BOZEMAN - You know things are going to get interesting at Durrae Johanek's Bozeman home when she pulls a gigantic plastic green "Hulk" hand from a drawer near the sofa in her sun room.
"Isn't this great?" she says of a long-forgotten prop used for Green Bay Packers games.
But the hand isn't used to cheer on the Packers or even scare small children. Instead, it is used to wind skeins of yarn that Johanek has spun to make into hats, ornaments and even picture frames.
And while Johanek uses wool and wool blends in her creations, it is the bunches of interesting-looking hair, ranging from pure white to gray-flecked and blonde, that hold more promise.
Samoyed. St. Bernard. Husky. Malamute. Golden retriever.
Johanek ticks off a list of dog hair that she turns into yarn to make one-of-a-kind creations, from the practical, like a ski hat, to the strictly ornamental, such as Christmas keepsakes to remember Fluffy.
Her business is called Pet Threads. Johanek is one of the few spinners in Montana who sells products made from dog hair.
"I went to PetSmart and went through the garbage cans," Johanek said, giggling, adding that she had permission to do so.
That's where she found Kerry blue terrier fur, some of the softest Johanek has worked with and that has made beautiful picture frames.
Johanek has crocheted and knitted her entire life, and she is an award-winning quilter. She started spinning and producing her own skeins of sheep, dog and even buffalo and cat hair as she became interested in the age-old art about two years ago.
Using a simple "spindle," which looks like a child's toy with a wheel on one end, Johanek takes a decidedly thrifty way of producing fibers. Spindles cost just a few dollars, as compared with spinning wheels that can cost hundreds. And Johanek has made one using parts from a toy.
Instead of spending precious dollars on carding machines to smooth the hair, she uses dog brushes found at pet stores.
"It works just as well," she said.
And then there's Hulk's hand, on which she winds the spun yarn to keep it tangle-free. She used to use her own hand but found the fiber cut off her circulation.
"My fingers started turning black," she said.
Learning to spin was forged mostly through trial and error with the help of a pamphlet and advice of other spinners. Still, it was difficult to master.
"I cursed a blue streak," she said.
And the reason for using dog hair?
"I'm allergic to wool and I can't wear it," she said, adding that dog hair seemed a natural.
"Dog hair is some of the earliest fibers ever used," she said.
It is also among the warmest, so much so that Johanek can't knit or crochet something entirely of dog hair because it becomes too warm for the wearer.
Blended with wool
Much of her work is blended with wool: Hats of wool and Samoyed or even a pair of embroidered golden retriever hair earrings.
Johanek is careful to use hair taken from the undercoat since the outer coat is too coarse. Then she thoroughly washes and cards the hair before piling it to feed through the spindle. She plies the hair to make a continuous strand, and then it is ready for the crochet or knitting needle.
All told, it takes her about two weeks to produce larger projects, such as a hat.
"Hers was one of the most unusual things in the fiber arts," said Janice Bogy, treasurer of Butte's Copper City artists, who spotlighted Johanek's work in a December show at the Museum of Fine Arts Butte.
Artists look at the world a little differently, Bogy said. "What one person sees as dog hair to be thrown away, an artist sees material to do something unique."
Bogy likes Johanek's unusual use of hair and is collecting her dog's hair for eventual immortalization. It's a way to recall a pet after it has died.
"I think the ornaments are the coolest things," said Durrae's husband, John. "You can take it out at Christmas and remember." The couple has started saving ginger-colored hair from their elderly cat to be knitted into a keepsake.
No dog, but some goats
The Johaneks don't have a dog, although they own a pair of beloved goats - and yes, their hair has been used - that John gave his wife nearly eight years ago for her 50th birthday.
"Never in 49 years did I say I wanted a goat," she said of the birthday surprise.
But now the goats are a pampered part of the couple's life on their five acres near Bozeman.
The couple moved West nearly 15 years ago; Durrae grew up in Pennsylvania and John in Wisconsin. But after a trip out West for work as editors and writers, they were hooked on the lifestyle.
"We came out here and that was it," they said.
They bought a fixer-upper and went about improving the place and adding to their seemingly endless list of interests, whether it's Durrae's quilting, John's obsession with collecting anything in 3-D, or their shared love of bird-watching and books.
And Durrae's dog-hair-spinning adventure has extended to other mammals as well, including buffalo and Alaska musk ox.
She has even tried to see what she could do with dryer lint.
"That didn't work," she said with a laugh.
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