Journey to the Birthplace of Malabrigo Yarns
The Elusive Malabrigo Yarn Factory
climb up the rusted metal stairs again, carefully counting each floor as I pass. Where is this place?! The guy outside said it was on the third floor, but "Careful," he told me, "every other floor doesn't count."
"You got that right," I think, looking at the black, burnt-out holes in the brick wall on floor #3 1/2. I keep going up, and the steep stairs turn to rickety wood with no banister. My heart starts to pound a little. The stairs lead to a flat roof, and I walk out into the pale winter sun and look out at the foggy, industrial skyline. It's definitely not here.
The night before, I had taken the boat from Buenos Aires across the bay to Uruguay. I didn't really know what to expect, but I hoped my trip was going to be wonderful. Even after having pictured doing this interview for at least a year, buying the boat ticket, arranging everything over email with Antonio, changing my money to Uruguayan pesos, staying overnight in a nearby hostel, and even after getting out of the cab in front of this huge, old blue warehouse with the right address, it seemed that my visit to Malabrigo was still just a fantasy of mine. I couldn't find the dang place.
This time I go back to what I'm almost positive is the third floor. I find a deserted hallway and venture down it, determined to find someone to help me. Then, in another room, I see a door with a piece of paper taped to it that says "Nogalina" (the company that makes Malabrigo). Jackpot.
Inside, I find an enormous, quiet warehouse with carpeted floors and tall, nylon-covered shelves stretching along its length. Workers in sweaters and jackets sit at tables along a windowed wall sorting skeins, putting bags on shelves, and quietly talking. Antonio looks up and smiles. He is wearing a bright orange machine-knit cowl and a corduroy jacket. I smile back. I am 30 minutes late, but definitely in the right place.
Tour Through The Factory
"How is it that you speak Spanish so well?" Antonio asks, starting the tour at one end of the warehouse after stashing my bag and telling the workers he'd be back.
"Well, um, er…" I mumble as I pull out my phone to record everything. My Spanish suddenly feels unequal to the task of saying something intelligent as I try to absorb the fact that this is it, this is where they make Malabrigo, and to mesh what it is like with what I had expected. I really want this to be awesome, I think. This is going to be like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only for yarn – right?
I don't know what I had expected – maybe super-soft sheep wandering the aisles, oversized posters of Malabrigo patterns gracing the walls… or maybe steaming person-sized vats of dye in all different colors with a big crane lowering bundles of yarn into the vats and then pulling them out, all streaming with colored water and smelling of vinegar and sheep. "Isn't that how you kettle-dye?" my mind innocently asks.
As we walk towards a windowless room full of huge white bags, I try to see Malabrigo for whatever it might be, not what I had hoped to see in my imagination. Turns out I am right-- it is awesome, but in a real way, not in a fantasy way.
Yarn Made Of Clouds
"This is the raw yarn room," Antonio says, opening a door and pushing aside huge clear plastic bags, which turn out to be stuffed to the gills with un-dyed Malabrigo yarn. "This is Chunky (he pronounces it "choonky")… this is Worsted… and here's the roving." He tears open a bag and pulls out a piece of cloud. I stroke it and look at him with wide eyes. "It's beautiful," I say. It is so soft that I literally can't believe it, and keep touching it just to make sure. "This is the Merino we get from the sheep farmers," he says.
"It's never like this," he tells me, "this room, I mean," gesturing to the chest-high sea of bags. "Our boiler broke a couple days ago, so we have hardly any hot water. We're dyeing at like ten percent the rate that we normally do – that's why it's so quiet around here today. Normally this room would be completely empty and dyeing rooms would be buzzing. We're always waiting on yarn here.
"Once we get the roving, we send it out to mills here in Uruguay and they spin it according to our specifications, making the different yarns for us. But it's not enough – we use every mill in Uruguay and we still can't get as much as we need. Their machines break, there are delays, and you know what happens next… 'Where is my order?' everyone starts saying. So we decided to go to Peru. We now make some of our yarns in Peru, just to try to keep up with the demand."
Dyeing Yarn With Secrets
We walk into the next huge room and he takes me to an area with bundles of raw yarn hanging up. Worsted, Silky Merino, Twist… maybe ten bundles of ten skeins each are hanging from white nylon cords.
