APPLE CREEK, Ohio — About once a week, a stranger peers through the door at Morning Star Fiber.
Just curious, they say to owner Karen Christensen when she spies them. I drive by here all the time, but I don’t know what you do.
If it happens to be a down day, Christensen or her son, JC, share the story of their family-operated fiber mini mill, a secret tucked into the outskirts of this Wayne County crossroads and known for transforming raw alpaca, llama or sheep fleeces into exquisite yarns, felts and artisan crafting supplies.
Finding gold in mud
This time of year, from spring through early summer, is exciting for the Christensens.
It’s when shepherds and camelid enthusiasts break out the clippers and strip the animals of their winter coats. And it’s when they bag their harvest and bring it to Apple Creek, sending Karen and JC into a frenzy of weighing and washing and processing the rainbow of fibers into useful, coveted and sometimes high-dollar wares.
But the hum of the fiber mill’s machines wasn’t always the soundtrack to the Christensens’ lives.
Karen is a retired art and music teacher, the daughter of a former shepherd of Icelandic sheep, the wife of an electronics engineer. JC, at 35, is a former pastor, an artist, a dad.
Both of their lives — and livelihoods –changed after Karen and her husband, Jerry, vacationed on Prince Edward Island in the summer of 2003.
During their stay, the couple visited a factory near their cottage, simply to see what the place was about. Karen, who blamed arthritis for keeping her spinning wheel idle, was intrigued to see the factory’s line of mechanized spinning and fiber-processing equipment.
Inside the factory, she discovered the purest white and softest yarn she’d ever felt. She was shocked to learn it was made from an Icelandic fleece.
Why don’t the yarn and rovings from Mom and Dad’s sheep ever look like this? she wondered.
“They’d send [fleece] to a mill in Michigan and were never pleased. All 17 colors in the batch were mixed together. It looked like mud,” Karen recalls.
Taken by what the machinery could do, and envisioning what she would be able to do with her own hands, Karen began her mental blueprint.
Her written business plan, funding, and the purchase of an old Amish furniture shop all meshed and, in January of 2005, Morning Star Fiber opened its doors.
When the Christensens started, their mini mill — so called because it’s not an industrial-sized operation — was the only complete mill like it in the U.S., they say. Today, there are about 75 operations like theirs scattered all over the country, including two others in Ohio.
In their earliest days, figuring no other U.S. processor did it well, they specialized in transforming fleeces from the Icelandic sheep. They relied on fleeces donated by her parents, Frank and Waneta Ruth, to get the mill running.
They soon found the steps for working with huacaya alpaca fibers were nearly the same, and started accepting those, too.
Business picked up, thanks to northeast Ohio’s claim to fame and nickname, “Little Peru,” for having the highest concentration of llamas and alpacas in the U.S.
Today, Morning Star gets about 80 percent of its business from alpacas, the Christensens said.
“Response has been slow, but ever growing,” Karen said, admiring the map on the office wall with pins identifying where customers live.
There’s a big cluster of pins in northeastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan. Vermont and New Hampshire look like a pincushion, too. And there are lone pins hanging in Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Montana.
Fibers come to Apple Creek from 26 states, thanks to the mill’s presence on the Internet, the Christensens say.
“On the Internet, it’s no different than being next door,” JC said.
“Though sometimes it would be much better if they were right down the road, so we could help them learn,” he lamented.
Shearing, spinning and using fleece from llamas and alpacas is a cottage industry in the U.S., but one that’s gaining ground quickly, just like the Christensens’ business.
“We’re now shearing alpacas [for fleece]. That’s a phenomenon in the U.S. just in the last 20 years,” JC explained.
The young man’s fiber forums, added last year, train producers how to raise top-dollar fibers. The sessions cover topics from how to shear and clean the fleeces of manure and burrs, to picking out poorly shorn “snow” fibers that can ruin skeins of yarn before they’re produced.
“Education is huge,” JC said. “If you’re not trained in fiber processing, how could you know what you don’t know? The more we learn, the more we want to share.”
Every day is a learning process for the Christensens, who turn the dirty, loose fibers into yarns, felt sheets, rovings, battings, and nearly anything a fiber artisan would want.
Scroll to the bottom of this page to watch how the Christensens turn fleeces into yarn.
But their naivete is countered by JC’s national awards for spinning, their improving consistency, and the knowledge and quality products they pass to others, they say.
“We’re not the artisans, just the processors,” JC said. “There’s so much more out there.”
The whole process is value-added, one aimed at giving farmers the ability to take their fleeces, the ones that might bring $6 per pound on the wholesale market, and have them processed into something much more valuable.
The average alpaca breeder has 200-600 pounds of fleece sitting around in garbage bags in his basement, only because he doesn’t know what to do with it, JC said.
“With processing, they can turn around and get a product that’s worth $50 to $70 per pound, depending on the quality,” JC explained. Sell that to a knitter, for instance, and watch a sweater sell for $150, he said.
“In all this, the farmer benefits most,” JC explained. “It’s our goal to find niches that are easy to protect so we can stay in business, yet not exploit the farmer or grow into an industrial-sized mill.”
But the artisan and the consumer benefit, too, by using the fiber mill to get a yarn or felt made exactly to specification.
“If a weaver wants alpaca yarn with this size and these colors for a project, we can do it,” JC said. For the crafter who doesn’t have an exact project in mind, there’s the small Morning Star retail store featuring a rainbow of products.
The circle closes
Karen Christensen’s parents stopped raising their beloved Icelandics two years ago, but the fiber artist isn’t turning her back on producing fleeces.
She plans to put the breed back on her property this fall, starting with the purchase of three animals from the original bloodline of her parents’ flock.
Her own sheep will complement her still-growing dyer’s garden, brimming with flowers, buds and leaves of plants like marigold and milkweed that add glorious hues to yarns and felts.
The sheep and the garden will thrive next to the Christensens’ vision to convert a barn on the property into a hub where farmers, artisans, and end users can all interact in what they call a “dynamic and sustainable economy.”
Visitors would be able to see the fiber mill in operation, watch crafters using the yarns and other materials made here, and buy finished products, like vests, sweaters, or hats.
“We all do it all so we can make money, but in a hub, it’s like we care about [your success] as much as we care about our own,” JC said, noting that the Christensens’ integrity and reputation is just as important as the quality products they offer.