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Interview: Sun Valley Fibers

This is the first in a new series of indie dyer/ small business owner interviews. All posts will be linked on the Reviews page.

I’m thrilled to be featuring Jeanette of Sun Valley Fibers for my first interview. I used her lovely MCN fingering weight in the Pansy colorway for my DeLovely Mitts design.

Tell me a little about your company.

My husband George and I raise registered Icelandic sheep in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. We sell yarn and roving from our sheep in their natural colors mostly, but we do dye some of the Icelandic yarn. We hand-dye other blends of yarn because even though our sheep are sheared two times a year, we still run out of the yarn and roving. Since we have several fiber festivals we go to, we dye the other blends so we still have yarn to sell. Plus, we love to play with color. We only have so much of the Icelandic yarn, so what we do dye, it’s only available in limited colors.

Why did you start?

Well, that’s an easy enough question, but it’s kind of a long answer…. We used to live outside of Woodstock, Illinois where George owned a landscaping business and I was a freelance court reporter. After we had our daughters, we thought about moving because we had often thought of owning a farm. (Plus, George’s hobby was restoring antique tractors and we needed more room for the tractors!)

We purchased the property we now live at in 1997, and had our house built in 2003, when we moved to Wisconsin. During that whole time, 1997 to 2003, George baled hay and sold it to horse farms and he continued his landscaping business and I continued my job. We also found out about the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison, Wisconsin. We visited Madison on Saturdays a couple of times to check out the farmer’s market and see what it was all about. We decided to apply for a spot at the farmer’s market because with George’s background in landscaping, he wanted to sell perennial plants and herbs and vegetable plants.

George started attending the Dane County Farmer’s Market on a regular basis in 2003, and continues to do so even now, selling perennials and heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs from April through June each year.

When we first moved to the farm, on our daughters’ daily busy ride to school, they went past a farm that had 50 or so llamas and a ‘llamas for sale’ sign. George had initially wanted to raise black Angus cattle at the farm, in addition to baling hay and selling hay and the greenhouses and perennial business, but the girls convinced their father to let them get llamas, and we were soon joined by Durante and Percy, two gelded llamas. The llamas were followed by 2 goats — unfortunately not of a fiber breed, but we still love Tuscany and Godiva — and it was just a matter of which breed of sheep were going to join us, because we were obviously not going to raise black Angus cattle any more!

After doing a bit of research, we decided on raising Icelandic sheep. We were intrigued by all of the different colors the fleeces of the sheep were. Their fleeces grow 6-8 inches in six months, so they are sheared twice a year. They aren’t really big animals, so we could take care of them ourselves, for the most part. George had experience as a child with horses, and although we didn’t know much about sheep, he at least had experience around livestock, so we were ready to give it a go.

Our first ‘herd’ was made up of 4 ewes, and then we added a ram, 3 bred ewes, then another ram, and a few more ewes. That first spring we had 11 lambs. It was very exciting and scary and exciting to go through the process of getting the animals and then having the lambs. We’ve had sheep for 6 years now, and have had lambing season consist of 60 lambs a few years ago, to 50 lambs two years ago, to now we’re not breeding the sheep for a few years to give all of us a break! We have sold many of the sheep to other Icelandic breeders, and it’s been interesting to see them go through the same process wed did in assembling a herd and all that that entails.

Lambing season is generally in the spring, and that’s also when we’re getting plants started for the market, so there’s a lot to juggle. After going through several lambing seasons we’ve decided to give it a rest for a while. Our sheep either give us beautiful lambs or gorgeous fleeces, but not both at the same time. We’ve decided to concentrate more on the fleece end of it and are keeping our flock size to about 60 animals now.

Our daughters are also both in high school now, and will be off to college soon, so we’re going to have less help around the farm and more juggling to do with high school and college things, and so that’s another reason to just sit back and evaluate what we should do next…

Is it just you, or do you have employees?

It’s just George and I, with some help from our daughters. They help mainly with sheep duties, worming and hoof trimming. When we had lambs the girls would help check on everyone and make sure all was well. We sometimes get help at fiber shows from the girls, but it’s generally just George and I.

What are your goals for the company?

Our current goals are to maintain our sheep herd or downsize a little more and expand into some other yarn bases for our customers. We are thinking about expanding into bamboo, corn and milk fibers, in addition to some other wool blends too, but we’ll see. But it’s just the two of us, so we are taking our time! What we’re doing right now works for us, we we’re not in a hurry to change anything! Plus, it’s sometimes difficult to juggle everything farmwise, familywise and businesswise. Oh, and I still work off the farm as a court reporter, and I have crazy deadlines and a crazy work schedule, so a lot of the farm work (okay, 99%) falls on George’s shoulders. But I do help him bale hay. 🙂

What inspires you?

Anything and everything inspires us. We live in a beautiful valley and we’re surrounded by woods and gardens. Our business is a partnership, and George dyes just as much if not more of the yarn as I do. George’s background in landscaping gives him a great eye for color — or perhaps that’s why he went into landscaping, because he has such a gift for designing beautiful flower beds and flower gardens.

What is the easiest aspect for you?

Coming up with color combinations to dye yarn! That’s the fun part!

Most difficult?

Coming up with names! We like to name the colors, not attach a number to it. We sometimes get stumped for a name, but it all works out.

What do you wish you’d known before you started?

At the beginning we were using a regular swift and re-skeining yarn took forever. We discovered electric skein winders, and they’re the bees knees!

What else would you like to tell my readers?

Thank you very much for supporting farmers like ourselves who raise heritage breed sheep. It’s a lot of work to maintain the flock and keep them healthy. It’s really a labor of love. We take a great deal of pride in the yarn and roving our sheep produce for us. Our sheep are very special to us, and they all have names. But it’s also a business, and it’s a lot of hard work. When it’s freezing cold outside or sleeting and we have to get hay in the feeders or get another tank heater because the one in the tank stopped working and the water trough is a frozen block of ice, have a friendly, fuzzy face come up for a scratch behind the ears makes it all worth while.

We would also like to thank you for supporting independent dyers like us. We really appreciate it!

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