Kelbourne’s Wooly Tale
Share a meal with Kate Gagnon Osborn and Courtney Kelley, the founders of Kelbourne Woolens (the exclusive North American distributor of The Fibre Co. yarns), and you’ll quickly discover that their relationship lies somewhere between a marriage and sisterhood. They can practically read each other’s minds, and a stream of witty banter is par for the course. Both women are intelligent, savvy, hilarious, creative, and, at their centers, kind, open-minded, and inclusive. They piqued my interest earlier this year when they mentioned a trip they took to Donegal, Ireland, to create a new yarn for The Fibre Co. Being a tweedhead—and a lover of sheep, green mossy fields against gray skies, yarn, Guinness, and anything and everything Irish—I asked them to chat with me when they returned.
For our readers who don’t know you, please introduce yourselves and tell us how you met. And tell us what you’re up to now in the industry.
We’re Kate Gagnon Osborn and Courtney Kelley, founders of Kelbourne Woolens. We met in 2006 when I (Kate) moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school for textile design. Courtney had just moved back to Philadelphia after some time away and was managing a yarn shop, Rosie’s Yarn Cellar, where I found a weekend job while attending graduate school.
We currently run the day-to-day operations of Kelbourne Woolens with a few spectacular employees. Those operations include managing our North American wholesale accounts (packing, shipping, invoicing orders), developing yarn and patterns, providing yarn support for independent designers and publishers, marketing both the yarns and pattern collections via advertising and social media, maintaining the Kelbourne Woolens website and blog, traveling for trade shows, and teaching at events and local yarn shops.
What inspired you to create Kelbourne Woolens? When did you start the company?
For about a year and a half after we first met, things were steady at the shop and at school, but in late 2007, Courtney had her son, and I changed my concentration from knitting to weaving and contemplated dropping out of my graduate program altogether. In early 2008, we were both at a personal and professional impasse. Then, Courtney heard through a yarn sales rep about an opportunity to take on the distribution of The Fibre Co. yarns. Within a year, we founded Kelbourne Woolens (Kelbourne is a portmanteau, a linguistic blending of “Kelley” and “Osborn”), and the rest, as they say, is history!
Tell us about The Fibre Co. and its founder, Daphne Marinopoulos. How did you meet her and when did you begin to partner with her as the exclusive North American distributor for The Fibre Co.?
We first met Daphne when she was living in southern Maine and in the process of looking for a distributor for The Fibre Co. yarns. After doing all of the fiber processing, spinning, and dyeing for the original line of The Fibre Co. yarns, she and her husband/business partner, Iain, wanted to change the business model and ease the heavy load of production for wholesale. After working out the logistics, we “officially” partnered with Daphne and Iain in August 2008 as the exclusive North American distributor of The Fibre Co. yarns.
Tell us about the process of designing yarn with the The Fibre Co.; from conception to skein, how involved are you in developing the yarns?
The yarn design process is an extremely gratifying one! The Fibre Co. yarns are known for their unique fiber blends and interesting colors. When the company began in 2003, it was incredibly rare to have a yarn on the market that was processed, spun, and then dyed in the way its yarns were. Now that the yarns are produced commercially, the goal is to maintain the original concept of unique artisan yarns. Coming up with a product that is viable on the market on a larger scale is challenging, but also satisfying.
The process begins with answering such questions as “What is missing in the line?” We go through broad brainstorming, using such constructs as “Fill in the blank: I wish I were knitting/crocheting with right now.” We then do our best to use these responses to create a basic idea of what we’re looking for (weight, ply, spin, general fiber blend) and take it from there.
No yarn that The Fibre Co. sells has existed before (as a spin/blend/yarn produced by a mill and sold to the market). Instead, the yarns are designed from start to finish with the goal of creating something original. The mill spins a custom blend for us, and we tweak the yarn by removing 5 percent of this, adding 10 percent of that, or changing the yards per pound slightly for a lighter/heavier weight, until we get the exact yarn we’re aiming for. Alternatively, Daphne develops a yarn through original small-batch processing and we modify it—spinning or plying it differently in order to create something new that can be produced commercially. The Fibre Co. Meadow is an example of a yarn that was custom designed from start to finish, and The Fibre Co. Acadia is one that was developed by adding silk nupps to the heavier-weight, single-ply Terra as a starting point for what became a 2-ply DK blend.
Now that Daphne and Iain are back in the United Kingdom managing the day-to-day operations of The Fibre Co. (UK) and working with other European distributors, Daphne is playing a greater role in yarn and color development, which has opened up some additional possibilities in terms of production. And it is really nice to have more minds in the game to toss around ideas!
Tell us about Arranmore—what it is, where it’s made, and how long it took to develop.
Arranmore is our Fall 2016 release, and it is unique to The Fibre Co. lineup. It is an Aran-weight, woolen-spun (the other lines are currently worsted-spun), authentic Donegal tweed made in Donegal, Ireland. What also makes Arranmore unique (in contrast to other Donegal yarns) is that it contains silk and cashmere in addition to the traditional wool, which gives it a lovely hand while still maintaining the qualities of true Donegal. (See the Donegal Sweater, in Interweave Knits Winter 2017, which features Arranmore).
Developing Arranmore went surprisingly quickly, which is atypical of our usual process. The Fibre Co. tends to have a number of potential yarns in the works at once, all at different stages and speeds of development. Many leads on the yarns we were working on last winter were resulting in dead ends, so one day Courtney suggested we look into the mills in Donegal to see what was possible. After some back and forth between Daphne and the mill, a fiber blend was settled upon (the mill had never done a blend like Arranmore before). Color development would be next, which took us to Ireland for a short, but wonderful, trip.
Tell us about Ireland! And about what the mill was like.
Ah, Ireland! With the yarn itself finalized, it was time to focus on color. Donegal yarns are known for their amazing color combinations and unique blending of the flecks to create the iconic tweed. However, once the mill added the silk and cashmere to the blend, some colors just weren’t working. After some back and forth, we all decided it was best to meet at the mill to do some custom blending in person. (And behind the words “We all decided,” there may have been a bit of “You know what would be a good idea? If we came to visit!”)
Our meeting was on a Monday, and we planned to have two “free” days the weekend before to explore. We flew into Dublin and took the scenic route to Donegal County. We wandered around and drove down whatever road seemed neat. Because we were there mid-winter, we were the only tourists anywhere. We were asked many times why we had picked mid-December to visit, when the weather is usually quite inhospitable. However, we managed to visit during four days of lovely, rain-free, cold-yet-tolerable weather. (You can read a little bit more about our trip at the blog, including the day we met Kathleen Meehan, who has a family-run business in authentic Aran sweaters, and, of course, bought sweaters from her at her home.)
Visiting the mill was wonderful. We not only were able to work closely with mill personnel on color development, but also were given a tour of the entire production process. We learned about the history of the mill and the company as a whole, as well as the role of textiles and manufacturing all over Donegal County. It is hard not to think about the yarn without also thinking of the people in the mill who produce the product, and that connection means a lot to us.
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