Peggy Orenstein, UNRAVELING: What I Learned about Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World's Ugliest Sweater

Peggy Orenstein, UNRAVELING: What I Learned about Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World's Ugliest Sweater

Peggy Orenstein is the author of many books including her latest UNRAVELING. She and Zibby met in person in L.A. to discuss everything from loss and motherhood to sheep and writer advice. Peggy opened up about the loss of her father and how she experienced the poignant moments she wrote about in her book. She also discussed the loss of her mother and how much she wished she could chat with her mother at the same age to get advice. Their conversation was soulful, meaningful and original. Zibby said she felt like she’d just been to therapy afterwards. The two also discussed Peggy’s earlier memoir Waiting for Daisy which Zibby read when it first came out. Now, they are friends. 🙂


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Peggy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re just so excited you’re here to talk about Unraveling.

Peggy Orenstein: I’m really happy to be here. This is a bucket-list thing. I love your podcast.

Zibby: You said that a minute ago. I was like, how could that even be? I’ve been reading your books. It’s just so nuts to me sometimes how this happens. I think of exactly where I was when I read Waiting for Daisy. I can picture the room. It’s crazy. Here we are.

Peggy: For people to devote themselves to books and the promotion of books and authors right now just means so much. I say in Unraveling that I feel kind of like we’re a blacksmith or something.

Zibby: Yes, you did say that. That was so great. I loved that. The industries that are fading out. I feel like I’m like Kodak over here or something.

Peggy: Exactly. Thank you for being Kodak.

Zibby: I’m being Kodak. Starting a typewriter business is what I’m doing. Tell listeners about your book. What’s it about? Why did you write it?

Peggy: The hook for Unraveling is that I decided during lockdown when life came to a screeching halt and everybody was stress-baking and making their sourdough, I thought, I know what I’ll do. Whenever I think of this, I think, why? I am going to go from sheep to sweater. I’m a lifelong knitter. I wanted to know where my fiber came from. I was curious. I thought, I’ll just take everybody one better, and I’m going to go learn how to shear sheep and process wool and spin in and dye it and make it into a sweater. That was one strand of the braid. What the book is really about underneath that is confronting midlife as a woman and my daughter leaving home and getting ready for the empty nest and my parents’ decline. It’s a lot about mothers and daughters and about fathers and daughters, as it turned out, which was kind of a surprise to me, but because my dad was declining. That’s a whole thing. Then the other piece is that it became about the history of women’s work and textiles and all they mean to us and all they mean to our planet and color and all this crazy lore and everything. It was all these things braided together.

Zibby: Wow. It came off great. You’re an expert knitter of all kinds. It’s awesome. You referenced your dad, the scene where you were talking about FaceTiming him and how he didn’t realize that you weren’t there and how he would ask, “Can you pass the water?” You’re like, “Oh, Dad, I can’t reach it.”

Peggy: I know. I’ll tell you, he died a few months ago.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Peggy: He was ninety-six.

Zibby: I know, but still. That doesn’t ever make it better.

Peggy: No, it really doesn’t. I will say, one of the things about doing these weird, old-time arts is they’re very slow. One of the things that I had to do was card fleece, which maybe you did when you were a kid at some renaissance festival or something with two things that look like dog brushes.

Zibby: I did not do that.

Peggy: You take the fleece, and you got to get it all organized so that you can spin it. It’s really boring. You can only do a little at a time. I did the first one. You make it into this little cigar-shape puff. It took me ten minutes. You need 579 of those to make a sweater. I thought, okay, this one took me ten minutes. I need 579. That means it’s going to take me the rest of my life. I knew this book was going to be a lot about mothers and daughters. I knew it was going to bring me close to my mom. I knew it was going to be about my relationship with my daughter because we learned these things. We learned to knit. We learned to crotchet. We learned all these things from our moms, from our grandmothers. I didn’t know how much it was going to bring me to my dad. This was lockdown. He was in Minneapolis. Even if I could go there, his facility was locked down. Nobody could go out or in. It was so hard, because he had dementia, to gear up — I would do it, but to gear up to talk to him was hard. Maybe he would be there. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d understand. Maybe he wouldn’t. When I was carding, it was so slow. I could slow down to his level. I would sit there with him on FaceTime. They were rerunning Twins games where the Twins always won. He didn’t know they were not live. He thought they were winning because of something he was doing with his walker. I’d be like, “Dad, what are you doing?”

Zibby: He’s like, “I’m not going to tell you.”

