Get To Know Katie
My name is Katie Sullivan and I am a shepherd who raises sheep for meat and wool at Cloverworks Farm in Irasburg, VT.
I began my enterprise knowing that the only road to profitability included using everything my sheep produce. That means making organs into dog treats, selling every bit of meat, selling mutton successfully, and also selling pelts and wool.
I knew that only a small number of people enjoy handling and spinning raw wool. Competition in that sector is fierce, so it made sense to go up one level of processing and to sell yarn. Fortunately, my mother is an accomplished knitter and knitting teacher. She sincerely enjoys designing and promoting yarn. Her help has made my farm successful in our yarn-selling venture.
Fast forward a few years – I now attend several large fiber festivals and can count on selling through my annual yarn production at the Farmer’s Markets I attend, plus the large fiber festivals at year’s end.
I found myself fielding calls from local yarn shops looking for a reliable source of distinctive, unique yarns to help their businesses stand out against Amazon and yarn.com.
Because I was able to sell my product retail, I had to say “no” to these shops again and again.
Meanwhile, I knew of many other sheep enterprises that produced huge amounts of fiber but who sold it for a pittance at our local wool pool.
At the same time, I was finding that without any space to expand the flock, our farm does not have enough production capacity to support both of us staying home. An epiphany brought these two problems together- the best business to add to the farm would be a yarn enterprise that fills demand that I already know about and which plays to our existing marketing strengths as a business.
We called up some friends on the other side of the state who raise Romney sheep. They were successfully growing large lamb carcasses on grass and marketing their meat statewide, but they didn’t really have a plan for their wool and didn’t want to take 50 cents per pound for it. A few spreadsheets later, I was offering six times that sum and making sure that at the very least, the wool wasn’t a financial loss for their business.
It was then that Bobolink Yarns was born.
I’m not shy about describing how the business works because I think other folks with yarn knowledge should replicate this model across the country.
If you have some knowledge of yarn and fibercraft and can afford to have some capital tied up at the mill, there are many opportunities to find great wool that needs a job and yarn shops who need local products.
Right now, many small yarn shops are being treated as showrooms for large online sellers. Small yarn shops offer classes, assistance and education to knitters. They support the next generation of fiber crafters and we need them to keep wool sustainable.
Offering yarns that will not be available on Amazon or at yarn.com at affordable wholesale prices with a small margin for me to keep is one way that farmers can keep fibercraft alive and ensure their futures in farmer.
How can you get started?
1. Familiarize yourself with yarn
You don’t need to be an expert knitter or crocheter to appreciate quality. The Knitters Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes is a great place to start in learning about yarn and yarncraft. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Carol Ekarius is also a great read. Read as much as you can stand so you have a feel for how yarn is made and designed.
2. Buy or grow good wool
Wool sent to the mill must be clean. It must have an absolute minimum of hay chaff and must be free of tags, clumps of manure and other detritus. Too much good wool in the US is ruined by incorrect hayfeeding that results in hay on the sheep’s back. Find the best hay-contamination solution you can and skirt the wool generously to remove contaminated fiber.
A quick guideline: If you notice the hay and detritus when you gently squeeze a handful of your wool, there’s too much hay.
You’ll need about 50 pounds of wool to get a good return on your spinning effort, realistically. Sending less wool to the mill means more wool is lost in the carding process and small-batch fees may be incurred. It’s fine to partner with other farms to meet minimums.
3. AVOID THIS MISTAKE
Many beginning shepherds and wool processors go online and find the cheapest mill, figuring that a yarn that costs less to produce will be easier to sell than one that costs more for them and for the consumer. This is the wrong approach! I have seen a lot of good fiber spun in unflattering ways because the local mill doesn’t specialize in wool from that breed and because the method of spinning the mill uses (worsted, semi worsted, woollen) does not suit the fiber the farmer grew.
Another common mistake is to make thicker yarn because it appears cheaper to make. Thin is in right now in fibercraft, so assuming that a cheaper spin is smart may be a costly error.
Cheaper isn’t better, so be sure to figure out which preparation is right for your fiber and what style of yarn you want before sending you wool off for processing.
4. Art time!
How much white clothing do you wear? If you’re a farmer, probably not much! So if your yarn is white, consider learning to dye fun colors.
A dedicated pot and stirrer and a bit of time on YouTube learning techniques are enough to get most folks started. I use Pro Chemical and Dye, but many folks are exploring natural dyes and dye gardens. The possibilities for creativity are endless!
5. Find Fiber Folks
If you take your newly-minted yarn to your farmer’s market, maybe one or two people in their 20’s are serious knitters and only some of them will buy. Don’t be discouraged if yarn isn’t a huge mover at normal farmer’s markets. It may be better to consider vending at a fiber festival or craft fair that attracts fiber oriented folks.
Be sure to label your yarn with the weight, gauge and needle recommendations. Do you have any friends who knit regularly? It’s normal to trade yarn for knitted samples to demonstrate the best patterns and uses for your yarn.
6. Join the Fiber Community
If you don’t already weave, knit or crochet, would you like to learn? Your local yarn shop might be just the place to find lessons, assistance, and a portal to the world of textile self-sufficiency.
7. The World of Wholesale
If you’re really enjoying your new yarn life, wholesale yarn is another step to take. Normal MSRP is 200% of wholesale. Some yarnshops will sell yarn on consignment, but know that like any business, they will naturally work harder to sell higher profit items. It is better to sell yarn wholesale and let the shop handle the rest, in my experience. Your local shop owner can tell you what kinds of yarns are popular and which don’t move well. Most shop owners I have met have been very helpful in this respect.
Opportunities abound in local textiles and a little research and ingenuity is all that stands between you and some good yarn.
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