Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // Knitting can happen to anyone, at any time — with needles, yarn and lessons or tutorials readily available online, in local yarn stores, or even stashed away forgotten in a closet. Animal husbandry, agricultural science and managing a working farm, on the other hand, are huge undertakings, yet it seems like new shepherds and wool farmers are emerging every year, taking hobby flocks’ wool to the market under their own label, or selling to other small businesses. This small-to-small model is what makes a large farm like Cestari (est. 1946) — run by Francis Chester, whose extended family had been farmers in Italy — all the more exceptional. Cestari has become one of the largest and strongest wool producers in the US, and it’s pretty unbelievable to think that it all started in Brooklyn with a boy whose dream was to own livestock. He began with a small farm stand, selling goat-milk products and home-grown vegetables at ten years old. He used the money to put himself through law school — not a passion project, but a backup plan that would prove fruitful later in life. He has since put the law degree to use helping small farms retain their holdings in the face of big businesses seeking to take advantage of tough times.

Chester and his wife relocated to Virginia in 1968, where they fulfilled his life-long dream of owning a larger farm. Augusta County, just outside Lynchburg, is idyllic countryside, complete with the type of rocky soil that sheep tend to love. Chester has also made room on his farm for a less mobile fiber: cotton. Cotton comes with a wide variety of challenges and concerns. Soil depletion is a major impact of the industry as cotton pulls nitrates out of soil at an alarming rate, and has to be rotated to avoid stripping farmland entirely. (You can read more about cotton production and challenges in this wonderful article from Seamwork.)

Luckily, Virginia soil is ideal for a nutrient-rich, underground product that has proven to be the perfect pairing for cotton: peanuts. Cestari Farms work to crop rotate every acre of land dedicated to their cotton product with peanuts in order to keep the soil in good condition and avoid the pitfalls often associated with its production. The resulting lightweight, soft cottons in their 100% Cotton Old Dominion Collection are grown, processed, spun and dyed in their own mill facilities, which means the family is comfortable and familiar with the process and can answer questions and concerns from their customer base with confidence.

Perhaps better known than their cottons are Cestari’s wools. Having started with his own small flock of Targhee and Columbia sheep, Chester felt that the processing of the wool was just as integral to its quality as the growing. In 1969, he and his wife added a mill business to their farm business. They wanted to preserve their wool’s hard-wearing softness over time by not removing too much of the lanolin — a natural oil that sheep produce, which is often removed from wool and sold as a side product to the cosmetic industry. Wools processed at their mill are all scoured gently, not carbonized (an acid burning process that is used frequently in wool production). While Cestari’s Traditional yarn lines tend to have a bit more vegetable matter in the wool, they have a higher lanolin content and the wool retains more of its natural crimp, softness and spirit. When I met Mr. Chester during his recent visit to Nashville, I was impressed by a sweater he was wearing and asked if it was new. He laughed, and said that it was almost two decades old — the lanolin in Cestari wools protects the fibers and increases their longevity, which results in better-looking finished garments over time. Cestari garments can truly be the heirloom pieces that so many knitters intend to make.

As the demand for Cestari wools grew, so did Chester’s network of farmers and farms. He began carefully sourcing wool from other US producers, allowing them to keep doing what they loved, raising high-quality sheep and fleeces. His faith in the domestic textile industry is contagious — listening to him speak about his projects infects you with a desire to cast on and begin knitting something exceptional.

What I find most special about Cestari is not just that they are domestic producers who care about the wool industry, but that they have been able to expand in such a big way and still retain the intrinsic values of their company. In fact, Mr. Chester told me during his visit that they are intending to expand into textile industry education, with a new project on the horizon: a museum on their Virginia property that will show the history of American textile production to the modern day, which is sure to inspire countless future knitters.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative and 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

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Francis Chester/family photos © Cestari; used with permission / yarn photo Hannah Thiessen for Fringe Association

27 thoughts on “Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

  1. Wonderful…it’s not all about the money ( yes it helps ) but the sustainability of land , animals and people. Seeing this all working together is food for the soul… I love it. Sue.

  2. Love your blog Karen! Thank you for bringing us this wonderful story so well told by Hannah Thiessen! Reading your blog, reading the comments and knitting a little bit along has done me so much good! It’s a escape route from stressful work!

  3. What a fantastic article! I’m so pleased to learn about Mr. Chester and his Cestari yarns. I will be purchasing from him in just a few minutes!

  4. Oh my goodness…I have chills! I place my first order with Cestari just last night. Wow what timing with this lovely article. But not surprising that I finally made a purchase with them as your blog Karen, from last August (?), stuck with me.

  5. I’d really like to give Mr. Chester a big hug. Sounds like a lovely person, doing important work. Where can I find Cestari yarns?

    • I’m not sure what you mean? I interviewed him in person in Nashville, most of what he said when I met him is included in the article — we talked a lot about wool production.

      • I guess I’m confused about what you were doing in nashville with him because this:

        “In fact, Mr. Chester told me during his visit that they are intending to expand into textile industry education”

        sounds like he was talking about how they are expanding into the textile industry to the people he was visiting in nashville but the article is about their fiber options and his sweater.

        • I work at a local yarn shop here and he had stopped in to speak to us about carrying their line. It was a private meeting. I did not know about the other event or attend it, so I spoke in this article about what I had personally interviewed him about.

