After I learned that Frances, my 13-year-old black cat, was dying of heart disease — her heart is too large, beating too fast — my first impulse was to think about how best to commemorate her, when the time came.
To distract myself from a vague but grave prognosis, I took my anxiety to Google, where I found the grief space thoroughly disrupted by all manner of modern memento mori (the Latin term for an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death).
Would I like her turned into a diamond? Tattoo ink? I wasn’t so sure. And after the vet bills, I probably couldn’t afford it.
But on Etsy there is a much more affordable alternative: a community of artists offering a form of hand-spun healing called chiengora. The word is a portmanteau of “chien,” the French word for dog, and “angora,” the name given to yarn spun from the soft belly fur of the Angora rabbit. “Catgora” is yarn from cats.
For Theresa Furrer, 45, of Nine Lives Twine, spinning cat and dog hair into yarn and woven keepsakes has become a full-time job. She works an average of 60 hours a week in her Pittsburgh home’s converted third-floor studio, she said, kept company by two hairless sphynx cats (Fergus and Poppy), her beloved taxidermied Devon Rex cat (Cleo) and Cleo’s 20-year-old sister (Lupe).
“I look at it as my ministry,” Furrer said. “If I’m able to help someone’s heart to heal, that’s the goal.”
In 2013, while on bed rest after donating a piece of her liver to her father, Furrer, a lifelong knitter and crocheter, took out an old spinning wheel purchased on a whim. A vegan for several decades, Furrer doesn’t wear sheep’s wool and didn’t want to spin it, either.
So she crowdsourced cat and dog fur, figuring she would learn that way. She spun her first skein of chiengora with hair harvested from a customer’s deceased black poodle, Rose. “Poodle is the worst dog to spin,” Furrer said of the notoriously difficult matted curls. “I was like, ‘If I can get this poodle, I can do anything.’”
At any given time, Furrer has up to a dozen different pieces of work in various stages of the yarn-making process; yarns start at $33 an ounce.
In addition to spinning yarn, she will triple-wash finished skeins and sometimes combines pet fur with a support fiber, which can help extend a limited quantity of fur into a usable amount of yarn, as well as helping with breathability.
Furrer’s favorite fur to spin comes from husky dogs, malamutes and Great Pyrenees. “Their cortical and cuticle cellular structure is perfect for yarn,” she said.
Cat fur felts almost upon contact and rarely comes in great quantity, but she will do it, often supplementing with a supporting fiber, like alpaca or bamboo fiber, to produce a soft skein. “I don’t like to say no, ever,” Furrer said.
She will also knit for her customers who don’t know how to: Scarves, blankets, pillows, mittens, headbands and even stuffed teddy bears are available for an additional fee.
Although these products may sound strange, bereavement keepsakes made from hair aren’t new. Mourning jewelry fashioned from a braided lock of a loved one was fashionable in Victorian and Georgian times, worn as rings or in lockets.
Katie Jane Thomas, 55, of Lynchburg, Va., found Furrer while looking online for a chiengora spinner who could help commemorate her husband’s “soul mate dog,” Yobee, a Labrador-chow chow mix.
Furrer asked for his brushings — fur collected during grooming while the dog was alive — and a picture of Yobee, because she likes to spend some time with the animal she is working on.
“It was a very reverent process,” Thomas said. “The unboxing was a gift in itself. I’ve only seen my husband cry twice, and this was one of those times.” Yobee’s yarn, mixed with color-matched alpaca to produce greater length, has since been knitted into a scarf that the couple plans to keep in a display box.
Before Gina Murphy, of Huntington Beach, Calif., started her cremation jewelry business, she taught high school science to teenage mothers. She is now the owner of Close By Me Jewelry: human and pet cremains set in resin and then placed in gold or sterling silver jewelry.
“I get a little bit of healing out of each piece,” said Murphy, 41, whose parents died when she was young. “I do it selfishly because it makes me feel good, like I have a purpose.”
A single mother of three, Murphy supports her family by fulfilling 150 to 200 orders per month, half of them with pet ashes.
And it’s not just people in the United States getting in on the trade. From the Black Forest in Germany, Anke Bawa, 58, another chiengora spinner, wrote by email: “I was astonished how often people with loss of a loved pets use my service.”
“I think there may be something about this in my aura? (I mean the wordless feelings and thinkings that I transport in my arts).”
Kim Hines, 54, of Simply Handspun Yarns, in Crossville, Tenn., started spinning chiengora in 2011 but said that business had really taken off in the last three years.
“I want people to be able to have something of their pet,” she said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, knowing I can do something to make a memory for them.” Recently, she did work for a man whose Pyrenees, Gryffindor, had just died. He planned to use the yarn to knit something for his wife for Christmas.
“Brushing and grooming your pet is an intimate ritual,” Furrer said. “What I’m able to do is a continuation of that ritual. If a pet has passed on, it closes that loop. The yarn becomes a part of their circle of life.”