Labitudes: Conversations with Zena

by Lee Gant


She was a thief.

Not an accidental thief — like when you're at the supermarket next to the display of doughnuts and the aroma of fried bread is so intoxicating that you pluck a blue tissue, and then you eat the sugary treat and forget to pay for it kind of thief…. she stole things with a purpose. And then she had the gall to bring them to you, all proud, to show you what she'd accomplished and wait for your reaction. Sometimes, she would hide her stolen goods so well that I wouldn't have known, except for the fact that she would stand in front of me with her tail circling her behind like the propeller on a P-51. 


I hate to admit this, but she was a replacement dog. Her predecessor had been put down three months prior, and in her absence, the neighborhood cats began tormenting the finches in my backyard feeder. In the mornings, I would stand with my back to the bed, my folded arms resting on the windowsill and my forehead stuck to the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of the caramel lab that I knew wasn’t coming back. On this day, all I saw was a fat grey cat perched on the fence among the twisted grapevines, leaning forward towards the feeder. Ginger would have had a great game of chase if she was here, and my cat problem would have been solved. And so I complained again …about the poor birds.
    “I’m not ready for another dog,” my husband said.
From his chair in the corner, Bill pulled on a brown Dockers sock. I turned when he spoke — both angered and saddened by his admission, and then turned back to the empty November yard. 
    “Well…,” I said, “while you’re at work and the kids are at school, I’m home all alone all day and I don’t have anybody to talk to.” I ran my finger in circles through the fog from my breath on the window and then wiped at the corner of my eye.
    “Fine,” he said softly. Three months of complaining had worn him down. “Go ahead and get a dog.” 
I waited for a second to see if he really meant what I thought I heard. “But we can’t get another dog from Bob because both of his dogs have cancer.” The breeder is a friend of ours, who had given us the pick of the litter. We brought her home at five weeks old and lost her just before her seventh birthday.

I knew there would never be another Ginger, but I held onto hope, because I wanted one. I wanted a yellow lab who would walk next to me with no leash attached and come back with a whistle when called. I wanted one who would bring home enough sticks and bits of trees from the swollen creek waters behind the house to start a bonfire, and then at night, one who would lay next to me on the bed and make it impossible to pull the covers all the way up over my back. I wanted a yellow lab who would fetch a tennis ball and drop it on command, so the fun never ended. I wanted soft ears to pet when I needed them, and someone to automatically understand my deepest thoughts. Purebred puppies were expensive. 
“…so we’ll have to find one from somewhere else.” Bill kissed me as he tucked in his shirt. He was always reading my mind.

I didn’t want to get a dog from someone I didn’t know. My parents raised boxers when I was a kid and I’d heard my share of horror stories about puppy mills, so searching the newspaper was out. I was afraid to consider rescuing from the pound, as I had enough trouble taking care of my own mental problems and didn’t think I had it in me to know how to fix a dog who might have been mistreated. Besides, I wanted to be the sole master…the alpha, for once in my life. And then I remembered Tawny.

I met her at a knitting retreat, a yellow lab wearing a blue coat sleeping on a braided rug. 
Her owner was hearing impaired and Tawny helped her with balance issues. Elaine explained about the ‘breeder caretaker’ program; how Canine Companions would give a dog for free and in exchange, you would give them a few litters of puppies. 


    “Canine Companions, this is Cindy, how may I help you?” 
    “I just lost…my lab…she just died and I’m…” I can’t finish my sentence, stymied by the choke of tears. 
Cindy waits for a second and bails me out. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and lets me sob through explaining how I lost my Ginger and how I’m looking for another lab and I heard that Canine Companions gives a mother dog to people in need. “We have dogs,” she said. “In fact, we have one right now that we need to place. She’s been here a few months and needs a home.” I don’t remember to pay attention to what she says next, only the time of the appointment for someone to come and check out my house…to see if I’m a good candidate for raising a dog.
A lady brings her dog, Nala to my house and I pass the test.