    • He was at Haus of Yarn all day for a trunk show and he was completely charming the whole time. I ended up buying a shepherd’s crook from him just to emulate him a little.

      • Oh, that’s wonderful! I may have been out of town during that visit. He’s very fun to talk to in person!

  6. I would have loved to read more about “their own mill facilities” – it is so much easier to find shepherds doing ‘flock to yarn’ these days, but transparency in the chain of production tends to break or get weak at the actual processing level. So Chester owns a mill? Where is it? Do they process for other people? Who dyes their yarn and with what dyes? How many shepherds is he sourcing from and from how far away? How much of cestari yarn comes from the actual cestari flock? Does he use pesticides on his cotton? You say he is one of the largest producers in the country – how big is that? What kind of volume are we talking? These are just some essential questions of digging in to the products and people you’re presenting us and they have the added benefit of making this column seem like real interview journalism, rather than a bloated sales pitch. Perhaps the next column series can go deeper with the sources you’re interviewing now that we’re familiar with the initial introductions.

    • Their mill is in VA where the farm is. They did some processing for other people, but now it is my understanding they are mainly processing for themselves, since business is getting better every year. They dye in house as well, with acid dyes. He sources from shepherds all over the US and partially into Canada — most yarn makers won’t reveal more than that because they don’t want other people buying the fleeces out from under them! Typically a company won’t answer questions about volume either, although I did not ask that question.

      I’m sorry that you feel that this isn’t investigative enough, I will make sure to ask more questions for my next column! Mostly these are meant to be introductions to companies that I think other knitters may enjoy, not expose pieces, but I certainly don’t want them to feel ‘sales pitch’ like. Thanks for your feedback.

  7. Hannah, I thought you did a great job of introducing us to the Cesari yarns and story. Perhaps Maria should interview Mr. Chester and ask him the very questions she asked you? I’m not trying to be snarky. You presented us with a great and thorough intro, and if she needs more, she has the info to contact him and investigate.

    • Hmm, I don’t think Maria’s expectation that more of that kind of detail would be covered in the column is completely out of line. When this column started, Karen said, “I hope this will be a great resource for all of us who want to know more about where our materials come from”. *In the context of this blog*, where we’ve so frequently talked about the importance of supply chain transparency and been encouraged to dig deeper and ask more tough questions about how materials and finished products are made, I understand why Maria felt like this introduction left her maybe with more questions than answers.

      Seems like an issue of editorial direction: Origin Stories was billed as a column about “yarns with great origin stories” — that can mean interesting narratives about the people who make the yarn and how they came to make it, or it can mean exploring what’s “great” — admirable, ethical, etc — about the production of the yarn itself. My understanding was that the column was aiming for the former (people stories), but some installments have also touched on the latter (production stories — e.g. the Wool and the Gang piece).

      I agree with Maria that I’d like to hear more about production — in this column, or in a separate one— specifically from the perspective of the kind of engaged consumer that this blog encourages us to be. Featuring these yarns and makers on the blog serves to promote them. I don’t mean to be cynical, but nice people with interesting life stories doesn’t guarantee anything about how a product is being made (I have read fascinating profiles of people in the dreaded fast fashion world!). It does feel a little dissonant to be encouraged to ask for transparency, and then see products promoted without digging very far into those details.

      (I always feel a pang of that dissonance whenever we’re collectively drooling over Purl Soho yarns… so gorgeous, marketed in a way that positions them as somehow “natural”/ “artisanal”, but could they be any more opaque about the yarns’ actual origins?)

      Whether the focus is people stories or production stories, I guess maybe my personal standard is: does this piece tell me anything I couldn’t have learned by reading the marketing copy on the subject’s website? I’ve enjoyed all of the Origin Stories so far, but the ones I’ve liked most have been where I felt like I was learning something new and benefiting from the writer’s experience interviewing the subject.

      • I hear you and I will definitely try to dig a little deeper with upcoming features for you all!

        • Thanks for being so gracious in the face of (I hope constructive) criticism. I also don’t want the picky feedback to overshadow the bigger picture — which is that I’ve really enjoyed this column and look forward to future installments!

  8. Enjoyable article! Thank you for sharing what you learned about Cestari. My LYS has carried some of their yarn and i currently have some in my stash.
    I’m proud to live in Virginia where such earth friendly endeavors are taking place.

  9. I love the information being shared about the origins of materials and small businesses that produce them. We need to hear these ‘stories’ to appreciate the efforts that go into preserving heritage and learn about how and where we can support them.
    I grew up in Augusta County and would just like to clarify where Cestari is located as it is in a beautiful area with a lot of history. Cestari Sheep and Wool is in Churchville, a small rural village a few miles west of Staunton, Virginia in Augusta County. Augusta County is located in the central Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. An easy map reference for Staunton is to look for the intersection of Interstates 81 and 64.
    The reference to being slightly outside Lynchburg is inaccurate. Lynchburg is located in the piedmont region of Virginia, approximately 80 miles away and on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is also a charming area, but in a very different locale.

    • Thanks for that clarification. As someone who grew up in Richmond I kind of think of everything over there as ‘near Lynchburg’ so the added info is helpful!

  10. I have happy memories of encountering Cestari yarns year after year at their tent near the entrance to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which I attended almost every year of my sixteen years living in Washington, DC. Lovely products with a “close to the farm” feel. Haven’t been back since we moved back to Canada, but it’s nice to hear of the company’s more recent success.

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