Karen Burke is a farmer and founder of the Ohio Natural Fiber Network.

Weaving Connections

Karen Burke has a passion for natural fibers – classic sheep wool, ultra-soft alpaca fleece, eco-friendly cotton and even bamboo. She may have once been tempted to stock her yarn shop with exotic Peruvian alpaca yarns, but today she features mainly Ohio natural yarns and fibers thanks to the connections she’s made through the Ohio Natural Fiber Network (ONFN).

Burke, a Farm Bureau member, founded this group in the fall of 2008 after she recognized the need to bring together fiber farmers, processors and artists. The dynamic Ohio fiber community has recently taken new twists as the growing circle of knitters and other fiber artists seek out more natural, locally produced yarns and fibers. At the same time, many Ohioans are turning to farming – including raising fiber animals such as alpaca, sheep, llamas and angora goats-  – as a second career or for supplementary income.

The network’s first-year successes have reinforced Burke’s intuitions. “Our diversity is our strength,” said Burke of the 50-member group. “Our experienced members love sharing their knowledge with newcomers.”

Burke’s personal experiences ideally qualify her to lead this group that promotes self-reliance and sustainability. A lifelong suburbanite, she was inspired by a news article about raising alpacas for their valuable, soft fleece and gentle nature. Since South American alpacas were first permitted to be imported to the United States in 1984, Ohio has become the country’s leading state in alpaca numbers with more than 22,000.

Burke purchased her first alpaca in 2003 and a year later bought a farm in Medina County. As she expanded her alpaca herd, she also learned the fiber business “from the ground up.”

Today, she runs a yarn and gift shop that features products made by ONFN members.

Tightly knit

Joining Burke at a recent meeting felt a bit like a mini fiber festival. Members came to market their products and services, consult with animal experts, get advice from talented crafts people and commune with others. Ann Hauser, a Farm Bureau member and 23-year spinner, busily worked her spinning wheel and chatted about the challenges she and her husband face in working and raising dairy goats, angora goats and now three llamas at their hobby farm in Lorain County. Through ONFN, she’s explored felting and hopes to learn this quicker method for producing wool garments.

Lee Ann King evaluated two alpaca fleeces that another member brought to sell. Owner of Midwest Fiber Company in Perrysville, King raises 12 llamas but doesn’t have enough fiber to support her designer yarn business. She turns to local fiber farmers, including ONFN members, to purchase additional fleeces. As she examined these fleeces, she provided a friendly tutorial in preparing future fleeces to sell to mills. She advised this new fiber farmer to sort out courser hair to gain higher grade and ultimately higher-priced fleeces. King planned to return home with these purchased fleeces, clean them and send them to a mill for spinning. Later, she’d hand-paint and dye her signature yarns to sell at fiber shows.

Liz Fulling of Fireside Alpaca Farm said she joined ONFN to learn ways to use and sell the valuable fleeces of her family’s new herd of 13 alpacas. She said she has since learned how to felt wool and gained ideas for clothing and animal coats. She also borrows books from the network’s lending library. At one meeting, she was inspired to crochet on her rug canvases. “I now have so many ideas swimming in my head from members’ suggestions,” she said.

High-end clothing designer Julie Ganim of Brecksville recruited ONFN members’ help in creating a line of all-Ohio alpaca clothing to showcase at the World Alpaca Conference in Cleveland last summer. Members spun yarn from the fleeces of Ohio alpacas, knit and crocheted the yarn and felted fabric for Ganim’s designs. Through such collaborative efforts, network members are hoping to gain attention and build a market for luxury fabrics in Ohio.

Fiber of Ohio

This diverse network collectively markets its products at area fiber and art festivals and started selling its goods at Burke’s yarn and gift shop. Here, the fruits of members’ efforts are beautifully displayed for sale. Imagine skeins of King’s colorful designer yarn, Burke’s one-of-a-kind felted scarves, and others’ baby booties with embroidery designs, hand-knit alpaca socks, whimsical tree ornaments, stylish hats embellished with wool flowers, multicolored mittens, ultra-soft alpaca Teddy bears and lofty raw fleeces. It’s no wonder members “ooh” and “aah” over the goods. They mutually appreciate the love and labor of caring for the fiber animals and the workmanship in finished pieces. And they generously “buy from each other rather than from Internet vendors in foreign countries,” Burke said.

“They don’t mind paying a few more dollars if they’re supporting each other,” she said, adding that this way they can be assured of the quality of the fleece and the standard of care.

Plus, as Fireside Alpaca Farm’s Fulling explained, these network contacts “have become wonderful new friends.”

Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

Staying Connected
Beyond meetings, members turn to the group’s website, to continue communications. One member, Deb Skul, said she refers to the online directory to learn more about the individuals she meets at the meetings. The directory shares detailed information about members, their farms, their services and links to their business Web sites. In addition, Skul can promote her family’s services in beading and embroidering fleece through the Web site. To the outsider, the group’s range of services is eye-opening. There are farm sitters, shearers, spinners, cottage and commercial mills, knitters, weavers and fiber artists.

From the beginning
Karen Burke got her start in the fiber business with one of the most unpleasant jobs – skirting and sorting wool as an independent contractor for a fiber mill. For novices, that’s scouring soiled raw fleece for undesirables like course hair and hay. But then she moved on to felting wool  – bonding wool fibers with moisture, heat and pressure – and invested in an electric flatbed felting machine. She eventually experimented with creating wool products, including artistically felted wool scarves and baby clothing. As Burke perfected her craft, she began teaching fiber art classes and recruited her carpenter fiancé to build a studio addition. Today, she runs a multifold small business teaching classes in her new studio, raising seven alpaca at her farm and running a yarn and gift shop with several members’ goods on consignment.