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.
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.
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