“Where did your yarn come from?”
For knitters, crocheters or other makers who use yarn in their projects, the answer to this question is often a large craft store.
But for any fiber artist who purchases yarn processed at Dakota Fiber Mill, that answer would be from the fiber of a lovable animal that grazes freely on the grounds of the mill in rural Kindred, N.D., or another animal from a regional farm.
Dakota Fiber Mill, which is one of 22 vendors at the Fiber Arts Festival Aug. 3 and 4, is the only full-processing fiber mill in the Dakotas.
As a crocheter, I was curious to learn how yarn is made, so I made the trek 25 miles south of Fargo to meet with the energetic, passionate owner Chris Armbrust.
When I entered the mill, I immediately noticed the large industrial machines and the many bags of fur waiting patiently for their transformation. The air was humid and smelled like livestock – a comforting scent that reminded me of my uncle’s cattle farm.
Armbrust greeted me cheerfully and gave me a tour of the mill, explaining the nine-step process of yarn production and showing me the many types of fiber on deck — sheep, goat, alpaca, rabbit, even dog.
“Each type of fleece is like a little kid. They all behave a little differently on the machine,” Armbrust explains.
Learning the ropes
Armbrust’s journey to opening Dakota Fiber Mill began after she sold her barrel horses over a decade ago, which left a void in her barn and her life.
“I needed something to care for,” she says. “An empty barn was no good, so then I discovered alpacas.”
Armbrust purchased four alpacas in 2008 and learned to hand-spin the fiber, but because the process was time consuming, she shipped it to a mill in Hastings, Minn. The finished yarn arrived eight months later.
But the ambitious maker wanted to find a way to make her own yarn, and officially opened Dakota Fiber Mill in her barn in 2010.
After spending months researching the process and the equipment, Armbrust eventually found Keith Wild, an English textile engineer who built carders — the machine that untangles, cleans and mixes fiber after it is washed, dried and picked. The remaining steps are drafting (which straightens the fiber), spinning, plying and finally skeining the yarn on a wooden spool.
Armbrust purchased the last carder Wild created before his retirement and a spinner from a mill in Rhode Island. She then hired Wild to travel from England to Kindred and train her how to use the large, precarious machines for several weeks.
She practiced the process for six months thinking she was “going to fail,” as many mills do within the first year, but Armbrust relied on her determined spirit, hard work ethic and faith to get her through.
"Now it’s second nature,” she says. “It’s because of a pile of miracles that I am where I am today.”
Sheer to shawl
Over the years, Armbrust has made yarn and felt from a variety of her own livestock. But most of the fiber processed at Dakota Fiber Mill is from animal owners around the region who desire natural yarn for their own fiber art projects or small businesses.
Armbrust is happy to make yarn with any fiber if it is long enough and is compatible with her equipment, she explains. She also blends fibers together to make soft, synthetic-free yarn that “comes alive on your needles.”
In addition to supporting the producers, Armbrust says a benefit of using locally sourced yarn is that “you know where your yarn is coming from.”
“We’re seeing more and more people (wanting local products),” she adds. “I think that’s why us small cottage mills are getting busier because people are moving out to small farms to own small herds of animals and want yarns from their herds to use or sell.”
Because of this, however, Armbrust often needs to educate producers on the best way to use their fiber. She is not currently taking new clients, but hopes the expansion of the mill into the Nome Schoolhouse with Bear Creek Felting in the coming year will allow more opportunities to invest in educational efforts.
For now, Armbrust enjoys raising awareness about Dakota Fiber Mill at events like the Fiber Arts Festival, a free event from with 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3 and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 4 at Red River Valley Fairgrounds with vendors, workshops and a marketplace for all things fiber.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.