Two weeks feel like an eternity. After dropping my twelve-year-old twins at school I vacuum old dog hair and clean nose prints off windows. I buy dog toys and bones and biscuits and a fleece bed from Costco fit for a queen. Tennis balls…a dog needs tennis balls. I'm adopting. What if we're not a good fit? What if she doesn’t like me? What if I don't like the way she looks? I worry that she might not be the right one. She’s almost two years old. What then? Do you say no-thank-you and wait for a different dog? Extra anxiety consumes me and after I finish shopping and cleaning, I sit and knit more than my usual daily dosage. 

The day has come. I arrive at the Northern California Canine Companion campus, ten minutes from my house and sit in my van, as I am thirty-three minutes early. I pat-pat my chest in a circular motion to get my heart to slow down; I can feel my pulse beating in the back of my head. I am here to get a dog… a lab, a yellow lab. I sit and wait and try to imagine the outcome of it all. Nothing could have prepared me for what happens next.


Chapter One

Cindy greets me from behind the front desk. Pictures of handsome dogs hang on walls everywhere, beautiful black and yellow labs and golden retrievers, some with fluff-ball puppies, others dressed in blue coats— a calendar to the left of the door fills the space with dogs at the sides of companions in wheelchairs. I walk slowly past them to the office of Esther Molina, the volunteer coordinator for Canine Companions Breeder Caretaker program. Her door is ajar and the first thing I see is a wide head with brown eyes connected to a large black dog on a fleece pad under her desk…the whole space under the desk is occupied by Bauman. Esther directs me to sit down and allows Bauman to ‘release’, and then I gingerly pat his big head. Not that I don't like black labs, I just prefer yellow…and the only reason I can think of is that they're easier to photograph and yellow fur matches the décor in my living room. I don't remember much of our conversation, as my mind is whirring with the idea that my new dog will be appearing soon. Esther hands me a paper with directions and commands and the rules of caretaker protocol. I hadn't thought of directions and I forgot that this dog would come with rules. Puppies are part of the rules. Five litters of puppies will be the most fun I've ever had, and my kids will get to know the joy that I had growing up in a puppy pen. Esther’s walkie-talkie crackles and she speaks to someone from the kennel out back. 

    “She’s getting blow dried now? We’re ready, send her out when she’s done.” I feel floaty, like I might be in a cloud or something. Esther stands and opens the door. I stand and ready myself to follow, and then a flash of white catches my eye and chaos charges at me from an opened door down the hall. “Zena, wait…wait!” A leash flails behind what I assumed would be my new yellow lab. Esther grabs the leash and brings her into the office and I might be in a state of shock because I’m not expecting such a white dog, (is she albino?) with a pink eraser nose, nor a name as odd as Zena. I sit down and she sits in front of me and Ester says “Zena, up” and she plows onto my lap and then I look into her eyes. They close slightly as I cup both hands around the tops of her ears, and while her cheek muscles pull her mouth into a grin, I stroke her ears a few times, gently, softly, and I am dripping with content. I push my face close to hers and she smells fresh, like wet dog and shampoo. We are nose to nose, and then her sandpaper tongue scrapes a path from my chin to my eyebrows. We’ve just had our first conversation and I can’t remember a word I said.

With a blue leash snapped around her neck, Zena heels properly at my side during the thirty-second walk to the van. We pass another lab and his owner and neither dog acknowledges the other. My chest swells a little at the mere thought of a well-trained dog…this is going to be a piece of cake. I unlock the passenger door and she leaps up into the captain’s seat and then steps across to the driver’s side where she parks herself behind the steering wheel. She looks at me and waits. I am trying not to laugh.

    “No, you need to sit over here…right here on this side.” I pat the passenger seat and she does as she’s told, hopping over the console looking gloriously happy, and when she sits, the tip of her tail wriggles like a little worm. I tuck the bit of fur under her rear end and close the door. “We're going home,” I say out loud, and start the car.