"These here are ready to be dyed. Some days, depending on what yarn we're dyeing, all the yarns are done up in knots – that's one of the techniques we use to achieve our colors."
"Like what color, for example?" I ask. "Stonechat," he answers.
Right away I realize my first mistake. I haven't looked at a Malabrigo color-card in more than three years, since I left Stix Yarn in Bozeman.
It was like going backstage to a concert without having listened to the band's latest album. "It's got red and a greenish brown…" he prompts me. “It's a really famous color."
I'm 0 for 1. I ask him for other examples.
"Whale's Road? San Francisco Sky? Odom Forest?" Nothing is ringing a bell. "Odom Forest. Odom. Odom," he repeats patiently. "Otoño."
"Oh! Autumn! Autumn Forest. I get it now," I say. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay," he says, laughing. "I know my English pronunciation is terrible."
Even though I am failing the color-name-recognition test, my brain is definitely up to the task of mentally translating as he explains the yarn-dyeing process to me in rapid but clear Uruguayan Spanish. I feel happy listening to him explain his work in his own language, knowing that he is able to tell me everything that comes to mind in his own words.
Behind the skeins of raw yarn, one solitary worker is sitting on a stool, swiftly making two knots in each skein of a hanging batch of sky-blue yarn, whistling as a blaring radio competes with banging sounds from around the corner. "They're fixing the boiler," explains Antonio. "It's getting there."
"That yarn is going to be 'Charrua,'" Antonio says, pointing. "The knots will preserve the blue for when it's time to add the brown." We walk past some low stainless steel pots. "Smell that? That's the vinegar. We use acidic dyes, so we add a little bit of vinegar to the water. People say they love the smell."
"Like you can see with the Charrua, each color is a process. When I talk about color," he explains, "I don't mean the colors of the dye, but rather the step-by-step process we use to make a Malabrigo color, which could have three, four, or even more steps. It's more like a recipe than a color, and each one requires different ingredients and a different preparation. Here," he says, pointing. "Each color that's in the queue has a little tub with the different dyes in it, all ready to go."
"This is dyeing yarn purely the old-fashioned way," he says. "Hot water, dye, and wool. Each dye requires a different temperature and soaking time. After we're done with all the steps, we centrifuge the yarn and hang it in one of our drying rooms until it's dry. We're actually building another drying room right now – because it's winter, the yarn dries slowly and we tend to run out of space."
The drying room we go into next is warm, dark, and slightly humid, with skein upon skein of newly-dyed Malabrigo yarn draped over crisscrossing clotheslines, isolating the strangely peaceful room from the echoing clangs outside.
"Here's a new yarn we're working with," he says, moving towards the far wall and reaching for a dark purple skein of what looks like a single-ply sock yarn. "We're always experimenting here.
This yarn," he says, holding up a skein of Indiecita, which means little Indian girl in Spanish, "is dyed sort of like watercolors. We make it by taking advantage of the transparency of the dye.
"The rest is a secret," he says, proud and cautious at the same time. "Let's go up onto the roof – I want to show you the solar panels.
Using The Sun
"These help heat our water," he explains as we walk up a different, safer set of stairs and emerge onto the roof. "We put them up a couple years ago, and they help get our water nice and hot before it goes to the boiler."
"You know what the hardest color to dye is?" he asks. "Red. For that you need hot, hot water and lots of time."
He looks for a ladder and we climb up to an even higher roof to see the panels. "Having the water already hot saves time, so we can dye the yarn faster, and it also saves gas. But I'm looking into putting a windmill here too," he gestures, "in this corner of the roof. Solar is great but it only works during the day, when the sun is out. Wind works twenty-four seven."
We pause to look out through the fog over the bay towards the Old City of Montevideo.
"It's not a bad view, is it?" he asks, contented.
"This is a weird old building, I know, but when we started out we didn't have any money, and this place was cheap and… you know how it is. Once you start adding equipment and machines and stuff, it's hard to want to move.
"A long time ago this was a meat-packing plant. You know… sides of beef come in and steaks go out… the whole deal. It's still a little weird to me, but they're fixing it up, slowly."
We go back to return the ladder and he shyly poses for a portrait with foggy Montevideo in the background.
Secret Dyeing Methods
"We've got three teams of three people each who do the prepping and dyeing, and they rotate through the two stations," Antonio explains as we come in from the room walk into a second dyeing room on the upper floor. "That guy downstairs with the Charrua is also a team – the other two are just out sick today. But seeing as how the boiler is broken anyway, it's not that big of a deal."
