By Amanda Brodhagen
As environmentally friendly products grow in popularity and people are becoming more aware of the harm that fast fashion is doing to the environment, so too is the demand for natural, locally sourced farm-raised fibre. Donna Hancock who farms near Elora, has been raising farm-to-fashion fibre since 1988, before it was trendy. She raises angora goats that create mohair – a fibre hair. Not only does she have her own goat herd, but she also runs a mill called Wellington Fibres. A forage research technician by trade, Hancock works at the University of Guelph four days a week while also running a small 40-acre farm and mill.
Having grown up on a beef and dairy farm near Oshawa, Hancock knows what it takes to run a farm, but continuing on with the same commodities that she grew up with wasn’t something of interest to her. Instead, she got goats – livestock that she felt she could handle on her own. Interestingly, she got the angora goats after her sister-in-law saw a program on television called Country Canada. After some convincing, she tracked down the farmer that was featured on the program and visited her farm near Freelton, but ended up buying her starter herd from a farm in Quebec. While there aren’t many angora goats in Ontario, there are quite a few in Quebec and Alberta.
Hancock explains that the year that she bought her goats, the buzz word in agriculture was “value-added” and she felt that angora goats would be ideal to create a premium product. She currently has 55 animals in total.The bucks go for meat or breeding and the females are kept for mohair production. Hancock and her late husband, Lorne Thompson, created the mill to process their own fibre after finding it challenging to find somewhere that would process their fibre. Today, 80 per cent of her business is custom fibre production largely alpaca and sheep. She has customers from all over the country including – Ontario, B.C., Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. The real hurdle holding back the sustainable farmed fibre industry is that there isn’t enough mill capacity. Hancock has three to four staff and can’t keep up with demand. “There’s an eight-month to one-year waiting list,” she says.
Hancock says the other reality that she’s faced is getting her angora goats shorn. “Goats are different than sheep, their skin is looser, which makes them more difficult to shear,” she explains. Thankfully she has a shearer who is good to work with, but she notes that there aren’t enough young people learning to shear sheep and to shear goats and alpacas, which could prove to be a succession challenge for the sector.
Despite the challenges and having to “kid-proof everything” she says with a chuckle, she loves what she does. Self described as a shy person by nature, she says that this business has forced her to be more outgoing. Currently, she goes to four or five different shows a year and is a member of the Guelph Guild of Handweavers and Spinners – a community of fibre enthusiasts drawing members from the Wellington County area. She felt it was important for her to get involved in understanding the end product.
“Mohair has a smooth scale structure and reflects a lot of light,” she says. She likes to blend mohair and wool together to varying degrees depending on what she’s making because mohair has a “tendency to escape just like goats do.”
Hancock even competes in the Sheep to Shawl competition with her guild at The Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. The competition is to weave a shawl in under four hours. A component of the competition is to create an educational display and this year her team is focused on educating about the benefits of blending different fibres together. The team ended up placing first.
One of the encouraging things that Hancock is seeing is the decreasing market share for acrylic. She says that the market has changed dramatically from when she first started her business about 30 years ago. “I believe that we are more conscious about what we are eating and what we are wearing,” she said. “People are now willing to pay $30 for a skein of good quality yarn.”
Hancock is seeing more young people go to shows, noting that weaving is a portable and a relatively inexpensive hobby to get into. “You can create personal clothing and make a statement,” explaining why it appeals to young people.
“A lot of products are intentionally made cheap so that consumers buy more, but we’re destroying the environment,” she said, and cautions against merino wool that is super washed with chemicals which changes the fibre structure. It is flooding the market. Hancock does her best to be environmentally sustainable even right down to her packaging, using cardboard boxes instead of plastic because they are reusable.
As for what’s next, Hancock is enjoying what she’s doing now, but would like to sell the business one day, and would be willing to mentor on the trade. “It’s not a business you’re going to make a ton of money at, but enough to be comfortable,” she concludes.
Mill capacity challenges and opportunities
Deb Griffey of Alpaca Time, near Harriston, has been manufacturing alpaca wool since 2005. Griffey started the business after she retired from dairy farming. Her sister bought an alpaca after seeing one at The Royal Winter Fair.
The two quickly discovered that getting alpaca fibre processed after it’s been shorn is a challenge in Ontario. She called the only fibre mill at the time in the province and was told that it would be at least an eight month wait before they could turn the raw fibre into yarn. With no place to take their raw product, and after a year of research, they decided to start a mill of their own. They bought their machinery from Textek and only received three days’ training before they were left to figure it out on their own. The mill is highly technical and Griffey is glad for her farm background, especially for being mechanically inclined, which has helped when machines in the mill break down and need fixing. “There are four math equations for every pattern” explains Griffey, adding that understanding ratio and proportion is a skillset needed to run the mill.
