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Wearing the hair of the dog

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When Sammy, a Great Pyrenees, died in 2005, his owner sent hair she had collected from him to fiber artist Nancy Brome. (Courtesy of Nancy Brome)

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The box of Sammy's hair was enough for several skeins of yarn, some of which Brome knit into a headband and evening bag. (Courtesy of Nancy Brome)

Pegg Thomas’s dog Thor is no longer with her, but he still keeps her warm through frigid Michigan winters. When Thomas goes ice fishing or braves a blizzard, she puts on a sweater made from the hair the elkhound-Lab mix, who died in 2005 at the age of 13.

“It’s much warmer than wool,” said Thomas, 47. “And you know it’s him. It’s a sentimental thing.”

Thomas, a fiber artist in Ossineke, Mich., saved the beige and gray hair from her beloved dog over years of grooming, spun it together with the wool of a graying black ewe, and knit the yarn into her prized sweater. She even had some left over to make socks and mittens for the kids.

Some may think that wearing a deceased pet is creepy. But in an age when people are cloning, freeze-drying and buying velvet-lined caskets for their four-legged friends, dog and cat hair sweaters aren’t the most peculiar memorials. Animal lovers across the country are collecting the hair their pets shed and turning it into knitwear that evokes their cuddly companions—sometimes when the pets are still alive. They often send the hair off to specialized fiber artists, or those who spin fibers into yarn.

“They really feel they’ve got their pet sent back to them,” said Christine O’Hara, owner of Spinning Straw into Gold in Southlake, Texas. “If you pick up an urn of ashes, it’s a cold vase. But yarn is soft and tactile. It’s like holding your pet again.”

O’Hara has been spinning fibers like silk, wool and alpaca for more than a decade, but for years it didn’t occur to her to spin the black hair her cat, Onyx, shed in piles every spring.

When Onyx died four years ago, “it was one of those lightbulb moments,” she said. “The most obvious thing is right there in front of you.”

O’Hara now receives large packages of smelly dog and cat hair from around the country—the average woman’s sweater requires two pounds of it, which can take years to collect and cost hundreds of dollars to spin—and turns it into clean, fuzzy skeins of very personal yarn.

To get enough yarn to create something special, it’s a good idea to start stockpiling hair well before the animal’s death. For more than five years Nancy Brome has saved the long, golden hair of her Afghan hound, Chili Dog. She now has three boxes of it.

“As I was brushing him, I thought, ‘I wish there was something I could do with all this beautiful hair,’” she said.

Three years ago, Brome, 46, signed up for spinning lessons and soon was turning out designer blends of dog hair with alpaca wool from farms near her Manchester, N.H., home.

It wasn’t long before Brome’s coworkers wanted in on her services. The project manager at Blue Cross/Blue Shield would come into work to find her desk laden with baggies of pet hair affixed with it notes bearing their owners’ extensions.

Now her business, Hair of the Dog Designer Yarn, has a two-month waiting list and she hasn’t even had the time to finish the shawl from Chili Dog, now 12. Starting at a base price of $10.50 per ounce, Brome spins everything from Maltese to Malamute.

“It’s really no different than any other fiber,” she said.

Dog yarn is technically called chiengora—and in terms of texture and look it’s more like angora or cashmere than wool.

“It’s about having something from a pet you love, but on a purely aesthetic level, the yarn is really beautiful,” said Kendall Crolius, author of “Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater From a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You’ll Never Meet.”

If you’re wondering whether a wet dog hair sweater will start to smell like your pooch after he comes in from a romp in the rain, it won’t. Chiengora is thoroughly hand washed and deodorized before being spun into yarn.

“In the same way a wool sweater doesn’t smell like wet sheep, a dog hair sweater doesn’t smell like wet dog,” Thomas said.

Despite its pleasing properties, pet hair isn’t the perfect material for human clothing. It lacks the memory—the ability to retain its original shape—that makes wool more elastic. And people may also find that their sweaters tend to shed just like their pets.

Even though enthusiasts of pet yarn are invariably ardent animal lovers, some people find turning family members into clothing distasteful or morbid. A widespread misconception about how the hair is harvested only adds to the contempt, said Crolius.

“There are people who are going to be grossed out by it,” she said. “They think we’re out there shearing dogs. We’d never do that.”

E-mail:ksh2119@columbia.edu