"Here's another process we use," he says, pointing to metal tables spread with squirt-bottles filled with dye.
"For some of our colors we apply the dye directly to the yarn – 'Cookie,' for example, and here's 'Bahía.' 'Bahía' in Brazil, you know? It's an incredibly colorful city."
Skeins of the freshly-dyed rainbow yarn, just the slightest bit damp, are piled up on the table in shining heaps. I ooh and aah over the colors.
"If you want, I can show you my color wall," he says. "Let's go downstairs.
"These yarns," he says, bringing me to a corner table spread with a mishmash of skeins, "are the leftovers from the experiments I did when I was developing this year's new color line.
"See, look at this purple," he says. "I didn't like how it came out at first. I wanted it to be more muted. This one's better." He pulls out two paint-chip color wheels.
"I'm an architect, and these became good friends of mine when I designed interiors. I use them a lot now to see how to get to a lighter or darker color or to come up with colors that go together. I think that being familiar with these... it helped me, you know, for this world of yarn."
Antonio's Color Wall of Inspiration
"The thing about coming up with new colors of yarn," he explains as we walk towards his color wall, a multicolored mass of skeins hanging by a window in the downstairs dyeing room, "is that once you like it on a skein, you have to see if you can duplicate the process on ten skeins – an entire lot. And you never can," he says, laughing.
"You've got to try and try and try, until you can be sure that the color will work when you scale it up for production.
"These are MY colors," he says, fingering the silky skeins of yarn hanging in groups of blues, greens, reds, and pinks. "You can't only work with a paint-chip palette, it's too much, there are too many possible combinations. When I want to combine colors I come here and move the skeins around and hold them next to each other.
"Here's another experiment. Here's a new color of yarn at the very beginning stages," he says excitedly, showing me a rack of bright yellow and bright magenta skeins hanging to dry.
"This is just the base - I'm going to start adding colors on top. It's not going to be a bright color when it's done," he explains.
Antonio's eyes are smiling as he explains his plan, and I can picture the colors zooming around in his mind, making new combinations. I start to understand that this place is a magical fantasy-land after all.
"Mal Abrigo," The Imaginary Land of Knitters
"Mal Abrigo is an imaginary place, with a little bit of humor in the name," he tells me later as we drive away from the plant in search of something to eat.
"García Marquez has his Macondo, Onetti has his Santa María, Faulkner has Yoknapatawpha… Mal Abrigo is ours.
"It's based on the legend of a real town, back when people used to travel by horseback and stop in different towns to stay the night.
"There was one little village in Uruguay that was windier and colder than all the others -- something about the way it was situated in the mountains. It was so cold that the travelers nicknamed it Mal Abrigo, literally 'bad shelter.'"
“We had thought it would be fitting to name our yarn after a tiny country village in Uruguay, and the words "Mal" and "Abrigo" turned out to also be on a list we found of Spanish words that are easy to pronounce in English. Later we did some more research and found the story of how the town got its name. In our imaginary town of Mal Abrigo, it's always cold, and the people there knit constantly without stopping."
"Do you knit, yourself?" I ask as we wind through a network of cobbled streets and plazas, trying to find a restaurant that would serve us the classic Uruguayan comfort food chivitos at four in the afternoon, a late lunch even by South American standards.
"A little. I don't know how to increase or decrease or anything, but I sometimes make little squares, to see how the yarn is going to look when it's knitted.
"You know what I love?" he asks, almost giggling.
"This is totally random, and I had no idea about this because I'm not a knitter, but I love it when you're knitting with a multicolored yarn like Indiecita and you see the yarn suddenly change colors as it passes through your fingers.
"I know it's a silly little thing, but…" he shakes his head and smiles, "I love it."
"Do you know what was the first color we ever made?" he asks as we sit down in the Uruguayan equivalent of a 24-hour diner.
"It was an orange – a horrid, glaring orange.
"We dyed it in the kitchen of my house, in the biggest enamel soup pot we could find. The orange was terrible, but even then, the light, the brilliance it had, told us we were onto something special."
How Malabrigo Got Started In The First Place
"But what made you decide to start dyeing wool?" I ask.
