Minnesota Fiber: The Journey from Farm to Yarn

By Erica Wacker

 
Fossum Family Farm in Northfield / Photos by Melanie Graves

There’s a tree that stands atop a hill in the middle of Vicki Fossum’s 120-acre family farm on the outskirts of Northfield, Minn. When she’s not tending to the animals, working at her day job or taking care of her family, this tree is Vicki’s happy place. As she sits under it, a few of her miniature Scottish Highland cattle graze around her, while her 51 alpacas happily pronk and roll in the dirt.

Woman spinning yarn at Northfield Yarn shop
Eleanor Coolidge has been spinning yarn for 50 years.

A couple miles down the road, Eleanor Coolidge works at her spinning wheel at Northfield Yarn, a destination shop for spinners, knitters and weavers from the surrounding area and beyond. Eleanor’s been spinning for 50 years, and although wool is her favorite fiber, today she’s spinning alpaca.

“When you’re spinning by hand, you don’t want it to look perfect,” her teacher told her decades ago. Heeding that advice all these years, she is proud and humbled to have her first solo show of weavings at a health clinic in town.

From the farmers to the weavers, Minnesota’s fiber community is tightly knit by their shared passion. Close to 30 Minnesota farms, which spread as far south as Blue Earth and as far north as Duluth, raise alpacas, llamas, sheep, goats, angora rabbits and even yaks for their fiber, which can be purchased raw, partially processed (called roving), as yarn, or as finished products ranging from knitted finger puppets to woven area rugs.

On the Farm

For small, independent operations like Fossum Family Farm, turning raw fiber into yarn or felt is a manual, labor-intensive process that can take several days. After the animal is sheared, the fiber undergoes multiple steps of cleaning, hand-washing, air drying and several other processes before it can be spun into yarn or loomed into felt. It’s fascinating to watch, and will give even casual observers a deeper appreciation for this ancient and beautiful practice.

Processing fiber to yarn collage
Raw fiber goes through an intensive, multi-step process in order to be turned into yarn.

Many fiber farms are open to the public on select days, by appointment and for special events. In the spring, look for shearing days at farms like Fossum, Frosty Acres Alpacas south of Blue Earth and Sibley Farm in Mankato.

The last weekend in September, the North Star Farm Tour invites visitors to see the animals and learn all about fiber at 10 farms in the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota. The same weekend, farms including Fossum and Pauley Alpaca Company in Rochester celebrate National Alpaca Farm Days with free entertainment, food, kids activities and fiber demonstrations on the farm.

Shopping for Fiber

Rainbow yarn wall at Northfield Yarn
A rainbow of yarn at the Northfield Yarn store.

Every Mother’s Day weekend, the Shepherd’s Harvest Sheep and Wool Festival takes over the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo. The mother of all fiber festivals, Shepherd’s Harvest draws large crowds for shearing, spinning, knitting and weaving demos; fleece competitions; llama and herding dog demonstrations; a huge variety of fiber art classes; and local vendors selling every fiber-related product you can imagine. In the fall, popular events include the Fosston Fiber Festival in Clearbrook in October and the Fall Fiber Festival in Hastings in November.

For year-round fiber shopping, Anoka Fiber Works in Coon Rapids is a co-op of local fiber producers and makers selling fiber, yarn, spinning equipment and finished pieces. There’s also a full schedule of drop-in classes and social hours, as well as instructor-led classes.

There’s no shortage of yarn shops in Minnesota, with the state’s Knitters’ Guild listing nearly 50 in its directory. Hit a whole slew of them during the Minnesota Yarn Shop Hop in early April, which includes 15 shops in the Twin Cities metro area.

Fiber Art

Northfield Yarn woman spinning yarn
Dawn Malcolm loves the myriad things that yarn can become.

Working with fiber doesn’t end with sweaters and scarves. “It’s multidisciplinary,” says Dawn Malcolm of Minneapolis, a ceramic artist who recently made “fur” out of fiber for her sculpture of a baboon. Fiber art is big in Minnesota, with the nation’s only center for fiber art, the Textile Center, located in Minneapolis.

Around the state, several fiber artists and studios join together to share their work with the public. Events to look for include the Pine to Prairie Fiber Arts Trail in late April in the Bemidji area; the Minnesota State Fair in late August through Labor Day (head to the Creative Activities building); and the Weaving Waters Fiber Arts Trail in late September, with 10 stops from Little Falls to Brainerd to New York Mills.

Fiber art is regularly on display at galleries, studios and art festivals statewide, from Grand Marais to St. Paul to Zumbrota. Learn to make your own at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Ely Folk School, Milan Village, Minnetonka Center for the Arts, the Textile Center, American Swedish Institute or Weavers Guild of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Fiber Resources