My love for fiber began when I was 6 years old and my Mother taught me how to knit. My Local Yarn Store was located in the basement of an old house in a small town in Vermont. This place offered my first experience in the awesomeness of color and texture in yarn. Little did I know then that after an expensive college education and various jobs that involved sitting at a desk watching the world go by, I would become a professional sheep shearer.
My career in agriculture started 30 years ago raising Khaki Campbell ducks. Don’t ask why ducks and why Khaki Campbell, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. We did all the right things: fed them a good diet, protected them with chicken wire fence that was buried in the ground but, eventually, they all became delicious meals for the local raccoon population.
My next agricultural adventure involved participating in a USDA study that examined the profitability of raising Cashmere goats in the United States. I started with a herd of 22 angora goats, a vasectomized buck and enough chemicals to bring them all into estrus at the same time. The next two falls they were implanted with embryos of cashmere goats from Tasmania. If the angora doe came back into heat (indicating the embryo had not planted), they were bred to an intact angora buck, just to keep them in the mood. At the end of the two years, I had 70 goats: 64 were Angora and 6 were cashmere.
In the meantime, all those Angora goats had to be sheared. So off I went to shearing school where I learned the complex dance involved in separating fleece from animal. After returning home I soon learned there is a big difference between shearing a sheep and shearing a goat: sheep don’t bite. Realizing that sheep were a better fit for me and my farm, my goatherd dwindled and my herd of beautiful Coopworth Sheep grew.
For the next 20 years I sheared sheep (and goats) professionally and became totally obsessed with natural fibers. I created my own line of yarns that included wool from my Coopworth sheep. I would dye them with natural dyes and take the yarn and roving to local sheep and wool shows to sell. However, I soon learned that by the time you paid for shipping, processing and dyeing, it is very difficult to be competitive in the yarn market. Unless you own the means of adding value to your fiber, it is difficult to make a profit.
At the same time, as I continued my shearing services, I learned that most shepherds do not have the time, the interest or the knowledge to deal with the fiber that comes from their animals. It ends up dumped, buried or in flames: a waste of a wonderful resource and a loss of income for the farmer.
I have been involved with Twisted Strait Fibers since 2012. A cooperatively owned local fiber processing mill will create an opportunity for those shepherds who do not have time to market their own wool. A cooperatively owned local fiber processing mill will offer those shepherds who are interested in roving and yarn a less expensive alternative for adding value to their raw fiber. And a cooperatively owned local fiber processing mill will create a community for our geographically diverse fiber producers and fiber artists.
Twisted Strait Fibers can improve the economic sustainability of our fiber producers and encourage more individuals to participate in this wonderful industry. We can speak to the advantages of natural fibers over manufactured fibers. We can brag about the carbon neutrality of both wearing natural fibers and raising them.
I am now retired from sheep shearing and have just two sheep and two goats left in my pasture. Several years ago, I learned to weave and now manage a weaving shop in Port Gamble where I teach weaving. Nothing brings me more satisfaction than to create a rug or a blanket that is made from local wool. My love for fiber and my concern for the fiber industry continues.