"Well, in some way, my brother-in-law and I – he's an architect, too, although back then he was working in construction – we wanted to do something more than what we were doing. And this country is full of sheep, absolutely full of them. This tiny country is the third largest exporter of wool in the world. So we started to look around at the yarns that were available, and we just didn't really like any of them.
"We felt that the colors didn't do justice to the wonderful wool we have here, especially the Merino. 'So,' we thought, 'we'll just have to do this ourselves.' We went to the sheep farmers and looked at what they had, and we felt that roving that I showed you earlier, and asked, "Can we get this?"
"'Sure, no problem,' they said, 'it's a little more expensive, but we have plenty.'
"'But we would need quite a lot,' we told them.
"'No problem,' they said, 'as much as you want. We won't run out.' And they haven't.
"After we got the wool, we had to learn how to dye it. When we ordered our dyes," he continues, "we asked the manufacturers how to dye yarn. They told us, 'Sure, here's the manual.' But it was all about how to dye yarn commercially, with uniform tones. I wanted it to stain, to have blotches, to be variegated and nuanced. 'Sorry, you're on your own,' they told us. 'We don't know how to do that.' So we went to the internet, but couldn't find much there either.
"So we just started experimenting. We took our enamel pot and started doing trials, and trials, and more trials, until we started getting colors we liked. We sold our first skeins on eBay, and when those customers asked for more, we made our own website and started selling them that way, until we realized that we had outgrown that, too. From day one, it's been 'We want more yarn!' We realized it was time to sell to the yarn stores themselves.
"We decided to send my other brother-in-law, Tobias, to the US, to see how our yarns would be received. He had studied classical guitar there for two years, you know, at the Boston Conservatory, so he spoke English, had friends to stay with, and loved traveling to the US. We sent him to Boston with a couple bags of yarn in his suitcase – maybe ten skeins in different colors – and no color cards. We told him we'd send him the color cards and they would be there when he got to the US." He starts to laugh.
"Have you heard the saying that we have here, about sending someone into battle armed with only a toothpick? Well, that's kind of what we did. When Toby got to the first store, they said, 'What is this? Yes, we'll buy it, how can we get more?' and the orders started coming in. The funny thing was that Toby is a little color-blind, and at that time the colors had no names or numbers. The color cards still hadn't arrived, so he would try to describe the colors to us over the phone. 'No, we don't make a color like that,' we would tell him. 'Go ask someone to tell you what color you're looking at, because we are going to have to start dyeing tons of it.'
"But the trip was an amazing success, and with the orders we got we were able to rent a place – up until then a construction company had been loaning us an empty house that was set to be demolished – and we started to be able to heat more water, hire employees… really get going for real. And from the day that we sold our very first skein of yarn until now, it's been the same refrain: 'We want more yarn!'
"We've been in business for seven years now, and I'm still always experimenting and trying new things. The machines I buy at auction and rebuild into dyeing and spinning machines, those secret boxes of fiber I was telling you about that we ordered from Peru, the felted blankets and the Merino-wool-growers contests, all of those things are just experiments. You've got to try many new things in order to find something really good."
"Do you do all these experiments because of pressure from your fans because they want more new Malabrigo products? Or is it just something inside you?" I ask over coffee as a spring downpour darkens the windows.
"If you know that there's something missing," he reflects, "something that could be better than what's there, you say to yourself, 'How I can achieve this... thing that doesn't exist?' In some way, you try new things because you can't help it. I don't know... maybe it's something personal. You've already achieved what you do, and it's good, and then you want to do something more.
"So are there any specific dreams that you have for Malabrigo, in your heart of hearts?" I ask. "Or can you rest on your laurels for a while?"
"No, dreams never stop," he says, smiling and serious at the same time. "That's why they're dreams. I don't have something specific in mind that I want to achieve with Malabrigo, although I do like the idea of a misty horizon that begins to clear, where things start becoming visible in the distance. But for that you have to navigate without stopping."
Antonio's words stay with me as we run back through the rain holding plastic bags over our heads, laughing and getting absolutely drenched on the way to the car.
As I stand at the curb of the boat's departure gate, clutching my bag of carefully chosen purple and turquoise Malabrigo yarns and with my wet bangs plastered to my forehead, I feel sad as we say goodbye. My fantasy world had been replaced with a real, wonderful world, my glimpse into which I will never forget.
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