It turns out that there is a thriving - if somewhat underground - network of fiber-centric activity going on in middle Tennessee. Who knew? There are a growing number of farmers who raise sheep, alpacas, and other animals, like angora goats, for their fiber; and all sorts of people who use the natural fiber to spin, dye, knit, weave, and felt. The fiber community is alive and well and growing through a rich network of community events, such as spinning, knitting, and weaving circles, as well as the upcoming 'Fiber in the 'Boro event'- that will be held October 19-20.
Beth and Steve Shafer, who own 3 Creeks Farm in Charlotte, Tennessee, are part of that group of farmers who are producing high-quality and sought- after fiber. The Shafers have a large variety of animals, including Tennessee fainting goats and llamas, but the real fiber-producing stock is their herd of Shetland and Icelandic sheep.
The Shafers wanted to have animals on their farm, and Steve, a retired teacher, had begun blacksmithing as a hobby. Beth describes the beginning of their adventure, saying, "I was going to blacksmithing events with Steve and didn't have anything to do. We went to the Charlotte Bicentennial and there were spinners there, and I said, 'That's what I want to do'. So I got me some sheep and I got me a wheel, and the rest is history." Since 2002, the Shafers have grown their herd to close to fifty animals. The herd mostly consists of Shetlands and Icelandics, but Beth says, "We do have a few oddballs that we've picked up, and we also cross Shetlands and Icelandics."
The Shafers did quite a bit of research into different breeds that produce good wool, and Beth now describes herself as a "fiber nerd." They looked at the animals' size, how hearty they are, and how easy they are to manage. One advantage to the breeds they chose is that you don't have to dock their tails, which cuts down on infections, matting, and flies. They chose the Shetlands and Icelandics mostly because of the fine wool they produce, which is prized in spinning circles.
Every year in early spring, Beth and Steve have a shearer come and shear as many of the sheep as he can manage in one day. After that, Beth shears the rest of the flock as needed. The sheep are like people, she insists. "Some of their hair grows really fast, and some slow. Some I can get two good fleeces off of and some I get one short fleece." From there, Beth does most of the processing of the fleece. She has to get the dirt out of it and wash it (usually three or four washings), and then it's ready to be dyed or processed. Once it's clean and dry, she cards it to get it smooth and ready to spin. Beth estimates that she can use about 50 percent of the fleece that's shorn from her flock.
While Beth sells some of her processed fiber, her main interest is in using it to spin, and she is involved with several spinning groups, one of which often meets at her farm. When she can, she also meets with a group called the Nashville Spinsters that meets on the second Saturday of the month at Fifty Forward. Beth describes the importance of these groups, saying, "It's invaluable to get together. There's generally always somebody new, and there also are experienced people. We all learn from each other."
Not only does Beth sell spindles, fiber, and other spinning supplies, but the Shafers also grow dye plants with which to dye their fiber. Beth has researched some of the centuries-old dye plants, and the plants they grow include weld, which dyes a clear yellow to yellow-green, and woad, which dyes blue. The Shafers also host a "Dye Day" every fall when the weather turns cool. Beth explains the event, saying, "People bring a covered dish and it's usually a big party/mad scientist thing. It's like a big experiment, where we say, 'Oh, let's stick it in there and see what happens'. It's just fun."
Another animal that's becoming popular on farms in middle Tennessee is the alpaca. Not to be confused with llamas, the alpaca is roughly half their size and has been bred for over 5,000 years for its luxurious fiber; however, alpacas are also prized farm animals because they are known to be gentle, friendly, and easy to care for.
Cindi and Don Webber have been raising alpacas for about four years and currently have a herd of twenty-two animals that they breed, show, and sell. The Webber's' farm is located close to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, and they named their farm Airborne Alpacas to honor the men and women of the 101st Airborne.
Cindi and Don also were looking for animals to raise on their farm, and they settled on alpacas for a number of reasons. Cindi describes the joy of alpaca farming, saying, "They're a really gentle animal on your farm. They don't have hooves so they don't destroy your pasture." Then she adds, "Little kids can manage alpacas, that's how easy they are."
Alpaca fiber has a number of desirable qualities. As Cindi says, most people are wowed when they feel the fiber from her animals. Alpaca fiber is surprisingly light and even has a wicking property. The Webbers raise Huacaya alpacas, which Cindi describes as looking like teddy bears, as opposed to Suri alpacas, which look like they have dreadlocks. Cindi explains alpaca fiber further, saying, "It's been known as the fiber of kings - it's the fiber that the royalty in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile coveted. Our animals are from the lineage of alpacas that have the finest fiber you can find."
The Webbers also breed alpacas, and that takes quite a bit of vigilance and care. Alpacas are known to absorb about 25 percent of their babies, and they don't come into season like you think of with cows or goats. "When we get babies, it's a big deal," explains Cindi.
By one estimate, there are about ten to twelve alpaca farmers in middle Tennessee, and there is a growing community that is brought together through the Tennessee Alpaca Association. Cindi and Don would like to see a greater understanding in the community about the quality of alpaca fiber and the joy of farming alpacas, and try to make themselves available to anyone who wants to know more about alpaca farming. The one ingredient that seems to be essential for raising animals is the obvious love that both the Shafers and Webbers have for their herds. As Beth explains, "We really enjoy our animals and it's very satisfying work." Both couples take extra care with the feeding and pasturing of their animals to make sure they're producing high-quality fleece, but they also have special relationships with their animals.
One way that the fiber community connects and builds its network of farmers, spinners, dyers, knitters, weavers, etc. is through biannual festivals. One of these gatherings is the upcoming Fiber in the ' 'Boro, which will be held October 19-20 at the Lane Agricultural Park in Murfreesboro. Jan Quarles, one of the organizers of the Murfreesboro event and herself a spinner and dyer, describes the fiber community as a big sharing group. Fiber in the 'Boro will provide lots of opportunites for networking, learning, and sharing, as there will be classes all day Friday and a market and classes on Saturday, with forty to fifty vendors selling all sorts of fiber- related items, from raw fleece to finished products.
Jan describes the incentive behind these yearly gatherings: "One motivation is to keep the community going. And for many of us, we're preserving and building on traditional skills that often go overlooked." Additionally, the festivals provide an opportunity for people to sell their wares. Jan explains, "It's putting together a market for things that you can't just go down the street and buy."
While the fiber community may seem underground to those of us who haven't found our way into the network, 'Fiber in the 'Boro is our chance to change all that. Jan sums it up by saying, "We're a community of people who share a hobby, and common interests, but even more, we teach each other new skills and help each other out with both our fiber crafts and other things in our non-fiber lives."