Griffey’s cousin, Tom, one of three sock mechanics in Canada, wanted to see if socks would work. After eight months of testing they found the perfect blend of yarn. The original plan was to get the company that Tom worked for at the time to make the socks. However, the company lost its two biggest contracts in 2006 and closed. But it all worked out in the end, because they bought seven of their machines.
Griffey grew her own alpaca herd and enjoyed the genetic aspect of breeding alpacas which came naturally to her as a former dairy farmer, while most people who own alpacas have little to no farming background. A baby alpaca is called a “cria” and while there’s no industry term for when an alpaca gives birth, Griffey defaults to cattle terminology like calving. She believes that the term should be called “creating” given that a baby is called a cria. An alpaca can be best described as “a goat with a horse reproductive tract.” She eventually sold her alpaca herd a handful of years ago after realizing that she couldn’t continue to do it all and has since specialized to focus on processing fibre at her mill.
When Griffey first started the business, she was committed to only sourcing fibre from Ontario and Canada, but after facing fibre shortages she was forced to start buying fibre from the U.S and Australia. The U.S. is 10 times the size of the Canadian alpaca industry and Australia is the second largest producer in the world. Griffey has turned into a real expert in the field and is certified to class alpaca fibre. There are six different grades, four lengths and 22 different colours to consider when classing fibre. Griffey describes the process like “picking stones”, it’s something you don’t want to do by yourself. There’s a use for every grade of alpaca fibre. Alpaca fibre has no memory, or elasticity and needs another fibre blended with it to give it memory and elasticity. Griffey often uses nylon, but she has also tried bamboo and silk.
Alpaca Time is currently the only mill in Canada that creates socks from start to finish. One alpaca can create 25 pairs of socks and it takes three weeks from raw product to finish to make a pair of socks. Socks are one of their flagship products with sales reaching about 6,000-7,000 a year. Their goal is to increase their sales to 10,000 socks. One of their other staple products is insoles, which were created by accident after they turned some wool into felt and needed to find a way to get rid of the product. It became so popular that they could no longer make them by hand and have since outsourced that segment of their business to a facility in Toronto.
Their first location began at the family’s homestead where the dairy farm used to be and after they outgrew that location, they sold the farm and purchased the location where they’re at now on Hwy. 9 and have since tripled in size to 6,000 square feet.
From farm to fashion
There seems to be a lot of interest in using fibre to create clothing, accessories and art. The Guelph Guild of Handweavers and Spinners is proof of that. Their annual show and sale at the Wellington County Museum was bustling with visitors who came to learn about fibre arts and engage with local artisans demonstrating various skills including spinning, weaving and lace-making. This year there were 21 exhibits.
“Membership numbers remain steady,” said Mary-Anne Dalkowski, guild president. The guild has about 50 members and are seeing younger people join. Currently their youngest member is in her late 20s explained Dalkowski. A young person herself, Dalkowski joined thanks to her mom and says it’s a great way to meet new people from diverse backgrounds – from doctors to farmers, she notes, but most importantly for her, she says, it’s a great way to relax.
A one-year membership to join is $70 and there are guilds that can be found across Ontario.
There’s a group of people who have emerged that are creating a network of farmers, mills, weavers, knitters, natural dyers and textile designers – Upper Canada Fibreshed. One of their members, Romy Schill who farms near Wallenstein, hosted the group’s fourth annual general meeting. Schill was featured in The Rural Voice in 2017 along with Sandi Brock, talking about their successes, failures and hopes for the future in the sheep industry. At the time, Schill had just started experimenting with her fibre.
The Upper Canada Fibreshed is comprised of producer and maker members living and working within 400 kilometres of Toronto. The discussion honed in on their farm-to-fashion project, where they received a micro grant to match eight farmers, including Schill, with nine designers to create products and kits made of locally-produced wool. The project launched this November. Kits can be purchased though Etsy and Raverly. You can follow the roll-out of the digital stories from farm to finished product on Facebook at @UpperCanadaFibreshed.
Ontario is home to one of the largest sheep concentrations in the country, yet there are significant capacity challenges at local mills. Schill sends her fleece to New Brunswick to be processed as she can’t find a mill in Ontario that can take the volume of fleece that she has available.
Schill decided to do something with her fleece as it hardly covered the shearing costs. She has seen much success in networking with artisans and entering into collaborations including Rita Woolly, the creation of whimsical pom pom earrings made from Schill’s wool. Her dream is to have a sweater produced with her own wool so that people in Toronto who don’t want to make the product from scratch can still enjoy environmentally-friendly fashion. “There’s so much potential and value for sustainable products grown on our local farms,” said Schill. You can follow Schill on Instagram at @circlerlamb. ◊