My Journey to Becoming a Fiber Farmer and Mill Owner
by Kim Biegler of Ewethful Fiber Farm & Mill, Halsey, OR
It all started with a sheep. It was Thanksgiving 2015, and we were on a family trip in Sisters, Oregon. I was browsing through Craigslist when I came across an ad for a Shetland sheep in need of a new home.
“Why not?” I thought. We had plenty of space on our grass seed farm for a sheep. I emailed the owner and, to my surprise, she declined my offer, saying I didn’t have enough experience. Not enough animal experience?! I’ve always been an animal lover, and in my past life (as I call my previous career), I owned a luxury dog hotel. I was stunned and took it as a personal challenge.
I did some research and learned that Shetlands are small, docile and… fiber sheep? I was a knitter, but honestly I had never considered where my yarn was coming from. I also didn’t pay attention to what the yarn was made of – wool, cotton or alpaca – as long as it felt good.
As luck would have it, there was another listing for a single Shetland sheep in Portland that needed a new home. The next week, I headed up there with a crate. I heard the first “Baaa” and was hooked, and I brought little Tweedle home with me.
Today, I have a fiber flock of seven ewes and wethers and two beautiful ram lambs. We also have a few alpaca for blending fiber and because, darn it, they are adorable.
A Foray into Spinning
The Christmas after my first sheep came to the farm, my husband bought me a spinning wheel. (He’s always been my supportive enabler.) It sat in the corner for a few months, staring at me, but after I took my first spinning class, the wheels really started turning (literally). Soon I started processing my wool, which is a long and laborious process.
While I loved it, I soon realized even my small flock was more than I could handle. Sending my wool to a mill for the first time was a turning point.
I heard through the fiber-vine that the mill I used was shutting down because the owner was retiring. After much hemming and hawing, my husband and I decided to purchase the equipment. I created a business plan, secured an equipment loan, and moved everything to our small farming town of Halsey, Oregon. The retired miller, Janelle, has been an amazing mentor. After the last year and a half, I can safely say that I now understand my equipment and how to get it to process fiber at its best.
The fibers I process are wool, alpaca, goat and qiviut, to name a few. Each fiber is different and requires a unique approach. Even the variety among sheep fibers is significant. There was a steep learning curve when I started the fiber mill. Getting educated required significant patience. There were many days when I returned home and said to my husband, “Well, I learned a valuable lesson today.” This often meant that the day had been rough but in the end I had sorted out the problem.
Daily life at Ewethful Fiber Mill & Shop
We eventually purchased a historic building in the heart of Halsey to house the mill and open a shop with fiber goods, handmade products and local antiques. With considerable hard work, we’ve turned the building into a cozy space that houses community knitting, spinning and fiber-related classes, all the milling machinery, and our fiber and yarn products. A typical day starts at home on our farm, where I get my husband fed and out the door for his day on his family’s century grass seed farm. I tend to our dogs, head out to hay and pellet the livestock, and let the chickens out for the day. Once the animals are taken care of, I make myself presentable to the non-farming world and head off to the mill and shop.
One of the best parts of my job is showing people the mill and educating them on shepherding, the wool industry and the fiber-processing business. I offer tours of the mill and help any customers who come into the shop. We make products for hand spinners as well as our own line of yarns. I take pride in supporting the local shepherds. All of Ewethful’s yarn is Oregon-grown, Oregon-processed and hand-dyed.
Making Yarn: How it works
Each day, my time at the mill is focused heavily on the process of creating yarns and fiber for hand-spinning. Turning raw animal wool into yarn is a lengthy process. Clients who tour the mill frequently express their surprise at the number of steps involved in yarn-making.
It all starts back at the farm. Fiber shepherds like me focus on achieving high quality through thoughtful breeding and an emphasis on animal health. Most sheep are shorn once per year, and significant work goes into growing the best fleeces.
After the sheep is shorn, the next step is skirting. Skirting wool is pulling out anything that shouldn’t be processed. This includes vegetable matter, feces and lesser-quality fiber. These are removed from the fleeces so that the best fiber is kept for yarn creation.
After skirting, the fiber goes into the wash. Clean fiber creates the best end product, so it’s imperative to remove dirt and lanolin. At Ewethful, we wash about five pounds of fiber per load using hot water and a special wool scouring soap. Washing takes anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the level of lanolin and dirt. Once clean, the fiber is laid out to dry, which typically takes a full 24 hours.
Next, the dry fiber is processed through the picker machine. The picker opens the wool locks for the next procedure. This is the stage when fibers can be blended. Our signature yarn is a combination of Romney wool, alpaca fiber and silk.
When the locks are open and the fibers are blended, the wool is fed through the carder machine. The carder runs the fiber through a series of rollers with small teeth, like a cat brush. Then it spits long strips (rovings) out the other end that reminds people of frozen yogurt coming out of the machine. The carder’s job is to ensure that the fibers are parallel. After this step, the rovings are ready for hand spinning or it can continue to be moved through the mill to be turned into yarn.
Before the fiber can be spun, the rovings must be run through the pin drafter. This machine also has a set of rollers with teeth. As the roving moves through the teeth, the fibers are further aligned, which creates a more consistent width in the roving. The consistent width is crucial to making even yarn.
Finally, it’s time to spin. Spinning yarn is simply adding a twist to the rovings. The spinning machine has several settings that can determine the thickness of the yarn. We can spin thin delicate yarn (lace weight) as well as bulkier yarns. Once the fiber weight is determined according to the settings, the bobbins turn and twist the fiber and you get yarn! After the yarn is spun and plied, it’s ready for the final stage: steaming and skeining. Steaming allows the fibers to settle back into a natural state. Then the yarn is wound into the skeins that most of you are used to seeing in stores.
Yarn-making is an extensive process, but it’s a labor of love. I’m reminded that the toil is worth it when I see the neatly stacked soft and colorful skeins awaiting their new home. I’m passionate about the farm-to-needle concept, supporting our local shepherds, and creating slow yarn and fiber products. Beyond providing high-quality fiber products, my goal is to educate and inspire others to join me in this amazing fiber world.
Kim Biegler is the owner of Ewethful Fiber Farm & Mill in Halsey, Oregon. Ewethful processes fiber for sheep, alpaca, llama, Angora rabbit, dog, bison and goat. Ewethful’s retail shop sells handmade goods and fiber products, and offers classes in knitting, spinning and fiber arts. Follow Ewethful on Instagram and Facebook for the latest fiber happenings.