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The Art of the Spin

Local artisans spin wool into gold

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There are still people in this world who, when they hear the word "spinning," think of spinning wheels-quite a few people, in fact, for whom spinning is not only a hobby, but a cottage industry and sometimes even a social event.

In our technological age, it's inevitable that fiber arts like spinning and knitting have fallen by the wayside: What might be surprising is that these arts are enjoying a revival in popularity. Around the valley, individual spinners and organized spinning circles practice the art of plying animal fiber into thread from wool or fiber from rabbits, alpacas or goats. It's even possible to blend in dog or cat hair, perhaps as an homage to a favorite pet. The resulting thread might be plied into boutique yarns that are often unique and luxurious (for fiber material, color and texture) and can get quite complicated, not to mention pricey.

Kathy Haneke of Meridian has created a sort of fiber arts empire. With Merino sheep and alpacas, a machine mill and a retail store, Haneke's operation can provide everything from raw fleece to a finished sweater-and she sell products at every stage of the process between shearing and tying off that last stitch.

Back in 1989, the Haneke family acquired three sheep as part of a 4-H project: Their kids didn't want to raise animals that would have to be slaughtered, so Kathy Haneke's husband suggested Merino sheep-to be raised not for their meat, but for their superior wool. After the first shearing at a 4-H show, Haneke decided to learn to spin the wool. She also decided that it would be fun to raise other animals for fiber to experiment with blending and, at one time, raised "every furred barnyard animal you can imagine." Now Haneke breeds just alpacas and sheep and sells spun blends in her shop. She no longer has 450 sheep and 75 alpacas or the only purebred flock of Merinos in the state. With less than 100 animals, she focuses on the unique quality blends of yarn she produces and sells in her store and wholesale throughout the U.S.

The Hanekes are in the process of moving the fiber operation into better digs-a new, glass-encased machine mill (safely visible during operation) and retail store will be all be housed under one barn roof by May 30; a grand opening will happen at the end of August.

For Kathy Haneke, fiber is a labor of love, not a get-rich scheme. But she loves what she does-in her words eats, drinks and sleeps it-and has loyal customers. It's very easy, Haneke says, for people to buy yarn by mail order via the Web; which means that it is correspondingly difficult for a boutique yarn supplier to make it in that environment. Haneke credits the singular, one-of-a-kind quality of her yarns for why she is able to make a go of it in this difficult industry.

Operating on more of a mom-and-pop level in the world of fiber, Cleo Gallinger and her husband, Duane, operate The Sheep Shed in Nampa. Currently they have 200 sheep and 200 lambs; the Gallingers sell sheep and lambs (for pasture or meat), processed and raw wool as well as spinning wheels. Cleo is also a member of the Snake River Fiber Artists, a spinning circle in Canyon County.

A retired nurse and a retired animal nutritionist, Cleo and Duane have run the Sheep Shed since 1989. Duane has been shearing sheep since shearing professionally to finance his education. Fifteen years ago, Duane suggested that Cleo take up spinning as a way to utilize the beautiful wool from their Merinos. These days, Duane still does the shearing. Sales of wool and animals keeps the Sheep Shed going.

Every year the Gallingers give educational tours of the Sheep Shed, and this year the farm tours are scheduled from April 25 through May 6. The tours are for children, adults, class trips or individuals, and provide education about agriculture and the sheep industry.

Besides educational tours and shearing demonstrations, Cleo sells raw and processed wool as well as wool crafts in their Sheep Shed Gift shop; she also teaches the art of spinning and weaving and the qualities and versatility of wool. Like Kathy Haneke, Cleo Gallinger describes the fiber life as hard-working and not particularly lucrative, but incredibly satisfying for someone who loves it.

Niche businesses like the Haneke and Gallinger operations provide a service for the spinners out there who don't spin as a business, but as a hobby. Spinning groups like the Snake River Fiber Artists and the Handweavers Guild's Spinning Study Group of Boise, like the dozen other spinning groups around the state, meet to spin and share what they know and what they're learning. Spinners and spinning groups can attend spinning related gatherings like the Black Sheep Gathering in Eugene, Oregon, in June or in September, the Wool and Lamb Festival at Ste. Chapelle Winery in Marsing (where Duane Gallinger does shearing demonstrations and Cleo runs a booth). At these gatherings fiber artists can learn about spinning techniques, wool dying, plying and blending, to name a few.

While spinning is an old-fashioned art with quaint appeal, Spinners aren't necessarily Luddites. There are practical reasons for spinning one's own yarn. Says Cleo Gallinger, spinning fiber is less expensive than buying boutique yarn (though time consuming)-a way to have luxurious and unique yarns without paying an arm and a leg for them. She adds, the process of spinning itself is very soothing. Another veteran spinner, Pamela Beitia of the Snake River Fiber Artists, loves spinning because it "is not only meditative and mechanical-with an end product-there's also a sense of connectedness in knowing that I'm doing something women have always done."

Kathy Haneke suggests the library as a beginning spinner's best resource. For those wanting one-on-one instruction, Cleo Gallinger offers lessons.

Many fiber fanatics say there's nothing cuter than a newborn lamb or tiny baby alpaca-whether they're looking at the little darlings as mere animals or through a spinner's mercenary lens, it's hard to say.

For more information, contact:

The Sheep Shed, 76 N. Robinson Rd., Nampa, 466-4365, www.sheepshed.com.

Haneke Enterprises, Inc., 630 N. Black Cat Rd., Meridian, 888-3129.

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