Click here to learn more about master knitter Lee, her book, Love in Every Stitch: Stories of Knitting and Healing, and Lee Gant Knits at

Unraveling the Mystery behind Design: How We Make It Happen

 My colored pencil selection

My colored pencil selection

Ever wonder how designers do what we do? I can’t speak for all, but I’m often asked how I became a designer, so I thought I’d share a bit about the process, and how it works for me.

I didn’t always see images of beautifully knitted garments in the movie at the back of my mind. Instead, I saw pictures in magazines, and not only did I want to knit what they were wearing in exactly the same color and exactly the same yarn, I wanted to be every girl on every page, standing on the same beach and sparkling in the same sunglasses. I liked what I saw and that’s what I wanted. (I don’t think I’m alone in this).

For years I knit this way, making mistakes, ripping work that wasn’t good enough for my meticulous taste, and honing my skills. I read a lot of ‘How To’ books…when books were our only means, and I scoured them for anything I could learn on how to be a better knitter. Still, I had no interest in doing anything other than following directions. I was baffled at how people could come up with ideas and write patterns for all of the beautiful knits that I wanted to make. And then things changed.

I took a dream-come-true part-time job at a knit shop, where not only did I get to spend the day surrounded by walls of color, I got to inhale, sniff, and touch to my heart’s content.

When customers came in, they asked for help. They brought me knitting and patterns and questions. I loved answering questions. They weren’t sure what the directions were telling them to do. ‘It’s guessing what the directions mean that makes it impossible for me to finish a sweater,’ one said. ‘The shoulders have these giant stair-steps and no matter how many times I try, I can’t make it look good.’  She said she was giving up and I said no.

She got me thinking that maybe I could rewrite a pattern; so it would be easier to follow the instructions, especially how to short row shape and three-needle bind off the shoulders. I learned that from books. Books taught me a lot.

It was right around that time that another customer encouraged me to submit something of mine to a magazine. ‘Your work is so beautiful,’ she said. But I’m not a designer, I told her.

‘You could be.’ That was all I needed to hear.    

The Process

 The original "Goodwill" dress

The original "Goodwill" dress

I like to say I’m a recycler, which is why I shop at thrift stores, but my real reason is that I don’t like to spend potential yarn money on clothes. When I’m finished with a particular wardrobe, I donate it back, so I figure that counts.

With the thought of designing my own knitting pattern (I knew I wanted to design a dress, something different from the norm) to submit to an online magazine, (because someone said I should) I headed off to look for inspiration in the little kids section at my local Goodwill store. I could afford a few different sizes, so I could measure them and be accurate in my pattern writing. (Later, I would find sizing charts online here.)  I found this itty-bitty adorable dress in size 0-3 months.  I had to bring it home.

Now what do I do? Find some yarn in the colors of the dress. (Remember, I’m still in the phase of wanting to make exactly what I see, so I went online to find some Shine Sport at  

yarn ends.jpg

I love the cottony softness, and all the colors, and the way it drapes —perfect for this project. At this point, I still am unsure how I will, or if I’ll be able to accomplish this feat of turning a fabric dress into a knitted dress, but I don’t give up easily, and I like a challenge.

I didn’t want to take it apart. Although I’ve sewn clothes from patterns, and thought ripping it apart would give me a better idea of the construction, it was difficult to measure the true width of the ruffled parts. I drew a rudimentary picture and dreamt about how I would construct a dress while I waited for my yarn.

When the yarn arrived, I swatched (You can’t begin anything until you know your stitch and row gauge…took me many years of not swatching and a closet full of ill-fitting sweaters to figure out that a swatch is a necessary tool if you want something to be wearable) with my favorite size three needles, and armed with a gauge, I started plugging numbers into my drawing. I measured the width at the chest, the length of the armholes, the width of the neck and every little measurement I thought I would need. It helped to have the little dress in my hand to refer to. As soon as I was confident that I could do the math and make this thing, I drew (in the beginning, I traced dresses from kids in catalogs until I could draw one myself) and submitted this:

Pretty good, huh? I love my colored pencils.

