Weaving Her Way Through
Sally Brandon, Great Plains Artisans and The Shepherd’s Mill, Phillipsburg Kansas.
Sally Brandon enjoys fiber. Not the dietary kind but the fiber art that produces items such as scarves, hats and sweaters. This love for fiber started back in 1988 when Brandon made a trip to Finland as a 4-H exchange student.
“I learned to weave in the weaving cottages, where each little town had their cottage with weaving equipment set-up so everyone could weave whatever they wanted,” Brandon says.
Brandon dreamed of opening that kind of business in Kansas. But her dream had to wait, for a while anyway. She worked at Heartland Marketing & Associates, Inc. in Phillipsburg for a number of years, when she decided to tell her husband, Jay, she wanted to do her own thing. Her “own thing” was to help her mother, Virginia Hopson and her sister, Kay McCoy grow Great Plains Artisans while creating her own line of custom handwoven clothing.
“We ran Great Plains Artisans out of my mom’s basement and my living room for three years,” Brandon remembers. Great Plains Artisans (GPA) teaches people how to weave, dye and spin fibers. It also offers classes on basket weaving and Bobbin Lace. GPA soon out grew the space and moved to a rented house along the highway, which helped with visibility.
The group also helped to sponsor the Central Plains Fiber Festival three years ago to increase awareness of fiber arts and to educate people on its value. The festival targets other fiber artists and producers but also draws curious visitors from around the state. Classes, vendors and exhibits are all part of the spring festival, with over 100 people attending.
In addition to the Fiber Arts Festival, Brandon attended promotional shows to sell her one-of-a-kind woven wares. One day, her husband offered to ride along to one of the shows. On the way home, Jay proposed opening a mill. “ I spent the next six months putting together a business plan to prove to Jay it wouldn’t work,” Brandon says. However, she ended up convincing herself that it might just work.
The initial plan was to get the mill up and going so Jay could manage it, then she could get back to designing the one-of-a-kind hand woven items that Brandon enjoys. So the birth of The Shepherd’s Mill, a full service custom fleece processing mill. Because Brandon would need to be available to manage both ventures, Great Plains Artisans and The Shepherd’s Mill moved to downtown Phillipsburg.
The shared building allows for classes to be continued as well as some retail business to be done in the front of the building, while the milling takes place at the back.
The Shepherd’s Mill handles all types of exotic fleece and wool. About 75 percent of the business is currently alpaca. Although, they do have customers that have llama fleece, sheep wool and even a client that has brought in poodle hair to be made into a dog sweater.
The mill handles approximately 80-100 pounds of fleece per week, which means between 4,160-5,200 pounds of fleece per year. The services are in such demand that The Shepherd’s Mill has only produced about 75 pounds for product to retail up front. The customers for the mill span 26 states from California to New York, although the main customer base is located in the Plains states of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Currently, Brandon has 10 clients for the hand woven products and four more on the waiting list.
Very little advertising is done except for the few trips to shows and The Shepherd’s Mill website. “We have a core set of customers that keep coming back and pass the word along,” Brandon says of the success the mill has been having. She comments that meeting the customers and having a relationship is key to the business. “It is very important to me when I am dealing with fiber that is worth four to five dollars an ounce.”
The mill processing is a labored process that starts with washing the fleece with a citrus-based soap. The soap scours the sweat and dissolves the grease in the fleece. Brandon comments that up to 30% of the initial weight in sheep’s wool will be dissolved in the wash; due to the grease weight alone. There is less loss in other species.
After the 1 ½ - 2 ½ hour wash, the fleece is laid on “dry trays.” The dry trays are made from simple wooden frames and snow fence. The snow fence allows air to get to all sides of the fleece. In the winter, a fan is turned on to circulate the cool air.
Once dry, the fleece is taken to a picker. This is the fastest and dirtiest machine in the mill. The picker consists of two drums. The first drum has inch long teeth and runs at 600 rpm pulling the fleece apart, while the second drum runs at a much slower pace shoving the fleece into a room. The purpose of the machine is to get more of the debris removed and to separate the fibers so that additional cleaning can be done later.
|Brandon checks wool left on drying trays made of snow fence.
From there, the fluffed fleece is taken to the fiber separator. Here, the machine helps remove the course fibers that result in the “tickle factor,” fibers that itch. The fiber separator also removes the bigger bits of debris that were not removed in the wash or in the picker. This machine can only do about three pounds an hour, easily the slowest machine in the mill.
The carder is the next stop for the fleece. This machine gets all the fibers aligned and parallel to each other. Knots and debris are also combed out during this process. Depending on the customer, the fleece goes in as fluffy piles but comes out in a rope like piece called “roving.” This machine can also make batts or clouds depending on the client’s marketing needs.
The mill can also draft rovings, do spinning or produce felt, all depending on what the customer requests. Other services include dyeing, which is becoming more popular, and blending of other fibers. Most blending depends on what the final product is going to be and what help the fiber needs. The most common blend is silk, but the mill has worked with soy silk, wool and nylon to name a few.
Expansions are already being poured over. “Our immediate goal is to figure out which of the three expansions we want to do,” Brandon says. The three expansions vary from expanding the equipment to handle larger alpaca farms to increasing the amount of one-of-a-kind hand woven products for farms.
“Our immediate and long term goal is to do exactly what we are doing now, meeting the needs of the producers.”