Peggy: “I’m not going to tell you. It’s a trade secret.” He was very cute. We would sing. I would sing “You Are My Sunshine” to him because that was a different part of the brain. People who have dementia still can do song lyrics, which is interesting. That helps them remember. We would sit there for hours. Now that he’s gone, I can’t tell you how precious that time is to me, how grateful I am that I could do that. It was so, so meaningful. I write a lot about that as well and going through those last years with a parent, which is a rite of passage for a lot of us. We all lose our parents. That, we all go through one way or another.

Zibby: It’s so sad. You said something in that section, too, about how, at first, you would wait until it was so late in the day so that you’re like, well, now it’s too late to call, so forget it. You had all these tricks until you really could get yourself into it.

Peggy: I live in California. He lives in Minneapolis. I’d be like, I’m busy. I’ll call him later. Oh, my daughter — the sandwich generation. My daughter needs me. My husband needs me. I can’t do it now. Now it’s too late. I can’t call him. It wasn’t that I was trying to be neglectful. It’s just that it’s so painful. It’s so hard. If I could see him in person, it would’ve been easier. I really got something so amazing, such a gift from that time together.

Zibby: When you wrote about your mom, too — I’m sorry about your loss of her as well. What you said was so interesting. You really wanted to talk to your mom not as if she had lived and was now ninety-six or whatever she would be, but as if you were contemporaries and you could both talk about what it was like. You’re like, how did she deal with the pain of having a daughter leave the house?

Peggy: I wrote about how our relationship was not always easy. There was a lot that I probably sometimes or often unfairly resented over the years. I think in that way of daughters, we’re pretty self-absorbed with our mothers. I used to complain to my friends all the time that she didn’t see me, but did I really try to see her? We could always bond over knitting. That was the thing. We could always bond over knitting. We could go to a knit store. We could go to look at yarn. She was better than I was, so I could always ask her for help. I loved that. It was a bridge across the generation gap. I never said, Mom, were you ever lonely? Was it hard? How’d you raise a teenage girl? How did you stand it when she — all these questions that you never asked that died with her. I said I wanted something that was in defiance of both the laws of nature and physics. I wanted her to be my age, and I wanted me to be my age and to have a conversation. I was constantly, all through the pandemic, having a conversation with her in my head, but I was taking both sides.

Zibby: And meanwhile, wrestling slippery sheep.

Peggy: Meanwhile, wrestling slippery sheep. I decided to go off and shear a sheep. It was funny. I did an event the other night in Northern California, where I live. Somebody that I know who had been in my book, Girls & Sex — she’s in a chapter of Girls & Sex — came to the reading. She raised her hand. She said, “You know, you were following me around, it must have been almost ten years ago, and you were talking about wanting to shear sheep.” I said, “I was?” I had no memory of that. She said, “Yeah, you’ve wanted to do this for a long time.” It’s a bee in my bonnet. It was just one of those things. I was so ignorant about it at the same time. People would say it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. It burns twice as many calories, minute to minute, as marathon running. They’re slippery.

Zibby: I am now picturing an Equinox gym full of sheep and all these women in spandex running around trying to — it burns a lot of calories.

Peggy: They have lanolin all over them, so they’re slippery. They weigh more than you do. They have hooves. It doesn’t hurt them. I want to be clear. It doesn’t hurt them.

Zibby: It’s a haircut.

Peggy: Yeah, it’s just a haircut, but they don’t want to be there. They’ve got hooves. They kick. You have this hot, whirring blade with no safety.

Zibby: I know. I was like, where is this book going? What is going to happen to her?

Peggy: I’m just going, yeah, sure, sign me up. Yeah, I can do this. No problem. No worries. Absolutely. I can do that. I did.

Zibby: You did, yes, and lived to tell.

Peggy: As I was sitting there in COVID jail thinking maybe there would be a book in doing these tasks — I would do a book. It would be about the things. It would be about the people I meet. I didn’t know all the opportunity that doing something completely new that I would never have otherwise done would give me to learn about myself, to learn about my relationships with people, and to learn all this stuff about the world and the planet and the history. That was just amazing, and creativity.

