Following Fiber to the Source by Anne Merrow
My grocery store has begun placing signs next to the produce and flowers identifying where each carrot, lemon, and lily comes from. Coffee and cheese have long been labeled that way, but now I can see whether the tomatoes come from a foreign country or the farm stand up the road. A thriving “locavore” movement is made up of people who want to eat only food grown within a limited radius of their homes, but others may just prefer to support a local farm through a CSA share. Well, what about knitters who want to know more about where their fiber comes from? Like the veggies under the misters, all natural fibers destined to become yarn are grown on a farm somewhere. How can knitters get closer to their fiber sources?
SHARING THE BOUNTY
Shepherd Susan Gibbs has a flock of sheep and goats on her Juniper Moon Farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. Back when her farm was located on Martha’s Vineyard, she faced the financial challenge of keeping a flock on an island more known for wealthy vacationers than working farms. “Even more than the pasture, feed, and animals, however,” Gibbs says, “milling [fleece into yarn] is really expensive for a small farm.” After considering various ideas, she hit upon a solution vegetable farmers use: community-supported agriculture (CSA).
Over the last twenty years, a growing number of small farms have begun selling shares of their crops, then providing each shareholder with a portion of the yield. It’s a popular way for city dwellers to forge a connection with one farm, follow the rhythm of the growing season, and get fresh local vegetables throughout the season. Deciding to try the concept with fiber, Gibbs founded the first fiber CSA.
The first crop of 100 shares sold quickly, and every harvest since then has been fully subscribed. Shareholders can choose to take their portion as spinning fiber or spun yarn. Although Gibbs is happy to have a ready market for her wool and mohair, she has been most delighted by the bond that her shareholders (who call themselves “aunties”) form with each other and the farm. On each shearing day, Susan Gibbs organizes a party for them, and they get together across the country for reunions throughout the year.
In addition to her CSA, Gibbs hosts farm stays of a weekend or more for visitors who want to vacation on the farm. Guests can choose whether to sit on the porch and knit while looking at the flock in the field or pull on work clothes and take a more hands-on approach.
Sheep Shares, a similar program developed by Barb Parry of Foxfire Fiber & Designs, offers fiber and yarn shipments four times per year plus an invitation to a Lamb Visit Day in the spring and a Fiber & Foliage Open Barn event in the fall. Like Juniper Moon’s CSA, Sheep Shares has sold out for the year, but similar programs are available throughout the country.
VISITING THE SOURCE
Fiber farms can also be found close to home. I first met the ranchers from Bijou Basin Ranch a few years ago at the Estes Park Wool Market, which takes place every June in Estes Park, Colorado. Carl and Eileen Koop now have seventeen yaks on their dry, rolling hills southeast of Denver and sell their yarn across the country. But their business remains distinctly local even as their distribution grows.
Like cashmere goats, yaks grow a downy undercoat to protect them from cold, windy weather; the coat is shed in the spring. However, yaks also can be combed to gather the down, which then can be dehaired and spun into yarn. I visited the ranch one late spring afternoon. Holding a bucket of treats, I was quickly approached by four or five yak cows, some with a bit of down showing under their glossy coats. They look like horned cows with the hair of Shetland ponies—luxurious and wavy. Carl Koop pointed out the year’s three calves, Sherman, Opal, and Beefcake.
The Koops found a lot of interest in their Bijou Spun yarn after their first knitting show—interest that quickly outpaced their ability to supply the yarn from their own herd. Each yak yields about 21/2 pounds (1.1 kilograms) of clean, usable fiber per year. Even multiplied by seventeen, their yaks would yield less than four hundred 50-gram skeins of yarn per year. The Koops realized that they couldn’t operate even a small yarn business if their raw material ran out so quickly. To maintain a supply of fiber, they purchase fiber from other yak farmers each year at the Western Stock Show. “We get garbage bags full of fiber,” Carl Koop says.
Like cashmere and other down fibers, yak is short and fine, making it difficult to spin on its own. One of Bijou Basin’s most popular yarns is its 50/50 yak/Cormo blend, which adds a fine sheep’s wool for drape and strength. Eileen Koop selects Cormo fleeces from small to midsize farms. By providing a market for yak yarn, the Koops support yak farms around the West.
Posted June 12, 2014. Updated April 29, 2017