Before I started Elemental Affects, I was a hand-spinner with a yearning to leave the corporate world. My early spinning efforts saw me spinning with both Shetland and Romney fleece and I was fascinated by what you could do with the rustic, naturally colored wool. I was also convinced that we deserved to have an affordable Shetland yarn made here in the U.S.
Only a crazy person starts a yarn company with a sheep that is too small, comes in too many colors, has variable lengths and qualities of fiber and . . . . oh by the way . . . is only raised in small, hand-spinner flocks in this country.
One of the boys watching . . . just watching.
But take a look . . . . they are so cute! And that became the key to the whole ball of wax.
In the early 90's, one of my favorite spinning teachers (Judith MacKenzie) introduced me to a friend of hers who had just acquired what seemed to be the largest Shetland flock in the United States (in Montana). Cathy acquired the sheep (thinking they were very cute) to do a job she desperately needed done on her ranch – weed control. She tried selling the fleece to hand-spinners, but she is a rancher through and through and wanted to sell the fleece all at once instead of one at a time to hand-spinners. I made a deal with Cathy and I was suddenly the proud owner of “fleece futures.” She agreed to sell me all of the fleece every year into the future at a decent market price.
First, I had to learn about shearing, skirting, sorting and classing the wool. Judith (an expert on Shetland fleece) came out and helped us for several years trying to teach us as much as we could cram into our brains and hands. That first year, I even asked one of the shearers to teach me to shear and I have to say, 10 years older and later, I am really glad he said no!
These little guys are not easy to shear – too little and wiggly.
Dennis (the shearer) and one of the retired guard dogs on a break.
Shetland fleece ready to go to the sorting bin.
Sorted, bagged and ready to scour.
Now, I just had to learn how to turn the wool into a commercially viable (quality) yarn. Until that time, Shetland yarn was only available as an import or from hand-spinning flocks produced through the small custom processors/mills we have here in the U.S. I needed a commercial mill that would process the wool into yarn at a price that would make the yarn affordable through the wholesale marketplace.
Without dragging you through the process, I eventually found a woolen mill on the East Coast that is, I believe, owned by the 3rd generation of the same family and run by 5 brothers. I remember talking to John, who runs the carding part of the operation, for an hour and a half grilling him on how, and if, he could process the wool properly. I was so giddy with relief at the end of the conversation I asked him if he'd marry me. Unfortunately, he didn't think his wife would approve. Fortunately, he's been processing both my Shetland and Romney yarns for years – in spite of the fact that I started by sending him about 500 pounds of clean wool. (We now process about 3000 pounds a year of these yarns.)
In context, this is a company that runs 2-3 shifts a day – often 7 days a week – processing contracts for Navy Peacoats and baseball guts. I am still grateful that this is a company interested in helping keep small companies alive by processing what is, to them, very small potatoes.
How many of you know that there is wool in the guts of a baseball?
Change is constant and Cathy eventually decided to retire from having a full-time flock. Through community and incredible luck, we found a breeder in Colorado who was interested in continuing our quest to make these tiny sheep into a viable flock. Jared Lloyd and his wife are a young couple working to keep livestock and prove that a living is to be made on the land. I am delighted with our new partnership.
My focus is using the resources here in the U.S. to help (in a small way) prove that we can make commercially viable yarns. It's not easy, but it can be done. I love my breed-specific yarns, but I also hope as I introduce my blended yarns, that I bring to the market yarn that is well-designed in form, function and color. I want projects made with my yarns to last for years and look as beautiful well-used as they did when they come off your needles.
I hope they bring you joy!
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