The rest is history. I knit and enjoyed myself, and made mistakes and ripped. I learned about armhole shaping, and lace and duplicate stitch and I-cord bind-off. When it was finished, I was amazed at what I had accomplished. Still am.

Knit Picks let me do my own photography, and one of the knitters at my Tuesday knitting group kindly offered her granddaughter, Brianna to model. We had a great afternoon at the park.
So there you have it, a little inside look at the events leading to a design. This may not be for everyone, but everyone can give it a try!


Learn about Chianti Cashmere and download a FREE PATTERN

Ever wonder where cashmere comes from?

 Skeins of natural cashmere yarn

Skeins of natural cashmere yarn

I got a message from a place in Italy asking if I was interested in designing something for my upcoming pattern book with some of their “sustainable” cashmere. The word cashmere I know, and although I was unsure what “sustainable” was all about, I readily agreed to accept some for free. The cashmere arrived in a week. Never…in all of my years…have I felt anything like

So I did a little research on Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm, and the owner Nora Kravis, and what sustainable means. Here’s what I found.

 Hillsides of Tuscany

Hillsides of Tuscany

Environmental Sustainability implies that the end product consumes less than it produces.

In Chianti’s case their goat teams are grazed to re-claim and improve abandoned or under-utilized agricultural land. They recycle weeds into a luxury product.  This is agricultural production that goes beyond organic, that integrates the principles of environmental health with the efficient use of non-renewable resources, ensuring farm profitability and quality of life for both the farmer and her animals.

 Grazing at Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm

Grazing at Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm

 Cookies, Cream, and their Momma, Snow White

Cookies, Cream, and their Momma, Snow White

Chianti’s Cashmere fiber is a renewable resource; the controlled grazing they practice with their goats increases biodiversity, and improves the quality of the soil. Goats raised outdoors benefit from climatic and atmospheric influences to produce naturally, top-quality cashmere.  An added benefit is their longevity and well-being – animal welfare at its simplest and most effective.

By buying sustainable cashmere you are protecting the environment, improving the landscape, promoting sustainable rural development and being good to Chanti’s goats!

Their fiber is harvested from healthy goats that have been raised ethically and treated humanely their entire lives.  Their goats have been raised respecting their natural instincts, social structure and needs, and still produce a luxury product.  Their cashmere has been grown by goats who have never been tied or tethered, never been treated with chemicals or hormones, and have grazed only overgrown, untreated, unusable farmland, and their fiber has been processed without the use of chemicals or industrial coloring.

The SUSTAINABILITY of their production, from start to finish, is undeniable, and Chianti’s finished products are of unsurpassed quality, exquisite Italian workmanship, and moreover, every stage of production is totally traceable:

* Everyone of their goats has a name and answers to it
* Their goats are ear-tagged and micro chipped at birth so they (and you) know exactly who's who, where each animal is and exactly what each goat produces.
* Their goats recycle unusable bio-mass, breaking it down into organic soil amendments which improve the quality of the soil and increase its productivity.
* The extensive, grazing practices with which they raise their goats guarantee the utmost in animal welfare, health, and longevity that are otherwise impossible in intensive livestock schemes.

 Goats with sheepdog

Goats with sheepdog

Hand-combing of their sustainable cashmere is painless and innocuous – Chianti’s goats are not maimed, wounded or killed to harvest their fiber and have an average life span of 10-15 years.   That is easily double that of goats raised intensively for milk or meat production.

“We bring the goats to their place of work, and not vice-versa.  There is no long-distance transport involved, and their production is truly ‘km zero’.”

“There are no middle-men involved: all production is in the rural territory where our goats are raised, ensuring that the farmer receives direct payment and the traceability of the entire process is ensured.”


So now I understand what sustainable means. The cashmere that is combed from these friends is buttery soft, absolutely the most wonderful fiber I have ever knit with. I hope you enjoy the pattern for baby hats available in the “Free Patterns” section at


 Nora and her "kids"

Nora and her "kids"

Thank you, Nora Kravis, for caring about the animals and all that you do for the industry. And congratulations on your world renowned Predator Friendly certification!
Visit the farm here: