Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Friday! Today I’m pleased to launch another new regular column, this one by Hannah Thiessen (whose book Slow Knitting is due out this Fall) on the subject of yarns with great origin stories! I hope this will be a great resource for all of us who want to know more about where our materials come from, representing a wide range of sources, fibers and price points. I also want to say a special thank-you to photographer-knitter Gale Zucker (follow @galezucker on Instagram) for providing the shearing-day photos for this piece! For more of Gale’s photos of Nash Island, see her blog.

Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // The first time I encountered Jani Estell’s yarn from the Starcroft Fiber Mill, it felt a lot like being let in on a well-kept secret. I was in New York, attending a fiber show, and some friends of mine mentioned that there would be a yarn-related pop-up show the same day in Greenwich Village. Having never been to Greenwich Village before, and always enticed by the idea of undiscovered yarns, I hailed a cab and headed out for adventure.

The weather was chilly (perfect for those having wooly thoughts), and the rotating art-space venue was just the right amount of cozy, rustic, and full. The glowing warmth of incandescent light and fading sunshine lit up several large farm tables and rustic benches, laden with Starcroft Fiber Mill’s Nash Island wools. Jani Estell wove her way through those purchasing single skeins and sweater lots, while some knitters settled in on skinny, wiggling benches and pulled out their projects to chat. I couldn’t resist the pull of this perfect moment and purchased seven skeins of Nash Island Light, a soft and shiny worsted (almost aran) weight yarn. The color I chose was the palest, faintest collection of cloudy blue: what I dreamt as a reflection of the story of this wool.

The story, really, is simply the best part of this yarn. Yes, the hand is lovely, the colors are beautifully applied, the finished knit has character in abundance — but so many yarns can lay claim to these attributes. It is after the true “yarn” untangles, after I discover the story of a wool, that I truly fall in love.

100 years ago, in 1916, a woman named Jenny Cirone’s father became the lighthouse keeper of a small island off the coast of Downeast Maine. Jenny started a flock of sheep that she tended on Little Nash Island. Over time, her family purchased the land of the small island and its neighboring, larger one, Big Nash Island. When the lighthouse was decommissioned, she moved to the mainland, but continued tending her flock until she was 92 years old. In her will, she entrusted the flock (now wild, with free reign of the island) to her neighbors, the Wakemans, with whom she had a deep friendship (and had taught to lobster-fish!). They continue to care for the flock today in the same way, leaving the sheep free to roam, and rounding them up for shearing. The wool from each shearing was partially sold at wool markets and also combined with a local wool pool, until Jani began working with them around 2005.

Jani Estell started up a small spinning mill just a few miles inland from the Nash Islands in 2000. She began processing fibers for small customers and eventually came into contact with the Wakemans and Jenny (who passed in 2004.) As a local purveyor of yarns, Jani got to know a shearer who worked with the Nash Island flock and was asked along to complete the circle — help out with the shearing. She felt immediate kinship with the Wakemans and with Jenny, whose passion and love for the sheep on her islands was contagious. After working with the sheep, Jenny, and the Wakemans, she fell in love with the story behind the wool and felt a desire to create yarns that could fully celebrate the uniqueness of the island’s fleece. Jani shifted the focus of her mill to producing only her own Starcroft-branded yarns, and providing the Wakeman family with the viable income needed to support the continuation of the Island flock. She is now involved full-time as the wool manager for the flock and purchases all the wool from the islands at fair-market price.

Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

After 100 years on the island, the sheep are truly their own landrace breed, with Coopworth and Romney wool introduced through breeding for continued genetic diversity. They produce heavy fleeces with a 6-8″ staple fiber: a medium wool that is surprisingly soft, airy and shiny, with a glowing halo. She sees the wool as akin to a fine wine: Changes in weather and diet for the sheep can yield small changes, giving each shearing a unique vintage. Unlike hay-raised wools or other rustic wools, Nash Island wools are almost completely free of chaff, due to the diet and habitat of the sheep, making them easy to work with and requiring minimal processing. Jani dyes them in a range of “fog-washed” colors, similar to watercolor washes on wet paper.

The sheep are absolutely wild by nature, and do not interact with humans regularly. They have formed a dynamic community and Jani says that they tend to stay together in family groups: Grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and a matriarch ewe might be seen ‘standing vigil’ in lambing season. Their caregivers do their best to minimize contact and observe from a distance. For now, the future of the sheep is clear: It is the desire of Jani and the Wakemans to continue to care for the sheep in just the way that Jenny did. The island is privately owned and cared for with the same level of respect and dedication, and the Wakemans’ three daughters have grown up with the islands and sheep as part of their lives. The eldest Wakeman daughter and her mother have even learned to shear, allowing the mantle to be passed down from Donna Kausen and Geri Valentine, friends of Jenny’s who have been shearing the flock for 35+ years. Shearing is a community effort, with Jani, the Wakemans, and friends from near and far joining to ‘complete the circle’ and bring the wool to the mainland.

