Besides the Shetland Yarn, one of my first products was Romney Spinning fiber -- for the handspinner. It all started when I was travelling with a friend through Canada and had the chance to stop and tour my first Wool Pool. (Very exciting for this city girl!)
Judith was not only one of my spinning teachers but also my "go to" fount of information for all things WOOL! When we stumbled on a stash of really long, really soft Romney wool at the back of the building, we were told that because of it's length, it was sort of an orphan wool and wasn't really marketable to their commercial customers.
Well, you can only imagine -- my new company needed product and here was several hundred pounds of luscious, lusterous, long Romney wool. One quiet conference behind the wool bales with Judith for courage, and I was the proud owner of several hundred pounds of raw Romney wool!
I had a blast washing, dyeing and processing that wool for my hand-spinning customers. It was a perfect wool for new hand-spinners to learn with and was great for a wide variety of projects from spinning, felting, rugs, etc. And boy did it take color beautifully!
But I had a couple of problems. My goal for the company was (and is) to use and support U.S. farms and manufacturing facilities. I also needed (for practical reasons) to focus on making yarns and not hand-spinning fiber.
It turned out, in the end, that the easiest one of the problems was finding a U.S. source for Romney wool. I couldn't just source from the many small hobby flocks that specialized in raising fleece for the handspinning market. To make a commercial product, I had to be able to pay commerical prices for the raw wool. A serendipitous conversation with an owner of a small Romney flock in Oregon led me to Carol and Maggie -- owners of Tawanda Farms. Maggie and Carol raise a small flock of grass fed and finished Romney sheep. While their meat market was growing, sources for the sale of their wool had dwindled to less than 25 cents a pound at the nearest Wool Pool and they had been reduced to mulching the wool after shearing! It was (and is) a terrific match. I was able to give them a market for their wool at a decent commercial price and they have taught me a lot about sheep -- and provided me with great product!
The second problem was how to make a yarn from the Romney wool that would appeal to handknitters. In yarn form, Romney is just not soft and handknitters love their soft yarns! Over the years of working with Maggie and Carol, we saw a marked improvement in the quality of their wool (softness and consistency) but none of us wanted to change the basic nature of the fleece. And, while we were finally at the softer end of the breed standard -- it would never be considered soft by knitters used to knitting with Merino, silk and Cashmere yarns. Several years into the project, I had a brain-storm and sent my mill a hand-spun sample of a great, irregular spun long-draw yarn. It was fun, sexy and pretty darn soft on the scale of such things. I sent a few hundred pounds of wool along with the sample and waited with baited breath!
The yarn arrived and . . . it-was-not-soft! It was a perfectly balanced, wonderful, strong, lusterous . . . . but not sexy yarn. Before despair could set in, the gals from Fancy Tiger went crazy over the yarn. It seemed while my head was buried in building my business, I had missed the fact that a shift in the collective "yarn consciousness" was occurring. Stores like Fancy Tiger and evangelists like Clara Parks had done wonders for raising the visibility of yarns from heritage style wools. Through the example of great products and positioning in their stores, popular books and blogs, yarns that retained and exploited the character of their sourced wool were coming into their own!
Co-branding the yarn with Fancy Tiger did several things for this wonderful yarn. It benefited from Jamie and Amber's great passion for the yarn and their great sense of color and marketing. And maintaining the yarn under the Elemental Affects brand made it easy for us to make the yarn available across the country to a wide variety of stores . . . . and therefore to customers everywhere!