Zibby: It’s so awesome, oh, my gosh. There were a few sections that I excerpted that I just wanted to read if you don’t mind. You’re so funny. Your sense of humor is so great. You said, “That night in bed, I do the New York Times spelling bee on my phone, poking at my keyboard to make as many words as possible from a hive of seven letters. When I hit the number needed to reach the genius designation, I flip the screen around to show Steven. ‘The thing is,’ I tell him, ‘I’m not really enjoying the game. I feel kind of anxious until and unless I make genius. Then instead of feeling happy, I’m just relieved not to have failed, so it’s never really fun.’ He glances up from his book. ‘That sounds about right with your personality.’ ‘Yeah,’ I agree abstractedly, then turn to him. ‘Wait, what do you mean?’ ‘You’re always trying to prove something unnecessary that no one cares about to nobody in particular.'” Then you say, “It’s true. I am an incessant seeker of validation, perpetually worried, despite my age and relative success, about missing the mark, about not meeting unspoken expectations, about getting an A in whatever there is to get an A in, about how my work will be judged rather than what engaging in it means to me. Deep down, I know that’s a trap, one that sabotages creative thinking. Maybe that is part of what draws me to this eccentric project, the relief, the excuse, the joy of incompetence.” I love that so much. I relate to that. I love that. Anybody with any sort of perfectionist tendencies, when you have to fail, it’s completely freeing.

Peggy: I’m so glad you pulled that out. You know how sometimes — maybe you don’t. I’m sure people say that you don’t know what a book’s about until after you’ve read it. One of the things I think that was really important to me in this book was the joy of being a completely rank amateur and that kind of beginner’s mind. Because I do something that’s sort of in the arts field, relatively speaking, for a living — that’s creative. You also have to be worried about the marketplace. You have to be worried about making a living. You have to be worried about commerce. All that stuff kind of erodes the creativity. You start worrying about other things. To be able to have this back again — through three quarters of the book, I’m struggling with that. I’m going, I can’t do that. It’s so hard. I’m never going to get it. Then there’s a point where I go, oh, wait, that’s the point. The process is the point. I talk about having this cartoon in my office that I had for years. It shows this little kid drawing kind of crazy, just drawing stuff for the joy of it. Then there’s a certain point where the two questions come up. You start thinking, is this good, or does this suck? As soon as you hit those questions in life, you lose that creativity. You become sort of stymied and stuck. I so related to that. I kept thinking, all I’m doing here is, is this good? Does this suck? All the time. Then there’s this other idea that I came across that’s creative mortification. Mortification is like death. This is great for parents.

Zibby: Which I hadn’t even realized.

Peggy: It’s the same root. I thought about this a lot as a parent. For all of us, it’s the idea that you do this thing that you love, whatever it is, whether it’s playing basketball or drawing or your music or whatever the thing is. You’re a little kid. Somebody suddenly gives you a too-harsh critique, and that’s it. We’ve all had that. You put it down, and that’s the end. You don’t do it again. What I learned was instead of asking, “Is this good? Does this suck?” to say things like, “What worked here? What would I like to do differently next time? What would it mean if I tried this thing?” I also talk about how you don’t want to do something totally inappropriate. Creativity means that it’s original and appropriate. If you paved your driveway with salami, that would be original but inappropriate. You don’t want to be paving your driveway with salami. Asking questions about process will help you embrace the joy of creativity in a way that so many of us as adults just lose. Doing something you know you’ll never really be good at — that’s why I said it’s the ugliest sweater, even though it’s really not. I brought it. You can see it if you want to.

Zibby: I want to see it. I’m so excited.

Peggy: It’s not that ugly, but it didn’t matter. It was about learning to let go of that and really love doing again.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so important. I feel like I relate to this so much because I’m always trying to do all these things. Every so often, my husband’s like, “Are you having fun? Aren’t you having fun?” I’m like, “Well, no. The idea was fun, but now I’m worried about how I’m doing with the execution of it.” It’s the same thing. It saps you of all the joy.

Peggy: I’m sure that’s true with a podcast. That seems like the funnest thing in the world.

Zibby: Actually, I really love the podcast.

Peggy: Oh, that’s good. Maybe you start thinking, is it popular? I don’t know.

Zibby: It’s true.

Peggy: Creativity doesn’t have to be the arts either. It’s whatever that thing is that feeds your soul. People kind of dream of making that thing their profession. Maybe it is their profession, but sometimes that can take something away that — you lose and you gain when you do that.

Zibby: Yes, so true. That was really helpful to me, that passage.

Peggy: I’m really glad.

Zibby: Then this other passage was so good. “As a young woman, I wanted so desperately to stay unincumbered. Now I know, independence, that’s easy. It’s connection you have to protect, that ever-shifting balance between continuity and change.” It’s so beautiful. It’s so pretty. All these little nuggets of wisdom, you just scatter them throughout. As you said, it’s not just about the sheep. Although, now I feel self-conscious. I’m like, I don’t even have anything appropriate I could wear for this podcast.