Jani has now fully dedicated her time and the mill to solely producing yarns made from the wools of the island flock. Currently, there are three yarns available from Starcroft Fiber Mill: Nash Island Light, a light worsted-weight 2-ply from ewe wool; Nash Island Tide, a DK-weight 2-ply from ewe wool; and Nash Island Fog, a special fingering-weight 2-ply made exclusively from the flock’s lambs’ wool, with an added touch of Maine-grown angora. This Spring, she’ll introduce a new yarn, which I will await with eager anticipation and ready needles. In some small way, by buying the yarn, it’s almost as if I’m getting to complete the larger circle: the story of lives entwined with wool.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits


Photos of Jani Estell, husband Grant and sheep © Gale Zucker and yarn photo © Holly McBride for Starcroft; used with permission

25 thoughts on “Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

  1. This piece really warmed my heart! It’s great to know that yarn can be made this way.

    Thanx Hannah, I enjoyed reading your work, for the first time, and can’t wait to read more.

  2. Hannah! Congrats on a beautiful story. This piece should be in print with photos so charming. Makes me RIGHT PROUD to be a knitter of natural fibers! Thank you! Hope you will feature a “cotton” story
    Diane Hurd
    FL & NJ

    • Hey Diane, thank you for your sweet comments on Gale’s and Jani’s photos and the story. I absolutely have some wonderful cotton yarns on my radar for future pieces!

  3. Oh my! I have to get some of this yarn (there goes the stash only). Wonderful story and nice to know that there are yarns out there like this.

  4. Wonderful story! I love knowing my yarn supports small local, or at least US, sheep farmers. I love knitting with ‘home grown’ yarn and imagining the story of how it got from sheep to me.

  5. Fabulous images of people working together in fresh air. Blessed sheep living the good life. A true heritage yarn!

  6. What a wonderful story Hannah! Thank you for sharing it and I would love to try this yarn. I look forward to your upcoming book. I was at a knit retreat a couple of weeks ago and Julie Asselin was telling me all about the book – sounds great.

  7. Great article, and it’s great to have a new source for “Be Kind Wool”. The longer I knit, the more aware I am that the spirit of the husbandry of the shepherds comes through to enrich the soul of the knitter and the knitted. I am avoiding Australian merino, now that I’ve learned about the widespread practice of “mulesing” there. Thank you for helping us find wool from well-treated sheep!

    • There are many wonderful merino farmers around the world who do not use this practice, I recommend seeking out South American and New Zealand based merino specifically! Neither of these countries’ climates require the drastic measures to prevent flystrike or other parasites.

      • yes, pretty much anywhere other than Australia, I think, is mulesing free. The only reason they do it is to prevent flystrike.

  8. What fun. When I first got my perendale sheep, 18 years ago, and romeldales a year later. I was going to process the wool and sell the yarn. Selling yarn was slow going and difficult to compete with yarn made ‘offshore’, although handspinners loved and bought it. Now, breed specific, and US made, yarns are finally appearing and seemingly selling. My perendales now reside in Ferndale, California, and the new owner, Jill Hackett, is processing and selling her wool. I had a second breed of romeldales which also now reside on a different Ferndale ranch and the owner is also processing the wool and having it spun with his angora rabbit hair. They are selling in a yarn shop in Eureka, California. I still have wool, here and there, and will probably have more yarn made up.
    I loved the photo of the lambs catching the rays on that porch. It is so typical of them.

    • Yes, I think that more now than ever, domestic wools and wools with a great story are finding their place on knitter’s needles and in their hearts. I have never had the pleasure of working with Perendale or Romeldale, so thank you for your efforts in keeping these breeds available, and for the connection to possibly find some to try (and thank you for your kind comments on the piece!)

  9. Thank you Hannah for sharing this beautiful story. You make it so special with the affection that comes through. I am so looking forward to your book coming out this fall. I will want a signed copy for sure!! Love and hugs to you….still missing you in our knitting group!!

  10. Hannah, congrats! Great story! Just gonna throw this out there…April 22nd is the last day of shearing suris that will take place on our farm (we have formed a new partnership and shearing will be at their place in future)! You are more than welcome to come! It is completely different than shearing sheep!

    • You are the sweetest Margaret! I don’t think I’ll make it this year, regretfully, but maybe next year!

  11. I had the opportunity to buy one of the fleeces in 2016 and it was so white and 95%+ vm free. It was a delight to wash,dry, combed the fibers to spin a beautiful yarn. I have made a raglan sleeve sweater that will be used for the next 20+ years with pride that I did it from a fleece to a finished sweater.

  12. Thank You Hannah for such a wonderful story. I love learning more about the fibers that flow thru my fingers as I make garments. I’m in awe of those who work so hard to provide us knitters such excellent yarns to make beautiful things with. Articles like these just make me appreciate all the hard work that goes into producing great products. Will definitely put this yarn on my radar for future products.

  13. Pingback: Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang | Fringe Association

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