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A Verb for Keeping Warm teaches the art, and community, of textile-making

on February 6, 2012

There actually is a verb for keeping warm, but it’s in a dead language, one that’s close to Latvian, said Kristine Vejar, the owner of the Golden Gate district shop that goes by that name.

Vejar found the word in a book by Pepperdine archeologist and textile expert Elizabeth Whalen Barber, who researched the oldest textiles on Earth and the cultures of those areas. “I just thought that it was an interesting commentary on the fact that at one point as humans—as it still is important to keep warm for your survival—it was actually a verb in their language,” Vejar said. “If you weren’t warm, you’d die. But yet [now] we’re so far away from making things. And my job is to help people learn how to do that.”

In 2004, Vejar started A Verb for Keeping Warm as a naturally dyed fiber and yarn business. Then in 2010, she opened a shop with the same name at 6328 San Pablo Avenue because she was looking for a large multi-use space. She wanted to have a home for a dye studio—a small room that looks like a kitchen in the back corner of the store—and also a place for classes on how to weave and sew. The shop also offers instruction space for spinning, knitting, dying and quilting as well as areas to buy yarn and fiber, and a sewing area.

“The idea was for it to be a community space and a place to come together to create things,” Vejar said, as well as creating a textile center.

The walls of the shop are mostly lined with yarn in bright shades of blue, pink and yellow. Tables are set up where people are often knitting or sewing in front of stacks and bowls of yarn. There are also a few spinning wheels.

Some of the yarn for sale from all over the world—in one corner there’s a table with “paper yarn” from Japan that’s made from linen but bends like paper. But Vejar said that 90 percent of the dyes she carries are from small, independent companies like hers that are based in the U.S. There is also clothing on display, like sweaters and hats, but it’s the patterns for the items, not the actual textitles, that are for sale. “People ask all the time if we sell [clothing] here,” Vejar said. “Our whole thing is we sell the pattern and the yarn and the skills to make it.”

Vejar dyed a lot of the yarn on display through a natural process, as opposed to the acid dying more typically used to manufacture yarn, which Vejar also sells in the shop. (She compares acid dying to Spaghetti-O’s, as in “Let’s go to the factory and pump out some more Spaghetti-O’s. It’s not a whole food, it’s processed.”) But the natural-dying process also has its share of pitfalls as well—yarn has to sit in the dye for a lot longer to produce a vibrant color, and if a batch goes bad, you are stuck without that shade of yarn. “With [the natural dying process], it’s like if that crop went bad, how are you going to get that color?” Vejar said.

Vejar has a garden behind the Verb shop where she grows plants and vegetables that are used in the dyes. Some of the plants Vejar uses for dyes include the yellow flower coreopsis, onion skins, marigolds, and indigo. There’s also a coccinelle insect that grows on the prickly pear cactus. The insect “makes a very vibrant pink,” Vejar said.

Before opening the Verb shop on San Pablo, Vejar was operating a couple of studio spaces in Berkeley, which she used separately for dying, teaching classes, and selling her work. She’s been interested in clothing and textiles since she was a kid growing up in Minnesota, where she learned to sew and knit with her grandmother when she was 5 years old.

But it was while she was studying art history at Mills College that Vejar discovered her passion for textiles, and the process of making clothes. She spent her junior year of school in India studying art and architecture. Vejar said that many of the shops in India would have open storefronts, so someone could look inside and see how the product was being made. “I was like, ‘Wow, so that’s how you dye something!’ or ‘That’s how something’s being woven!’” she said.

In an area of India called The Great Rann of Kutch, Vejar worked with a group of semi-nomadic herders called “Rabari” whose sacred animal is a camel. Vejar said the group had a long tradition of embroidering all of their clothing, including camel covers, bags and quilts. The area is a textile center, so she also saw a lot of textiles being made, as well as weaving and dying. “I started looking at how a non-literate culture records their history on the face of textiles, so you could look at material changes,” Vejar said. “Say they start trading with someone—they get a new type of material, or they’re able to use polyester on something, or they somehow earned money so they can buy something.”

Vejar returned to the area after she graduated from college on a Fulbright grant to further study the motif structure of the Rabari’s textiles. Her interpreter this time came from a family of dyers, and the interpreter showed her the different processes used to dye fabric, especially using the natural process. “The whole idea that you could draw colors from plants intrigued me the most,” Vejar said. “Historically, that was the first type of dying we had.”

When Vejar returned to Oakland a year later, she began taking classes to learn how to spin yarn on her own time, a “monumental game changer” as she calls it. “It made everything more interesting to me, creative-wise,” Vejar said. “And you got to learn about a lot of the animals … like the differences between two different kinds of sheep, and what the length and crimp of one sheep’s wool will give you, versus another, in terms of what your product will look like.”

She soon started Verb as a part-time business for herself, selling bags for knitters, and later hats. But the time, material and labor drove the cost up too high to sell. “What I quickly learned is that people who knit would rather spend their money on yarn then they would on an expensive bag,” she said.

The other piece that she felt was missing was what she calls a more “relational exchange”—she wanted to make a product that someone could then use to create something themselves, rather than sell something that was already finished. That idea is at the center of her business. “That makes everything worth it,” she said.

“A lot of it is skill building, so you take this thing and maybe you try a new skill or something you’ve never tried before,” Vejar said. “You feel happy because you set a goal for yourself, or your confidence grows. It’s pretty cool.”


  1. Sara Mithra on February 13, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Thanks so much for this wonderful coverage of textile and fiber arts in Oakland. As a knitter and designer, I love this profile. As an anthropologist, I’m happy someone in the Bay is taking a wider look at the connections between material history, motif, dye, women’s labor, and cultural exchange.
    Just one thing– that cool pink-dye insect is spelled “cochineal.”

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