Peggy: I’m just wearing a shirt. Memoir, it’s so interesting. We were saying right before we started that — you had said that you had read Waiting for Daisy, which was my earlier memoir about trying to have a daughter, who’s about an hour away from here now and almost twenty years old. These books, to me, feel like they’re sort of speaking to one another. They’re kind of a piece. The younger me, I was just so allergic to anything that would feel like it was so-called tying. I didn’t even want to own a couch. It was huge. I was in my thirties before I bought a couch because I was so afraid of being — I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. In retrospect, I’m like, what was I thinking? I really had to learn. In a way, that thump of stopping during lockdown — for those of us who didn’t get sick, for those of us who were financially secure, the worried well, there was some good thinking that went on there. There was some good reckoning. One of the things for me was thinking a lot about the meaning of connection and the meaning of community and the way that I had resisted and embraced that over time.

Zibby: You even said how COVID — you were even more connected to some friends and yet at the same time completely disconnected. You had all these friend Zooms.

Peggy: You’re doing all these Zooms because you think, what if you never see somebody? There was that period. It’s almost, in a way, already fading.

Zibby: I know. I can’t believe it even happened. I’m like, did this happen? I don’t know. Maybe I dreamt it.

Peggy: You don’t know if you’re ever going to see people again. I just connected with everybody that I loved. You’re having these soulful Zoom sessions where you’re saying you love somebody. Then you realize you’ve been on mute for the last ten minutes. You’re feeling such love and connection. Yet there’s the screen. It’s a wild time to look back on.

Zibby: It’s true. Actually, Kyle — I know you just met him. His mom and grandmother died of COVID.

Peggy: I’m so sorry. We did lose people. My dad got COVID. I talk about that too.

Zibby: I know. He was okay, though, but not fully recovered, you said.

Peggy: No, he did not fully recover, but he did recover. He went home. He broke his pelvis. He was like one of those Weebles that wobble but don’t — for a long time.

Zibby: Crazy times that we lived through. Now that the book is out and you have, essentially, the bookends of your oeuvre, let’s just say, with all these amazing nonfiction in between, where do you see the rest of your writing going?


Zibby: I’m sorry. Big sigh.

Peggy: No, it’s okay. It’s interesting. People are making fun of me a little bit because I did two books on teenagers and sex, and then I did a book on textiles. To me, they’re so much of a piece because I feel like my larger topic always has been looking at the political/personal and looking at the unexamined bits of our everyday life, starting with my first book, Schoolgirls. I feel like when I was writing that, that I was still kind of a girl myself. I was thirty. When I would report that book, which was on middle-school girls and what happened to girls when they went through puberty in terms of body and educational equity and all these things — I was following these girls in two different communities. I would get yelled at in the hall. They’d be like, “Where’s your hall pass?” That doesn’t happen anymore. Then I went through a book that was looking at women and life choices because I was trying to figure out my life. Then Waiting for Daisy. Then Cinderella Ate My Daughter looking at my little girl and princess culture and what it meant to be a girl. Then Girls and Boys & Sex. Now looking at my life in midlife and empty nest and all that. I feel like I’ve really been consistent, in fact, and I guess if I was going to say continue to be consistent, I’d be looking at what the next phase is in our lives as women and what that means and what is and isn’t examined around that as we age.

Zibby: Maybe you’re going to do Sex & Midlife.

Peggy: I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about just looking at, how are we going to age? I’ve thought about that. I don’t know. I loved doing this kind of experiential thing. I would love to be a George Plimpton-type character and just go do weird stuff and report back. I don’t know.

Zibby: Do you know the author A.J. Jacobs?

Peggy: Yes, like A.J.

Zibby: He’s awesome.

Peggy: He gets to do it. Why can’t I do it?

Zibby: Did you see — he has a big article about giving up plastic.

Peggy: No.

Zibby: He wrote this whole thing. It was a three-page spread in The New York Times about how he tried to go a whole day without touching anything that had to do with plastic, which included his phone and included —

Peggy: — What about his clothes?

Zibby: It included a lot of clothes. He had to wear just his underwear.

Peggy: Most of our clothes have plastic in them. That’s one of the things I write about.

Zibby: He couldn’t eat a lot of things.

Peggy: What about his body? His body has plastic in it. He wouldn’t be able to touch himself. We all have swallowed so much.

Zibby: He made some joke about, his wife had to hold up his cup or something. It was very funny, but in terms of experiential.

Peggy: The plastic thing was one of the big things in Unraveling. I go to the shearing. I’m wearing a Patagonia fleece or something. Not to be mean to Patagonia because they really try. It was made out of recycled water bottles. I’m like, this is great. I didn’t realize that was like brandishing a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread at a bar mitzvah.

Zibby: I love that analogy.

Peggy: Because it’s plastic, no matter what you do with it, it’s still going to end up being plastic in a landfill. This gets to be the bummer part of the book, in a way. The impact of our clothing on the planet is so huge. I really started wondering, why don’t we think about our clothes the way we think about our food? So many of us are so interested in sustainable food, even if it’s just kind of casual. I don’t know how it works, but I want to eat sustainably. I want to eat organic. I don’t want my stuff covered in plastic. We all want that. We want a better planet for our kids. Yet we’re buying synthetic fiber and buying new garments once a week and then tossing the old ones out after we wear them twice and not thinking twice about it. When I really looked into it, it kind of made me want to take to my eco-certified bed, but you also have to know. The good news is — I wrote about this, actually. I just wrote a New York Times piece.

Zibby: I saw. I read it.

Peggy: About how women have always used needlework as a vehicle for political voice, which is really important. There’s a reason why when Trump was elected, one of the first acts of collective protest was to knit hats. That’s a really tried-and-true historical way for women to express dissent. I talk about how maybe we could turn those needles to the fashion industry now and that, in fact, there is work being done, particularly in the European Union, to call them into account and to regulate and to create responsibility. That’s really exciting. There is a place where we can put our effort in this now. We don’t have to just feel helpless about it.

Zibby: Yet another thing that we’re doing to destroy the planet. Now I have another thing after this book that I’m going to worry about, but it’s okay.

Peggy: I know. It’s another thing, but it’s okay because you got to know. There’s things we can do. There’s things that we can not do. You don’t have to shop at Zara. There’s other things that we can do. It really changed me. I have to say, I had no interest or clue, frankly, about any of that. It changed how I buy clothes. It changed how I wear clothes. I buy less. I value it more. I keep it longer the way people used to. That’s okay.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Peggy: I think that people tend to think that people who do this for a living or people who’ve done it for a long time or people who’ve written a bunch of books do it easily, that it’s not a big deal. I just sit down and write a book. Whereas I feel the same terror, dread, anxiety, uncertainty that I can’t do it every day just the way that new — the only difference is that I recognize it as part of the process more and I have a little more faith that — although, I always, halfway through every book, think, I can’t do this book. This book isn’t going to happen. I know, I’ll do a different book. I think of a whole different idea, but then I never — I always think about — did you ever read Bird by Bird?

Zibby: Yes.

Peggy: That’s one of my favorite books on writing. She talks, I don’t know if you remember, about the mythical radio station KFKD.

Zibby: I don’t remember that. I’m sorry. I read it a really long time ago.

Peggy: K-fucked, basically, that plays in your head when you’re writing. One speaker is saying, you are the best. You deserve to be on The New York Times best-seller list. You are so great. The other one is a hit parade of self-doubt. What your task is as a writer or any creative person is to shut both of those speakers down long enough to just eek out a coherent paragraph. I think the only difference between me and somebody else is that I do it anyway. I do it even though those voices are in my head, even though the thing tells me I can’t do it, even though I have fear and doubt and all of that stuff. I do it anyway. Just do it anyway.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really helpful, really amazing, also depressing, but that’s okay.

Peggy: No.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding.

Peggy: I think it’s really important to know.

Zibby: You can’t really ever achieve mastery at creative writing, can you?

Peggy: Yes and no. I love having written. I feel really good. The chapter that’s on blue on this book opens up with my —

Zibby: — Which is my favorite color, so I appreciate that. You noticed. I know.

Peggy: I know. Your house is all blue. Mine too, and many people’s. I write about the meaning of blue to me, starting with thinking about when I was sixteen and I would sit in my room and listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” on repeat. It was a record my brothers had. I just picked it up one day. I would sit and cry because I was sixteen.

Zibby: That’s what you do.

Peggy: That’s what you did. You’d sit in the twilight and cry. It felt so good. What it means not to be able to do that now and all the meaning and concept of blue, when I was writing that, I thought, this feels so good. This is exactly what I want to be doing right now. That flow state is such a wonderful feeling. I do feel like that. I like to demythologize it because I think it’s really important for new authors or aspiring writers to know that it’s okay to feel doubt. It’s okay to feel fear and all of that. Everybody does. Do it anyway. You’ll get there. You really will.

Zibby: I love it. Peggy, thank you. This has been so nice. I feel like I just had almost like a bath, a warm bath of soulful rejuvenation or something. That was such a reset, this conversation, for me emotionally. Thank you.

Peggy: This was super fun. Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: Thank you.

Peggy Orenstein, UNRAVELING: What I Learned about Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World's Ugliest Sweater

UNRAVELING: What I Learned about Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater by Peggy Orenstein

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