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Harvesting Alaska: From farm to fiber art in Mat-Su Valley

By Sierra Starks Photojournalist: Rick Rysso - 1:48 PM August 1, 2016
PALMER –

Every day, Michelle Olsen comes home to the soothing sound of bleating sheep.

“This is my therapy,” Olsen said of her wooly companions. “When I come home from work, I come out here and I play with my babies and just love them.”

Olsen’s Palmer farm is one of many in the Mat-Su Valley contributing to the thriving culture of fiber art. Her story began as most farms in Alaska do — with chickens.

“I got some livestock guardian dogs to guard my chickens, but they were a little bored because chickens aren’t exactly social,” she said. “I decided they needed some sheep to keep them company.”

Now, 30 sheep later, there’s a lot of wool growing on Olsen’s farm, which means a lot of sheep to shear for harvest.

“I absolutely love shearing day!” Olsen exclaimed, admitting that she fondles every fleece that comes off her flock. “I just look at it and think, ‘Oh, what can we make of this?'”

Olsen’s shearer lives in Fairbanks and comes down to shear when he can, she says. There’s high demand for some of her fleece, like the one from Wooly Nelson, a Columbia-Hampshire Down crossbreed.

“His wool has been pre-sold for a couple years out,” Olsen said of Nelson. “You actually get the best wool out of the neutered male sheep because they don’t have anything else going on in their life. They’re not reproducing babies. They’re not working with hormones. They are simply growing wool.”

Most sheep, like Nelson, get the razor treatment from the shearer once a year. But others — like Amanda, Olsen’s American tease water sheep — require a more meticulous approach. On a recent summer day on the farm, Olsen was snipping away at Amanda’s wool, one lock at a time.

“She has a nice, tight little lock structure to her wool,” said Olsen of Amanda. “We do trim it by hand, so we can maintain that lock structure.”

The better the fleece, the higher the profit, Olsen says. The wool from her purebred cormo ram, Niko, goes anywhere from $25 to $40 a pound. Olsen says his most recent shear produced 11 pounds of usable fleece.

But often, before the wool can be sold, it ends up in Becky Oviatt’s hands. The back room of her downtown Palmer shop, AK Frayed Knot, is a small-batch processing studio.

Wool from cormo and Icelandic sheep, fiber from pygora goats and even qiviut from muskox all lines the shelves of Oviatt’s studio, ready to be processed.

AK Frayed Knot began when Oviatt’s husband suggested she had enough “stuff” in her home craft room to open a store. She thoughtfully accepted the challenge.

“I wondered where I was going to get my product,” she said of venturing into retail. “And I thought, there’s an awful lot of people in this Valley that spin and weave and knit.”

About 25 fiber artists contribute to the shop, which has become a consignment shop of handspun and handwoven items from around Alaska. Aside from her normal foot traffic, Oviatt’s customers are other fiber artists in the Matanuska and Susitna areas who rely on her to process the wool they’ve harvested.

She washes the locks by hand (sometimes twice or three times), then throws them in the drier. Next, it’s on to the picker (a hand-combing technique) and the carder to straighten out the fibers. And then it’s on to Oviatt’s favorite part — spinning.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of work,” she said of the process. “And people wonder why handmade yarn is so expensive.”

But Oviatt notes there’s fulfillment from farm to studio to the actual fiber art.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than processing a fleece and then knitting a sweater or scarf or a hat or mittens that you’re not going to see on anyone else,” she said.

Harvesting Alaska is a new featured series exploring all the ways Alaskans live off the land — from growing and foraging to fishing and crafting. We hope you’ll join us on our journey and share how you harvest Alaska.

Contact Sierra Starks at sstarks@ktva.com and on Facebook and Twitter, @SStarksKTVA

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