even the slightest differences between colourways.  One day, Antonio commented that it was too bad I didn’t live in Uruguay.  At the time, I was in school in the States, and we needed to organize summer internships ourselves, so I asked and they accepted!  The entire process was set up eighteen months in advance.

MM:  Knitters everywhere adore Malabrigo, but few of us are familiar with the story behind the yarn.  Can you share a bit of what you have learned about the company history?

HT:  Malabrigo was started because the folks in Uruguay saw a need.  So much wool (merino and corriedale) is exported from their country, yet not enough of it is turned into yarn there, some of it goes to other countries for processing and dyeing.  Antonio wanted to introduce something new to the market after seeing some lovely kettle-dyed wool, always in small batches and sold at the local street markets, not incredibly lucrative or high quality, just pretty.  So he began to dye wool in his kitchen, in a big pot on the stove and it all kind of developed right from there.  Previously Antonio worked as an architect, and now he runs the factory with his two brothers-in-law, Marcos and Tobias.  All added up, they employ about forty people to make our favorite yarns.

Inside the Malabrigo factory in Montevideo

MM:  So….. what  fun projects have you been working on during your stay in Uruguay?

HT:  Well……..a few of them are secrets!  But I can let you know that I was able to do a lot of work on Malabrigo Book 3.  As Creative Director, I assisted with the photo shoots, choosing the models, and styling the outfits, generally directing everything to give it that complete look.  I was also able to introduce a new color to the Twist and Silky lines- Manzanillo Olive!

MM:  Thats sounds like a delicious new colour, can’t wait to see it!  We know that Merino Worsted has a huge admiration society amongst knitters with over one hundred dreamy colours, and often described as melted butter on the needles.  We would love to know a bit more about the production process, and what you were able to discover while at the factory.

HT:  Basically the wool from the sheep is really carefully chosen, either merino or corriedale.  It comes only from Uruguay, and the country itself has very high standards for sheep treatment and management.  The sheep graze free-range through the hills and are herded by actual old style shepherds.  After the sheep are sheared, the wool is cleaned with very little water wasted and sent to a nearby EcoTex spinning mill.  Malabrigo chooses how the yarn will be spun to create some of our favorite yarns, next the wool is brought to the mill for hand dyeing by the workers.  The colourways are all dreamed up by Antonio and the chemist-in-residence.

MM:  Do you have an all-time favorite design in Merino Worsted?

HT:  Hard question!  I think I really love designs that show off the yarn while acknowledging its weaknesses.  I feel the best patterns for Merino Worsted are usually accessory items, things to wear on your head or hands that don’t get too much friction and will remain beautiful for a long time. 

MM:  Uruguay is a country with so much beauty and spirit, but there is much hardship as well.  Which charity projects does Malabrigo participate in?

HT:  Malabrigo just recently provided yarn for the International Knit In Public Day held in Montevideo.  The company gave away chunky yarns (Aquarella, Gruesa, Rasta) for knitters to use to make garments for orphanages and charities in the country.  They also donated some of the more luxurious yarns as incentive prizes.  Knitters get together in huge groups, knitting away, and during this past year alone, over nine hundred garments were donated!

MM:  That’s great to hear.  When you had a day off from your busy summer schedule, what was your favorite place to sit and knit and enjoy the local culture?

HT:  When I was in Uruguay this summer, I spent quite a bit of time knitting in my room.  It was wintertime there, so cuddling up with a big blanket, having music to listen to and knitting was really comfortable to me.  If the weather had been better, I might have spent more time outside on the back porch- the house where I was staying had a gorgeous back patio with a tiled bench.

My visit to the Malabrigo Sheep Ranch in Paysandu

MM:  Now that your internship has come to an end, and you have all these great memories to carry back home with you, can you share one that you will always cherish?

HT:  I think it was therapeutic for me to visit the sheep farms in Paysandu.  While I enjoyed the city, and the architecture there was fantastic, and most of my work was done there, the long trip by night bus to Paysandu was really precious to me.  The land in the centre of the country is so green and lush- lovely, rocky ground dotted with freshly-sheared sheep and small lambs.  I think that any knitter should visit a sheep farm at least once in their lives, its important to know where our materials come from.  Visiting the people who help make it all happen really brings the famial and heritage aspects of the needlecraft full-circle for me.  I love that knitting is a hobby with a heart.

(images courtesy of:  Hannah Thiessen)

  • brenda d.

    very nice story about Hannah and her trip to Uruguay. i agree, that summer internship would be a dream job, imagine surrounding yourself daily with malabrigo wool in every colour.

    merino worsted is by far the softest yarn i have knit with.

  • Halie R.

    Just wanted to say this post is a great read. Malabrigo is a company with a lot of heart and soul, beautiful yarns!

  • Matthew K.

    A real treat to read. It sounds like a great trip and every knitter’s dream.

  • Stephanie L.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Hannah and her journey.

    I felt as if I was being transported to Paysandu and could almost smell the sheep!

    Fascinating to learn about the process from sheep to skein and onto my knitting needles.

    Viva Malabrigo!

  • Jules

    What a dream internship, and it seems like you enjoyed it so much.

  • Carknit

    Thanks for sharing Hannah’s enthusiasm for knitting and a genuine love of fibre, its catchy. So true……..every knitter should have an opportunity to visit a sheep farm, its important to know how the sheep are raised and managed before we pick up a skein of yarn. Malabrigo sounds like they are very conscientious and true to their mission.