My Wisconsin Wool Adventure

Have you ever wandered into a yarn store and asked for “something local”? How local is “local” for you? Is it yarn that was handdyed by a yarn dyer that lives in the area? Perhaps it’s yarn spun by mills in the state that was sourced from a multi-state wool pool? Or do you hunt for the rare gem: yarn that was grown and milled in your state, usually from a single flock of sheep from the next county over. Yarn that has never left the state until you take it across its borders. I happen to have that kind of yarn, hundreds of skeins of that kind of yarn, to be exact, in a giant tote in my basement. I came by it in the most “Wisconsin” of ways.

In Northern Wisconsin, the people are few, friendly, and know everybody. The number of farms and vacation lake houses are about equal. There are also “Supper Clubs”, a combination eating and drinking establishment. On a Friday night at a Wisconsin Supper Club you will see most of your neighbors eat what is known as a Friday Night Fish Fry and drink Wisconsin brandy (or whiskey) ‘Old Fashioned cocktails’ sweet (or sour, or press). Supper Clubs bring small communities together where there are very few dining options. One spring Friday night, my parents went out for their Friday Fish Fry at their local supper club across the street. During their after dinner drinks my dad started talking to one of the newer neighbors. She had just convinced her son to purchase a small flock of Columbia Sheep for his Door County Farm, primarily for meat, not fleece. She started to tell my dad that she had to sheer the sheep and didn’t know what to do with all the garbage bags of raw wool. My dad saw this moment as a great opportunity to proclaim, “I know a girl that could help you with that!”

After an excited late night phone call from my dad and his new wool friend at the bar, I was exchanging emails and phone calls with Pat (the Shepherdess of Clark Lake Farm in Door County, Wi). Pat had 20 bags of raw wool for me, if I wanted to pay her a fair price.

My family encouraged me to take the wool and turn it into yarn. I had been the shop manager of Cream City Yarn, a local yarn store in the suburbs of Milwaukee, since 2014. How hard could it be to turn bags of wool into yarn?

On my next trip to visit my parents, I strapped my one-year old daughter on to my back and walked the half a mile down to Pat’s house. To my delight, Pat’s raw wool turned out to be huge plastic bags of beautiful, creamy white (albeit very dirty), wool. Pat and I agreed on a price. I called my husband to bring over our car so we could cram all 20 bags of wool into our Jeep Liberty. We unloaded our cache of wool into my parents garage and started trying to figure out where to take it to get milled. It was at this point we considered the possibility that we might be doing this a little backwards, but everybody was very excited. 

It was important to me that the yarn remain in Wisconsin for milling. I didn’t want it to leave the state. Partially because I didn’t want to add in the expense of shipping it to and from the mill, making the end product even more expensive. But a quick google search had me worried because, there are only about 5 woolen mills in the entire state of Wisconsin. Two of the mills I looked at only took raw wool and got it to roving or batts. I needed a mill that would take the raw wool all the way to yarn. Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill would turn out to be the mill for me. As a plus, it is well known in Wisconsin as a place that makes really beautiful yarn. When I reached out to Anne about bringing my bags of raw wool to her mill she said “sure”. I could come drop them off at any time.

Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill is only an hour and a half away from our home. So one day in June we loaded up the Jeep Liberty with our wool (leaving just enough room for our daughter in her car seat) and headed across the state. When we got there we were told to unload our wool bags to a certain spot. I chatted with Anne about what I wanted done with them. We decided to make half of the batch fingering weight skeins and half worsted weight skeins. We also chose from a couple of other options for finishing, including that we would leave the skeins undyed. All of this information was written on a small yellow legal pad. When I asked her if I should write our names on the bags, she replied that she “knew which ones were ours” and told us she would email us when they were done. It would probably take about 9 months. I laughed and said to my husband, “We could have another baby in the time it takes to make this wool into yarn!”

On the day our second daughter was born, I received an email that my wool was done and was ready to be picked up. I sent back a quick email asking if I could come in a couple of weeks because I had just had a baby. Thankfully we were told to take our time. As we drove to pick up our yarn we thought up names for the two different weights. We decided to call the worsted weight “Supper Club” because this all started in a Supper Club. The fingering weight we dubbed “Lakehouse” because of my parents beloved house on a lake where I grew up. We wondered how many skeins would we get get from the 20 bags of raw wool we’d dropped off. The answer was 110 skeins of fingering weight and 90 skeins of worsted weight yarn, which thankfully fit into the trunk of our Jeep Liberty, as the middle row was now occupied by two car seats with kids in them.

We sold most of our first batch of yarn by word of mouth, Pat sold some of it at the Green Bay Farmer’s Market, and some I sold at Cream City Yarn. When Erin and Holly of Stitch Stuff Yarn approached me about a fun event they were vending at in the Milwaukee area, I knew they were the right people to collaborate with for my special yarn. They dyed a portion of my Lakehouse fingering weight into a rainbow of beautiful colors. Erin’s husband even designed ball bands that were printed locally on Wisconsin-made paper! We had a wonderful time promoting our colorful mini skeins to great success.

Two years later, Pat asked me if I would like to repeat the process again when my original batch of yarn was almost sold out. This time Pat also presented us with the fleece of a black Columbia sheep who had been a beloved misfit of Pat’s ever-growing flock. Another farmer with small flock of Shetland and Jacob sheep on a farm near Pat’s sheep asked if I would also be interested in his fleeces too. I took them all. I thought it would be a great time to add some color to what had previously been all white wool. My husband and I (now a little bit wiser to this whole milling business) also taught ourselves how to skirt the fleeces before taking them to be processed by the mill.

When Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill was unable to process this batch of fleeces I reached out to Kathryn at Ewetopia Fiber Mill in La Farge, Wisconsin. After talking with Kathryn, we chose to create 3 different “lots” from our fiber. Half of the white fleeces would become 50 gram skeins of DK weight yarn, while the other half would become 50 gram skeins of fingering weight yarn. All of the dark fleece (1 black Columbia, 1 Shetland, and 2 Jacob sheep) would be blended together into 50 gram skeins of brown-grey fingering weight yarn. 

It took 6 months to mill this batch of yarn and we made it through this second process without adding any extra humans to our household.

If you’re interested in buying a little piece of my wool adventure, you can find it in my Cast & Dye Etsy Shop. If you see me in person out and about, I always have a small tote filled with yarn in the back of my car, too. If you’re looking to go on a similar adventure, I would tell you to go for it. No amount of preparing can make you ready for this journey, and there’s a lot of learning as you go. I have found that you just have to say yes and keep saying yes to opportunities that come your way. Because of this whole process, I have gained a huge appreciation for every step it takes to get a skein of yarn onto a shelf at your local yarn store. From farmer, to woolen mill, to yarn seller, to your own yarn stash, every step took someone’s hard work and time to make that happen. So I will ask you again, how local is “local” for you when it comes to yarn?

Cait St. George is the shop manager for Cream City Yarn in Brookfield, WI, USA. She teaches a wide range of knitting classes, helps lead Cream City Yarn knitting retreats, keeps the Milwaukee knitting community wild about Fair Isle knitting, designs patterns, and is the owner of Cast & Dye. You can find Cait online on Instagram @caitstgeorge